Monday, October 05, 2009

A True, Blue Fundamentalist

Fundamentalism, Good and Bad

  Prologue for Baha'is

  The present use of the word "fundamentalist" comes from a publishing initiative by a body of protestant clergy that took place right around the time the Master toured North America. A body of scholars who had met in Niagara Falls tried in this way to set up a body of doctrine upon which all of them -- that is, not all people but all protestants -- could all agree upon as truths that are fundamental. This is why technically, it is not correct to say that a Muslim or Hindu is a fundamentalist. Only a certain breed of Protestant has that honour. In this way, an important word that, like the word "gay," had been around for a long time and had a history and many positive associations was suddenly appropriated for a very different agenda. The word "fundamentalist" suddenly meant someone who is more prejudiced than usual, more prejudiced than a group already is renowned for its bigotry. Fundamentalist is now a pejorative and it is far from laudable to claim to know the fundamentals of religion.

  It is interesting that on this very day in 1912, the 5th of October, the Master was in San Francisco and Mahmud made the following report His day:

  "Some clergymen and professors came to visit `Abdu'l-Baha in the morning in His second-floor room. Some of the Master's words to the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Oakland were these: `If a man is not a clergyman and is unprejudiced, it is not a cause for wonder. But if a man is a clergyman and is not prejudiced, he certainly deserves praise and glory.'" (for more insights into this or any day in Baha'i history, see

  A Comenian Cure for Fundamentalism, Part III

  We are used to thinking of fundamentalists as narrow-minded fanatics. Is there such a thing as a good fundamentalist? I think there is. Certainly we all hope that schools will teach our children good fundamentals, truths that will prepare them for success as adults and will stand them in good stead throughout their lives. In this sense, our expectation is that teachers will be good fundamentalists, well versed in what is not inconsequential but rather fundamental to the reality around us.

  In this series we have been studying one such good fundamentalist, John Amos Comenius, a famous educational reformer from Moravia. Comenius lived in the 17th Century and made various proposals for fundamental change in his posthumous work, Universal Reform, or Panorthosia. Comenius had a great deal to say about what true fundamentalism is and how to eliminate its corrupt form, the bad, false, ignorant breed of fundamentalism that since his day has all but eliminated religion as a force for social change.

  We have already examined his suggestion that a series of mottos or slogans be publicized around the world for various purposes, including this one for stamping out false fundamentalism:

  "God and the sun are the same for all."

  This saying implies that enlightenment is the criterion of truth. If an idea does not act like the sun and illuminate the situation for all, it comes not from the sun but darkness and ignorance. Yet it happens that sincere believers take many sides and end up in complete contradiction. In one sense, all sides are wrong when they argue but in another it is perfectly conceivable that each side can be right, or at least has made no mistakes. Comenius explained how this can be with an interesting extension of this astronomical, solar system analogy. Truth cannot contradict itself, but opposing results can and do arise even when no miscalculation has taken place. This is can happen because we live at different locations on the spherical surface of the planet Earth.

  "For just as Heaven truly stretches over one entire world, and moves with one simple movement, although it appears to move in one way at the equator and another in the Tropics and in quite the opposite way at the poles, so the spiritual heaven of the church, holy scripture, is truly one, and fills everything with one sensation, that of Christ, even if he is perceived differently in different places. Furthermore the various contradictory interpretations of the Scriptures can be brought into harmony provided that they are based on reason and fundamental truth, in the same way as dates predicted for the new moon, the full moon, and eclipses, which may differ so widely that one astronomer writes that a total eclipse will occur while others put it down as partial (and still differ about its extent), and one says that an eclipse will occur in the morning, another in the evening, another at noon, and another at midnight." (Panorthosia II, Ch. 8, para 36, p. 124)

  Baha'is will recognize a resemblance to the "dawning points" analogy that the Central Figures, especially Abdu'l-Baha, invoked to explain progressive revelation.

  The difference, of course, is that Comenius speaks of revelation as relative to the single, static, fixed heaven of one religion, Christianity. Abdu'l-Baha's dawning-points metaphor explains how a single truth can be common to all historical religions. In their corrupted state, these various religions erroneously worship the point at which truth arose at one particular time in human development, rather than paying heed to where the sun shines right now.

  Nonetheless, essentially the same astronomical metaphor is being used in both cases. Both point to a highly relativistic, evolutionary understanding of religious truth. Comenius continues.

  "For it is possible that they are all writing the truth, but differing according to their points of view in different climates and regions of the world. Therefore although to an inexperienced eye these appear to be real contradictions and therefore irreconcilable, the expert reconciles them without any difficulty. So in our present situation it is to be hoped that the same Scripture is open to a different interpretation depending on a different standpoint, without detriment to the truth." (Id.)

  In the next paragraph, Comenius compares the common sun of truth to the Biblical story of the manna from heaven that fed Moses's liberated slaves, lost in the wilderness. The same manna is cooked in various styles and dishes, but it is basically the same food, "able to content every man's delight.'

  "Therefore, just as it would have been shameful if the Israelites had chosen to quarrel because no two men prepared the manna for food in the same way, so it would be disgraceful for us to be intolerant if different people have different ways of preparing their soul's delights in accordance with the words of God, since God bears with this wherever he sees that they do not lose faith in his Oracles but behave with due reverence and prompt obedience towards Him." (para 37, pp. 124-125)

  We now know that in spite of the apparently vast variation in food preparation through the centuries and across many cultures, most humans still live on a small number of nutrients coming from an even smaller number of plants and animals that were domesticated about 10,000 years ago. Anthropologists point out that in spite of our vaunted agriculture and food processing technology, no new staples have entered the human diet since that long forgotten point in pre-history.

  The same thing applies for the seemingly fundamental truths that we all live by. However different and contradictory they seem, from a properly long perspective the similarities are greater than the differences. Failure to realize the common basis of all food is prejudice. Prejudice is at the root of all sorts of bad fundamentalisms, religious, political and philosophical. As Comenius points out, often it is not the prejudice itself that does harm but the reactions and defence mechanisms that are set up in order to perpetuate them. The two greatest of these are obstinacy and complacency.

  "The third hindrance to Reform is the obstinacy which arises from prejudice, and causes us not only to scorn truer and better things but also to turn away from them and to rebel against them whenever they confront us. For this is the source of the most heated arguments in philosophy, the most bloody wars in the world of politics, the bitterest hatreds in religion, and the outrageous persecutions inflicted by some and endured by others; and while everyone thinks that he is fighting or suffering in the cause of truth, or peace, or God, even in that gross anarchy there emerges the complacency which Paul the Apostle calls 'a zeal but not according to knowledge' (Romans X, 2). But unless we truly set aside such zeal and teach others to do likewise, it will serve no useful purpose, and our affairs will remain as they are, distracted, disorganized, and marred forever by disagreement." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 6, para 6, pp. 101)

  Comenius takes this statement of Paul as a definition of bad fundamentalism. A fundamentalist has a "zeal not according to knowledge." A muddled atmosphere of stubborn complacency gives rise to ignorance rather than knowledge. Even when the zealot has a true vision of truth, the end is harm rather than enlightenment.

  However, the fact that this unfortunate tendency is so common is no reason to give up on the quest of determining truths upon which all human beings can agree. If we are to hope in a future for humanity, we must believe that there are good fundamentals that, like manna from heaven, all can live by. We can do this, Comenius says, if we all adhere to the middle path of moderation.

  "If we are willing to take our stand on these fundamentals, we should confidently expect disputes to disappear; or, if any survive, they will be few in number and harmless, provided that we remove from them the risk of public hatred. But this will be removed in any event, since there will be no disagreement without some underlying reason, and no obvious parting of the ways that does not lead out to level ground. And this cannot possibly happen except in certain matters of detail, and we shall have no reason to fear that they will bring us to dangerous byways, since our Lord's way to salvation and truth always takes an uninterrupted course through the middle and brings us all in safety to the best possible ends. Therefore men should show mutual toleration in such matters, if it appears that some prefer one answer and others another, so long as truth has not become so obvious that all men see it clearly as one and the same." (Ch. 8, para 40, pp. 126-127)

  As we shall see next time, Panorthosia offers a set of hoops through which any proposition must jump fore it to be accepted as reasonable and worthy to be considered a fundamental truth for all to accept.


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