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franciscan - September 2003

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

Fundamentals and Fundamentalism


by Graham McFarlane.


Imagine an inter-church discussion on the role of religion in contemporary Britain.  At some point of the discussion, you are asked a direct question:  “Are you a fundamentalist?”


How would you answer such a question?  Given that since September 2001 hardly a day goes by without the term ‘fundamentalist’ or a derivative being used pejoratively in either the Press or TV media, it would be understandable were you to answer negatively.  After all, who wants to be associated with Muslim terrorists, Jewish extremists or American Right Wing Conservatives? In one single word, an entire world of fanaticism, bigotry, hypocrisy and plain fear is encapsulated.


“No, I am not a fundamentalist”, you quickly respond, rather relieved that you cannot be tarred with that particular brush.  “So, are you a relativist?” comes the rejoinder.  Admittedly, such a question takes you by surprise, so you ask, “Why would I be a relativist?”  A surprising semantic shift has occurred: same word, different meaning.  “Well” comes the response, “if you don’t have any basic core beliefs, then you must surely be a relativist!’


Hoisted by your own petard!


The terms ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘fundamentals’, it would appear, whilst linguistically similar operate in two very different semantic fields nowadays.  The former is concerned with a facet of religious extremism, the story of different reactions to modernity at first and now globalisation and pluralism which result in fanatical acts.  The latter has more to do specifically with certainty, of knowing one’s story and the ‘grammar’ of one’s faith, and more widely, with different realms of knowing confidently, whether theological, cultural, political or global.


Firstly, then, to fundamentalism.  The origin of the concept is relatively well-documented.  Its beginnings can be traced back to two basic reactions within 19th century American Protestantism. Firstly, there was a social reaction: due to the growing social and cultural homogenisation taking place within American culture at the time the older ‘white’ colonialists felt threatened.  Their response is embodied in a return to basics we now identify in terms of fundamentalism.  Secondly, there was a theological reaction: the rise of Enlightenment philosophy and liberalism as well as the developing fields of evolution and psychology generated a theological response we also now identify in terms of fundamentalism.  In 1909 two oil baron brothers funded a 12 volume series under the title The Fundamentals, which came to be identified with the Presbyterian theology identified with Princeton Theological Seminary and from which is derived the term under discussion.  Thus, the fundamentals of the faith were identified: the divinely inspired and inerrant Scriptures; the virgin birth and deity of Jesus Christ; a substitutionary (and penal) doctrine of atonement; the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; a personal and pre-millennial and imminent return of Jesus Christ.  By the 1930s, this initial movement went ‘underground’ and developed its own education system, agencies and missionary movement as well as para-church organisations.  However, by the 1970s and 80s it had reinvented itself in coalition with American Right Wing politics.  The power of this lobby is reflected in the fact that prior to 9/11 it was with this lobby that the terms ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘fundamentalists’ were identified.


The above outlines the fact that in many ways fundamentalists can be understood as a reaction to modernity.  In the face of liberalising tendencies both socially and theologically, theirs is a return to certainty.  This certainty expresses itself in many forms, from philosophical foundationalism, through to aggressive economic policies that undergird capitalism, to safeguarding the state of Israel for its place in the pre-millennial scheme of things.  However, equally, fundamentalists can be understood as a product of modernity in that they share some of its family resemblances: a thirst for certainty, the pursuit of the ideal, the primacy of male leadership through to notions of cosmic struggle.


Interestingly, as modernity wanes into post modernity, a new form of fundamentalism has emerged, so graphically demonstrated in the events of 9/11 but well-established before this date in what may be described as neo-fundamentalism.  This is a form of fundamentalism located not within American Protestantism but firmly within Islamism and its own forms of fundamentalism, whether Arafat’s PLO, Sudan’s Turiba, Yemen’s Islah movement, Lebanese Hezbullah, the Turkish Refah party, Osama bin Laden’s Al Qa’ida or the Algerian FIS.  Of significant interest here, then, are the parallels being experienced between parties separated by both religion, and culture and time: each can be understood as reacting against contemporaneous and equally menacing and turbulent, cultural and global forces.


However negative and mendacious the contemporary image of fundamentalism and its adherents may be, there is an equally important and positive role played by the notion of ‘fundamentals’.  Certainly, we rightly struggle with the notion of any fanatic and supra-moral quest for certainty that simply annihilates any alternative voice or opinion.  But does this mean that we cannot hold to some notion of ‘fundamentals’?  Admittedly, if we answer negatively, we may be guilty of asserting a fundamental unconsciously, namely, the fundamental assumption that there are no fundamentals!  Such is the ultimate intelligibility of relativism.  To say that all things are relative is to make a dogmatic statement that undercuts the whole notion of relativism. 


Rather, as we become aware of the globalised context within which each of us lives, we discover that we are narrated by very particular stories.  These stories are most accentuated within different communities of faith.  We might describe them as the grammar of our faith: how we express what we believe about life, ourselves and each other.  And without this basic ‘grammar’ - what we might describe as the fundamental elements of our faith - we would have no distinctives and therefore nothing to offer each other.  That is, it is impossible to maintain personal identity without some recourse to ‘basics’ or ‘fundamentals’.  They make us what we are.  But does that mean we have to become ‘fundamentalists’?  I’d like to suggest that we don’t!  And the reason why not is due to the fact that within modernity the fundamentals took on a peculiarly rational tone: that is, the basics were identified with truth claims that were either right or wrong.  Once the ‘right’ is established, clearly those who possess it take the privileged high ground and history unpacks where they end up - usually crucifying the truth-bearer, whether first century Pharisee or nineteenth century clergy.


I’m suggesting here, however, that once we see the basics, the ‘fundamentals’ in terms of story then we are liberated from the need to polarise into right or wrong.  Rather, we are free to do what Jesus himself did - namely, to describe truth narratively, as a story which the hearer is then invited to make her own: to join and complete the story by being involved in its subsequent chapters.  Here, the virtues of listening, of imagining, of inviting, of responding take priority over the older virtues we normally associate with religious fundamentalism.


In this sense, then, it is possible to believe in fundamentals and not be a fundamentalist.  But it involves the challenging and exacting ability to know and narrate your own story as well as listen intently to others’. f


Graham McFarlane is a lecturer in Systematic Theology at London Bible College and has written several books.



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