Posts tagged ‘fundamentalism’
Author’s note: This article is the first part of a five-part series examining fundamentalist Christianity from an existentialist perspective.
From time to time there has been interest on this discussion board in existentialist ideas as they pertain to fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. Since existentialist philosophy was extremely important to me during the course of my own de-conversion, I thought I would take this opportunity to expand on this issue.
This post will serve as part I, a brief overview of existentialism, which many people have only a cursory familiarity with. This will help orient us to the more specific discussion of fundamentalism from an existentialist perspective, in future installments.
Existentialism was a philosophy that flourished during the early part of the twentieth century. It typically is thought to include such thinkers as Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, in the late 19th century, and later individuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Heidegger. (There is, of note, no universal agreement as to who was an “existentialist” and many of those individuals listed specifically rejected the label)…
Ok, maybe not embrace, but befriend?
Recently on a whim I bought a book from the new books display at my local bookstore (what else is new, right?). The title is The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church. I’m on page 53 right now, and I had to stop to think and write about something that’s been on my mind since Sam Harris’s first book came out. I’ve been thinking about it even more since I read about half of Chris Hedges’s latest while having coffee at the bookstore a few weeks ago (I decided not to buy it).
Here’s the question: Is fundamentalism the authentic religious voice?
My answer is “no”…. but I seem to be in the minority of opinion.
The media features fundamentalists or extreme conservative believers every time a topic regarding morality comes up, as if these are the only people who can speak for believers, as if they have authority to speak for all people of faith on these issues. Not only are atheists and agnostics left out of the conversation, but moderate and liberal believers often are as well. They are not taken as seriously as those who are literalist or extremist in their views, and are often considered “soft” or “lax,” as if they were not “true” followers of the faith. When journalists act this way, they are echoing the fundamentalist point of view…
Taking a cultural perspective to belief is a useful exercise. For me, it means that I am no longer bound to particulars. What matters now is the context in which experience arises.
Not too long ago, I would read the Bible as if it were God’s Word to me now, as if God were speaking to me through the text. In fact, that was the primary way I could know God and maintain the sense of relationship. I came to speak of and relate to God as one would a person, obviously through the creative use of imagination. This God-sense began at a youth concert, where I was so emotionally moved by the sermon that I experienced a shift in my focus. It was that ‘born again’ conversion experience that so many talk about. Thus began many years of my life as a devoted follower of Christ.
Fast-forward many years into the future, and I am listening to an interview with Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren discussing the metaphorical nature of hell. It was my first exposure to the idea of universal salvation. Suddenly, an entirely different paradigm came rushing in to shatter the foundation of my faith. If the message of the gospel as proclaimed within evangelical churches is that Christ saved me from hell, and hell is not real, what is left of the gospel? I felt disillusioned and immediately stopped attending church, whilst beginning to explore the alternative approaches to scripture. Over time, a lack of exposure to evangelical Christian church services and a range of books and podcasts would blast away any remaining hope that I had in a literal view of the Bible…
As mentioned in my previous post, God, Zombies, and the Meaning of Life, when I was in the long process of leaving Christianity, one of the most overriding questions on my mind was this: if there is no God, what meaning is there in life? Christianity, as we all know, teaches that the saved are integral players in a grand cosmic drama, the unfolding of the telos of all Creation. Giving up on that illusion is, to say the least, jarring. It cannot help but leave one wondering how one’s life can have meaning at all, if it is not given from on high.
More psychologically minded individuals may reflect on a deeper way in which Christianity seems to provide the meaning in life. Children learn that they are important, that they matter, just by being seen – i.e., acknowledged and attended to – by their parents. Hopefully, of course, that attention will be loving and positive. But even if the attention is negative, critical, or even abusive, it is, from the child’s point of view, usually better than being ignored. Children will almost invariably prefer any attention to no attention, because that says that they are at least worth criticizing. So it is not hard to imagine how simply being seen by God is enough, in and of itself, to infuse one’s life with meaning and a sense of worth. It’s how many people support their feeling that they are valuable: you matter because God takes note of you. Giving up God, then, is clearly – viewed from this additional perspective – a powerful loss…
‘Emerging’ Christian Commentary
Beginning toward the end of college and continuing through grad school into my years as a youth pastor, I went through a radical rethinking of all my conservative evangelical beliefs. I had grown up thoroughly immersed in the evangelical subculture, and as a teenager was an on-fire, committed Christian eager to serve God and share my faith with others. I attended Wheaton College, a conservative evangelical liberal arts school, where ironically, I was introduced to ideas that led me to start questioning key aspects of my conservative faith – from the nature and reality of God, to the inerrancy of scripture, to the existence of “absolute truth” or even “universal morality” free from cultural influence, to the inherent rightness of the Republican party, to the nature of salvation as merely a “get into heaven free” card.
Thanks to postmodern philosophy, as well as friends and professors who led me to look at scripture itself in a different light, by the time I finished undergrad and graduate school at Wheaton I as thoroughly cynical and disillusioned with the faith with which I had been raised. I had learned that doubt and uncertainty were an unavoidable part of the human condition, and that questioning my faith was actually a good thing…
In my own de-conversion, I found that being in psychotherapy was enormously helpful to me in overcoming some of the indoctrination I absorbed in my fundamentalist church. In fact, I was so impressed with the outcome — I quit writhing in neurotic self-flagellation as a Christian and actually started enjoying life — that I went on to become a psychiatrist.
I do not believe psychotherapy is a panacea for all the ills of the world. However, it surely represents a step forward from the morass that is fundamentalist Christian counseling.
The issue of Christian psychotherapy is complex. In fact, most religions, especially conservative ones, have a built-in psychology. This is the means they use to peddle their wares. Fundamentalism must first convince you that you are sick before its cure will have much of an appeal. To accomplish this task, it utilizes time-tested methodologies. For example, it teaches that your worst feelings of guilt and shame are the truest intuitions you have about yourself, so you should listen to them. In fundamentalist thought, there is no such thing as neurotic or misplaced guilt; guilt is the bite of a God designed conscience. It demands repentance, not an understanding of *why* you feel guilty…
Disclaimer: This article is my opinion only, based on my own literary and theoretical research (M.A. in Lit.) and is not intended as “scientific research.”
The more I interact with Christian fundamentalists, either in church or on the Internet, the more I become convinced it is a disease of the mind, or at least a self-replicating meme or “mind virus.” Having been a Christian fundamentalist myself, I can honestly say that you aren’t in your right mind when you are caught in the throes of religious fundamentalism. As a fundamentalist you close your mind to anything but what ancient texts say. You only listen to certain things and filter everything through the lens of your chosen religion. How can this be normal when we are born without filters of any kind (except pain and pleasure)? Being a fundamentalist is like confining all your thought to the works of Archimedes or to Shakespeare (that might not be a bad idea) and refusing to accept information past that point. It’s like insisting that Greek culture is the only true culture and channeling all of your efforts to seeing that it becomes our culture now.
That being said, there is a certain thrill in suddenly “waking up” and realizing you’ve been deluding yourself for many years. What I once did to become a fundamentalist, I have now done in freeing myself from it’s grasp. You slowly begin to grasp that the fundamentalist rituals you are using are designed solely to keep those delusions fresh and ever present in your mind so that you will quickly fall into line if you have doubts…