I recently tweeted:
The biggest struggle in my faith wasn’t leaving the fundamentalists, it was leaving the fundamentalism & all it’s small, poisonous vestiges.
— Jeremiah Johnson (@somewherejer) May 8, 2017
I mention this because one of my parishioners asked me about it – and frankly there’s nothing I love more than an inquisitive church member.
My tweet was a challenging for them to read, which meant that their question for me was equally challenging. It brought to bear on me a realization of the assumptions I make because of my particular experience in fundamentalism.
Having been through that experience and moved on from it, I see distinctions that are not so readily seen by those without a similar experience. When it comes to fundmentalism, I see a separation between the fundamentals, fundamentalists and fundamentalism – specifically within Christianity. So in my statement, what I am intending to highlight is not so much the root word “fundamental” but the suffixes: “ists” and “ism”.
A little background…
Our present understanding of Christian fundamentals goes back to the work The Fundamentals published in several volumes in the 1910s. Frankly, I see it as more a work of theological reaction than anything else, as it was responding to much of the theology being done at the time. In short the work centers on roughly five things:
1. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture
2. The deity of Jesus Christ
3. The virgin birth of Christ
4. The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross
5. The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth.
I cannot say that I am at all familiar with the writings beyond this simple framework. However, I am familiar with it’s present iteration and would push back against some of it’s theology – specifically the notion of “inerrancy” and a singular atonement theology. I would call these theological nuances, although nuances can have a large, unforeseen effects. All things considered, I have seen these beliefs used to great effect in discipleship. After all, they are standard orthodox Christian beliefs.
But when it comes to my negative experience of fundamentalism, I need to emphasize this last part: These orthodox beliefs are useful as discipleship tools.
The problem that I and many others have run into is when these beliefs are used for something other than discipleship.
That is they shifted from being a set of beliefs/ideas used to raise up, teach and edify Christians to something else entirely: indoctrination. What I did not experience was the formation of Christian discipleship. What I did experience was the formation of organizational adherence, which is what indoctrination is. The fundamental beliefs came to be used as bricks in a wall to coerce adherence vs. being used as bricks in a foundation to build up.
I was shaped to be an adherent to an “ism”. A quick googling of “ism” brings up: “a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement.”
I’ll readily admit the waters get murky in this distinction. After all, when ever someone or a group intend on adhering to a practice of discipleship within a set of beliefs, those beliefs will inherently become an organized system or ideology. “Isms” happen. Likewise, I’m sure plenty of people intending to disciple end up indoctrinating and vice versa. Perhaps a tension between the two is ever-present when it comes to a system of belief.
Which is why my problem is not with the “ism” but with the “ists” that enforce the “isms”.
Let me reference google again. Ist: “a follower of a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement.” Again, “ists” happen, just as “isms” do. Someone who wants to adhere to a set of beliefs will become an “ist”. But where my and so many other’s pain comes from is when an adherent to a set of beliefs strays from intending to edify to intending to indoctrinate. That is when the “ist” begins to use the beliefs of an “ism” to enforce adherence to that “ism”.
My experience was that fundamentalists became less concerned about teaching the fundamentals and more concerned about the ideology of fundamentalism. In turn, that led them to teach the beliefs in a way that enforced the boundaries of the ideology. Thus, my not being edified and discipled and instead being indoctrinated. A friend of mine’s practice exemplified this: Whenever someone would leave our group, they would cross them off a large group picture, as if to write them out of their life and the faith.
But, as I mentioned, I had no problem leaving the fundamentalists.
Part of that is, because I was raised Methodist, I had an awareness that there was faith outside the walls of the camp I was in. The other part is, because I was bullied growing up, I have a strong sense of when someone is attempting to exercise power over me.
And it’s that desire for power and control that’s really what fundamentalist enforces are about. Whatever the source of the desire may be (mostly fear I think), that desire for control is why the beliefs end up being used to build walls and not foundations, adherents and not disciples. Walls facilitate control over the adherents within them, but a foundation develops disciples who will end up being controlled by the Spirit – which is rather uncontrollable.
And that’s where my struggle lies. The experience of being pressured to become and adherent, to succumb to power and control and conform to a tribe’s expectation is what has remained with me.
The fundamentalist enforcers grabbed hold of the fundamentals and used them to build walls, build a tribe of adherents and control those boundaries. Further, that move toward tribalism, power and control allowed to a poisonous theology to be woven into the beliefs. The theological boundaries were no longer the fundamentals, but the “fundamentals and…” Where that “and” includes a whole slew of tertiary, non-fundamental beliefs where interpretations can typically widely vary.
The poisonous desire for control led to an ever more expansive list of fundamental, theological bricks making the theology ever more strict, controlling and poisonous. What resulted is a group that held to a dangerously narrow understanding of the faith and a harsh view of outsiders and defectors.
It’s those poisonous vestiges of tribalism, power and control that have remained with me.
It’s hard to work that out of one’s system.
Because it’s not anything that you’re explicitly taught. Instead, it’s a working assumption, it under-girds everything. One may rid their beliefs and theology of it – one may change all the bricks – but the problem is, it doesn’t lie in the bricks – it informs and shapes the desire to have bricks at all. The poison of tribalism, power and control is a way in which the theology lives and moves – the impulse to using theology bricks to build walls.
Just as it wasn’t hard to leave the fundamentalists, it wasn’t hard to change the bricks. I’ve changed them, my theology is much more healthy, robust and compassionate. It’s power and control that’s hard to let go of.
It’s why progressivism can be just as dangerous as fundamentalism. It’s why the standard conservative critique of liberal’s use of tolerance as intolerant rings true. Because even though the belief-bricks have changed, the manner of using them as a wall for tribalistic and oppressive purposes still holds.
It has been an enduring road changing my practice of wall building. Because of that poisonous lens of tribalism, power and control one my first impulses with a theological brick is to build a wall and not a foundation. So even if I have a robust, compassionate theology, the struggle is to continue developing an impulse that lends its self to foundation building. To no longer view and define others with different bricks solely by how well they fit into my theological compound.
Yet this is scary.
It’s terrifying to thing of what damage, suffering and death my be caused or endured by others because of beliefs different than one’s own. I know I am fearful for the people I know, love and serve because of who they might become or what they might do if they don’t hold the same beliefs as I.
So I’m empathetic to the fear that leads people to such tactics of wall building and circling the wagons (which always seems to be in the name of love, compassion or God).
But it’s also this fear that drives me to a firm belief in a God of resurrection who cannot be contained by the pain and damage of death. After all, not everyone is going to believe my bricks and great damage and death will be done because of other bricks, maybe even my own. Yet, it is the assurance that glory and life can be had in spite of suffering and death that gives me hope that everyone can be O.K.
Certainly I will call others to build foundations with my bricks so that they might live a live a life that I think maximizes joy and minimizes suffering for everyone. But even more so will I call others to believe in a power that lives, so that in the event that suffering is had, there is faith that beyond that lies life and joy.