The many forms of fundamentalism
by James Carroll, Boston Globe
NEARLY A decade and a half ago, this condemnation of fundamentalism was issued: “The fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life . . . instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. . . . Fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide. It injects into life a false certitude, for it unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations.” This robust denunciation came from the Vatican, in a 1993 document entitled “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.”
The phenomenon of “fundamentalism” has made an extraordinary impact on the world. But what is it? The scholar Gabriel A. Almond defines fundamentalism as “religious militance by which self-styled ‘true-believers’ attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity, fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors.” Some fundamentalists pursue openly political agendas (Northern Ireland, Israel, Iran). Some are apolitical (Latin American Pentecostalism). In war zones (Sudan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka), fundamentalism is energizing conflict. Most notably, the warring groups in Iraq have jelled around fundamentalist religion.
These varied manifestations resist being defined with one word, which is why it is better, as Almond suggests, to speak of “fundamentalisms.” But they all have something in common, and as the Vatican critique of biblical fundamentalism suggests, it is dangerous. The impulse may begin with good intentions, the wish to affirm basic values and sources of meaning that seemed threatened. The term was born when conservative Protestants in early-20th-century America committed themselves to defend the five “fundamentals” of their faith — the inerrancy of the Bible, virgin birth and deity of Jesus, doctrine of atonement, bodily resurrection of Jesus, and his imminent return. That movement was a rejection, especially, of the historical-critical mode of biblical interpretation, and of Darwinian science. These characteristics still animate Protestant fundamentalism.
But all fundamentalisms, rejecting a secular claim to have replaced the sacred as chief source of meaning, are skeptical of Enlightenment values, even as the Enlightenment project has begun to criticize itself. But now “old time religion” of whatever stripe faces a plethora of threats: new technologies, globalization, the market economy, rampant individualism, diversity, pluralism, mobility — all that makes for 21st-century life. Fundamentalisms will especially thrive wherever there is violent conflict, and wherever there is stark poverty, simply because these religiously absolute movements promise meaning where there is no meaning. For all these reasons, fundamentalisms are everywhere.
Even in contemporary Roman Catholicism, with whose condemnation of fundamentalism we began. Catholic fundamentalists are more likely to be called “traditionalists,” and today the Vatican is their sponsor. Instead of reading the Bible uncritically, in search of “ready answers to the problems of life,” they read papal statements that way, finding in encyclicals the “false certitude” that the Vatican warns biblical literalists against. The most recent case in point is Pope Benedict’s “Apostolic Exhortation,” issued last week. What begins as a contemplative appreciation of the Eucharist ends up as a manifesto designed to keep many Catholics from receiving Communion at Mass. The ticket to Communion is an uncritical acceptance of what the pope calls, in a striking echo, “fundamental values,” which include defense of human life “from conception to natural death.” The key declaration is that “these values are not negotiable.”
But culture consists precisely in negotiation of values, and change in how values are understood is part of life. Moral reasoning is not mere obedience, but lively interaction among principles, situations, and the “human limitations” referred to in the 1993 Vatican statement. Take “conception.” The great Thomas Aquinas depended on 13th-century notions of biology, and did not believe that human life began at conception. Negotiation followed. Take “natural death.” Disagreements over its meaning (including among Catholic bishops) were made vivid not long ago in the case of Terri Schiavo. Negotiation followed. The pope affirms universal and unchanging “values grounded in human nature,” as if human nature is fixed, instead of evolving. One detects here, too, a suspicion of Darwin, an invitation to “intellectual suicide.”
The various fundamentalisms are all concerned with “fortifying borders,” and that is a purpose of today’s Vatican. The pope’s exhortation concludes by referring to the Catholic people as the “flock” entrusted to bishops. Sheep stay inside the fence. But what happens when Catholics stop thinking of themselves as sheep?
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.