On Fundamentalism

Sixty years ago, my school day always began with a Bible reading, the Lord’s Prayer, and the National Anthem. The teacher often read these words of Jesus, and I never understood the business about the mote in one’s eye and the beam in someone else’s. I wasn’t educated enough to know that Jesus was making his point by using one thing to mean another. That’s an allegory. My favorite rendering of these words is in the Lambdin translation of the Gospel of Thomas, #26: Jesus said, You see the sliver in your friend’s eye, but you don’t see the timber in your own eye. When you take the timber out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye.

And here’s Luke 6:41-42, in Eugene Peterson’s Message translation. It sounded strange to me at first, but it’s refreshingly different enough to make me think:

It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, “Let me wash your face for you,” when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this I-know-better-than-you mentality again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your own part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.



Motes and Beams Jim Evans 2015

Consider these passages from sacred writing. I’ll tell you which sacred writing later.

“Do not deviate from [the Teaching] to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.”

“They answered, ‘… Any man who flouts your commands and does not obey every order you give him shall be put to death. We will be strong and resolute!’”

“Thus says the Lord… Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys!”

“They cut down their populations with the sword until they exterminated them; they did not spare a soul.”

“The total who were [slaughtered] that day… came to twelve thousand.”

“O Lord, You know I hate those who hate You, and loathe your adversaries. I feel a perfect hate toward them; I count them my enemies.”

Like many fundamentalists, radical Muslims look and act tragically ignorant. They don’t know their own religion’s central principle, which, as in Judaism and Christianity, is compassion.

But what I just quoted is not from the Qur’an. It’s from the Bible.

I’ve heard priests thunder that Christianity is not a cafeteria religion, that you can’t choose what you like and ignore the rest. Fortunately for the priest, his burning pants were extinguished by the lack of oxygen under his robe.

Well, being compassionate, let’s cut him some slack. As Sancho Panza says in Don Quixote, “Everybody’s the way God made him, and sometimes even worse.”

If you’re still growing up, as are we all, I hope, you might like the absolute moral certitude of these quotations. The Qur’an has similar passages. Some Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalists, acting on such words, have been giving religion a bad name for centuries.

But just as some political liberals might watch a certain news channel and wrongly conclude that all Republicans are lunatics, some atheists might hear a far-out fundamentalist and announce that all Christians are nuts and that religion is a source of evil.

Meanwhile, those who’ve taken more time to think realize that belief is blind, but real faith requires critical vision. They choose not to cry “eye for an eye” but to imitate Jesus. This brave and brilliant man is revered by all three faiths for preaching and living the Abrahamic religions’ underlying principle: compassion. We could say that Jesus really went back to the roots.

The somewhat primitive Jews of the quotations I started with had not learned true, universal compassion. Nor have the followers of so-called radical, or fundamentalist, Islam. Nor have so-called Christians who would bomb Muslim countries back to the Stone Age.

But more mature readers of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur’an see those quotations as the primitive relics that they are and instead seek out passages that support the enlightened practice of compassion. As the famous Talmud story ends — I’ll paraphrase to preserve the intent of the Hebrew — Whatever is hateful to you, don’t do it to anybody else. The rest of the Torah is commentary, which you must go and study.

Aleksandr Solzenitzin had it right. Immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he said that Islam was not to blame. He pointed at fundamentalism. His deep, cool thinking while many of us screamed for revenge impresses me still.

Time for a definition. Fundamentalism is rigid belief in a set of principles, no discussion or negotiation allowed. Most Americans probably pin the Fundamentalist label on certain Protestant churches. But the world seems to have room for fundamentalist Catholics, fundamentalist Jews, and fundamentalist Muslims, to name a few. I know of fundamentalist right-wingers and fundamentalist left-wingers and fundamentalist atheists, but I’m focusing on the three great Abrahamic religions.

Back to the definition, let’s look at “rigid belief,” which is really a redundancy, like “plan ahead,” or “one AM in the morning.” Belief is blind. It’s rigid by its very nature. Once you believe something, you have no doubt. No one can challenge your belief. You guard and cherish your beliefs like a dragon with a hoard of gold, and only some kind of earthquake in your life might change them. Sometimes, that earthquake is the act of growing.

Faith, on the other hand, is dynamic, not rigid. Faith has its eyes and ears wide open and welcomes challenge. Faith has room for doubt, actually must have doubt. Faith is always testing, questioning, and therefore growing. That’s why faith is so much stronger than belief, but it’s difficult. Faith is for grownups.

True believers cherry-pick their scriptural passages, just as all of us do, but they usually choose the simplest black-or-white ideas, principles a little child would understand. They tend to ignore the guiding message, or the spirit, of the entire scripture, be it the Old Testament, the Qur’an or the New Testament, which is compassion. They instead try to play the part of the vengeful god of their imaginings, or maybe of their own tortured childhoods. Consider the true believers of the Westboro Baptist Church screaming God hates gays at a funeral for a fallen soldier. (They used a much more hateful word.) Consider the true believers repeating “God is great” as they steered jetliners into buildings full of people. Consider Tim McVeigh, a fundamentalist Christian who thought killing all those people in Oklahoma City with a truck bomb was the thing to do. That’s where fundamentalism can lead.

But it doesn’t prove fundamentalism is evil. I know fundamentalists who are really nice folks in most ways. They obey the law, love their families, and help their neighbors. They just stopped developing theologically, usually before puberty, and never progressed from belief into faith. They almost always believe they’re not racist and don’t understand that the Creation stories and Revelations, and much of what lies between them, are allegories. They may even not know that Genesis begins with two creation stories, vastly different, from different times. Yet they say they’ve read the Bible cover to cover and believe it’s meant to be taken literally.

Here’s a quotation that applies: “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest; if you do this, you will miss much good. In fact, you will fail to realize the real truth of the matter. God the omnipresent and omniscient cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says, ‘Wherever you turn, there is the face of God.” That’s Ibn Araby, a 13th C. Muslim philosopher, quoting the Qur’an.

When fundamentalists try to force others to believe, or punish those who don’t believe, they often become evil, because they’re violating the foundation of their own religions.

Illiterate Muslims might memorize the Qur’an in its original Arabic even when they don’t understand that language. Jews might be taught to take the Zionist lines in the Torah literally and to practice ethnic cleansing as it’s described in the passages I opened with. Christians usually get their poison from the Old Testament as well.

Consider these Old Testament quotations: “I hate them with a perfect hate.” “May all their children be orphans.” (My favorite, of all the curses in the Bible.) And of course, the golden oldie, “An eye for an eye,” which originally came from a Babylonian dictator who wasn’t even Jewish, and certainly not Christian.  I’m surprised the out-of-context quoters haven’t given more play to the verse, “Meals and wine are made for laughter, and money is the answer to everything.” At least that sounds like fun.

See, the Bible and the Qur’an both have passages that are like weapons, dangerous in the hands of the ignorant, such as fire. And Facebook. Yes, ignorant people can do dumb things, just like us, but let’s remember, ignorant means uneducated or unknowing, not dumb. Fundamentalists are often ignorant, and often under the influence of a smart and cynical leader who wants them not to learn too much. Sometimes, they can do evil things, because they’ve stopped thinking. They just believe.

In conclusion, fundamentalism isn’t necessarily dangerous, although it can be. If we see the splinter in someone else’s eye, the sliver in ours can make us compassionate. I hope it does.  Compassion, though, can feel truly dangerous. Not many of us can be as fearless as Jesus, speaking truth to power and abstaining from violence, even in self-defense.

It’s complicated. Go and study.

Copyright ©2015 James L. Evans

Published by

Jim Evans

Writer, composer, arranger, poet. Have been teacher, farmer, deckhand, bartender.

2 thoughts on “On Fundamentalism”

  1. Having the opportunity to read this continues to enhance the message it contained when we heard you speak it. Your insights and gift of verbal usage which produce mental word pictures are greatly admired. Thank you for putting into words what has caused heartfelt searching for a clearer understanding of this subject. God bless!

  2. Wonderful. Beyond what I ever would have believed could be found on the “interwebs”.
    I’ll be returning often to soak up the insights and become refreshed.
    Thank you.

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