Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Fundamentalist Memory Hole

Aristarchus, in the third century B.C., clearly established a heliocentric picture of the solar system that was well understood and accepted by the Greeks. … Yet Ptolemy, five centuries later, turned this on its head and proposed a geocentric theory of almost Babylonian complexity. The Ptolemaic darkness, the scotoma, lasted 1,400 years, until a heliocentric theory was reestablished by Copernicus.
–Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness, p 204
Christian fundamentalism (which has parallels in other religions and ideologies) arose at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in America and Great Britain in reaction to liberal theology and modernism. One might say it is parallel to Oliver Sacks’s above description of the regression that misguided science for centuries, imagining a solar system with Earth rather than the Sun at its center.

My post last week described a scotoma simply as a blind spot, but it can be more than that. It can be what Orwell called a “memory hole” which sucks acquired knowledge out of the room, an amnesia of, in the case of fundamentalism, a spiritual tradition that experienced a diversity that recognized scripture as an element of faith but not its sole author. Biblical literalism was at odds with earlier and subsequent ways of interpreting scripture.

This is my beef with fundamentalism—not that it isn’t a useful way to reclaim the biblical story, but that it claims to be the ONLY way to read scripture, dismissive of our own progressive Christian interpretations.

I am glad to have been raised as a Christian fundamentalist and biblical literalist: it gave me a knowledge of the Bible and a certainty and guidance I needed as a child and youth. But I ultimately found it confining, not only of me personally as a gay man and a political liberal, but of me spiritually, bereft of much church tradition and teachings and reflections of the church doctors and saints, theologians and mystics.

That upbringing also resisted science and culture and other faiths, though more so today than when I was growing up. More than ever today, fundamentalism sucks acquired knowledge out of the room, even that of fellow Christians like myself who remain faithful to Jesus without fear of hell or certainty of heaven, without subscribing to all Christian doctrines, and while trying to welcome insights from science and other cultures and religions.

I know the pain that fundamentalists feel when challenged, or when disappointed in those who do not similarly “believe,” as I felt that as well. Unlike some progressive Christians, I try not to express animus toward fundamentalists or fundamentalism, save when they try to theocratize our politics and political institutions. I am truly a liberal in the classic sense, trying to welcome as many viewpoints and perspectives and knowledge as possible.

And I agree that scriptures have to be taken seriously, even authoritatively, but not literally. A literal interpretation, I believe, actually does a disservice to scripture. It can miss the depths and richness and complexity of the biblical conversation about the meaning of it all.

And, as Jesus said of the Sabbath and the fundamentalism of his day, the Bible was made for humankind, not humankind for the Bible.

For Black History Month in the U.S., I invite you to read and/or circulate Black Lives Matter and Black Museums Matter. For more such posts, use the search engine on my blogsite or click on the following words to search for “black” or “Civil Rights,” and scroll down for multiple posts. 

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  1. I relate to this article so much. I was raised a very strict Catholic, and although I don't go to Mass regularly at this point in my life, I LOVE the rich history of exactly what you mentioned: "church tradition and teachings and reflections of the church doctors and saints, theologians and mystics." When I encounter Fundamentalists, I am saddened that they don't formally incorporate any of this sacred thought into their own Christian belief. After all, MANY of the Church Doctors lived, thought, prayed, and wrote BEFORE the Protestant Reformation. Christian Thought did not stop developing at the 325 Council of Nicaea. Francis of Assisi and Theresa of Avila (and so many more) are just as interesting and insightful (or, in my opinion, maybe moreso) about God's message as, say, Calvin or Wesley.

    1. Amen! Thanks for writing. I've had to play "catch-up" reading about all those mystics and saints that I missed in my church upbringing. And that's what interests me most these days.

  2. Love this personal response from one of my readers:

    Thanks for today's reflection. Right on. We still have so much to learn and to accept. Reality is so much broader than our narrow human minds. Reading your reflection today reminded me of a metaphor [I've heard]. A playpen is necessary to keep a toddler safe from wandering, but no one should have to live an entire life in a playpen. So, too, with thinking and faith. "Faith is not the prerogative any religion. It's an attitude of trust in the original meaningfulness of life, even when b eliefs are shattered." That's from Adrian van Kaam's ON BEING HUMAN. Then there's this from another source:

    Fundamentalism is not easy to define, but a part of its (evil) genius is that it seeks to recover a past that never was, and turns the mysteries of faith into literalistic absurdities.

    Biography as theology how life stories can remake today's theology by James William McClendon (1974)

    And Rabbi Heschel has it right, too: "Faith is not clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart."

    Growth/shifts are taking place all over the world. It's great to see, but also so frightening for so many.