The Fundamentalist Memory Hole


Aristarchus, in the third century B.C., clearly established a heliocentric picture of the solar system that was well understood and accepted by the Greeks. … Yet Ptolemy, five centuries later, turned this on its head and proposed a geocentric theory of almost Babylonian complexity. The Ptolemaic darkness, the scotoma, lasted 1,400 years, until a heliocentric theory was reestablished by Copernicus.
–Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness, p 204

Christian fundamentalism (which has parallels in other religions and ideologies) arose at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in America and Great Britain in reaction to liberal theology and modernism. One might say it is parallel to Oliver Sacks’s above description of the regression that misguided science for centuries, imagining a solar system with Earth rather than the Sun at its center.

My post last week described a scotoma simply as a blind spot, but it can be more than that. It can be what Orwell called a “memory hole” which sucks acquired knowledge out of the room, an amnesia of, in the case of fundamentalism, a spiritual tradition that experienced a diversity that recognized scripture as an element of faith but not its sole author. Biblical literalism was at odds with earlier and subsequent ways of interpreting scripture.

This is my beef with fundamentalism—not that it isn’t a useful way to reclaim the biblical story, but that it claims to be the ONLY way to read scripture, dismissive of our own progressive Christian interpretations.

I am glad to have been raised as a Christian fundamentalist and biblical literalist: it gave me a knowledge of the Bible and a certainty and guidance I needed as a child and youth. But I ultimately found it confining, not only of me personally as a gay man and a political liberal, but of me spiritually, bereft of much church tradition and teachings and reflections of the church doctors and saints, theologians and mystics.

That upbringing also resisted science and culture and other faiths, though more so today than when I was growing up. More than ever today, fundamentalism sucks acquired knowledge out of the room, even that of fellow Christians like myself who remain faithful to Jesus without fear of hell or certainty of heaven, without subscribing to all Christian doctrines, and while trying to welcome insights from science and other cultures and religions.

I know the pain that fundamentalists feel when challenged, or when disappointed in those who do not similarly “believe,” as I felt that as well. Unlike some progressive Christians, I try not to express animus toward fundamentalists or fundamentalism, save when they try to theocratize our politics and political institutions. I am truly a liberal in the classic sense, trying to welcome as many viewpoints and perspectives and knowledge as possible.

And I agree that scriptures have to be taken seriously, even authoritatively, but not literally. A literal interpretation, I believe, actually does a disservice to scripture. It can miss the depths and richness and complexity of the biblical conversation about the meaning of it all.

And, as Jesus said of the Sabbath and the fundamentalism of his day, the Bible was made for humankind, not humankind for the Bible.

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