There are religious and political fundamentalists. Some people are both. Right now, many people are of the latter.
Based on the works of Ernest Becker, a connection can be made between death and fundamentalism. Richard Beck, in his book The Authenticity of Faith (which I’ve been reading of late), writes this about the relationship between death and fundies. This quote is like ice cream … if you eat it too fast, you’ll get a brain freeze, but if you eat it slow, you may find it delightful.
Human personality and culture are inherently about the denial of death, about helping the human animal achieve day-to-day equanimity in the face of our existential burden and helping us manage our instinct for self-preservation in the face of a cognitive awareness that we are bound for death, that we cannot run away or escape our fate. Death activates a fight or flight response in us, but we have nowhere to run. No one to fight. So the anxiety just sits there, churning away. To handle this anxiety, we repress death awareness or sublimate the anxiety it causes by working on projects our culture deems significant and valuable. Through these efforts we attach our life stories to goods that can outlive us. And by doing so, we achieve both self-esteem and a symbolic immortality. We feel that we made a difference. And our culture declares our life meaningful.
…. This daily exposure to alternate hero systems threatens our belief that our particular cultural heroics, our way of life are eternal and timeless. As noted earlier, in our modern, pluralistic society there is a fragility of meaning. We see now that this is largely due to the clash of worldviews we encounter on a daily basis. Pluralism hints that worldviews are relative and not timeless and eternal. And if this is so, is anything to be counted on? Where am I to find meaning, truth, and significance in the face death if the foundations have all turned to sand?
The fear inherent within modernity, the anxiety that the ideological Other calls my worldview into question, is one explanation for rise of fundamentalism in the modern ear.
Religious and ideological fundamentalism, then, appears within modernity (perhaps paradoxically) as a defense against these questions. Fundamentalism, of all strips, is the individual and collective effort to defend the truth of your worldview against the relativization inherent in the existence of the Other. Becoming a true believer is one way to defend against the existential predicament of modern day pluralism. And this leads to a surprising conclusion. Rather than making humanity less religious, as Freud believed, secularlism is driving an increase in religious fundamentalism and often violent fundamentalism. Modernity is shaping up to be less an age of reason than a violent battle between ideologies, ways of life and worldviews. Pages 75 – 77
Support your symbolic immortality.
Let me bring this convo up to speed: Westboro Baptist Church is the church that pickets the funerals of soldiers who have been KIA … in fact, they picket anything that they think is against God. But they do so in a manner that’s rather “in your face”ish. As you can see from their website. In fact, if you’ve never visited their website and have forgotten what it’s like to get mad, then have at it.
I recently had a featured piece on RELEVANT Magazine’s website. Somehow or another, Margie Phelps (one of the daughters of Fred Phelps, who is the founder of Westboro Baptist Church) decided she’d let me know what she thought about my article. Below is the twitter conversation that ensued.
Twitter conversations are rarely clear. This one is no exception. My last question is an attempt to lodge a piece of dirt in her clammed absolutism. Obviously, she thinks I’m wrong. And, I don’t think I have to read into the tweet too much to gather that she’d probably put me on the other side of heaven. But … would she admit that I could love God and still be slightly “misguided”?
Unfortunately, she never answered my last question.
I’ve often noticed that religious extremists are *usually* also absolutists (when they’re not absolutist, they’re probably either narcissistic, exhibitionists, or psychotic). They either become religious extremists because they’ve convinced themselves that they’re absolutely right; or they become absolutists to justify their religious extremism. And this is the reason why you’ll probably never convince a religious extremist to change their mind; because they probably believe they have a corner on truth and, well, you don’t.
But, I know as a matter of experience that a person who it walking in the direction of religious extremism can be forestalled by a view of multiplicity and plurality … and a view of the Trinity.
With Ms. Phelps, I was hoping to challenge her black and white world by suggesting that I too love God and yet I see the world differently than her … that there’s some type of color to the world and God’s peoples. But, assuming she’s already an absolutist and extremist, I probably didn’t do much of anything.
This probably won’t be the last time my paths cross with the Phelps, so the next time I have a chance to talk to them … what should I say or do? Is there anything I can say or do that will actually change their minds? Should we just ignore such people?
Maybe you’re a former extremist; or maybe you know extremists … please, if you would, share your story.
Let me know what you think here. Thanks.
My grandfather won’t buy Japanese Cars. I have two: a Toyota Avalon and a Rav4. He won’t buy Japanese cars because he remembers the Japanese of WWII. It’s still fresh in his mind. I, on the other hand, even though I understand why he still has animosity towards the Japanese, right now, my heart is bleeding for them and their current situation.
And there’s a sense where both positions are right, as different eras bring different thoughts and sentiments.
For my grandfather, it was HIS friends that were fighting over in the Pacific Theater. People he knew, neighbors, and friends were laying their lives on the line against an enemy that provoked us, and some of his friends didn’t return. In his mind, fighting the Japanese was one of the most righteous things to do. And I’m sure, if I were in his shoes, in his era, with my friends, family and neighbors fighting over seas, I would have felt the same way.
But that battles over. That war has ended. We’re not fighting it anymore; in fact, over the last couple months, Americans have volunteered their time, money and prayers for a nation that has been ravaged by earthquakes, a devastating tsunami and a pending (?) nuclear meltdown.
Times have changed. And I have to be honest, even though my grandfather doesn’t like me driving “Japanese” cars, I love them! For my grandfather, not driving a car made in Japan is an essential (in his mind, he doesn’t want to support a nation that killed people he personally knew), but for me … that thought doesn’t even enter my mind.
He lived through war time. I didn’t. And his generation fought a battle that gives us younger guys some of the benefits we have today. We need to honor and respect that, but I’m not him.
In light of the whole division that Rob Bell has highlighted – a division that already existed, but was brought to light by Bell’s recent book – Rachel Held Evans has created the Rally to Restore Unity.
Rachel writes this:
The goal is to lightheartedly combat some of the vitriol coming out of the online Christian community by celebrating what we have in common and demonstrating that we can have a sense of humor when it comes to non-essential theological disagreements.
I love the heart behind Rachel’s idea, I love the church, I love the diversity of the people who make up God’s bride and I LOVE UNITY, but I’m just not sure we can have “a sense of humor when it comes to non-essential theological disagreement” because defining the non-essentials is no laughing matter.
What are the “non-essentials”? Who gets to decide what is essential and what is non-essential?
We have different people from different eras feeling like they’re fighting different battles. For many of us younger groups, the liberal vs. conservative battle is over. I’m just not too interested in that discussion; but for other evangelicals, this battle is still raging.
For me, inerrancy is a non-essential; but for others, it’s so essential they’ll stake their whole faith on the subject … which is why, when some of us younger guys question inerrancy, some other guys think that we’re questioning the WHOLE faith. Of course, I love the Bible … in fact, I can honestly say that I hunger for it. I believe it’s God’s Word to His people. But Warfield inerrancy?
And maybe we’re both right. And maybe we just need to acknowledge that there’s relativity in some of these discussions. A relativity of age, a relativity of generations and a relativity of context. Just like my grandfather and I with Toyotas, we have different opinions that were defined by different eras. And he’s told me before that he doesn’t like my “Japanese cars”, but he also has enough grace with me to know that I’m still someone who appreciates his generation’s sacrifice … I still love the United States.
It really just comes down to grace and love. Pop pop and I get along because of grace and because we love each other.
Maybe the problem is that we love our battles more than our brothers and sisters?
After today, this Christian history “series” of sorts will be over … and on Monday I’ll be back to writing stuff that’s more engaging. I know some of you enjoy history and some of you don’t. Personally, I’d rather read church history than eat gourmet pizza and hot wings.
Especially for us younger types, who have/are using new forms of media and tech, and confronting new phenomena like globalization, we like to think we’re entering a new world, trekking where “no man has gone before.”
History is full of people confronting similar challenges wrapped in different paper, contexts and languages. And if we can’t learn from em we’ll pay the stupid tax. I’ve paid that tax before and will pay it again, but with a history book at my side, I feel pretty thrifty.
Yesterday I looked at one historical reaction (the Quakers) to the intolerance and dogmatism of the church. Today, I want to look at another approach: The Pietists.
Strictly speaking, Pietism deals mainly with the Germans, Philip Spener (1635 – 1705) and Spener’s follower, August Hermann Francke. Yet, even though these two are credited with starting Pietism, Justo Gonzolaz argues that both Zinzendorf and the Moravians, as well as John Wesley share in the spiritual heritage of the Pietists.
Spener came from a wealthy German Lutheran family (many Christian movements seem to come from money), attended the top Protestant universities and, after he earned his doctorate in theology, became a pastor. At the time, the pastors were financially supported by the state and were considered arms of the government. This bred a sense of complacency in the clergy who felt their main responsibilities were to preach and administer the sacraments. Spener’s conscience told him that his tasks as a pastor went far beyond this, as he believed he was to foster the “personal faith of his parishioners” (Gonzalez; 259). Thus, he started study groups that he called “colleges of piety.”
In his book Pia desideria Spener builds on Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers. He suggests that the division between clergy and laity is an unnecessary division and that all Christians should have a common responsibility. This trajectory that Spener was moving in also helped him encourage other pastors to lessen their academic tone – as preaching was not a means for them to show their doctrinal knowledge — and rather call their parishioners to obedience to God. He essentially suggested that personal transformation trumps dogmatic information, for the lack of growth in a believer is to be feared moreso than the potential for doctrinal error.
Luther had focused on justification, while Spener was focusing on sanctification.
Francke, Spener’s ardent follower, had a similar background as Spener in that he was from a wealthy background and highly educated … Francke was a Prof. at the University of Halle, which he eventually directed to become a training center for missionaries.
While the emphasis on the need for “personal faith” of all believers still pervades the evangelical church today, the “most significant contribution of Pietism to the story of Christianity was the birth of Protestant missions” (262). At that time, some within Protestantism believed that the commandment of preaching to the nations was only for the Apostles and not for their church. The Pietists disagreed.
The missionary trajectory that began in the Pietists was eventually grasped by the Pietist, Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, who was Spener’s godson. After his education, Zinzendorf served in the court of Dresden which is where he met a group of pietist exiles from Moravia that would change his life.
Zinzendorf and the Moravian exiles mutually stoked each other’s desire for world missions. Gonzolaz writes that “within a period of twenty years a movement that had begun with two hundred (Moravian) refugees had more missionaries overseas than had been sent out by all Protestant churches since the Protestant Reformation two centuries earlier” (263).
Not only were the Moravians the beginning of the Protestant mission movement, they were also the main impetus in the conversion of John Wesley. Again, most of this came out of the reaction of a group of people against the dogmatism and intolerance within the church.
If you’ve been a Christian for a while, you may have picked up on the tendency for Christians to fight among themselves over doctrinal issues, usually resulting in labeling and a general intolerance towards other Christians we consider “wrong.” The labeling (“I’m a dispensationalist” or “I’m a five point Calvinist” or “I’m a seven point Calvinist” [yes, they exist] or “I’m a Charismatic” “I’m a Methodist”) has the tendency to make our particular persuasions and/or denominations more important than our desire to be called “son” or “daughter” by God.
The dogmatism and intolerance that is seen today is rather tame to what existed a couple hundred years ago. Today we write nasty blogs back and forth without the fear of being killed for our differences. For instance, Servetus — considered a heretic in both Protestant and Catholic camps – was passing through John Calvin’s Geneva after escaping from his Inquisition imprisoners. His identity was exposed in Geneva and Calvin himself offered 38 accusations against Servetus, who was then burned at the stake. Few Christian leaders in this time period are clean of the blood stains of supposed “heretics”. Certainly — on a larger scale — the Spanish (1478–1834) and Portuguese (1536–1821) Inquisitions are a major blemish in the history of the Church.
The strong emphasis on doctrine worked in favor of the rich who were able to afford education. Justo Gonzalez (who’s two volumes on “The Story of Christianity” have been hard to put down over the last couple months) writes that “Those who did not have such opportunities, and who therefore could not discuss complicated matters of theology, were seen as children, needing someone to guild them through the intricacies of dogma in order not to fall into error.”
Like today, there were reactions against the absolutism, intolerance and theological aristocracy of these dogmatic believers. The reaction was exemplified in both the Spiritualists and the Pietists.
The Spiritualists attracted two types of people: well cultured people who didn’t appreciate the dogmatism and those who had little education that wanted the freedom to express their relationship with God. Probably the most known figure in the Spiritualist movement was George Fox, the founder of the Quakers … who were called such by their opponents because their “religious enthusiasm was such that they would tremble” (Gonzalez; 253). George Fox himself preferred that his group be called “friends” because of the egalitarian nature of their movement, so that today they’re called, “The Society of Friends.”
One major feature of the Quakers that aided in their ability to lesson dogmatism and intolerance is their emphasis on the “inner light.” Although today the term sounds eastern, Fox’s sense of the term was in opposition to Calvin’s doctrine of “total depravity” and in opposition to the “natural reason” of the Deists. Instead of believing that man is innately corrupt or naturally endowed with a compass that points to God, Fox believed that man had the “capability … to recognize and accept the presence of God.” And thus, all men had the ability to legitimately speak about God.
The “inner light” lead to the “spirit lead” types of services that marked the “friends meeting.” This belief that all were equal and so all could engage in God talk, lead to Quakers not addressing their superiors “properly” nor respecting social tiers and statuses. These practices, as well as others, caused the Quakers to receive numerous types of persecutions. George Fox’s first beating came when he countered a preacher who was saying that ultimate truth is found in scripture. Fox stated that ultimate truth was the Spirit who inspired scripture and was consequently beaten. He spent years in prison, as did his wife and many of his followers.
The most famous of Quakers was William Penn, who founded our great Commonwealth. Gonzalez writes of Penn, “He was convinced that the Indians, and not the crown, were the legitimate owners of the land. And he hoped to establish such cordial relations with them that the settlers would have not need to defend themselves by force of arms” (256). Such cultural respect, that arose in reaction to the dogmatism and intolerance of their time, can be traced back to the Quakers deep sense that all men have something to share from God.
Most Churches failed in defending slaves. For instance, the Church of England held a common belief that white Christians couldn’t hold baptized believers as slaves. So most white Christians and slave masters preferred that their slaves weren’t baptized; until a law was passed in 1667 that removed their difficulty for owning baptized slaves: it declared baptism didn’t change the status of a slave. For all the abuses of the church, it was the Quakers who asserted that slavery was wrong and they stand as one of the lone shining lights of grace and freedom during the legality of slavery in the United States and Europe.