Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position

Our contemporary culture is dominated by two extremes — relativism and fundamentalism. Neither is desirable: relativism claims that all questions of truth are irrelevant, whereas fundamentalism insists on sole possession of absolute truth. Internationally renowned sociologist of religion Peter Berger has gathered a group of scholars to consider how, from out of different traditions, one can define a middle position between both extremes. / After an extensive introductory overview by Berger, three essays (“sociological descriptions”) give an objective picture of how relativism and fundamentalism play out in today’s world. In the second part (“theological directions”) authors from several different Christian traditions and one conservative Jewish tradition flesh out a normative middle ground that is neither relativist — they affirm specific truth claims — nor fundamentalist — their affirmations include tolerance of the claims of others.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position

  1. Review

    This book, which is edited by the well-known Sociologist of Religion, Peter L. Berger, explores the current and very important issue of finding a path in our contemporary culture between the two extremes of relativism, with its post-modernist claim that all questions of truth are irrelevant and fundamentalism, with its claim that it alone is in sole possession of absolute truth.

    Eight authors have explored in various ways their personally-held middle positions between relativism and fundamentalism, so any summary of their ideas becomes rather complex. In brief, after an introduction to the theme by Peter Berger, three authors explore Sociological Descriptions, including  their background by James Hunter, England’s Church of England  by Grace Davie and the evangelicals in politics by Craig Gay.

    Theological Directions relating to the middle position  are then explored in five religious and denominational contexts. These include the Jewish perspective by Rabbi David Gordis,  the Catholic approach by Ingeborg Gabriel, a Lutheran approach by Peter Berger, an Evangelical perspective by Os Guiness and an Eastern Orthodox by Priest Michael Plekon.

    Information about these contributors indicates that their studies are not just remote, academic exercises but they are anagogical and deeply experienced explorations of and quests for an appropriate Middle Position for our contemporary science, culture, spirituality and religion.

    Berger’s Introduction presents, as features of our former world, concepts and practices such as   consensus, shared cultural values and  shared religious affiliations. In contrast to this former world, he sees, as features  in our present world,  pluralism, many voluntary associations, de-institutionalization and the increasing difficulty in achieving any certainty. (p.6)  He notes that post-modernist theories develop cognitive relativism and even challenge the possibility of scientific objectivity. (p.11)

    The fundamentalist reaction in contrast is to restore the individual’s former securities and beliefs or for a subculture to try to convert the whole of society in a totalitarian manner to a single attitude, belief or custom, as imposed by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. (p.10) Berger sadly notes that “monotheism does not easily develop an ethos of tolerance, especially when it is institutionalized”, so the quest for the “middle ground is politically important as a defence against the highly destructive  potential of religious fanaticism”. (p.13).

    James Hunter’s quest for origins also entails religion. He notes that Nietzsche’s announcement of the killing of God and the need to write God’s obituary, was followed by the post-modern creation of rather lifeless substitute-Gods, such as Nature, Humanity, Man, Life, the Soul, the self, the other and the body,  which also need to be cleared away. (p.24) In contrast, Hunter shows the dangers of  belief in a God or Deity which is imposed onto others, as promoted  by the influential Egyptian Islamic radical Sayyid Qutb. He wants to replace Jahiliyya or the pagan rejection of Allah with the  imposition of al-Sharia law and the principles of Islamic civilization, viewed by him as “eternal and unchangeable”. (p.29) Such a fundamentalistic quest for certainty thus involves ontology relating to the existence of God, epistemology with its “scripturalism”  and  teleology with is predicted certainties about the future. (p.30).

    Grace Davie has studied England and she ends up exploring the  “Advantages of a ‘weak’ State Church” (p.45) with  its voluntary nature and its principles of Democracy and Tolerance.

    Crai Gay looks at the Evangelical interest in politics and contrasts this with both the “ intellectual obscurantism” and  “militant public presence” of the Fundamentalists. (p.56) and the rise of the “radical orthodoxy” of John Millbank and James K. Smith, which requires  “the entire Christian narrative to tell us how things truly are”.  It claims for Christianity a monopoly on truth and “engages in no dialogues, because it does not recognize other valid points of view outside the theological”. It is also “suspicious of liberal democracy” and is “deeply hostile to modern capitalism”. (p.65)

    The Theological Directions begins with  the concerns of Jewish Rabbi David Gordis. He seeks to explore both personal religious questions but also “meta-religious”, world-related questions in his  pursuit of the need for “healing and repair of the tattered fabric of human relationships in our contemporary world”. (p.107) He refers to the Mishna, the  “Talmudic legal discourse” and the Jewish “tradition in dialogical form” as support for the Middle Position. (p.119)

    Ingeborg Gabriel sees the Catholic Church as having moved at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) from its former rejection of Modernity to a middle way more suitable to the present global era.

    As a Catholic and in quest for the truth, she attaches reason to  faith  and  affirms both  that “faith without reason is blind and easily leads to irrational violence” (p.134).and that too much reason has led to “absolute truth claims”, coercion, fights over dogmatic truth and wars over religion, which display the “barbarian backside of Christianity”. (135)

    However, in relation to science,  she is also concerned about “epistemological reduction”, when “truth is limited to the rationality typical of natural science to quantifiable facts discovered by experiment and open to falsification”.(p.135) She proposes criteria for theological truth, which include (1) its historical and anamnetic character, which moves beyond an idealised past and an  a-historical understanding to reflection and memopry; (2) its dialogical and communicative character, and (3) its transcendental character, exploring deity as “a supreme mystery” with this realm being separated from humanity’s terrestrial realm by what Gottfried E. Lessing called the “ugly moat”. (p.139) The author qualifies this to the extent that she  sees the theory of   “verbal inspiration obsolete” and that the biblical authors were not “divine secretaries”. (p.140)  Her solution is to “conquer evil with good” and to express in our spiritualities “the fruits of love”. (p. 144)

    Peter Berger’s chapter on “A  Lutheran Approach” presents an unusual  quest for a middle position. The Lutheran church itself went from its original charismatic phase in the 1500s to a period of legalism, dogmatism and doctrinal orthodoxy in the 1600s. Its  theme of  Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) promoted general Bible-reading and  the Bible as the source-book for belief and practice but Berger thinks that it may have also produced “a new understanding of individual autonomy”. (p.155) The church was dealt with in Article 7 of the Augsbsurg Confession beginning “Satis est” (It is enough), but the decision still needed  to be made about whether the church’s message was being preached “in purity”. (p.157)

    Individuals who claimed to have inner, ecstatic  religious experiences and who smashed musical instruments and statues in churches,  were  also soon challenged and were labelled Schwarmer or “enthusiasts”. Thus Berger concludes that Luther’s “freedom of the Christian” could “easily morph into an anarchic relativism in which anything goes”. (p.160) Although capable of  becoming “petrified, distorted or decayed”, Berger suggests that his own “Lutheran tradition contains useful theological and moral resources for a middle position between relativism and fundamentalism”. (p.163)

    Os Guiness expresses the need to distinguish Fundamentalism from his Evangelical Christianity, which for him is based on biblical teaching, promotes truth and reason but not rationalism and irrationality, and consists of Christians who “think in believing and believe in thinking”. (p.170)  For him, faith involves the whole person and is based on the will and the emotions as well as the mind”. (p.171)

    Finally, Priest Michael Plekon’s views about the Eastern Orthodox church leads him to speculate that his church probably contains some who have beliefs typical of both the fundamentalistic and the relativistic attitudes but most would be maintaining their religious stories, beliefs, customs, icon reverence and rituals with colourful vestments. An ongoing issue is therefore a concern for Orthodox fundamentals or traditionalism over against  an exclusive and intolerant  Fundmentalism. (p.183)

    This book has some bibliographies but useful footnotes are provided at the bottom of the pages. The text is suitable for being understood by the general reader but at the same time, the latest  ideas and thinking about this issue are included.   

    Ironically, this book’s wide range of different perspectives in relation to a middle position displays a degree of relativism! At the same time, I am sure that each author would like his or her propositions to be accepted as honest, truthful and factual,  in the spirit of Fundamentalism!

    “What is Truth” can be an expression of cynicism or triumphalism but the sincere Quest for Truth  is also a vital ingredient in today’s important and on-going quest for the middle position between relativism and fundamentalism.

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