IIC Newsletter 13: July 2000
Education for Peaceful Living Conference Collage
Over 60 people from 14 countries, 12 religions and many organisations came together to make their interfaith contributions to an exploration of Education for Peaceful Living, the theme of this year’s IIC conference at Harris Manchester College, Oxford on 8 and 9 April.
The dimensions of the topic were explored through interviews, plenaries, reflections, open discussion and sharing, meditations, dialogues, trialogues and even quadralogues, with young people playing a special role. The IIC would like to thank the Spalding Trust, the Inlight Trust and the United Church of Canada for their support.
John Taylor, Switzerland: revealed that the UN has begun to take seriously the idea that religious education could be a fundamental preventative measure to combat the scourge of discrimination and intolerance around the world. The right form of religious education can encourage a culture of respect, understanding and knowledge.
Zymer Salihi, Kosova: reinforced the importance of right religious education to prevent abuse of religion by secular manipulators who, in the Balkans, have taken soldiers into churches to be blessed for killing others. This shows a confusion of race with faith that can only develop when people are ignorant of their own faith traditions. It’s easy to destroy mosques and churches but to rebuild and heal takes years.
Jehangir Sarosh, UK: spoke of WCRP’s work in the Balkans to create interreligious councils People need to know their voices are heard. Religions can make a difference. The leaders of the four faith communities in Kosova met daily until the bombing started and made a joint declaration that they wanted to live together in peace and harmony.
Howard Shippin, Israel: told about Neve Shalom/Wahat al Salam, an example of racial and religious co-existence in Israel/Palestine. Equality rather than integration is the primary focus, a democratic rather than pluralist model which allows the community residents to maintain separate identities whilst working and cooperating together. Jewish and Arab (Muslim and Christian) families live in community and have developed bilingual school systems for the children with outreach to the neighbouring region. The educational influence extends through the School for Peace which brings together, in home villages, 16 and 17 year olds from different communities for a residential encounter to learn about the other side and to break down ‘enemy’ images.
Pamela Wilson, Canada: demonstrated visually how the churches residential school system in Canada had abused her First Nations people. A volunteer, representing a young First Nations person forced to attend and arriving at such a school, was first bound around the eyes: she was told, you can no longer see your people, they are dead to you. Then her legs were bound: you cannot leave this place, you cannot go home. Then her mouth was bound: you can no longer speak your language. Then the whole body was bound: you can no longer practice your culture or religion. Pamela wept as the story unfolded and she told how the young people were sent back to the reservations at 18 where they used similar methods to raise their own children so creating a cycle of abuse with still reverberates through First Nations communities with devastating effects on children. Pamela works with such youngsters, victims of alcohol, sexual and drug abuse, and believes its time for hands on, realistic, consistent, active and truthful education to enable the communities to make a shift away from a sense of victimisation to responsibility for their own development.
Martha Qumba, South Africa: spoke about her work with eight to fourteen year olds from disadvantaged and difficult backgrounds. She provides a forum where they can speak openly, bluntly, honestly, even violently, about everything that concerns them, without judgement. She felt such young people lacked role models and self-respect. The education system needed more realism. History books needed to be changed so that people could reconnect with their roots, religion and culture and form a distinct self-identity. She felt strongly about the leadership of women in such change.
Reynaldo Mariqueo, Chile: also emphasised the importance for peoples of connection to their histories. His people, the Mapuche Nation, had fought with the Spanish for over a hundred years and maintained their self-identity by passing through the generations stories of their history with all its successes, its heroines and warriors. In the modern era, genocide, land theft, imprisonment and resulting poverty have brought new problems. Indigenous peoples of the world (over 300 million) have no voice at the UN where they are usually represented by governments who oppress them. The Mapuches have joined the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation to give them an international voice and access to international justice.
Stefan Schlensog, Germany: shared information about the work of the Global Ethic Foundation that emphasises the basic ethical standards and values common to all religions and cultures to promote social cohesion and create a platform for dialogue and understanding. School projects across all age levels include one where Muslim children formed a group to teach Christian children about Islam. Using the Global Ethic in schools turns it into a local and neighbourhood ethic, encouraging respect for all lives, the environment, gender equality and cross cultural solidarity.
John McEvoy, Northern Ireland: moved many people with his personal story of how, as a ten year old walking home one day, he was stopped by a soldier who raised his rifle, pointed it at John and said ‘bang’, before walking away laughing. John thought that projects like the Global Ethic could help create a culture of tolerance so that differences could be better understood and accepted and such incidents as he experienced be eradicated.
Caitlin Curry, Northern Ireland: also told a story, of an eleven year old girl whose nineteen year old brother was killed in the Troubles. Condolences came to the parents and the girl was asked to be strong for them. She was not encouraged to attend her brother’s funeral and her need to grieve was not recognised. Gradually she shut the experience out and no longer spoke about or listened to anything about her brother. The topic became taboo. Years later she became ill and the diagnosis was psychosomatic. Finally someone came to see her who allowed her to express all her feelings and rediscover her brother. Caitlin told about Treetops, a Corrymeela project formed to help children with bereavement. Children from both communities who have lost close relatives in the Troubles meet weekly, share their sad stories and strengthen each other.
It’s not my intention to summarize the contribution of the presenters at this conference. The presentations uniformly provided significant insight into the positive role that interfaith education can play in situations of inter-religious conflict and as always, a great deal of appreciation is owed to the organizers for their careful and insightful planning of the conference. What I want to do is identify some of the issues that have emerged from the presentations and to point to some of the critical issues that need further reflection.
But first an update. Some of you will remember Myra Laramee, the First Nations elder from Canada who was present at the conference a few years ago. Myra went on from participating in that meeting, her first journey overseas, to take part in a project which we called “An Interfaith Women’s Journey.” This involved a shared experience of nine women from four faith traditions and two countries, travelling together in India and in Canada to reflect on a women’s agenda for interfaith relationships. I mention this to let you know that Myra’s experience here made a significant contribution to her continued involvement in interfaith programming.
But I also mention it to draw attention to the particular question of women’s ways of involvement in interfaith work. The specific question of women’s participation in interfaith initiatives has been raised at numerous times through this meeting. I would like to suggest that these questions point to deeper issues at stake, having to do with goals, style and content. It is quite likely that most interfaith programming to date has been structured out of male models of engagement. What might our interfaith programming look like if we could get beyond this bias to recognize different ways of being together, of talking and listening?
The Talking Circle is one model that comes out of First Nations’ traditions in Canada. It also has links with indigenous practices elsewhere in the world. Very simply, it involves using a talking symbol to ensure that everyone in the circle has the opportunity to speak and to be heard. It became the central form of engagement in the Interfaith Women’s Journey, and points to just one of the ways that we might restructure our patterns of engagement. I mention it because I feel we do need to find different models of interaction than the usual conference structure, ways that honor the wisdom that each of us brings into this kind of gathering. It also points to the need to undertake careful reflection on the methodologies of interfaith education that we employ.
A second critical issue implicit within the conference has been the question of the systemic nature of the challenges we face. There has been an increasing recognition that war itself must be treated as a systemic problem. It is not simply that wars spring up as isolated incidents. Rather there is enough evidence to suggest that there are systemic problems in the structure of international relationships that create a tendency towards war as a means of resolving tensions. To treat war symptomatically then is like the proverbial example of rescuing babies tossed into a river without ever going upstream to stop them being thrown in.
Similarly violence is not just made up of individual acts, but underlain by many factors including economic injustice, gender oppression, racism and so on. All of these issues are interconnected and therefore need to be approached in ways that seek to transform not just individual choices and actions, but the behaviour of society as a whole. But this pushes us towards the question of the particular role of interfaith organizations and the question of systemic challenges within our own faith traditions.
The Canadian churches’ experience with Native residential schools, so graphically portrayed during this meeting, has forced us to recognize that the problems were not simply an error in judgement at a particular moment in history. The destructive experience of several generations of native children being removed from their homes and placed in church run schools, with the resulting problems of abuse and the loss of culture and language, took place in part because of a misguided government policy of collusion with the churches. But it also took place because of systemic problems within the churches themselves, in particular in their understandings and beliefs about the nature of mission. We have come to realize that coming to terms with this history must result in an internal transformation not only of our practices but also of our beliefs.
It is this question of transformation that is at the heart of the third critical issue.
I suggest that at the core of our interfaith work is the belief that as people of faith we are mutually accountable for what we believe and how we act, and that we must be open to the possibility of mutual transformation. I often frame it this way, that we cannot be faithful people in isolation, that we need the corrective and transformative influence of engagement with each other, and that this is the primary task of the interfaith movement. In our dialogue and in our engagement with each other, we must do much more than simply learn about the other. We must encourage critical thought and mutual accountability as a way of ensuring that we contribute to the deepening of our own self understanding. Interfaith Education must lead us into this goal of mutual transformation.
These three critical issues suggest that we need a great deal more work on methodologies not only of interfaith education but also of our interfaith programming in general. These issues also function within several dichotomies that became obvious during the conference.
The first dichotomy is between the need for faith communities to establish and strengthen their own self-identities and the need for valuing inter-connection and inter-relatedness in a larger pluralistic society. This tension is perhaps no where more obvious than in the push for sectarian schools over against the desire for children to learn to interact and accept differences within a public school system. The second dichotomy is the tension between acknowledging the profound depth of differences between faiths and the need to value similarities and points in common. The desire for lifting up similarities between faiths has often done significant injustice to the profound differences in understanding of even basic concepts.
The challenge is to work on the development of interfaith methodologies that work within these tensions rather than collapse them; that move beyond existing models of engagement and find ways of taking women’s experience seriously; that invite mutual accountability; and push towards transformation of the world in which we all live.
What finally might be some of the characteristics of these methodologies? It will likely involve an action reflection model, a spiral of engagement and analysis. It will be contextual, dealing with real issues and problems in the world. It will value inter-relatedness and interconnection inviting our concern to assist each other to be truly faithful followers of our traditions. And it will involve forming communities of witness. These might be long term communities, such as Corrymeela or Neve Shalom, or short term communities such as a youth weekend.
Finally, my own belief is that effective transformative methodologies will involve some form of storytelling, both sacred and personal. Storytelling, not as an alternative to explanations of beliefs, but as a way always linking our beliefs with who we are as people and how we live and act in the world.
Bruce Gregersen, United Church of Canada and IIC International Consultant
Karma: Individual and Collective Responsibilities: A brief summary
A one day IIC seminar at Somerville College on 21 January 2000.
1st session: Bishop Richard Harries (Christian: interviewer), Dr Paul Trafford (Buddhist), Saraswati Dave (Hindu), Gopinder Kaur (Sikh) and Vinod Kapashi (Jain)
2nd session: Anuradha devi dasa (Vaisnav – interviewer), Prof Ian Markham (Christian), Vivienne Cato (Jew) and Imam Ibrahim Mogra (Muslim).
Bishop Harries began the seminar with a question to the four panellists in the first session about their particular understanding of karma.
Paul: karma is willed, intentional action that operates in body, speech and mind. It is the law of cause and effect with the results dependent not only on the gross action but on the quality of intention behind it. The impact of karma can arise now or much earlier / later, in other lives and is one of many influencing factors on a person. It helps us understand how we live in different circumstances in a more satisfying way than genetics alone. Karma is not deterministic – we have a choice of how to act at every moment so that each moment is crucially important. The aim of Buddhism is to transcend samsara, wheel of becoming, and karma can refine our mental states to assist this transcendence. It is a purification process, complex, multi-levelled, revealing our responsibility for what we do.
Paul was also asked to explain the relationship between the different causes and effects of action. For instance, if someone hit Paul, this would inflict pain and cause bad temper – unless Paul was a very good Buddhist! – and this temper would be passed on at home to others, the effects of the hit rippling through the universe. The one who hit Paul would also be affected by his action in a different way. The interaction between both sets of effects was a puzzle, as were the different circumstances of birth. A successful but unethical media tycoon for example: was this an example of good karma? Paul answered that responses to being hit will depend on circumstances and relationships. Whether hit by one’s baby daughter or a stranger on the tube a Buddhist should be aware and practice right response. Practice of metta, compassion, is required so that the right response may arise at any given situation. A media tycoon may have started out in this life as a giving child but unskilful decisions / choices arising from karma may later move the tycoon off course. We are using up past merit in this life and a media tycoon may use it up very quickly!
Saraswati: karma comes from the sanskrit root verb, kri, to do. It is a universal principle, the law of causation, underpinned by reincarnation. Hindus seek to act without attachment to the fruits of their actions. There are three types of karma described in the Vedas: 1) present action with no result or pending fruits ie. I am thirsty, I drink a glass of water, my thirst is satisfied. 2) Accumulated fruits of actions, past and present, good and bad, which are stored in the citta or heart and brought into this life, determining birth circumstances and standing in life. 3) Non-binding action where actions, even with desires, if dedicated and surrendered to God and service, can be free from karmic fruits.
Gopinder: Sikhs think of karma as a given from the cultural and religious contexts in which it emerged as a faith and that it is secondary in Sikh writings to the goals and aspirations of Sikhs. We should not become too preoccupied with karmic actions and their results but concentrate on the goal of life beyond them and the Grace of the Ultimate Reality. We should not be bound by the karma game. It is better to try and see things as they really are, with inspiration and grace. Individual efforts and actions are not enough to bring enlightenment, not even with the discipline of meditation. A farmer can sow seeds, cultivate and nourish the land but is still dependent on the weather, something beyond herself. There is a sense that Grace is stronger than karma.
Vinod reminded us that we were all at the seminar because of our karmas! In the Jain tradition, what is acquired from past lives is karma. It is the law of cause and effect by which we are punished or rewarded for past actions. No one controls this phenomenon, it occurs automatically. The whole universe is full of karma matter and is attracted to us like pollution resulting in the cycle of life and death. Nirvana is realised when all the karma particles are removed from the soul. No one can take karma from you. We can be guided but have to carry our own karmas. Vinod was also asked to address the situation where good people appear to be suffering because of the bad actions of others. He responded that past karmas help us understand this. It is our duty not to judge others because of what happens to them but to help all to overcome karmas. Spotless people still suffer at a certain age from disease. Criminals with good behaviour serve shorter sentences. It is good to suffer karmic effects because it means they are being burnt up and we shall be free of them. Tyrants who appear to go unpunished in this life will reap the results of their actions in their next life. The people who appear to suffer by a tyrant’s actions actually suffer through their own karmas. In response to a question of how karma seemed to instil a self-centred focus, Vinod stated that good karma required good deeds for society, not only for oneself. All have the potential to attain nirvana, become arhants. This is the goal, whatever the circumstances of life. Our duty is to be rid of past karmas though good deeds.
In the afternoon, Anuradha began by asking the panellists for their responses to what they had heard in the morning. For her, the questions arose: Why are we here? What is the goal of life? Where does karma fit in?
Ian: Christians are sensitive to the problems karma imposes on personhood, free will, and the implications it has for a fatalistic attitude to poverty, disability etc. Some parallels can be identified in the ideas of Judgement and growth in the Christian tradition. Reaping the consequences of what we sow is embodied in judgement and some strands of Paul’s Epistles and Roman Catholicism eschew purgatory, an idea that at death there are still some things to learn. Problems also arise for Christians who believe that modern scientific, sociological, and psychological narratives can explain circumstances without recourse to karma and rebirth. Christians can believe in karma and rebirth but they remain on the margins and for most it is not an acceptable concept as the Christian task is to trust what God has done in Christ rather than score points for ourselves with God.
Vivienne: There is no karma in Judaism but an underlying belief and understanding that behaviour has an impact, that what you do matters. This is embedded in the Commandments. Jews have to do righteous acts for the good of the community. Jews understand we are here to make a better place. We are co-creators with God, an ongoing responsibility. We are commanded to work for the healing and repair of the world. If there is suffering, it is because we haven’t yet done the job well enough. For instance, during the Holocaust, some people were not doing what they were supposed to do. People chose to do wrong things.
In mystical Judaism there is the sense of behaviour in the material world having an effect at other levels of reality. In the Kabbalah there are 4 realms: emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual, and action in any has a mirror like reverberation in others. Reward and punishment are built into this understanding of behaviour. Punishment fits the crime. Reincarnation, whilst not normative, can also be found in mystical Judaism. What is done in this life determines if a person is reborn or not.
Ibrahim: Muslims believe in accountability to God for actions. Every good action will result in a good reward in the Hereafter. Bad actions will result in punishment. The reason for creation is to worship and serve God, to gain His pleasure and go on to eternal life. The earth is a world of action. The Hereafter is a world of reward and punishment. People have to want to change their own situation before God changes it. Whatever good happens is from God. Whatever bad happens is a result of our own action. Reward and punishment in the Hereafter will exactly equate the good and bad actions in this world. Islam is about scoring points with God. The door of repentance is always open. God will turn the bad deeds of the sincerely repentant into good ones. All our actions are recorded by angels and the measurement of them in God’s control. Illness and afflictions are from God as tests to see if we accept what He has ordained for us. We have to accept everything from God and be purified.
Much more was said. Many questions remained. The full karmaquences of attending the seminar are yet to be realised!
Sandy Bharat, IIC Coordinator
Bahai Response to Fundamentalism
by Moojan Momen
The most important response to fundamentalism is to recognise the reality and seriousness of the concerns that fundamentalism represents. We need to acknowledge that fundamentalism springs from a deep love for one’s own religion acting in concert with a particular type of mind that sees things in terms of black and white (absolutely right or absolutely wrong). Such a person sees the words of scripture as being absolutely right and therefore considers any deviation from the text as absolutely wrong. Such a person looks around at the world and sees it full of immorality and corruption. In such circumstances, the accommodations of those who hold liberal views appear to be not just weak in the face of the rising tide of evil but dangerous in causing doubt and hesitation among the believers. Where will the accommodations of the liberals take us? What will be left of the faith when they have compromised on so many areas? The fundamentalist sees the programme of the liberal as being a series of compromises that give way on what had previously been firm ground for religious ethics. Moreover, these compromises do not appear to the fundamentalist to be grounded in the religion itself; rather they are based on whatever happens to be fashionable in a fast decaying world. In one decade, women’s rights are to the fore and so religion gives way on scriptures that define the position of women; in the next decade, homosexuality is fashionable and so the liberals compromise on the clear prohibitions in the scriptures. Where will this process end?
To engage with fundamentalists, it is therefore necessary to acknowledge that such concerns are not baseless and that they of great seriousness to the fundamentalist arising as they do out of a great love and desire to protect the religion. In engaging with fundamentalists it is also useful to acknowledge the benefits that such a person brings to a religious community. Since the fundamentalist impulse stems from a great love in the heart of such a believer, then he or she is also willing to make great sacrifices for the religion, sacrifices of time and material resources. Such persons are therefore willing to do the routine, boring work that must be done in every religious community; they are also the ones who are keen to go out and spread the message of the religion to those who do not believe.
Within the Bahá’í community there are several resources for dialogue between those of a fundamentalist bent and those with leanings towards liberalism. The first advantage that the Bahá’í Faith has is the fact that it is a young religion and thus its scriptures already deal with most current issues in relevant ways. Many of the issues, such as the equality of men and women and issues of racism which cause much heart-searching and a fundamentalist-liberal spilt in other religions are the subject of clear pronouncements in the scriptures around which both fundamentalists and liberals can unite. Thus the rigid desire to follow the text of the scripture forces those in the Bahá’í community who tend towards fundamentalism to adopt what would in other religions be considered a liberal position on this question.
The main mechanism of public discourse and decision-making in the community is consultation. Bahá’u’lláh has exhorted his community to “take counsel together in all matters”. By this is meant a process that is approached as a spiritual responsibility, a duty incumbent upon all to ensure that virtues such as fairness, integrity, forbearance, respect and courtesy are brought to bear upon the process. To completely succeed in establishing consultation on such grounds is of course difficult but to strive towards it is incumbent upon the participants.
A third factor in the Bahá’í Faith that helps in the dialogue between liberals and fundamentalists is the over-riding command to unity in the Bahá’í teachings. This imperative is higher than all other considerations. Thus Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, refers to a dispute which occurred in Bahá’u’lláh’s lifetime and which is typical of the sort of disagreement that occurs between fundamentalists and liberals: “During the days of Bahá’u’lláh some of the prominent teachers of the Cause in Persia were divided as to the station of Bahá’u’lláh and at last wrote to Him for arbitration. In answer Bahá’u’lláh said that if they were united both sides were right and if they were divided both were wrong.” In summary then, being united is considered a higher truth in the Bahá’í Faith than being right. This has obvious implications for a dialogue between liberals and fundamentalists. Whatever sincere disagreement there may be between the two sides, there should be an over-riding concern to maintain unity. This unity does not mean uniformity. In other words, individuals are entitled to hold different views, but these should not become the basis of the creation of parties and platforms within the community. Indeed the formation of such factions is expressly forbidden and can result in administrative sanctions against individuals trying to carrying out any such programme.
Closely connected to this teaching of unity in the Bahá’í Faith is the concept of the Covenant. This concept means that the primary focus of loyalty and unity in the Bahá’í Faith is not towards any set of doctrines or dogmas – and these are of course the usual focus of disagreement between conservatives and liberals. A Bahá’í is free to hold whatever opinion she or he pleases: “At the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views.” The source of unity in the Bahá’í Faith is a focus on and loyalty towards the designated centre of the Faith – at the present time this means the Universal House of Justice, which is an elected body. That body was created by Bahá’u’lláh to administer the affairs of the Bahá’í Faith and to make rulings in any areas of law that are not covered in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh. It is not a body that makes definitive rulings on theological and doctrinal matters. This means that Bahá’ís are not asked to subscribe to a creed as a precondition of membership but rather to express their loyalty to a body, which administers the Bahá’í community. They express their loyalty to the decisions of the Universal House of Justice which are usually of an administrative and functional nature rather than doctrinal or interpretative.
The net effect of these factors is that both liberals and fundamentalists are free to hold whatever views they wish and are free to voice their opinions. If they disagree with a decision of their local or national administrative bodies, they are free to appeal this ultimately to the highest level, the Universal House of Justice. If the decision of the Universal House of Justice goes against them, they may, if they wish continue to hold the opinion; what they may not do, under the terms of the principle of unity and the doctrine of the Covenant, is to try actively to create a party for their opinion. In this way, the Bahá’í Faith tries to maintain a wide range of opinions and personalities within the community; thus both liberal and fundamentalist views can co-exist within the community, while both groups are united in their efforts to promote the Bahá’í message of peace and unity.
Christianity and Fundamentalism
Rev Marcus Braybrooke
The word ‘Fundamentalism’ was originally used to describe a development in American Protestantism, which took place at the end of the last century. A number of conferences were held to voice opposition to critical study of the Bible and to the theory of evolution. A statement was issued at the conference at Niagara in 1895 containing what came to be known as ‘the five points of fundamentalism’:
1. The verbal inerrancy of Scripture
2. The Divinity of Jesus Christ
3. The Virgin Birth
4. A substitutionary theory of the Atonement (that is that Jesus took upon himself the punishment that a righteous God inflicts upon sinners. This theory, however, seems to set the Father against the Son)
5. The Physical Resurrection and Bodily Return of Jesus Christ.
Until the nineteenth century, most Christians, in believing the Bible to be ‘true’ or the ‘word of God’, assumed that this included historical accuracy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, in his letters on the Inspiration of the Scripture, written at the beginning of the nineteenth century, said that to most Englishmen the Bible was ‘a theological text-book and rule of faith composed by Almighty God and dictated by Him verbatim to the inspired writers’. (Moorman, 1958:329). I think, however, it is important to contrast the traditional view of scripture, which is similar to that of Muslims and Orthodox Jews, to the view of fundamentalists, partly because the Christian church, like Islam and Judaism, has traditions of interpretation which allow considerable flexibility, but also because, as Martin Marty argues, ‘oppositionalism’ is a characteristic of fundamentalism (‘Concilium’ 1992:1) – that is to say, fundamentalism is a position held in conscious opposition to other views, whereas a traditional or conservative position may be held either because it has not been challenged or the questionings are ignored.
This point illustrates, in a small way, the difficulty of transferring the concept of fundamentalism from one religious context to another – but it has happened, so it is too late to deplore this now! Even so, it is, in my view, misleading to regard the traditional Muslim view of the authority of the Qur’an as fundamentalist – it is better to apply the term to Muslim groups which self-consciously use a reaffirmation of Islam as a way of rejecting Western influence – as, for example, in the Iranian revolution, which some Islamic Reformists see as a reaction against ‘alien cultural imperialism’ and the expression of social discontent ‘which is clothed by skilful manipulators in a religious garb’ (M Salim Abdullah, ‘Concilium’: 70).
Christian fundamentalism is primarily a rejection of a critical view of the Bible, whereas many Christians today would recognise that Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God and the Bible is only the Word of God in a secondary sense as pointing to Christ. Taking the Bible literally, fundamentalists, such as the moral Majority in the USA, use it uphold what is claimed to be traditional Christian moral teaching.
At a deeper level, fundamentalism is, I think, a rejection of modern understandings of knowledge. In his The Meaning of Life at the Edge of the Third Millennium, Leonard Swidler says that our understanding of truth statements has been ‘deabsolutised’. By this he means that all statements about reality are conditioned by their author’s historical setting, intention, culture, class, sex etc. Further, knowledge is interpreted knowledge. Reality speaks to each person with the language he or she gives to it. We are, therefore, not in a position to make ultimate, unconditioned statements. There is, therefore, no one correct meaning of a text. A fundamentalist is likely to claim that there is and that the true meaning of the text happens to coincide with his or her interpretation! Further, fundamentalists adopt an a-historical attitude to the central truths of a religion and many Christians seem to forget that the creeds of the Church are themselves historically conditioned statements, which, I think, we should respect but by which we should not be fettered.
Fundamentalists also reject the idea of symbolism. Symbolism has been the subject of much study in this century (See the short article in ‘The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions’). The use of symbols is so pervasive that E Cassirer has called the human species ‘animal symbolicum’. Symbols communicate transcendent realities in story and art, but are not literally true. Fundamentalists, however, take their particular myth as true in a literal sense. As Niels Nielsen puts it in his Fundamentalism, Mythos and World Religions (p. viii) ‘fundamentalists do not demythologise’.
For fundamentalists, therefore, there is only one truth – which they possess. They cannot, in principle, accept a pluralist society in which equal status is given to a variety of truth claims. They are committed, by the logic of their belief, to work for the victory of their views. Many do so by honest democratic persuasion and in America fundamentalist Christian groups make extensive use of television. Some fundamentalists, however, seek to coerce their opponents ( e.g. Pro-Life activists in the USA).
I think it is important to see the logic that underlies fundamentalism as I feel that many Christians who are not fundamentalists rather lazily go along with unquestioned assumptions that belong to a previous age – e.g., as I have mentioned in the use of the creeds, but also in a reluctance, at least in preaching, to take Biblical criticism seriously – but until this is done, we will not move beyond the still quite common position that ‘because I think Christianity is true, I am bound to think other religions are false’.
Yet, I do not think that fundamentalism is best met by opposition. Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz describes fundamentalism as a pathological phenomenon arising out of profound disturbances. As he says, ‘If fundamentalism is an expression of collective disturbance and hardening, any attempt to overcome it must begin with empathy and sensitivity. Fundamentalism cannot be fought against (‘Concilium’: 18). This requires that we take seriously social injustice and the fear that ‘globalisation’ is – in succession to the crusades, imperialism and the missionary movement – a new way of imposing Western values on other societies. Further, we need to address the fear of relativism – and many assume, wrongly, that interfaith dialogue implies a weakening of religious commitment.
I suggest also that many of us may share the fundamentalists’ concern at the growth of violence and the decline in moral values. In my view, however, such values should not, in an ethnically and religiously plural society, be imposed by one dominant ethnic or religious group. Equally, however, I do not think a society will be healthy which has no shared values. This is why the search for shared values – as for example in the ‘Declaration Toward A Global Ethic’ – is so important for society. It may also help fundamentalists to see that there are other, and less divisive ways, of addressing their legitimate concerns.