Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Revisiting Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism True and False

By John Taylor; 2008 Sep 24, 16 Izzat, 165 BE

I have been fascinated over the past several months by the question of fanaticism and fundamentalism. Are false fundamentalists, simmering tensions among faiths and rioting fanatics mere symptoms of the disease of prejudice as it shows up in the realm of religion? Or is there more to it than that?

There is a big difference, it seems to me, in one major respect.

In religion fanatics tend to be systematically nurtured by professionals. For instance, the recent bombings in India may not have been directly coached by religious leaders, but their age-old rivalries, hatred and inability to unite for the common interest of humankind certainly laid the groundwork for such violence. Too often clergy see it as a central professional duty to instil ideology rather than understanding into their adherents.

It was noticed as early as Voltaire that this is not true of other experts in other specialties. Doubts and clashes of ideology are largely confined to discussions among scientists and professionals themselves. Theorists may fight like cats and dogs with one another but as a rule they are responsible enough not to bring their disputations into the classroom. The recent meltdown of stock markets, for instance, was not fomented by disputes among economists but rather by widespread lawlessness, irresponsibility and disavowal of principles that the experts generally agree upon.

Abdu'l-Baha, perhaps commenting upon Jesus saying that "if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out," and at the same time a point made in the Writings of Baha'u'llah that pure hearted, spiritual religious leaders are and always have been the "eyes" of humanity, said:

"Each power is localized. Reason has its seat in the brain, sight in the eye, hearing in the ears, speech in the tongue. The force of gravity is localized in the center of the earth. Everything on the surface of the earth is attracted toward the center. Our light is localized in the sun. The heat of the sun transforms minerals, vegetables, animals, and man. In the world of beings, some have specialized in statesmanship, some in morals, others in commerce, agriculture, art, politics, laboratory work, or industrial activities, for these are the outer expression of spiritual, philosophical and scientific faculties. In brief, each individual expresses himself through some special occupation; but one does not hold the others in condemnation."

"Certain religious teachers, however, think only of their creeds. They believe a holy war can conquer the world. They reason thus: `All the other religious teachers are in error and I am obliged to chastise them and show them their mistakes for their own salvation.' The belief of the friends of God is quite different. They believe that one must affiliate with all, love all humanity and seek ever to better its condition. God is one, the true shepherd of all creation. Let us be kind to every one in order to unify the world and spread affection abroad." (Abdu'l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 97)

Whether holy war is openly declared or not, the oppositional mind set is the same. It is a serious thing when among faith leaders there is an agreement not only to disagree but to do battle with one another and with the world. This is especially so if that profession plays the crucial role "eye" to the body politic. If spiritual leaders see the world in one-dimensional terms as right or wrong, either/or without gray areas; if they see competition and struggle as the only practical way to resolve differences, then what hope is there that the rest of society will stay un-beguiled by this false but seductive set of suppositions about human nature?

An academic who has studied fundamentalism points out that in America,

"Generic fundamentalism takes its cues from a sacred text that stands above criticism. (And) ... sees the secular state as the primary enemy, for the latter is more interested in education, democratic reforms, and economic progress than in preserving the spiritual dimension of life." (The Rise of Fundamentalism Grant Wacker, Duke University Divinity School, National Humanities Center,

Thus while trying to put it onto a pedestal a fanatic devalues his own Holy Writ by putting it above social transformation, by expecting that it cannot act as a progressive force in reforming and spiritualizing secular society. Thus enthusiasts become fundamentalists by taking a fundamentally self-contradictory position. On one hand, fundamentalism "sees time-honored social distinctions and cultural patterns as rooted in the very nature of things, in the order of creation itself. That means clear-cut and stratified roles for men and women, parents and children, clergy and laity." On the other hand, it,

"seeks to minimize the distinction between the state and the church. To hold that the state should operate according to one set of publicly shared principles, while individuals should operate according to multiple sets of privately shared principles, is morally pernicious and ends up harming everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike. Religious truths are no different from the truths of medical science or aeronautical engineering: if they hold for anyone they hold for everyone." (Id.)

Undoubtedly, in this last sense the fundamentalists are on to something. Religious truths, insofar as they are true, do hold for one and all. But the only way to prove they are true is for all believers of all religious traditions to hold to the true fundamentals, love, forgiveness and kindness to all, believers and non-believers alike. This is why I think we need to make a hard distinction between true and false fundamentals. False fundamentals only divide us further and deeper than we already are. True fundamentals, by their very nature, unite and promote peace. Leaders enlightened by truth encourage followers to look upon everyone they meet as suggested by Ali, Son-in-Law of Muhammad, "either as a brother in religion or a brother in humanity." Peter expressed the same sentiment when, addressing a crowd, he said,

"I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." (Acts 10:34-45)

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