The Problem With Fundamentalism

In this respect fundamentalism has demonic traits. It destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth. It splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware.

(Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, p. 3)

In those who rest on their unshakable faith, fanaticism is the ultimate symptom of doubt which has been repressed. Doubt is not overcome by repression but by courage. Courage does not deny that there is doubt, but it takes the doubt into itself as an expression of its own finitude and affirms the content of an ultimate concern. Courage does not need the safety of an unquestionable conviction. It includes the risk without which no creative life is possible.

(Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith)

The Bible often refers to “the fear of the Lord.” Repeatedly we are told to “fear God.” We find in Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.” However, we are also often told not to fear. Over and over again, Jesus said to his disciples, “Do not to be afraid.” The Scriptures recognize that there is no place for fear in those who understand God as love. As I John says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” The truth John expresses about God’s love is not even recognized in fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is based on fear. It assumes that it alone possesses ultimate truth about God and a failure to accept such truth guarantees one an everlasting confinement to the fires of hell.

It is impossible to trust and love what you fear. That’s why perfect love casts out fear.

As Tillich indicated in the quotes above, humility, uncertainty, and doubt are not found in fundamentalism. Faith is equated with an unexamined belief in certain “fundamentals” which must never be questioned. Such an understanding of faith overlooks the two primary meanings of faith in the Bible: trust and fidelity to God and to the way of the God we trust. It is impossible to trust and love what you fear. That’s why perfect love casts out fear. That’s why Jesus was always telling his hearers that with this Abba God he came to reveal there was nothing to fear. Unconditional and indiscriminate love can never inspire fear. 

So, what do we do with all those references in the Bible which call upon us to “fear the Lord”? Abraham Joshua Heschel revealed the authentic meaning of the Hebrew word used for “fear.” He translated “fear” as “standing in awe” of the One who cares profoundly for us and whom we seek to obey in light of Her loving kindness. Behind Heschel’s translation is a deep understanding of the nature of the Holy One who comes to us with compassion and a hunger for justice (which is what love looks like in the public sphere). We have all experienced awe in our lives. I still vividly remember the first time I saw the ocean, the majesty of the mountains, the spine-tinkling expanse of the stars at night in the national parks of Utah. As Rudolf Otto wrote in his book The Idea of the Holy, such beauty and mystery cause us to tremble before their majesty and glory while at the same time being strangely drawn to it. 

Heschel wrote a lot about the ineffable—the transcendence of God. God is eternal and infinite. We are temporal and finite. Because of our creaturely limitations, we will never completely understand God. As impressive as our human reasoning may be, it’s still “human reasoning.” It’s the only kind of reasoning we are capable of in this life. We would be arrogantly mistaken if we assumed that our ways of understanding life, the universe, and God are able to unravel all the mysteries of time and eternity. Just as other animals (and we are animals) have limited reasoning in some respects, so do we. For example, dogs can interpret their world with senses of smell and hearing which are not available to us, but our canine siblings are limited in their understanding of our conversations and thoughts. No doubt, we too are limited in our ability to interpret and understand in ways we are not even aware of. The very words we use to communicate are at best metaphors and symbols which can never completely reveal their referents. Try defining the greatest love of your life or your most joyful, ecstatic moments or what you feel when you listen to music which moves your soul. You will discover that our words are totally inadequate to communicate what we want to share with others.  

If we have trouble communicating our deepest feelings and experiences, how much more will we find it nearly impossible to express our sense of the Ineffable, Mystery, the Eternal, God? Fundamentalism is based on a fear which requires its adherents to quantify their God in rigid and limiting ways. Such fear and adherence do not allow the freedom and space needed to sense a Reality which is beyond reason. (I’m not suggesting that God is irrational. I’m suggesting that God is suprarational in the sense of Isaiah 55:8 where God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.” (55:8)

If God is eternal, transcendent, and infinite, we must accept the reality that faith is a journey, a pilgrimage. With each step we learn and experience more, and often that “more” requires us to abandon or modify what we thought we had nailed down. (Jesus’ crucifixion should alert all of us of the danger of “nailing down” a God whose thoughts and ways are so different from our own!) A God who is more than any or all of us together will ever completely comprehend cannot be contained in dogmas, temples, or religions. Like Abraham and Sarah of old, we too walk by faith—not blind or rigid faith, but an open trust that the God who loves us will never abandon us to our own foolish selves. The only way to grow and become creative in our faith is to have the courage that a God who has created this exquisite creation and who loves us unconditionally, indiscriminately, and eternally understands our frailness as humans. Such a God can be trusted to take us and all creation home. But that “home” is far bigger, grander, and different from what any of us can ever imagine. We are, at best, limping along in our lives of faith. We have only just begun. We can find the courage to trust that love will have the final and healing word for us and everyone else. Such faith has no place for fear–only wonder, gratitude, and joy. Fundamentalism can never allow for love, wonder, gratitude, or joy. It’s paralyzed by a fear which suffocates life in so many tragic ways. 

I end this article with a passage from Abraham Heschel’s remarkable book entitled Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, pp. 8-9:

The search of reason ends on the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide. It alone knows the route to that which is remote from experience and understanding. Neither of them is amphibious: reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.  

We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic sea shell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore. 

Citizens of two realms, we all must sustain a dual allegiance: we sense the ineffable in one realm, we name and exploit reality in another. Between the two we set up a system of references, but we never fill the gap. They are as far and as close to each other as time and calendar, as violin and melody, as life and what lies beyond the last breath…

It is the ineffable from which we draw the taste of the sacred, the joy of the imperishable. 

Fundamentalism can never allow for this sense of the ineffable, the Mystery behind all mysteries, the God behind all the idolatrous gods we create in our arrogance, greed, and fear. Fortress-building is the way of those controlled by fear. Those confined within their fortresses will never experience the thrill of freedom, the joy of grandeur, or the healing of love. 

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