review article : Fundamentalism

by Robert Brow August 1999   (Web site -

I have often wondered how religious fundamentalism relates to alternative models. How can we be clear in our own convictions, and yet respect the right of others to have another model? Today in the National Post Len Blun has a very moving reference to his own son.

"Week by week, right and wrong became increasingly clear to him. The way the rest of us were living was judged "wrong." He wanted to do what was "right." Adjustments made by family members trying to please him gave him no satisfaction. The family home became a harder and harder place for him to be in. Ultimately, he found a community where everyone else believed as he believed; where unclear situations were decided by a supreme authority whose judgment was not questioned. In fact, nothing was questioned."

"When a person becomes a religious fundamentalist, the spiritual component becomes larger and larger until it dominates all others. At that point, everything in their life is seen through the lens of an overwhelming truth.

Their relationship with the divine comes first. Relationships with the people who have loved them run a distant second. Losing someone to religous fundamentalism is a deep loss. They're no longer in your world. They're gone"

("My Son the Fanatic," title taken from the film of that name, by Len Blum, National Post, August 13, 1999).

I can see now that this is what happened to me when I was converted at the age of 23 my first year at university. My mother said "I have lost my son." I am grateful that very patiently the Holy Spirit has moved me from that miserable bigotry. I think I can now take a genuine delight in someone who has a different model from mine. I have a feeling that's what made Jesus so different. He was totally clear about what he had to do, but the underworld of that day felt loved and accepted as his friends. And that's what God must be like. He loves us, even when our ideas are still wrong-headed.

Here is a rich comment on the above article about the dangers of bigotry among Evangelicals :

"Combat replaces dialogue. Knowing the truth, as Jesus said, is liberating, exciting, and joyful. It generates passion; indeed if it does not there is reason to question whether it has been heard and understood at all. Jesus, however, was passionate about people, too, and in him the passion for truth was infused with love for the people he encountered. God is truth but he is also love, or, we might say, genuine and full truth is always rich in love.

The zealot truncates the truth, minimizing or stripping away the element of love, leaving behind only assertions and reason and perhaps little of it. Truth becomes something to be debated and people who hold different views become enemies whose arguments must be hamstrung and smashed. Communication therefore becomes adversarial and combative rather than relational. Instead of a thing of beauty to be desired truth is presented as a sword that destroys. Overall, there is a drift in goals away from witnessing to truth toward destroying opposition to truth, even at the cost of wounding or killing people with contrary views.

Arrogance drives out humility. The error of beginners and zealots is sometimes not that their view of truth is wrong (although that happens, too) but that it is often too simplistic, only partially understood, insufficiently elaborated, and inappropriately applied. There is no allowance for the need to grow in understanding of truth in all its dimensions, subtleties, and application to specific situations.  Unfortunately these limitations are neither recognized nor acknowledged when pointed out. Truth is proclaimed without mature understanding and applied without sensitivity. The process is self-insulating because information that might challenge these limited understandings is either not perceived at all or so badly distorted and caricatured that it can have no impact. The fact the others disagree is seen as evidence of weak intellect, sinful perversion of character, and ultimately unworthiness even to exist. Once again the result is that opponents must be either eradicated or in some other way deprived of the right to express their views. Where murder is illegal and Auschwitz prohibited, psychological and social murder are substitutes: enemies are belittled, mocked, ridiculed, and marginalized through attack on their rights and standing in the community.

Judgmentalism overcomes grace. Genuine truth is never content to exist only conceptually. Truth intrinsically asserts an obligation to obedience; there is an inescapable requirement that it be translated into action. For Jesus grace was part of truth, not incompatible with it but part of the very expression of it. Obedience to the truth derived from reliance upon his Father in Heaven, a relationship of dependence that he constantly modeled for his followers who to a far greater degree needed to understand that they must not exalt their own moral strength. The zealot not only severs the link between truth and grace but rather than recognizing grace as the motivator toward obedience insists that grace can only be extended on the condition of obedience. Therefore love and acceptance are extended as the carrot of reward that can be earned when the sinner tires of the stick of judgment.

Although perhaps unspoken or even unrecognized, it is clear that power of grace is considered inferior to the power of condemnation and judgment. Jesus, exemplifying a startling reversal of confidence, felt free to offer grace lavishly completely without fear of compromising righteousness.

What remains to be explained is that Jesus did find himself in combat with a certain segment to which he addressed many harsh words of condemnation. His example does not rule out expression of severe disapproval. However, these words were spoken to the people who preferred combat over relationship, reveled in unacknowledged arrogance rather than humility, and practiced a harsh judgmentalism towards others coupled with cheap grace toward themselves.

Len Blum's comments on his son's case describe how this fundamentalistic attitude manifests itself interpersonally. Collectively the same attitude can characterize an entire community. I think evangelicals have often made serious errors in this respect. Somehow we need to discover a new model for relating to the larger culture in which we live."

Taken by permission from a posting on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association Discussion List, August 14, 1999, by Guy S. Saffold, Ed.D., Executive Vice President Trinity Western University, Langley, BC, V2Y 1Y1

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