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What’s Fundamental to a Fundamentalist?


Do our Holy Books and doctrines point us toward God,
or do we hold them up and block ourselves from seeing God?

“Fundamentalism is not a position as much as a disposition.”
Stan Mitchell, Pastor of Gracepointe Church in Franklin, TN

Pastor Mitchell articulates so well something that has been on my mind lately.

The term “fundamentalism” was first coined in relation to the Christian Fundamentalist movements which originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They largely came out of American and British Protestantism. In particular, the series of books called The Fundamentals, published in 1910-1915, gave the movement its name.

Technically speaking, a “fundamentalist” should only refer to a Christian who is part of the specific movements which self-identify as such. Yet, many onlookers have found resonance between the way these movements operate and other religious (and non-religious) movements. People today talk about “Catholic fundamentalists” and “Muslim fundamentalists” and all sorts of other “fundamentalists.” How can this be?

I had a pivotal insight when researching the details of Christian fundamentalism for an article. I knew that fundamentalism identified about 5-6 “fundamentals” of belief and doctrine that were non-negotiable, but that was the limit of my knowledge. Doing my due diligence as a writer, I began researching. For that particular article, it made sense to name those half-a-dozen fundamentals.

I was surprised to find out that there was not just one list but several. Yes, there were five points which were tied to The Fundamentals book series, but other groups had their own lists. To a casual onlooker, these lists may seen strikingly similar–all of them include Biblical inerrancy, for example. Some of the other points may have been implied in previous lists but due to a changing cultural landscape, a particular denomination may have felt the need to be affirm them specifically at a later time. But there’s no getting around the fact that these lists are simply different from one another.

Here we come back to Pastor Mitchell’s quote: It seems like it isn’t so important what those fundamentals are, just so long as a group has them.

So what is fundamental to a fundamentalist? The answer may sound like circular reasoning, but there is a deeper point underneath: What’s fundamental to a fundamentalist isn’t necessarily a literal interpretation of the Bible or any of the other points–what’s fundamental to a fundamentalist is the need to have fundamentals.

This is what Pastor Mitchell means, I believe: It’s not so much the position as it is the disposition.

Some people simply need to have several points to rally themselves around in no uncertain terms. These points distinguish “us” from “them.” It’s a black-and-white approach to spirituality. It’s tribal. It’s rigid. It’s exclusionary. This is the “fundamentalism” that can be found across the board in all the world religions, as Pope Francis has said.

But does it open us to God or keep us from God?

In all fairness, every group has to delineate what group membership means–every group has identifying creeds, doctrines, fundamentals or, at the very least, guiding principles for what it means to be part of that particular group. A lot of people don’t like rules of creeds, but without them, how to do you identify why your group exists and what it’s about? Just having a group-defining list does not automatically make that group a fundamentalist. A fundamentalist is more about rigidity–their list ends with a period rather than an ellipsis.

Modern Evangelical Christians (not to be confused with fundamentalists!) witness to the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I think they are right. Ours is a living faith. We are in relationship with the Mystery our tradition has come to know as God. And out of that relationship will come beliefs and out of those beliefs will eventually come doctrines. But the most important thing for a Christian is to rally around that living relationship.

Whenever we put doctrines or theological interpretations as the most central, identifying elements, we are at risk of breaking the first and most fundamental (no pun intended) of the Commandments: Putting a false idol in place of the awe and mystery of God. Those doctrines and theological interpretations are going to be flawed, because they are drafted up by humans and written out in clumsy human languages. They may be inspired, but they are all too often the work of human hands. As the mystics say, those doctrines are a finger pointing toward God, but they are not actually God. Big difference. To define ourselves by them is to basically worship the human ego and its own creations.

It is the living relationship with God that is the best axis around which to revolve our lives.

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