Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Fundamentalism: Not Necessarily a Bad Word

One hears something like this argument quite a lot these days:

"Fundamentalists of any variety-- Muslim, Christian or Jew-- are equally to be feared. Because whenever one religion believes they hold the truth, they inevitably turn into dangerous extremists. Islamic terrorists today can be compared with equally fanatical Christians during the inquisition, who burned heretics at the stake. Therefore, we must be vigilant to uphold the Constitutional principle of separation of church and state. We must not allow the Bush administration to impose its religiously-influenced policies upon this nation-- for ultimately, their intention is to create a theocracy in the United States..."

This is the typical mantra of many who fear, oppose or misunderstand Christianity, but even Rick Warren, "Purpose-Driven" pastor of Saddleback Church, said in a recent news story in The Philadelphia Inquirer:

"Muslim fundamentalism, Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, secular fundamentalism - they're all motivated by fear. Fear of each other."

Defining Fundamentalism
Is Warren right? Are all fundamentalists created equal? What is a fundamentalist anyway? The Free Dictionary offers this definition:

1. A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.

2. a.) often Fundamentalism An organized, militant Evangelical movement originating in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century in opposition to Protestant Liberalism and secularism, insisting on the inerrancy of Scripture.
b.) Adherence to the theology of this movement.

Notice some of the terms being used in the definitions above, which have negative connotations these days: "rigid", "intolerance", "militant". So what does it mean to be a fundamentalist? And is it good or bad?

A Tennis Analogy
In any field of thought or any endeavor, there are "fundamentals". These would be its essential elements. For example, if one was learning to play tennis, one fundamental would be: learn the basic rules of the game. Another fundamental would be: learn how to play (e.g., learn the physical tasks of hitting the ball over the net, serving, etc.). To eventually master the sport, one would begin with mastery of the fundamentals; only then could one advance to excelling at the more challenging parts of tennis (strategy, hitting "winners", mental toughness, etc.).

One might take this view of "fundamentals" and apply it to Christianity. There are certain essential beliefs that define what it means to be a Christian. If one does not adhere to these essentials, one is not Christian. Rebecca Stark, who also wrote recently about Rick Warren and the Fundamentals of the Faith, talks about the Five Fundamentals.

Of course, people over the years have debated which beliefs are essential to the faith. The Fundamentalist movement in America began, in the latter part of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, in reaction to a liberal, "modernist" interpretation of Christianity, one which was denying basic doctrines the church had held for hundreds of years, such as the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ, or the virgin birth of Christ. A series of essays written by Christian scholars of the day set out to define the fundamentals of the faith, and to distribute these articles to ministers across America, with the intention of defending the classic doctrines of Christian faith from attacks by modernists.

The New Testament Testimony: Two Choices
Reading the New Testament, one can see it testifies of events which it purports to have really taken place-- chiefly, that Jesus Christ really was the Son of God come to Earth in bodily form. This Man began to teach, to perform miracles and to make declarations about Himself which offended many listeners--some even accused Him of blasphemy-- making Himself equal with God (John 10:33). And yet, these same men could not deny that He had done outstanding miracles in their presence. In short, a sincere reader of the New Testament must conclude

1. That Jesus Christ really said and did all the amazing things reported, and therefore really was God in the flesh, or

2. That the New Testament we have is not what it itself claims to be (the inspired word of God-- 2 Peter 1: 16, 20), but was concocted by human beings who wanted to create an inspiring religion. They embellished upon the actual events, writing over a period of many years, in effect creating the mythical figure of Jesus Christ we now have today, who bears only passing resemblance to the real (but ordinary, and certainly not divine) "historical Jesus".

Now a fundamentalist looks at these two choices and cries out, "Jesus Christ is real!" He is no mythical figure. It matters that He actually lived and said and did the things that are reported of Him. For He is no mere man, He is God! And those whose lives have been changed for the better through encounter with Jesus know that it is not merely principles they have come to know, but a Person.

Even in the first century, the argument that Jesus Christ was not actually raised from the dead was being made. And Paul, the great Apostle whose entire life's course had been reversed by His dramatic encounter with the Living Christ, declared:

"Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied... (1 Cor 15:12-19, ESV)"

Paul argued that if there is no resurrection, then the whole Christian life is a crock! Worthless! Leaving us with no hope, but only a deception for which "we are of all people most pitied".

Yet Paul went on:

"But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "all things are put in subjection," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15: 20-28, ESV)"

This is a fundamental of the faith! It is understandable why the early fundamentalists were up in arms over any attack on such a core belief of Christianity. They properly understood that without core beliefs such as the belief that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried and was resurrected from the dead in triumph over death and sin, that there is no real saving faith.

The Dangerous Kind of Fundamentalism
Now in more recent times, the Fundamentalist movement has come to be defined by some of its newer members; these have added to the original set of fundamental beliefs their own, which are not in fact fundamentals of biblical origin, but rather, of men's thinking and tradition. This type of fundamentalist often judges others less than Christian if they do not adhere to their particular set of fundamentals. They raise questions about extraneous things, and about things for which God has given liberty to each to decide on his own (e.g., is King James the only true translation of the Bible, should one speak in tongues or not, should we celebrate Christmas, etc.). Of course, not all who call themselves Christian fundamentalists today are like this-- but the term has now come to be defined mostly by this description.

Certainly this type of fundamentalist thinking is to be both shunned and challenged, albeit in a loving way. There is a kind of hatred and intolerance spawned within the hearts of those who tend approach faith in this way that is reminiscent of the hearts of the Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus' time. And we know that their fundamentalism did have sinful, deadly results.

To be fair to Mr. Warren, if this is the type of fundamentalism he is warning people against, I have no problem. It does seem that such fundamentalism is motivated by fear, mistrust and arrogance. But by not carefully defining his use of the word fundamentalism (and this post is proposing there is a good and a bad kind) and then equating this hazily defined Christian fundamentalism with all the other types, including the "fundamentalism" that motivates Islamic terrorism, I believe Mr. Warren does a disservice to the Christian position in the marketplace of ideas. As I stated at the beginning, this same "lumping together" argument is regularly proposed by liberals who are no friends of Christianity.

And the current Islamic brand of fundamentalism is different-- it is based on a position that brands all non-Islamic people its sworn enemies, and has demonstrated willingness to kill and to die for those beliefs. Even the "bad" form of Christian fundamentalism has not lead to that kind of result, because unlike Islamic fundamentalists, their goal is not world domination, but merely protecting the "purity" of their views and perhaps holding on to the sense of power that comes from belonging to their elite group. Now perhaps this is one end of a continuum that would ultimately lead to the extremes of the Islamic fundamentalists, but equating them right now is inaccurate.

I think Warren's statement also plays into the hands of those who argue that any strongly held religious belief that influences one's actions is suspect and dangerous. The Christian does believe in revelatory Truth, therefore holding to the fundamentals of our faith is both logical and necessary. Defending these fundamentals does not necessitate, however, becoming puffed up with pride and arrogance, nor believing that one has a monopoly on all truth.

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