The Brittle Certainty Of Fundamentalism


Dreher reflects on it:

Fundamentalists don’t compromise. That is their strength. But it’s also their weakness. I went over a book the other day written by a theologically stout Evangelical (which is not the same thing as a fundamentalist). The book was about approaching culture. I found it hard to take, even though I found myself agreeing with the author on most general points. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that irritated me so much about the book. What finally became clear to me was that it wasn’t so much the opinions the author held as it was the iron grip with which the author held them. It was as if nuance, irony, and complexity were the enemies of clear thought and pure faith. The worldview expressed in this book was pretty conservative, and as I said, I agree with much of it. But it was airless and highly ideological.

I have been critical of the fact that I didn’t have any doctrinal rigor in my religious education as a young person, and I am allergic to Andrew’s idea that just about any attempt to draw or hold to doctrinal lines makes one into a quasi-fundamentalist (“Christianist”). But I tell you, if I had been raised as a fundamentalist or an Evangelical who was taught to see the world through a narrow and severe idea of truth, I wonder if I would be a Christian today. It’s impossible to say. These things always are. Raise a kid with tap-watery religion, and don’t be surprised if he leaves it. Raise a kid with a religion as hard and cold as ice, and don’t be surprised if he leaves it. This is hard!

I do not believe that adherence to doctrinal lines makes one a Christianist. A Christianist, like an Islamist, cannot rest until his view of the world is enforced by law on others through political action. A Christian can be a rigid doctrinal enforcer in his own faith community without being a Christianist. Let me give Rod an example of a doctrinal line I would not cross: the Incarnation. Or, in fact, the entire Nicene Creed, which I recite at Mass with conviction. But I have no desire at all to impose that view of the meaning of the universe on anyone else whatsoever – let alone backed by the coercion of the state. That is where I differ from Christianists.

Where I differ from doctrinal fundamentalists is where the Pope differs. To wit:

If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt.

That means not making things like homosexuality and contraception the focus of our faith – turning matters of faith and morals into inviolable doctrine – but insisting on the very core truths and accepting mystery about so much else. In important things, unity; in doubtful things, humility; in all things, charity. But I take Rod’s point about upbringing – and its sometimes counter-intuitive effects. My elementary school – Our Lady and Saint Peter’s – was a wonderful Vatican II Catholic place of learning.

I discovered my faith as a joyful, wondrous, mysterious thing. When it came time for me to go to what Americans call high school, I was enrolled for a while at a Catholic Grammar school, until my parents took me for a visit. Its dourness, brutality, darkness and rigidity made me and my parents shudder and they mercifully placed me at a Protestant high school. I think I probably owe my faith to that decision. If I had been exposed more fully to the dark side of the Catholic church and its institutions – and you only have to look at the hideous history of the church in Ireland for how dark it truly was – then I almost certainly would have rebelled completely. I have authority issues, as some readers may have noticed.

Fighting for my faith in an alien space and climate made me own it more deeply – which is, perhaps, another reason why I have never really believed that enforcing religious beliefs in law helps religion at all. It is more likely to kill it.