Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Faith Works 9-22

Faith Works 9-22-12

Jeff Gill


Fundamentalism and its discontents



When you hear the word "fundamentalism" used it's often in the context of describing violent demonstrations ("Islamic fundamentalism") or intolerant displays of disapproval ("Christian fundamentalism"); it can show up on the other side of the world ("Hindu fundamentalism") and even appear in discussions of politics ("constitutional fundamentalism").


I think it's helpful, and also interesting to look at where the whole idea of "fundamentalism" comes from, and what gave it birth, because it has not only a history, but a fairly recent one.


Fundamentalism is essentially one of a number of reactions to Modernism. It dates almost entirely to the period of the late 1800s and dawn of the 1900s, when the implications of the European Enlightenment from the 1600s were starting to percolate into popular, mass culture . . . and some would argue it was the rise of mass culture (sometimes called more recently "pop culture") that not only created the context of Modernism, but virtually forced the rise of Fundamentalism.


There are other reactions to Modernism, the best known of which is Post-Modernism, a cultural move that's largely (in this writer's opinion) running out of gas. But if you think the end of the PoMo period in academic and artistic discourse means that Modernism died long ago, you'd be (again, in my opinion) dead wrong.


Modernism is Darwin, Marx, and Freud, but it's also Pulitzer and Hearst and Hollywood. It's a sense of scientific understanding combined with an awareness of "deep time" in geology and biology that evokes a little awe and wonder, and lots of irony. Modernism is the realization that things haven't always been this way, so historical consciousness looks back and a certain wry apocalypticism looks forward, nervously. Modernism says "try something new" and values it not because it continues a tradition, but because of the innovation that becomes a value of its own: cars and electricity and flight are new, and good, so something new in art and literature is very likely to be good, too – right?


Or not. So conservatism, with roots in the English hesitation over the twin challenges of the American Revolution and the French, starts to offer a qualification to "new equals good." Conservatism (as opposed to reactionary-ism) says "let's try something new, but cautiously, without tossing the old and traditional, not yet."


So liberal and conservative trends in social and cultural life began butting heads (and became political parties), but what about the church? Or the Church?


Some faith traditions had an innate conservatism built into them (Orthodoxy, much of Catholicism), while others reasonably would tend to a more liberal acceptance of change (Protestantism in general). But "new" and "revealed truth" are not likely to be automatic fast friends.


This is where "The Fundamentals" come in. They were, in fact, a series of lengthy essays, ultimately multiple books worth, edited by a group of Protestant theologians and church leaders who looked Modernism in the eye around 1910 and said "Not so fast, bucko."


Or words to that effect.


I bring all this up simply to note that whether it's Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, or even Buddhism, all world religious traditions are still trying to figure out what to make of Modernism's inroads on their traditional terrain. Complete withdrawal from Modernism means a disavowal of science and culture, which is itself not in keeping with Protestant tradition, but Modernism has proven to be a sticky lint ball of a cultural trend, which is difficult to touch lightly.


So I actually have a smidgen of sympathy for some in the Far East, whether you dismiss them as mad mullahs or outraged imams. The Enlightenment in general, and Modernism in particular, has only relatively recently (since WWII) made inroads into their home territory, and they are only just now trying to figure out what it means to affirm or reject, in whole or in part, this strange new ideology.


And I'd argue that we're not done figuring it out right here, either.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; he'd not call himself a fundamentalist, but he may have read more of "The Fundamentals" than most who would. Tell him what's foundational for you at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

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