The Invisible Things

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Fundamentalism and the ‘Virtue’ of Moderation

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In a recent interview with Tom Ashbrook on NPR’s radio program On Point (listen to the program here), author John Updike discussed his latest novel, Terrorist, which depicts the life of an eighteen year-old American Muslim turned terrorist. Within the discussion, which reflected not only upon the book, but also upon issues related to religious extremism and its effect on our current culture, Updike made several comments specifically in regard to religious fundamentalism. While I have not yet read Terrorist, though this program has certainly encouraged me to do so, I would like to address some of Updike’s comments as I think they are particularly indicative of a modern misunderstanding of fundamentalism in the philosophy of religion.

Updike introduces the novel by reading from its opening passage, which describes his main character, Ahmad’s, point of view toward his American peers and authority, and describes those who claim to be religious as weak and unauthentic. While he describes Ahmad’s attitude toward the insipidness of American religion and culture as being “extremely disgusted,” Updike himself would only claim to be “moderately disgusted.” Incidentally, a caller, who reminded Updike that for the Muslim (and I would argue also for the Christian) there is no and should not be any separation between the sacred and the secular, really propelled the conversation toward religious fundamentalism. Updike attempted to brush off the comment by asking to see an example of a thoroughly religious and morally perfect society- indicating that this should be the result of fundamentalism. Of course, this is obviously not realistic. Later, Updike responds to another caller who indicts fundamentalism as the root of all modern problems by commenting in agreement,

“I am myself a Christian and go to church, but there does seem to be a point at which fundamentalism Christianity becomes a dangerous and really crazy, crazy thing. These mothers who kill their children to send them to heaven…take a shortcut to heaven… are the kind of thing that also motivates suicide bombers. Whatever your religious beliefs, it seems to me, this world is the one that we’re in, this is the one we should deal with, and this is the one in which we should try to be more kind and reasonable and all those other virtues of moderation.”

Not unlike many who comment on religious fundamentalism, often casting it as a direct catalyst of ignorance, hate, violence, and oppression, Updike demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the meaning of the term. On the one hand, Updike expresses disgust toward fundamentalism, but on the other, disgust for the shallow and vapid confession of many religious followers. It would seem to me that to be fundamentalist in regard to religion would be the antithesis of the shallowness and fickleness that many, like Updike, rightly criticize. However, I think the pejorative connotation, clearly intended within this discussion, of fundamentalism that has lately subsumed the actual meaning of the term, is unjustified. Rather, fundamentalism should be thought of as the comprehensive approach to religious life.

Religious fundamentalism is based upon the belief that certain religions affirm particular core fundamental beliefs. To call oneself a Christian, for example, in the fundamental sense, would mean that one believes certain particular things about Jesus Christ, his divinity, our relationship to Him, and the Bible. To believe otherwise would make the label ‘Christian’ dubious. Likewise, a fundamentalist Muslim would also affirm certain doctrines in regard to God, Muhammed, and the Koran. In neither case is extremist violence or force a part of the fundamentalist identity. While I won’t deny that these things have sometimes resulted from the irrational behavior of self-confessed fundamentalists, it does not follow that all fundamentalists are inherently irrational. In fact, I would argue that fundamentalism is a reasonable approach to the philosophy and practice of religion and reiterate that it would facilitate a comprehensive and thorough religious life.

Actually, Updike’s quote shows that his own view of the relationship between sacred and secular is backward. When he states that “Whatever your religious beliefs, it seems to me, this world is the one that we’re in, this is the one we should deal with, and this is the one in which we should try to be more kind and reasonable and all those other virtues of moderation,” he seems to suggest that religion should take its cue from humanity, rather than humanity from religion. If religious belief is at all authentically theological, then this idea is obviously absurd. Religion is the human practice in response to the nature of God, through which humanity rightly aligns itself to that nature. But what does Updike mean by moderation, anyway? He appears to suggest that certain moral values are the result of a fundamental virtue of moderation. I would ask, moderation in regard to what? Moderation in and of itself is meaningless. If he means moderation in regard to the revelation of God, then he foolishly casts aside the intent of his own maker and arrogantly prioritizes his will over the will of God. If he means moderation in regard to truth in general, and therefore how truth applies to religious dogma regardless of its theistic authenticity, then by what measure are we to affirm moderation as an objective virtue? This moderation appears to be the same type of vapid creed by which Updike is “moderately disgusted.”

The call for religious moderation implicitly denies the possibility that certain religious doctrines could actually be objectively true. Since this assertion is impossible to justify, I would reverse the inertia of this discussion to again suggest that fundamentalism is actually the reasonable approach to religion. In other words, if a particular religion is true, then one aught to believe it and practice it comprehensively, not with some sort of ambiguous and arbitrary moderation. How could one be “moderately Christian,” anyway? Might one say, “I don’t believe that Jesus actually existed, nor do I really think there is a God in the traditional sense, but I am a Christian because the religion has taught me morality?” If so, on what basis does a religion founded upon a lie credibly instruct anyone on morality? Perhaps one could say, “I believe in Jesus, but I also believe that Buddha was right too.” In this case, one must either misunderstand Jesus or Buddha, as the contradictions between the two teachings are irreconcilable. Moderation in regard to religion denies either truth, power, or both.

Now, I certainly don’t take Updike for a fool. After all, he has produced Terrorist in the twilight of a long and critically successful literary career to which any American is culturally endebted. Despite his intellect, it is also true that some of the most brilliant thinkers make some of the most foolish blunders in thinking when it comes to matters of faith. Perhaps this is not the case for Updike. Perhaps it is more a blunder in semantics, and what he really had in mind was a behavioral moderation. If so, this is certainly something I could get behind as it relates to terrorism, which seems to be more of an outworking of emotion and irrationality then a fundamental approach to religion. But again, this is not moderation for moderation’s sake, nor moderation of religion or reason, but moderation in regard to rash human fallibility.

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