Intelligent Ignorance - or Something Else
October 20, 2004
Recently British scholar Karen Armstrong lectured at Stanford University. Her message for the evening in Memorial Church last Wednesday was that "warfare against religious extremists strengthens their cause." Professor Armstrong teaches Christianity at London's Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism, is the author of books including Islam: A Short History, A History of God, Buddha, The Battle for God and a biography of Muhammad
Initially when I started to respond to this article in the Stanford Report, I entitled this piece, "Intelligent Ignorance." I was certain that the good professor is an intelligent woman. However, I must point out that at least on the matter of Fundamentalism – or Christian fundamentalism, she appeared to be quite ignorant. I assumed that ignorance bred her position that is a mischaracterization of the movement. I assumed that she did not do all of her research.
However, I have since learned that indeed, in her book, The Battle for God, she does give a history of Fundamentalism. So, she has the information available to her that gives her reason to better understand the movement. It isn't ignorance then. It has to be something different. Whatever the case. She is wrong.
Let’s look at her definition of fundamentalism. According to the article that appears in the Stanford Report, she defines the term as a "countercultural, militant form of piety that constitutes a widespread revolt against modernity." She is then quoted as saying, "In every single region where a modern secular-style government has established itself, a fundamentalist religious ideology has developed alongside it."
The American Heritage Dictionary gives a more accurate description of the term, "A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism." It goes further to point to the origins of the word, "An organized, militant Evangelical movement originating in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century in opposition to Protestant Liberalism and secularism, insisting on the inerrancy of Scripture."
Most Christians who were the "first" Fundamentalists believe their term has been highjacked. Originally Fundamentalism was a solely Christian term. It described a Protestant movement with a desire to distinguish between conservative and liberal approaches to biblical scholarship and practice.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a more liberal approach to scholarship and preaching was finding it’s way into Christian churches and seminaries. Many conservative scholars and preachers grew concerned with this trend and a series of articles was commissioned that would spell out the "fundamental doctrines of the faith." It was understood that within biblical interpretation there could be disagreements. However, there were certain doctrines on which there could not be compromise without destroying the very foundation of true Christianity. This set of articles became a volume entitled, "The Fundamentals." This movement received the name Fundamentalism.
It may be that Professor Armstrong knows this history, but she ignores it and would have us understand that Fundamentalism came out of a reaction to a "modern secular-style government." However, there is no connection whatsoever between the origins of Fundamentalism and a government system. The movement was and is first and foremost a protection of foundational beliefs within the sub-culture of Christianity – specifically, Evangelical Christianity. Fundamentalists are a counter culture within a sub-culture. They militantly argue for purity of doctrine against ecumenism and destructive theological teachings. It is not a revolt against "modernity" but a defense of the cornerstone of Christianity.
What the speaker did that night was meld together a broader and en vogue definition of fundamentalism as an adjective with proper name Fundamentalism – the movement. She equated the Christian movement with any group that would appropriately fit in her new term. Her usage of fundamentalism is a broad moniker for everything from those who seek social control of cultures to those who would use violence and repression to accomplish a theocratic governmental system.
This is illustrated in her comparison of Bob Jones University to Osama bin Laden training camps.
The rise of fundamentalism is a kind of retreat, because every fundamentalist movement is rooted in profound fear and the dread of annihilation, she said. Such movements create enclaves for "pure faith," such as Bob Jones University or Osama bin Laden's training camps, she said. "Some, by no means all, will launch counteroffensives to fight the encroaching secular society."
Being associated with Bob Jones University, I take great exception with this mischaracterization. It is wrong on a number of levels. First, the heritage of Fundamentalism from which the University traces its lineage is not rooted in fear. It is rooted in loyalty to the teachings of the Bible. It is not fear that causes the Fundamentalist to counter the liberal theologian. It is a desire to remain true to biblical teaching. Second, the Fundamentalist has no fear of annihilation. Our success is not tied to the results of the propagation of the Gospel, but our faithfulness in spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ and our faithfulness to his teachings. Lastly, Fundamentalists are not retreating. They are digging in their heels.
Her misconception comes from equating the "Religious Right" movement in America with Fundamentalism. However, the religious right is made up a number of groups that would certainly not claim to be Fundamentalist. As a matter of fact, many Fundamentalists – such as those at Bob Jones University – disagree with the concept of using the Church as a political tool. They did not join the Christian Coalition and other organizations that began for that purpose. Certainly, there are Fundamentalists who will join these groups, but to say those organizations and their movement are rooted in Fundamentalism is an error.
It is wrong to perpetuate this continued equating of Fundamentalists (and the "Religious Right", for that matter) with such groups as the Taliban or the followers of Osama bn Laden. It shows the ignorance of Armstrong and those who seek to draw this comparison. Islamic fundamentalists (new definition) are those who want a return to the more aggressive teachings of Muhammad who used physical conquest to spread his religious teachings. Fundamentalists (original definition) are those who seek to spread the Gospel through conquest – but of a different variety. We seek to spread the Kingdom of God in the hearts of men. It cannot be spread by physical conquest of geography or legislatures -- or as she would assert, blowing up abortion clinics. The Kingdom cannot be imposed. It can only be accepted.
I am not asking that people start to like Fundamentalists. However, I do not think it is too much to ask for people to understand what they are talking about before they cast such a broad net. You end up pulling up fish that don’t belong in the fish market.