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Notes on Fundamentalism

I have been thinking in recent days about my grandparents, Bob and Evelyn Osborn, who were highly traditional if not conservative Adventists, who read Scripture in a very literal way, but who were also people of great generosity and openness who received a lifetime membership from the editors of Spectrum for having allowed the fledgling magazine to use their basement as an office for some years when it was first getting started. One thing I would never refer to my grandparents as would be “fundamentalist.” It does seem to me, however, that fundamentalism is a perennial temptation for many Adventists. What was it, then, about my grandparents that made their form of Adventism so different than the Adventism of some today, who in so many ways keep saying to young adults like myself that we are of greater harm than good to the life of our church for the way we think and that we should go find ourselves Christian communities elsewhere? What is the difference between a literalist Adventist and a fundamentalist Adventist?
The word “fundamentalism” clearly has a strong negative connotation in the minds of most believers and non-believers alike. Others, however, embrace the term as a badge of honor and mark of defiance against what they see as a corrupted and corrupting theological liberalism and faith that is too open to scientific reason. Historically, fundamentalism as a self-identified movement arose in the United States in the early part of the twentieth century, which raises the question of whether it is legitimate to apply the word to Muslims, Jews, and others, or to Christians from earlier time periods. I use the term here in broader sociological perspective to describe any groups or individuals who hold to notions of scriptural inerrancy (whatever their scripture may be) across all fields of human knowledge, including history and science, and prototypically in reaction against the moral and epistemological challenges of modernity. The Bible is free of all error and self-interpreting, fundamentalist Christians declare, so that we must reject readings that are influenced by new scientific or historical discoveries, or that seek to contextualize the book in terms of the beliefs and literatures of the time period in which it was written. Instead, all empirical and historical evidence must be subordinated to what the Bible is alleged to say with absolute clarity and authority about itself.
Fundamentalists thus identify their own interpretations of Genesis, for example, with what they take to be God’s indubitable Truth: the creation occurred by divine fiat in all of its parts in six literal, contiguous, 24 hour periods in the relatively recent past (six to ten thousand years ago). All scientific and historical data must now somehow be harmonized with this fact. “Creation science,” according to the fundamentalist, is superior to any merely rational, empirical, and inductive science, amounting instead to a species of deductive reasoning to uphold an unfalsifiable foregone conclusion. To outsiders, the results may appear (at best) as a mode of critique without constructive alternatives and (at worst) as an intellectually dishonest form of data mining. But for the true believer, intellectual honesty does not mean following the empirical and inferential trails wherever they may lead. It means holding fast to the inerrant words of the sacred text though the heavens fall. Where others interpret the Bible according to their fallible human reasoning, fundamentalists (in their own self-understandings) faithfully accept the Word of God and then courageously seek out the evidence to defend it.
This means that those who disagree with fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible, no matter how seriously they take the Bible’s authority, are often charged with being faithless individuals in rebellion against divine Truth itself. The fideles must be exceedingly careful about even entering into dialogue with those who read the Bible and see the scientific evidence differently than they do, since to entertain questions about “the fundamentals” is to sup with individuals who may quite literally have lost their souls. Any “dialogue” that occurs will, for the true believer, be with a view to converting the recalcitrant Other to the divine reality that is already known, or else impressing upon any wavering onlookers the heresy of the non-fundamentalist’s ways (hence, for example, the need to obsessively monitor and publicly criticize or “answer” the ideas of writers on “liberal” blog sites). Authentic dialogue, in the sense of an open-ended, mutually risky, and non-dogmatic search for greater understanding cannot be permitted since this would imply, in effect, that there are legitimate questions to be asked about the very thing that for the fundamentalist cannot be questioned: the absolute convergence of their method of reading the Bible with God’s perfect and epistemologically exhaustive revelation.
This is ultimately what makes fundamentalist readings of Genesis (or other parts of Scripture) fundamentalist as opposed to literalist. The fundamentalist does not simply have a view of what Scripture means, arrived at through many years of prayer, meditation, reflection, and careful study, humbly held and generously shared with others the way my grandparents held their beliefs and related to others. Rather, she denies the very possibility that there can be other faithful ways of reading the sacred text using different hermeneutical lenses. He insists that others are not simply mistaken but must be morally dishonest, intellectually deficient, or spiritually bankrupt for refusing to accept the self-evident Truth. She strives not simply to persuade others with winsome reasoning in a shared quest for new light, but to silence those she believes are corrupting the community (and especially the young) with ideas not based upon God’s infallible Word but fallible human science and reasoning. Fundamentalism, then, is not simply a way of reading texts. It is a plan for political action.
And fundamentalist action in the political realm has historically often led to violence, whether in the form of the righteous crusade against “heathen” outsiders or the scapegoating of “heretical” insiders. Even as the fundamentalist inflicts violence on the Other, however (whether psychological or physical, and ranging from excommunication to pogroms and holy wars), he invariably thinks of himself as a victim of the Other’s aggression. The mere fact that others disagree with the fundamentalist’s interpretations and openly offer other ways of thinking about the text is felt by the true believer as a direct existential threat to themselves and to the entire community—a threat that must be exposed and cleansed.
This is especially true if the Other claims to also be a believer and faithful member of the community. The enemy within is more dangerous than the enemy without and is held in special contempt as one marked not simply by error but by “infidelity” (the equivalent of what is known in orthodox Marxism as “false consciousness” and in Islamist ideology as Jahiliyya). As a form of foundationalist philosophical reasoning, fundamentalism declares that failure to hold fast to the “correct” interpretation of any one of the fundamental beliefs must necessarily unravel all of the others and topple one’s entire faith, spreading rings of contaminating influence throughout the community. As a totalizing political narrative (and the “fundamentals” tend to increase over time, encompassing ever more of the individual’s life), fundamentalism declares that the dissent of even one member pollutes the entire body.
But fundamentalist readings of Scripture are of course precisely that: readings that may be challenged not only on scientific, historical, and philosophical but on theological and biblical grounds as well. God may not be fallible but fundamentalist hermeneutics and exclusionary logic certainly are. Fundamentalism is itself an idolatrous form of human reasoning, both from and about texts, not because it takes Scripture literally but because it totalizes its literalism while denying the very possibility that it might be wrong. Fundamentalisms arise, Edward Farley writes, “when religious leaders so work to protect the perennial (authoritative) mediations of religion from the modern that the mediations become themselves the contents of religious faith.” Another way of stating this would be to say that fundamentalism presents itself as the height of faith when in fact it is, quite simply, utterly faithless.

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