Western religious fundamentalism

For this essay I will be drawing from my White Anglo-Saxon Protestant background, otherwise called my tradition. I ask the question: what, if anything, went wrong with religious thinking in the West? More specifically: what happened to our spiritual perceptions?

About five hundred years ago the European church was split into Roman Catholicism and the emerging Protestantism. One of the material changes to Christianity was the closing of monasteries and dissolution of the orders of monks and nuns. Although Protestants have always talked of the need for ‘constant and effective prayer’, they rarely produced a structure to continue such a tradition of prayer and meditation. As is common in many cases of corporate restructuring and alleged reform, both the older Catholic Church and the Protestants simply became more materialistic, or in biblical terms ‘more worldly’. As one might expect, the spiritual requirements of charity and humility tended to be overlooked.

A significant theological thinker and industrious writer of the early protestant movement was John Calvin. Calvin, like most other people of the day, considered the Bible to be the complete and true revelation of God. This also reflects the fact that up until Calvin’s time Europeans considered that all significant ideas had already been recorded by the earlier Greeks, Romans or Jews. Until the enlightenment developed, most people were God believers and quite happy to go along with the existing philosophies and theologies.

Calvin had started training as a priest, but he switched to training as a lawyer; his legal mind caused him to set out traditional Christianity in a legalistic fashion. He tried to base his elaborate theology on the Bible alone. In other words his system was a fundamentalist system. There is a chronic weakness in such fundamentalism, if any part of the bible is doubted then the whole legal theology is in question. For Calvin all spiritual inspiration came from God and this had been revealed completely, once and for all, in the Bible; no further inspirations or revelations could be entered into. Calvin was a prominent and popular leader amongst the Protestants as they found his legalistic definitions reassuring and helpful for maintenance of order in their churches. Unfortunately Calvin’s legalism remains and infiltrates Protestant governance to this day.

In that pre-science era, most people agreed that the Bible was the word of God, but it should not be supposed that Calvin’s fundamentalist approach was universal, even amongst Protestants. As an instance, the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes also studied and quoted the Bible in support of his political views; only Hobbes was very aware of, and pointed out, many of the inconsistencies that occur in the Biblical text.

JOHN: What is this wicked calumny that I have heard you utter? How dare you claim that Moses did not write the books of the law!
TOM: Look even if Moses did do some writing, the Egyptian Hieroglyphics he would have used were simply not expressive enough to record the details given in the first five books of the Bible. The books of Moses were obviously carried by oral tradition and later written down as Hebrew script which was developed, after the time of David.
JOHN: Quite enough of your blasphemy. Jesus himself said “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.” in John 5:46. Jesus said it; I believe it that settles it!
TOM: But how could Moses write about his own death in Exodus 34?
JOHN: Easy, the Holy Spirit inspired a reverent person to add just the account of Moses death to the end of the books of the law. Because of this inspiration, these passages also become infallible, like the rest of the Bible.
TOM: You sound convincing, but if Moses wrote explicitly about Jesus, as you say Jesus said, he would have at least used the name Jesus, or Messiah, but Moses never mentions these names at all.
JOHN: Although Moses doesn’t use the name of Jesus it is obvious to all faithful readers that the words of Moses anticipated the coming of Jesus.
TOM: Oh so you do believe in using allegorical interpretations of the Bible.
JOHN: Not at all the Holy Spirit makes the meaning clear to all readers!
TOM: But if it is not also explicitly clear, then the Holy Spirit must be using allegories.
JOHN: All true believers would agree with me. Let me warn you, if you come to Geneva, where I govern, I will have you burned at the stake for heresy.
TOM: Is this what the Holy Spirit is telling you?
JOHN: Of course; we cannot have heresy infecting the church. All false religions must be wiped out.
TOM: Very well then where does the Bible tell us to wipe out all false religions?
Fortunately at this point John is so angry that he has a stroke.

I have used the word calumny which appears so often in the English translations of Calvin’s Institutes. The word means “defamation”, but I suspect to Calvin (who wrote in French) it means “wicked lie”. This raises an interesting observation of mine, as I read philosophical and religious works I suspect that when the author turns nasty and gets excited they are probably trying to cover a weak point in their argument. If this is the case then it appears that Calvin was always aware that most of his theology was weak; as he was constantly trying to cover his doubts with aggressive assertions. Do you remember Mlodinov’s point from my first essay?
“In all these instances, people thought they were being objective, but their objectivity was an illusion. In truth our everyday analyses always depend on prior beliefs and desires. If we want to reach a certain conclusion, our brains will alter the way we perceive and weigh data and analyze arguments. And – most important – our brains do this beneath our level of awareness.”

The error of fundamentalism

After 1860 the theory of Evolution and Natural Selection was slowly verified, these theories provided persuasive alternatives to the fundamentalist theory of creation. In 1910, the Presbyterian Church (notably Calvinistic) in the USA adopted Biblical inspiration and the inerrancy of scripture as a result of this inspiration, as one of their essential articles of faith. As a statement this is not meaningful, especially to Christians who search the Bible for the underlying allegorical content. Inerrancy implies the scriptures must give exactly the same concept to all people in all times.

Worse still, when fundamentalism falls back onto strict legalistic definitions, it is not permissible to apply any independent alternative interpretations to the Bible. This has always been a problem; for instance in 2 Corinthians 3:6 St Paul states: (We are) …ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. Thus the Bible, as it was finally compiled, contains an explicit warning against applying the “letter of the law” from religious texts, including all the previously written sections of the Bible.

The question we are addressing is: What, if anything, went wrong with religious thinking in the West? My answer is that Calvinistic fundamentalism fell back on relying on the Bible as a legal code and as a result personal meditation and reflection on spiritual or transcendent possibilities was opposed and discouraged.

To this day the idea of a transcendent source that might inspire the individual reader, poses a threat to the order and power structures of the modern churches and mosques. Personal revelation is discouraged. All this despite St Paul’s injunction to: work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12). The churches prefer their members to believe what they are told and taught by the church. By contrast the bible claims that God wants seekers who discover spiritual transcendence for themselves. For example in Jeremiah 31:34 we read: “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD:…” This passage is repeated again in the New Testament in Hebrews 8:11.

If you read the life of Jesus in the gospels, especially Luke’s gospel, you will find that Jesus constantly faced arguments about the interpretation of “the law” from the religious authorities i.e. the Scribes, Pharisees and Lawyers (remember that Jerusalem was governed by religious law at that time). The gospel texts state quite clearly it was the intention of these authorities to convict Jesus of heresy and have him executed. Jesus’ replies seem simple enough, but they had spiritual depth and therefore on a quite different wavelength to the objections of his opponents. This irritating simplicity cost him his life, but this is why he had come to earth. A hundred years ago Albert Schweitzer pointed out that while you can find an historical Jesus in the Bible, you really need to look for the resurrected Jesus as a spiritual (or transcendent) presence in the world today.

All this serves to illustrate the point of Depak Chopra in my first essay. “… Faiths promote their own agendas. They want followers who pose no doubts. They insist that their dogmas were handed down by God, even when history reveals that they were handed down by powerful clerics …”

A word of warning! Fundamentalism is a legalistic system that is exploited by people who want control in religious and political matters. Thus the system has potential to be exploited for evil. Do not fall for the journalistic lie that all fundamentalists are automatically evil, unreasonable or terrorists; this is political propaganda that is frequently used. In reality, most fundamentalists are sincere, inoffensive and peaceful people. I speak from experience having lived in Christian and Muslim countries. It would also pay to be aware that not all the religious leaders in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus opposed him; the gospel record shows that some leaders were accepting and supportive of Jesus and his spiritual outlook on life. People are individuals and they should never be branded or judged by convenient labels that set them apart from your society. If you miss this point then you miss the very essence of religious compassion. Remember also that legalism and control effects and spoils just about all our human organisations, from politics to corporate finance and even sport.

I would like to conclude with an amusing story that nicely exposes the underlying tension that troubles fundamentalism as a system. This has been widely circulated on the web, so I have not troubled to check the source.

In her radio show, Dr Laura Schlesinger said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22, and cannot be condoned under any circumstance. The following response is an open letter to Dr. Laura, written by a US man, and posted on the Internet. It's funny, as well as informative:

Dear Dr. Laura:

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination ... End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God's Laws and how to follow them.

  1. . Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?
  2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
  3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of Menstrual uncleanliness - Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
  4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord - Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
  5. I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
  6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination, Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this? Are there 'degrees' of abomination?
  7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?
  8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
  9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
  10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)
I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I'm confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

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