Friday, September 17, 2010

What is Fundamentalism?

Emergence in Protestant Context

"Fundamentalism" as a term describing a religious platform first came into vogue in a specifically Protestant Christian context. The later half of the 1800's witnessed the early maturation and widespread scholarly acceptance of the theory of evolution and the higher criticism of the Bible. In Protestant churches the acceptance and theological incorporation of evolution and higher criticism lead to an official splintering of the churches, especially in America, into two camps: the modernist and the fundamentalist.

As the term modernist implies, the modernist churches which today generally are represented in the mainline Protestant denominations (e.g., Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian Church USA, American Baptists, Episcopal, etc.), responded more favorably to advances in scholarship. They became less focused on doctrinal purity, more accommodating of other religious perspectives, and placed an emphasis on social responsibility and social justice. Their critics accused the modernists of having a "social gospel" which sought to ameliorate conditions in the world today, not save souls for heaven tomorrow.

Fundamentalist Christianity reacted to modern scholarship with disdain and suspicion—entrenching itself deep into sociological demarcations characterized by doctrinal purity. Initially fundamentalist churches refused to even partner with modernist churches in outreach (a situation that changed in the post-1950's era of "Neo-Evangelicalism" which has further bifurcated the American Protestants into the categories "Fundamentalist" and "Evangelical"). Fundamentalists churches, in order to maintain the doctrinal purity of their pews and pulpits, asserted the enduring truths of the following:

  • infallibility of Scripture
  • deity of Christ
  • virgin birth
  • vicarious atonement
  • physical return of Christ (implied acceptance of miracles)

These five fundamentals were hence held forth as the necessary conditions of fellowship within and ecumenicism between Protestant churches. Ironically, the Catholic and Orthodox churches never went through the sociological rift engendered by the modernist controversies. However, for Protestants, the lines were drawn, and for the fundamentalists, who bore the torch of doctrinal purity in a world of increasing skepticism, they knew that vigilance was necessary to combat the incursions of the modernist disease into their churches and seminaries. How odd is it, I must note, that fundamentalist-minded Christians today have customized modernist ways of thinking and apology and are now seeking to combat post-modernism (another issue)!

Use Today for Protestants

The term "fundamentalist" was used initially in the Protestant Christian arena. When I apply this term today to Protestant Christians of any persuasion I am actually using it in the way that their forbearers honorifically applied it to themselves as keepers of the fundamentals. If one had called a conservative Baptist a fundamentalist in 1910, she would have taken the designation as a compliment, and there are indeed still churches and Protestant groups that consider the term a badge of honor. My three oldest children, for example, attend a fundamentalist Baptist church school which prides itself for its undiluted stance for the fundamentals of "biblical faith."

Use Outside of Protestantism

I have read various accounts of how the term "fundamentalism" came into application in non-Protestant contexts; however, it is clear that the term is now used to describe dogmatic demographics in far broader uses. This use, due to its broader accommodation to non-Christian religions, has taken on meanings different than doctrinal purity, Muslims, for example, maintain belief in the absolute inerrancy and plenary inspiration of the Quran and the prophethood of Muhammad as defining aspects of what it means to be a Muslim. If such a doctrinal demarcation is at the root of Islam, are not then all Muslims fundamentalist? The answer is no, and let me humbly try to apply the term "fundamentalism" beyond the limited context of doctrinal and dogmatic affirmation.

Fundamentalism, in its broader, trans-Protestant use, is characterized by the following attributes:

  • tribalism—resisting global consciousness
  • triumphalism
  • lack of situational awareness
  • indifference toward or outright rejection of scholarship and science

Any one of these three attributes would be sufficient to make one a fundamentalist.

Tribalism is a psychological position which assumes that one's in-group is superior to other in-groups. This superiority can be thought to reside in particularism of belief or conduct or even shared experience. Tribalism is a basic attribute of humanity—we all do it. It shows itself in many contexts beyond religion: politics, ethnicity, and even among adherents of scientific theories. Tribalism becomes a fundamentalism in all of the above contexts.

Tribalism is fear driven—fearful that caring for oneself and immediate others are all that one can reasonably do. Hence, it retreats, seeking refuge in a "fortified enclave" constituted by ethnicity, religion, age, class, region, profession, or lifestyle. As a result, single-issue, polarized politics; fundamentalistic, intolerant religion; and indiscriminately relativized ethics get flushed out to the fore, obscuring reality and justice.

Triumphalism is a theological assertion that one's given faith tradition or revelation "abrogates, supersedes, or cancels out all others." Regarding dogmatic or religious commitments, triumphalism is inherently anti-relativistic and anti-pluralistic. Triumphalism, with its close ties to tribalism, pits a given revelation or religious entity against the other with no hope of middle ground. It does not express a theological maturity that concedes to the legitimate existence of the other.

Fundamentalists often assert their "truths" in full confidence without situational awareness of the functions of the contingencies of their historical-cultural location, upbringing, or even personality differences. For example, the fundamentalist Christian accepts the doctrine of the absolute infallibility of the Bible and does so with full acceptance of modern definitions of history and uses of science. She does not realize how modernistic her thinking is and so imports the weight of her historical-cultural milieu into her reading of the Bible.

Indifference or rejection of scholarship is a trait of fundamentalism in its trans-Protestant use that anchors it to the original Protestant context. Though fundamentalists differ on what aspects of scholarship can be accepted, there is always, at some point, a forgoing of critical thought and scholarship—a rejection of what can be known and evidenced empirically, in favor for a dogmatism of some sort.

Summary

Though fundamentalism was originally a Protestant phenomena, it is clear that the term works well to describe other types of religiosity. Fundamentalist religious paradigms contrast with liberal religious paradigms which accept religious relativism and allow for an Ultimate Reality larger than their present horizons. However, on point, fundamentalism can be identified either in its original Protestant moorings or with broader characterization by the traits mentioned above.

8 comments:

Peter said...

j

Fizlowski said...

"...the fundamentalist Christian accepts the doctrine of the absolute infallibility of the Bible and does so with full acceptance of modern definitions of history and uses of science. She does not realize how modernistic her thinking is and so imports the weight of her historical-cultural milieu into her reading of the Bible."

Can you explain this statement a little more in depth?

Also, what's with the "j" comment after your posts. Just curious.

Peter said...

the "J" is my invitation for Jesus to be in our midst.

Peter said...

I have thought of another common attribute of fundamentalism: arbitrary morality. This is exemplified in the idea that, "God said it; ergo, it is good."

Peter said...

Hey Eric,

To reply to your request for further elaboration:

I was a little unclear about what I meant in this excerpt. As you well know, Evangelical Christians often try to prove the Bible's inerrancy using modern definitions and modes of thought.

For example, Isaiah 40:22 will be cited as an example of how the prophet Isaiah "knew" the Earth was round, and this will be argued to be an impossible conclusion without the aid of divine revelation. Unfortunately for the Christian biblical inerrancy advocate, Isaiah 40:22 actually shows that the author considered the Earth to be flat and the cosmos to be domed, but that is another issue.

Another example is how Young-Earth Creationists, with reckless disregard for genre considerations and ancient thought categories of the original readers, will take Genesis 1-11 as a basis upon which to develop "scientific" models of earth history. In attempting to read the ancient narratives as modern factual historical accounts and as sources of "science" the Young-Earth Creationist becomes guilty of mixing meat and milk, resulting in a trivializing of the Bible. (as a side note, such Christians are the Bible's own worst enemies).

Tandi said...

You seem to speak the language of doublespeak in this post. First you say...

The term "fundamentalist" was used initially in the Protestant Christian arena. When I apply this term today to Protestant Christians of any persuasion I am actually using it in the way that their forbearers honorifically applied it to themselves as keepers of the fundamentals.

If this is the case, I am fine with your use of the term "fundamentalist" in describing me. I believe in those five fundamentals of the faith as listed.

But then you go on to describe tribalism, triumphalism, rejection of scholarship and science, etc. and this is how I take your use of the term in your denigration of fundamentalists. I do not fit this description and neither do many other "fundamentalists." You are taking an extreme minority view and plastering the label on Christians who believe the Bible and are more conservative than liberal. This is what I object to in your use of the term.

Tandi said...

....And your use of the small letter j to invite Jesus in our midst is bizarre. Is that a joke? Where did you pick that up, in Episcopal circles?

Peter said...

Tandi,

Your worldview is explicitly fundamentalist on every level. Your denial of this reality does not negate your fundamentalism.