Fundamentalism: The Art of Owning God

Tough question: what is fundamentalism? There are historical answers and conceptual answers. Let’s go for the latter so as not to make this post too long.

I remember, back in the day, when I was a fundamentalist evangelical, that I shrugged off accusations of fundamentalism. We could not be equated with gun-touting muslim terrorists, nor were we like those world eschewing Christian sects that live in a bubble all of their own. Indeed, if I remember correctly, my argument then was that we evangelicals are more open to the world. This is true to an extent, but only an extent. In the end, evangelicals set up their own version of the world, copying things from the world that maintain their outward conformity to the world but are thoroughly transformed and mastered for the sub culture. Was there really a difference?

Historically, one could say that before the modern age everyone was in some way a fundamentalist. Pre-moderns had not gone through the critical phase of deconstruction of one’s religious epistemology. But this fundamentalism avant la lettre was at the same time something implicit, non-neurotic, non-combattant, if you will, innocent. The medieval Catholics had the Scriptures and the tradition to decide what God is and wants. The cultural and social imaginary did not lead people to critically examine that. It was only after the Reformation emphasis on Scripture and its critique during and after the Enlightenment, that there was a special effort to relocate divine revelation exclusively in the Scriptures. Through the Old Princeton School of the 19th century this evolved into the movement around Westminster Theological Seminary and a set of published essays, called the Fundamentals written in response to a movement of the early 20th century, called the Social Gospel. Today’s North American evangelicalism evolved a few decades later from the fundamentalist movement that published the Fundamentals. But I was not going to take the historical route. So, what is fundamentalism?

Fundamentalism is, in my opinion, the perceived ability to know exactly what God is and thinks. With it, it is the ability to own God. Fundamentalists will defend the first part of my definition and deny the second part. They don’t own God, they say; they uphold God’s sovereignty precisely by defending God’s Word as infallible. But ironically, it is precisely by using the Bible as an infallible set of presuppositions that is impervious to human context, human hermeneutics, and human fallibility that irreparable damage is done to God’s reputation.

Some fundamentalists think their version of fundamentalism is benign because they take the injunction “Thou Shalt Not Kill” to be God’s literal word and thus they are dogmatic pacifists. They won’t hurt as much as an insect. But they are the same fundamentalists who say: “The Lord told the Israelites to kill all the inhabitants of Jericho, including women and children.” Some parts of the Bible sound not much different than the words of the radicals of the religion of the sword.

Am I trying to demonize fundamentalists with these words? As if—and some do make such suggestions—all fundamentalists will eventually turn into the same bloodthirsty monsters that blow up planes and market squares. No, that’s not my point at all.

Most fundamentalists, whether they are Muslim or Christian, are entirely decent people and live pretty decent lives, with their ups and down, with their hurts and pleasures, their comings and goings. Yes, the fundamentalist option can lead to radicalization and in our current situation, it seems Muslims are more sensitive to that than fundamentalist Christians. Although, the collective psychosis that currently holds American Evangelicalism in its grip is pretty disconcerting to be honest. (I’m referring to the widespread support for Trump here.) But I don’t believe in demonizing decent folk even if they’re going off the track a little here and there.

The point is, that fundamentalists because of their perceived ability to know what God is and thinks, basically own God. It’s quite hard to understand, how people got to think this way, because even if you have an inerrant book from God, there is absolutely no way you are guaranteed a proper interpretation of the text. Also, the presumed absolute knowledge contained within Scripture can only be unlocked by exhaustive knowledge of context, culture and language of the narrative, the writer, and the audience. Simply not possible. So, many simply resort to elevating the prepositional statements of the Book to divine truth, thereby doing injustice to text, faith community, audience, and … God.

God burned the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah with sulfur because they were gay.

God killed Onan because he masturbated.

God doesn’t want women to be teachers or leaders in the Church.

Divorce is not allowed because against the law of the Lord.

Women need to have their heads covered and should not wear make-up, but bear children.

The only way to do Church is found in the Biblical patterns given in Paul’s letters.

God created the world in six days, because God’s word says so.

Ham is the one cursed by God and so are his descendants.

I can go on….

This is sad for God, because God is paraded in front of a lot of nonsense, backward ideas, and scientifically debunked dogmas. Fundamentalists literally take up their own myopic worldview and project it on God in name of Scripture. Fundamentalists own God! God becomes the pretext for a human agenda.

This is sad for women, because the patriarchy is never more effective than when it enlists God in service of the subjugation of women. Even women become active participants in the fundamentalist option of shutting women up.

This is sad for sexual ethics and moral formation in general because a historical and contextual ethics is absolutized and imposed as a universal category on social communities in different times and places.

This is sad for the proper integration of religious and scientific discourses. Not unimportant because the need for integration of factual knowledge and meaning is greater than ever. Fundamentalists help Christianity at large lose its voice in this debate.

This is sad for theology, because everything is already known and plainly there. We just need to put the puzzle of God in Scripture together and we know all there is to know. God is not to be imagined, hoped for, discovered, suspected, or questioned, but pieced together from thousands of fragments of propositional logic.

Lastly, this is sad for Christianity, because, as a religion, it loses its voice in the public sphere as a relevant message that brings healing, comfort, and love. In the end, fundamentalism is everything that the gospel is not. It is the art of owning God and that’s not exactly a skill to be proud of.

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

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