Mark Vernon – Why We Should All Be Fundamentalist

There is a story about Socrates, in which the sage of Athens is looking back on his life. He recalls one day sitting with Plato, in the days of his great disciple’s youth. Plato is talking. Socrates is watching him. He can see the freckles on Plato’s face, his intelligent eyes, his seriousness, his confidence. Suddenly, Socrates is struck by a thought: ‘I knew that if an archer were to shoot at him, I would step in front of him without hesitating and I’d take the arrow in my chest.’ He knew this without a doubt. And then came a feeling that surprised him. ‘I was smiling because I was truly happy.’

Human beings are all, in a sense, fundamentalists. Or at least, we might all hope to be so – an individual who knows who they would die for; what they would die for. It will be a person or belief so essential, so sacred, that sacrificing for it would not so much end your life as show your life has an end, in the sense of a goal, a reason, a meaning.

Further, knowing what you would die for means that you know what you live for. There is nothing that makes life more worth living; it generates purpose, commitment, love. It is liberating too. If you know you could let go of life, you can live more freely now. Socrates smiled. He was happy.


Image provided by Mark Vernon. Used with permission.

Fundamentalism, though, is different. In its rarer, violent forms it is a basic conviction about life too, though gone wrong. Love reveals what you would die for. But the passions of hatred and war can do so too, as the jihadis learnt in the Afghan conflicts of the last decades of the 20th century. Further, this kind of fundamentalism is not so much about what you would die for as what you would kill for.

The more common kind of fundamentalism is a reaction to anxiety and dread. So it doesn’t liberate, but compounds fears. It might be a fear of science or reason, and the way they undermine supposed certainties. It might be a reaction to humiliation, as is generally reckoned to have been the case when the word ‘fundamentalist’ was first coined. A list of fundamentals, or doctrinal tenets, had been drawn up in the early part of the 20th century by a group of individuals who were fearful for the future of evangelical faith. Their fears were proven justified at the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s. Creationism was pitted against Darwinism in a court of law in the United States. The media coverage led to their beliefs being widely mocked and derided. Christian fundamentalism has hardly looked back.

The recognition that doctrine is a useful and necessary but always limited expression helps explain the significance of the widely discussed Emergence Christianity. It appeals because it favours a wisdom derived from experience. Hence Harvey Cox writes that the future of faith lies with the age of the spirit. When people say ‘I believe in’ they want to hear ‘I trust’, before, ‘I know’.

It is, in fact, the old way. There is a need to rediscover what Augustine meant when he examined the literal interpretation of Genesis, as he did in a book of that title. A fundamentalist turning to Augustine today might be surprised at what they found: he argues that God created the universe simultaneously, as if out of a Big Bang, and not according to a seven-day works schedule. The lost point is that, for Augustine, the literal meaning meant the true meaning, and truth will typically be hard to discover. The last thing ‘literal’ meant was the plain or obvious reading, without interpretation or elaboration. That would be like reading ‘love is blind’ and assuming it meant a person called Love is in danger of walking into lamp posts.

This is commensurate with the New Testament too, as I was surprised to read in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, the organ of a group ‘devoted to the inerrancy and inspiration of the Scriptures’.  Entitled ‘Some Doubts about Doubt’, the author David De Graaf charts what the New Testament has to say about doubt. It turns out, nothing at all – at least in the propositional sense meant mostly today, as in ‘I doubt God exists’. Instead, the Greek words typically translated as doubt mean ‘being of two minds’ or ‘disputing so as to cause division’. This makes a huge difference to the way the texts are read.

For example, when in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about moving mountains if you do ‘not doubt in your heart’ (Mark 11:23), it is tempting to read it as a kind of magic trick, as if it’s saying believe God exists, or that Jesus is Lord, and the earth will move for you, literally. But the text really means you will achieve extraordinary things if you set your heart on God. Or consider the Epistle of James, the letter with one of the most sustained riffs apparently against doubt, part of which reads ‘you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea’. (James 1:6) That sounds today like being able to assert every sub-clause of the creed with full, literal confidence; no questions. Except again it is really a comment on trusting in God and allowing that passion to hold you to your deepest commitments.

The New Testament is much more concerned with how you live as a Christian than what you believe as a Christian. Further, the irony is that living as a Christian will involve doubts, uncertainties, unknowing – actually, needs to. Think of what it’s like to fall in love with someone, or to write a book, or to devote your life to the study of, say, the dark matter that cosmologists tell us fills the universe. Doubts will be an everyday occurrence, and the capacity to live with feeling unsure, crucial to your success. Personal growth, creativity, discovery depends upon being able to handle uncertainty. Faith, then, is close to doubt. The opposite of faith is fundamentalism. But what is required is keeping faith – faith too not being about confidently asserting truths but rather developing the capacity to trust yourself, others, God. This is the fundamental for human flourishing.

You might say that the reason fundamentalism goes wrong is because what is truly fundamental gets misplaced. Love and trust are traded for more secure stock: statements and tokens. The performance of certain narrow facets of the faith, perhaps wearing a veil or being against abortion, become the vital test of soundness.

Fundamentalism is a constant risk because we need fundamentals to live by, to make death meaningful. It needs continually guarding against, not least because a modern mentality finds it so easy to misunderstand the nature of faith. Herbert McCabe, the Dominican theologian, put it like this, in his paper, ‘Doubt is Not Unbelief’: ‘Faith is a communal capability. Much like you need others to speak a language, so you need others to live your faith. You do not have faith primarily because you know what you believe, you have faith because you are persuaded or moved: you trust. Faith seeks understanding.’

The danger arises when expressions of faith stop being about the love of God. They become about who’s in or who’s out, who’s threatening what’s most dear to us or what’s sacred. The trick is to keep testing the doctrines, the propositions, the tokens, and to keep critiquing what is being made of them. ‘Are they degenerating simply into an expression of loyalty?’ McCabe asks. ‘Are they really still about God’s love?’

And this is the rock bottom Christian fundamental, McCabe explains, because Jesus of Nazareth shows his disciples what God’s love is like. Here is a man who knows what he will die for. Love. And as to what Jesus might kill for? Nothing. He is no fundamentalist. He sacrifices himself first. He will take the arrow.

Mark Vernon

(This post was adapted from an article that first appeared in Third Way magazine)


If you want to further explore the ideas of faith and doubt with Mark, then get a copy of his excellent How To Be An Agnostic, in which he recounts his journey from Anglican Priest to Atheist to ‘Christian Agnostic’. I also thoroughly enjoyed The Meaning of Friendship and Love: All That Matters. – Tim

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