A Critique of Fundamentalism
It may be useful to remind ourselves and point out to our fundamentalist neighbors that whatever truth or goodness we humans manage to acquire is always less than absolute Truth or Goodness. That knowledge should keep us humble because while we may know what truth is for us, that is not the same thing as absolute truth or truth for all.
The fundamentalist in each of the major religions is too certain that he knows the truth, not just for himself, but for the rest of us as well.
True religious faith involves a sense of reverence and awe before the mysterium tremendum – or whatever one sees as God -- that should keep us from claiming too much for ourselves.
A few seasons ago on the PBS program NOW there was a fascinating conversation between Paul Woodruff and Bill Moyers. The gist of Woodruff’s remarks was that reverence in the face of transcendence is the essential virtue missing in so much that passes for religion, and that the implied corollary of reverence is acknowledging that we are mortal and finite, that there is a huge gap between us and whatever it is that we acknowledge as Transcendent—god, truth, justice, the good, or whatever. I think that’s a good way to put it, and I think that gives us a reference point by which to critique fundamentalist views and attitudes on religion.
Reverence is the essential religious quality. No religion can be taken seriously if it does not have reverence at its core. I think that is the essential meaning behind the Christian doctrine of Creation, once we get past the mythical Genesis story. Reverence implies both awe and respect. It acknowledges the distance between ourselves and what is ultimate, what we call god. There is a cluster of related values that go with reverence – awareness of our mortality, humility in the face of the absolute, respect for the dignity of those who share our common humanity, compassion (which means the ability to stand in the place of another, to walk in his shoes, and to feel his pain), and love (which in the fully Christian sense means affirmation of the value of another).
Terrorism in the name of religion is evil precisely because it lacks reverence.
Fundamentalist religion, whether Jewish, Christian or Islamic, serves terrorism by providing it with a rationale and justification, the end justifying the means..
In the US, protestant fundamentalism has become the willing ally and servant of the political right as it tries to remake America in its image and according to its values and priorities. The problem is not that the fundamentalist chooses particular values by which to live, it is that he wishes to compel my neighbors and me to live by his values and priorities.
The marriage between fundamentalist religion and right wing politics trivializes and cheapens both and endangers both our freedom and our democracy. That should concern all of us no matter where we are on the political spectrum because it involves at the least the erosion of our basic values as a democracy, as a civilized nation and as a free people.
There has been a noticeable reluctance across our society to confront religious fundamentalism directly; but if we value human rights, if we care about the social responsibility implied by a caring society, and if we want to continue to enjoy our hard-won constitutional freedoms, we must be willing to confront and say No to the religious terrorists and bullies of our day.