The Challenge of Fundamentalism

Path of the Friend

Elias Amidon & Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


The Challenge of Fundamentalism

by Rabia Elizabeth Roberts & Elias Amidon

Wherever we travel we find concern about fundamentalism. Europeans are worried about violent outbreaks among immigrants in their home countries and the apparent failure of their attempts at multi-culturalism. Arabs try to assure us that fundamentalism is not the heart of Islam. Our liberal colleagues in the United States shake their head over right wing Christians who would expel evolution from science classrooms.

Fundamentalism—Theirs and Ours
In most of these conversations “fundamentalism” is left undefined, simply indicating a group or position we don’t like or don’t agree with. At the same time we admit fundamentalists—whoever they are—don’t like or agree with us either. This reciprocity tells us something: there is an uncanny resemblance between the stance of fundamentalists and their opponents. Co-existence is assumed to be impossible.

Media attention focuses primarily on the increasingly angry cultural-religious clash that we identify with Muslim extremists, Christian evangelicals, Israeli ultra-orthodox, Hindu nationalists, etc. Though these fundamentalists often battle each other, the context of their conflicts is the more pervasive form of fundamentalism at the heart of modern culture—the fundamentalism of secular materialism. Unlike religious fundamentalism, secular fundamentalism is not wedded to a specific doctrine or interpretation of a holy text. It is instead equated with the whole ethos of modernity and the prevailing rationalist worldview spawned by science, empiricism, and humanism. On the other hand, it shares with religious fundamentalism the same arrogance and totalizing tendencies, insisting that its view is the view of truth and its values the most reliable. Of course, secular fundamentalism—modernity—holds the position of the dominant paradigm, and it is in reaction to it that religious fundamentalists make their stand. They feel acutely that the modern world has marginalized religion, challenged its narrative and ethics, and abandoned the spiritual heart of life.

Understood in this light, we can see the rise of religious fundamentalism as an attempt to restore what is lost, to repair the broken container of traditional belief and customs. “There is a God-shaped hole in human consciousness,” Sartre famously proclaimed, “where the divine had always been but has disappeared, leaving an emptiness behind.” It is this emptiness that religious fundamentalisms seek to fill. Like most people when their identity is threatened they respond with a vengeance, insisting on an indisputable realm of final answers described either in sacred texts or by prophetic or clerical fiat. This realm of answers defines an idea of a “Golden Age” that occurred long ago or that will happen at the End of Time, an Age that will be assured by our committing to certain beliefs now and by maintaining certain behaviors.  In this way religious fundamentalism—in desiring a world open to God’s presence—becomes a caricature of the religious impulse, turning away from the divine mystery to an exclusive and fixed dogma.

The sense of threat felt by Muslim fundamentalists that explodes into the news everyday is of course also exacerbated by the long history of dominance and exploitation imposed by western colonialism. Our experience in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia taught us firsthand the deep cultural and psychological humiliation that has wounded non-western peoples through the arrogant dominance of western culture. This loss of self-esteem cannot be underestimated, particularly as a fuel for fundamentalist aggression.

But the fault can not be placed entirely on the West.  When you are already feeling left behind, even the tiniest insult goes to the very core of your being—because your skin is so thin. So many young Arabs and Muslims live in nations that have deprived them of any chance to realize their full potential. The Middle East has the highest unemployment rate of any region in the world. No wonder backward leaders in places like Syria and Iran, who have failed their youth miserably, are so quick to turn their young people’s anger away from themselves toward the “infidel”  in the West.

The Great Work
We live in the midst of large currents of shifting conditions. The Enlightenment and its secular values emerged in response to the superstition and corruption of the Christian church. The scientific revolution brought on a great expansion of knowledge and communication among peoples. Globalization now crosses all borders. In this on-going dialectic of history the experience of the loss of the sacred at the center of life has triggered the fear of religious fundamentalists. Migrations of economic, environmental, and political refugees now mean that nations must find ways to govern multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. And they must do this while keeping their populations free and gainfully employed. We cannot pretend these tasks would be easily accomplished if only others saw the world our way. The search for solutions is bound to be bumpy. Our conflicts always seem to be greater than our agreements.

But it is hopeful to remember we don’t stand here empty-handed. From many different directions over recent decades, a “Great Work” has been arising in the evolution of human consciousness and human society. People have been working to put together a new ethic and spiritual worldview creating deeper understanding and agreements among communities of difference. Our own work, in its small way, is a part of this Great Work, as is yours in caring to read this and in the larger commitments of your life.

Following the immense suffering of World War II and its terrible lessons, people of good intention came together to write the United Nations Charter and then the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hand in hand, these documents tell us, with the emphasis on individual human rights comes the recognition of the rights of the community. If we are to be free it is because we have learned the etiquette of being kind.

The emergence of these global documents in the history of humanity is no small thing. The evolution of ethics they represent has now produced hundreds of other declarations and treaties protecting the rights of women, children, indigenous peoples, and all of nature’s varied life forms.  This great flowering of ethical concerns continues to our day through the on-going process known as the Earth Charter. Under the United Nations this is an attempt to re-sacralize the secular by synthesizing our concern for justice and human rights with our recognition of the sacred interdependence of all life. “We must reinvent industrial-technological civilization” the Charter says, “finding new ways to balance self and community, having and being, diversity and unity, short-term and long-term, using and nurturing.” In this deepening of our moral nature, however incomplete, lies a promise of redemption for the destruction we have long been inflicting upon one another.

Words, however, are cheap. Without actions all the charters and declarations are only so much paper. And it will be argued that the intent of these documents is ignored in the world as much as it is respected. Yet the articulation is a critical step, and we believe it is a sign of a sea-change in human consciousness. It appears in every attempt at interfaith dialogue, every citizen delegation for peace, and every time one person reaches in respect across a boundary separating them from their neighbor. This is our work—all of us—no matter who we are. Each of our gestures may seem small by themselves, but together they arise in the great work of our species.

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