What SFF can learn from Christianity part 2
March 2nd 2014
Following on from the previous post, here’s part 2
What SFF can learn from Christianity #2: There’s always someone more fundamentalist than you.
So we all know what a fundamentalist is, right?
1. ( sometimes initial capital letter ) a movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming.
2. the beliefs held by those in this movement.
3. strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of the extreme conservatives.
Was that what you were expecting? Definition 3, perhaps. Let’s look at the history behind definition 1 for a moment.
There’s a good overview here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fundamentals), but to summarise, the Fundamentals was a series of 90 essays, published in the US between 1910 and 1915, designed to defend and affirm a reformed conservative Protestant faith against both modernism and liberalism. They were widely distributed, free of charge to pastors, missionaries, teachers and so on: those who followed the Fundamentals became known as fundamentalists. There was a great deal in the Fundamentals that was orthodox Christian belief – the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the deity of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit – alongside the inerrancy of the Bible (the Protestant version), a particular reading of the Second Coming, and a refutation of evolution.
You could reasonably describe (as I do), fundamentalist Christianity as one of the last gasps of the Romantic movement – but its strong effect in the USA still has considerable legacy today. The fundamentalists were simply Christians who followed the Fundamentals, became Christians who believed the Bible to be (more-or-less) dictated to men by God and therefore the very word of God, and thus in 1948 became incredibly excited about the founding of the state of Israel as presaging the Second Coming. Innately social conservatives, fundamentalists have tended to be both politically and socially right-wing for at least half the 20th century.
So that’s what a fundamentalist was. What is one now? The problem with any set of rules or beliefs is the strictness with which they’re interpreted. No law, no rule is so perfectly worded that there isn’t some sort of wiggle-room around the edges, no tariff of punishment so explicit that there is no need for a judge to mitigate the sentence. And things can go both ways. Most of the Christians I know are a tolerant bunch, and don’t take things as far as, say, Fred Phelps of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church.
Actually that’s a lie. All the Christians I know don’t take things as far as Fred Phelps, because when it comes to Christian fundamentalists, Fred Phelps is pretty much the nadir. Even those who forbid women from the pulpit and hound gays out of their churches aren’t as fundamentalist as Fred Phelps.
The church which I used to go to was a conservative evangelical church – still within the Church of England, but during my time there, increasingly adrift from it and at odds with it. It’s reasonable to say I was a bit naive about what the leadership there was actually like when I first went. My theology has hopefully both broadened and deepened as I’ve got older, and it turned out that finding another church to go to was by far the most healthy option, for all concerned.
But however right-wing, however conservative, however reactionary my old church was, it was never as fundamentalist as Westboro Baptist. This church, which probably most of the people reading this will read about and say “why, Simon, why?” is considered heretic, apostate and non-Christian by Phelps. That’s because Phelps considers all other churches, denominations and sects as heretical. He alone is the judge of what passes for authentic Christianity, and to his mind, everybody else fails.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe anything about Christianity to be true: what’s important is that this is the dynamic between people who believe doctrinal purity to be important. It’s layered, stacked like a pile of books, if you will. Except it’s books all the way down. There is no end to bottom of the stack.
When it comes to what are termed social justice issues, exactly the same dynamic applies. There will always be someone more fundamentalist than you, someone who considers your feminist, anti-racist, queer political stand not quite intersectional enough. To them, you are the enemy, just as much an enemy as everybody you consider an enemy. Fundamentalism, in whatever form you encounter it, is essentially toxic, self-destructive, and anti-relationships. I believe we’re better than that.
This is not a counsel of despair, however. There is a way of sidestepping the whole fundamentalist mind-set. My relationship with God is – mostly, because relationships are complicated and involve family and friends – no one’s business but mine and God’s. The same goes with the people you interact with. How you do that is, caveats in mind, between you and them. The Golden Rule, which perhaps unsurprisingly crops up in most of the world’s religions, is Do to others as you’d have them do to you.
Or as two wise men from long ago once said, “Be excellent to one another, and party on.”