Monday, June 3, 2013

The Fundamentalism Trap

My partner and I live in a small condominium complex in Southwest Portland. Although the building is close to a busy road, trees tower over the neighborhood and the surrounding area, providing a sense of beauty and serenity. The backyard is shared by all residents, and it’s a great place for our dog Archie to run around and expend some energy. Other owners have dogs, including an older woman who lives on the bottom floor with her Yorkie. This woman happens to be deaf, and because my partner knows American Sign Language, they have conversations now and then while the dogs romp around on the lawn. She’s a lovely, kind-hearted person.

A couple of nights ago, someone smeared dog shit on her front door.

The message was fairly obvious: Clean up after your dog, bitch. This person chose a malicious act instead of sending an email (all residents have each other’s email addresses), posting a hand-written note to her door, or even talking to the HOA board about the issue.


Yesterday, a good friend told me a story about his neighbors, Reg and Paula (not their real names). A week ago, Reg got a call from the State telling him that his ex-wife in Eugene had been arrested for dealing and possession of meth. His 8-year-old daughter was waiting for him to pick her up. He did so. She had two ear infections and head lice.

While it is good that this little girl is now in a more stable home—with Reg and Paula and their two small boys—what horrific neglect and abuse did she endure? Reg was told that while the police were surveying the house, drug dealers and buyers were coming and going at all hours. This little girl was in an extremely dangerous place. It is now up to her dad and step mom to provide a home of love and the potential for healing. It won’t be easy.


Every day, in the news and in my own small corner of Oregon, I see so much non-love. Of course, for every agonizing question, there is a fundamentalist Christian answer (sin!), but it’s not good enough. I don’t see Christ’s love demonstrated by most fundamentalist Christians—all I see is judgment and self-righteousness. In fact, I’m beginning to think that fundamentalism itself is not a solution but a symptom of what’s wrong in the world.

What is fundamentalism exactly? Fundamentalism is usually applied to world-views or causes that have something good to offer the world and the individual. It attempts to create very specific rules, guidelines, policies, procedures, and processes in order to achieve a goal or a vision. However, this practice tends to choke the life out of something that can otherwise transform a person and provide a pathway for growth. Fundamentalism removes the innate humanity, mystery, freedom, and scalability of a world-view. Worst of all, fundamentalism is a hostile environment for the practice of love.

Among Christians of all types, other religions, atheists, and any cause or group you want to name, there is always some level of in-fighting and arrogant posturing. This arrogant posturing is another key component of fundamentalism. The posture of fundamentalism makes true love, relationship, and connection extremely difficult.

How does this happen?

The rules and guidelines created by fundamentalism attempt to make something complex and/or mysterious into something simple and tangible. I believe that removing this complexity makes us more apt to cling to the dogma—making the dogma itself a part of our identity. And when our dogma is questioned, our identity is questioned—we instinctually go on the attack. In the case of religious fundamentalism, we raise our dogma to the level of God. When our dogmas are challenged, God is challenged and must be strenuously defended. Thus, the posture of fundamentalism is one of defensiveness and (at its worst) arrogance.

Something that should be transforming us into more loving human beings turns us into defensive, arrogant, and unloving people.

It’s quite easy to find harmful examples of fundamentalist Christianity. Take, for example, the sexual abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic church in recent years, as well as the Sovereign Grace Ministries sexual abuse scandals in the past few months. The posture of these institutions has been arrogant, indignant denial and public relations spin in order to protect those in power. They are so convinced of the correctness of their theology and dogma, that they seemingly will do whatever it takes to protect their reputation. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of victims and potential victims of abuse.

A more recent (and less drastic) example of a fundamentalist act was seen when John Piper tweeted a verse in Job following the tornado devastation in Moore, Oklahoma. There have been differing opinions on what was actually meant by the tweet, but at best he showed lack of discernment and lack of empathy. He also has a habit of coming out with declarations of God’s wrath after tragedy, so naturally many people assumed this was just another example in his pattern.

There are countless examples of fundamentalism in Christianity—the poster children being the Westboro Baptist Church. Although they are the most extreme example, they are an object lesson of where fundamentalism can lead when taken to its logical conclusion.

I believe that a fundamentalist posture can infect anything, even a progressive cause that isn’t normally linked with the word. One recent example of a more progressive individual with a fundamentalist posture has been Tony Jones, who has been criticized for being arrogant and unwilling to listen. I have found a lot of good and helpful information in what Jones has written in the past. He has been a champion for the LGBTQ community in the church, and for that I am extremely grateful. But even though he has battled against fundamentalist Christianity, he has also displayed the posture of a fundamentalist, especially when it comes to women and their lack of a voice within the emergent church. This has been one of the most painful things for me to watch, personally, over the last six months.

Another progressive who has sometimes taken a fundamentalist posture is Dan Savage. Recently, Savage wrote a book review in the New York Times about Jeff Chu’s new book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?. In the review, Savage compares Andrew Marin and the work of the Marin Foundation to Westboro Baptist Church, except “with hugs.”

As a gay man, I appreciate the work Savage has done on behalf of so many. His “It Gets Better” campaign is well known and has raised awareness of the problem of bullying. However, as a Christian, I’ve also appreciated the work Marin has done to build bridges with evangelical Christians. Honestly, I find I agree more with Savage than I do with Marin. However, Marin’s work is specifically geared to those who are outright hostile to LGBTQ individuals and freedoms. He is working to raise awareness within the more conservative areas of the Christian church about how poorly Christians have treated LGBTQ folks. Marin’s work is especially vital for LGBTQ youth who are being raised in these types of churches. Unfortunately, with Marin, Savage has taken on a fundamentalist posture. He sees all of Christianity as damaging; therefore, in his opinion, Marin is doing damage by not following the same path as he does with his activism.

I have also seen this type of fundamentalist posture within both LGBTQ and Feminist communities.

First of all, I do identify as a Feminist. As a Feminist, I understand that I have a great deal of societal privilege simply because I am a man (and especially because I am white). I understand that patriarchy in our society is a real thing, and that misogyny both within and outside the church is pervasive. I am a participant in these systems, and I am trying to learn how to change that. I believe that Feminism is a Kingdom of God ideal that we as Christians should be striving toward.

However, as a gay man and as a novice Feminist, I’ve seen occasions in both LGBTQ and Feminist spaces where honest questions and curiosity were shut down just because the person was one of privilege; occasions where there was unwillingness to listen to honest criticism; and occasions where shame was used in an attempt to silence dissenting opinion. I’m guilty of it myself, probably more often than I realize.

One important note: there is an inherent danger when labeling someone as having a fundamentalist posture within any religion or cause. As a (self-proclaimed) Feminist and a gay man, I think strong pushback and calling out damaging behavior is appropriate more often than not. As Suzannah Paul put it to me, labeling someone as, for example, a fundamentalist Feminist “can be used to dismiss legitimate anger/perspectives, too. It is hard enough as a woman to get a hearing without being written off as emotional/angry/bitchy/irrational/dogmatic/etc.”

What is my point in all of this? I began this blog post with two specific examples of my direct experience with non-love. Our world needs love so desperately. As people who follow Christ, we have to figure out a better way to love.

But then, perhaps there is an inherent danger here as well? If we provide a specific rubric of behavior for every type of situation, won’t we just be re-creating another type of fundamentalism? There is a balance here that I don’t yet know how to strike. All I know from observing the world is that we are in desperate need of humble hearts, thick skin, and the Holy Spirit, whomever or whatever it is. The fine line we attempt to follow is indeed a narrow road.

The Bible is overflowing with passages about love. Love is mentioned over and over as the most important concept to grasp—the greatest of all things, greater even than faith and hope. I know that I personally, desperately, want a step-by-step procedural manual on how to do this well. But that, again, is a tendency to “fundamentalize” something that is too complex for rules.

There is so much risk involved by stepping outside of our various paradigms in order to love well. In the end, it’s something we must all individually choose to do. We can never force anyone else to love. To try to do so is just another act of fundamentalism.

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