Posts tagged ‘fundamentalism’
“You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?” – Morpheus
I grew up as an hard-core fundamentalist, and have been slowing drifting secular since the beginning of high school. In sixth grade, my parents got rid of Aladdin due to Jasmine’s inappropriate garb. My church started playing contemporary music in the evening services, and as this form of music is displeasing to God, we changed churches largely for this reason. Together with being home schooled and highly gifted mathematically, I was not what you would call a normal child.
Although this may be barely believable to many of you unless you also have been brainwashed at an old enough age to know better, I followed along willingly. “It will be worth it all, When we see Christ.” In high school, I was not allowed to date. With most people, no dating means that the “courtship” model is the alternative, but in my case, no clear alternative was given. (My adolescence consisted of “enumerated powers.”) As a junior in high school, when cute girls noticed me, it was depressing more than anything, because I could do nothing about it. It’s only a slight hyperbole to say that I thought the F-word was flirt (that’s a sin too for kids that age, in case you didn’t know.) When I was a senior, God told me who I was to marry. *Pathetic story squelched.* A year later, she married another…
Epilogue – I have now completed my series on existentialist ideas as they pertain to fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. It was an exceptionally brief tour of a complex and rich philosophical tradition, but I hope I have helped impart a somewhat clearer picture of what the existentialists were trying to say: life is sad, sometimes, and frightening, and often difficult, and there is no philosopher’s or theologian’s balm that will anesthetize the pains of life. We are thrown into a world not of our making, not designed to meet our needs, and we find ourselves alone, with no one in charge, and utterly responsible for what we do. We find we grow, and grow old, and that life is thereby a series of losses – friends, parents, youth, pets, potential, eventually life itself. These things are all a part of being human.
But in that very anxiety before loss and our own deaths, in the duty to self-create, in our loneliness and vulnerability, lies our salvation – for in forsaking the illusions we wish we could believe about life, we find we are truly able to see life, for the first time. And what we see is breathtaking: the stunning preciousness of life, and the indescribable beauty of the world and of those around us. All we have to do is face our fears, make our peace with the uncertainty and “groundlessness” of our lives, give up on the fantasy that someone, somewhere will recognize our own specialness enough to swoop in and save us from life’s pain. Then, and only then, can we really begin to live…
My upbringing was entirely Protestant. My family were good Protestant “churchians” (people who go to church regularly ’cause that’s what good folk do). The faith, such as it was, was just cultural really. I did know some real Christians (all Protestant) and I admired them but I wasn’t one of them any more than the rest of my family.
Somewhere around 14 or 15 years of age I realized that the religion I’d been brought up with was largely dead, worthless, and meaningless, so I stopped going to church. That lasted about four or five years. During that time my parents somehow started taking the faith more seriously. When I was 19 they asked me if I’d like to come along to church with them. They had a good reason. The preacher, they told me, was a very good speaker who made sense and was logical. Now a sensible, logical, interesting, skilled speaker in a church was a whole new concept to me. I just had to see it to believe it. So I went.
Sure enough, the man lived up to his reputation. In fact I was so interested that I went back a few times. Then my parents told me there was a youth group full of interesting, intelligent, lively guys and gals my age. So I went there too. And they lived up to their billing…
Meaning - Finally, the issue of meaning resonates powerful among many de-converts, and existentialists addressed it in great depth. Yalom here usefully distinguishes between cosmic meaning and terrestrial meaning (individual, “local” meaning – the meaning of my life, not of all life). His focus is on the latter, as cosmic meaning tends to be the purview of religious systems. Indeed, existentialism rests on the assumption that there is no cosmic meaning to life; there is only terrestrial meaning.
The tension we face is that, perhaps alone among the animals, we seem to hunger for meaning, we want to be told our lives serve a larger purpose – but they don’t. Yalom notes Camus’ observation: human beings are meaning-seeking animals in a universe that is meaning-neutral. There is no grand design to the world and hence, no meaning “out there” to be discovered. Yet we seem constituted, as creatures, to seek meaning anyway. Camus calls this state of affairs “absurd”, and it’s not hard to see why.
One can deal with this dilemma by seeking ready-made meanings in a system, such as fundamentalism, and there are few things about such totalizing ideologies more seductive than this aspect of them. How sweet the thrill in playing a part of the Greatest Story Ever Told! The Master of the Universe wants you!…
So far we have reviewed the existentialist themes of death and isolation, why they are considered to be ubiquitous human issues, and why they are important. Then we looked at the fundamentalist Christian “answer” to these issues, and how I suggest that answer goes awry. Here, we continue with another existentialist theme: our freedom.
Freedom/responsibility - Just as we are, each of us, our own parent, so too are we the author of our lives. No better term exists for the description of the rock-bottom responsibility – an unavoidable responsibility – each of us has to create our lives. I am the author of my life. I write my life in the first-person; I do not “find” it in the third-person. I am responsible for my decisions. I constitute my world, no matter what my circumstances, no matter what I am given; if nothing else I am still responsible for my attitude toward my life.
It may sound odd but how, really, could it be otherwise? For any proffered external basis for valuation and decision-making – such as “you should do x because x is reasonable” or the pragmatic “you should do x because it helps you achieve your goals” – it always can be asked: “and why should I care about that?” Even the justification “You should do x because God says so” (and even assuming I agree that God does in fact say so) requires something further – after all, why should I care what God says?…
Author’s Note: This is the third of a five-part series examining fundamentalism from an existentialist perspective. In what follows we begin to review the existentialist motifs that Irvin Yalom discusses in his Existential Psychotherapy. This post examines death and isolation.
Death - Yalom writes:
“It is one of life’s most self-evident truths that everything fades, that we fear the fading, and that we must live, nonetheless, in the face of the fading, in the face of fear.” (p. 30).
Existentialists often speak of this in terms of “finitude.” Finitude means an awareness that we are vulnerable creatures, with limited abilities and power to shape the world, and that we are subject to the passing of time and the loss that it brings – including, ultimately, death. Thus, it follows that grief is an intrinsic part of life – and the sweeter the living, the deeper the grief at its inevitable passing. The term “finitude” also includes death anxiety proper: a bedrock awareness that I, myself, and all those I care about, and all the things that matter to me, will not last forever. My life, all my cares, all my projects will eventually cease.
Yalom suggest we are all intrinsically aware of our finitude, though it is frightening and we often push it aside…
Author’s Note: This is the second in a five-part series examining fundamentalism from a existentialist perspective.
We will begin by looking at some of the themes that emerge in existentialist thought, and see how they can help make some sense of many of the features of fundamentalist Christianity. My thesis is this: fundamentalism is a response to these basic human (which is to say, existential) “givens” in life. It is a way to assuage some of the most difficult and vexing anxiety that comes part-and-parcel with being human. But in doing so, it separates the believer from full participation in life. It is, in the end, life-denying, not life-enhancing.
My guiding text will be Dr. Irvin Yalom’s wonderful 1980 Existential Psychotherapy. Yalom is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and writer working at Stanford who has written extensively on the intersection of existentialist thought and psychotherapy – a topic that could comprise a book in itself. Yalom’s book has become a classic in the field. His clarity and lucidity in representing existentialist concepts and placing them in a psychological context (for, really, where else could they be placed?) has no equal. It is relatively non-technical and I highly recommend it to the interested reader.
Yalom divides his work along four “themes” that were predominant within existentialist writing: death, isolation, responsibility, and meaning…