NEARLY A decade and a half ago, this condemnation of fundamentalism was issued: "The fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life . . . instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. . . . Fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide. It injects into life a false certitude, for it unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations." This robust denunciation came from the Vatican, in a 1993 document entitled "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church."
The title of this diary, and the quote above, which is its first paragraph, are from an op ed piece in today's Boston Globe, by James Carroll. I will explore the Carroll piece and then offer a few thoughts of my own.
Using a definition by religious scholar Gabriel Almond of
religious militance by which self-styled 'true-believers' attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity, fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors.
Carroll looks at the commonality of fundamentalisms around the world to find their commonality. They all reject the Enlightenment idea that a secular principle can replace the sacred as the principal source of meaning. And as Carroll notes:
But now "old time religion" of whatever stripe faces a plethora of threats: new technologies, globalization, the market economy, rampant individualism, diversity, pluralism, mobility -- all that makes for 21st-century life. Fundamentalisms will especially thrive wherever there is violent conflict, and wherever there is stark poverty, simply because these religiously absolute movements promise meaning where there is no meaning. For all these reasons, fundamentalisms are everywhere.
Why would Carroll, a onetime Roman Catholic priest and chaplain at Boston University be moved to write now about fundamentalism? This award-winning (National Book Award, Melcher Book Award, the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award, and National Jewish Book Award in History) was provoked by the statement last week by Pope Benedict, an Apostolic Exhortation which
begins as a contemplative appreciation of the Eucharist ends up as a manifesto designed to keep many Catholics from receiving Communion at Mass. The ticket to Communion is an uncritical acceptance of what the pope calls, in a striking echo, "fundamental values," which include defense of human life "from conception to natural death." The key declaration is that "these values are not negotiable."
Carroll argues that culture requirees negotiation of values, and that such is the process by which change is possible. He references a 1993 Vatican document as a starter, and then begins with Aquinas, whom he notes did not believe that life began at conception, and then uses the example of Terri Schiavo to show the disagreement among Catholics about natural death. In both cases he notes "negotiation follows."
Carroll implies that the latest action by the Pope may represent a threat to the Vatican's control of the Churcc:
The various fundamentalisms are all concerned with "fortifying borders," and that is a purpose of today's Vatican. The pope's exhortation concludes by referring to the Catholic people as the "flock" entrusted to bishops. Sheep stay inside the fence. But what happens when Catholics stop thinking of themselves as sheep?
I believe that the challenges Carroll raises about the Catholic Church and fundamentalism are applicable in other domains as well. I have previously noted how one can understand No Child Left Behind in terms of fundamentalism. More broadly, I think we can see its applicability in politics as well. There is a great reluctance among politicians in both parties to challenge the implications of American Exceptionalism, a belief set that I think has serious negative consequences when acted upon, consequences both at home as well as for others around the world. The Republican party now has battles srated by those who assert for example that Bush has abandoned the fundamental principles of small government and balanced budgets. In the House (and in Virginia in the House of Delegates) we have seen a total unwillingness of Republicans to compromise on their asserted party principles, clearly an indication of a fundamentalist mindset. And to be skewering in a bi-partisan fashion (and here this may get me flamed) there are those on the left whose total rejection of religious orientation as any kind of motivation despite its important history in things like the progressive and civil rights movements represents its own kind of fundamentalism, one of "pure rationality."
I do not argue for vigorous defense of and advocacy for strongly held beliefs. Such beliefs are an important part of motivating people to be willing to take risks, to take actions that can advance our society. But we live in a diverse nation, a liberal democracy (technical political science description) that presumes differences and thus has set up a governmental structure designed to force compromise. The ability of any one group to maintain an ongoing working majority on numerous issues has always been in doubt. Madison foresaw this in Federalist 10 with his discourse on the role of faction. We are in many ways a very fragmented nation and society. Bob Barr may be my enemy on naming everything after Reagan and in impeaching Bill Clinton, but he is my ally on the dangers of the Patriot and Military Commission Acts.
The phrase that Carroll repeated, Negotiation followed, are what we must remember. In order for our society and our constitutional system of government to continue and sustain themselves, much less advance themselves, we cannot allow a fundamentalism of any kind to dominate our thinking, our political discourse. Perhaps that is one reason I instinctually reject the idea of literal interpretations,of "original intent", be that applied to the Scripture or Constitution. Besides, in both cases, perhaps as a result of the Enlightenment experience, we know that a rigid literalism was never the intent of either. And in the case of the Constitution, it is a document that is a production of minds shaped far more by the Enlightenment than by any kind of religious fundamentalism.
I found the Carroll article useful, as I almost always find his columns useful. Should you read the entire piece, which I encourage you to do, I am sure you will also have your thinking provoked. Perhaps you will not come to the same thoughts that I did. That's fine. I share my reactions because I believe they may, to a lesser degree than those of Carroll, also provoke your thinking. And as a teacher, I always want my students to have their thinking challenged. If they agree with me, AFTER THEY HAVE THOUGHT THINGS THROUGH, that's fine. If not, then perhaps we can take some guidance from Carroll, and apply words that should be a part of any discourse wherein full agreement is not the initial state: Negotiation followed.