Wednesday, 20 November 2013


To the angel of the church at Laodicea write, ‘ … I know all your ways; you are neither hot nor cold. How I wish you were either hot or cold! But because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.’  Revelation ch 3, vv 14-16

One way of dividing people up is according to their religious allegiances – Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Atheist, and so on. Another is to divide them according to the way they approach their religious allegiances: nominal, cultural, secular, dissident, practising, liberal, orthodox, fundamentalist, militant for example. Encouraged by religious leaders, we tend to assume that it is the allegiances that really matter; if you are a Christian of any style, we assume, you must be closer to all other Christians than to any Muslims or Hindus. Along with this there often goes a suspicion among non-fundamentalists of any religious allegiance that their fundamentalist co-religionists are somehow more committed to the religion than they are themselves – that their own faith is somehow just a watered down version of the full strength religion of the fundamentalists. They may feel distinctly uncomfortable about some of the more extreme expressions of fundamentalism, yet be unable to say clearly, even to themselves, that they reject fundamentalism when it is the fundamentalism of their co-religionists. It’s almost always the fundamentalist wing of other people’s religions that frighten us, not that of our own. But maybe this is exactly wrong; maybe the greatest threat to any group’s own religious tradition comes not from outside but from their own fundamentalists.
And certainly fundamentalists of every allegiance think less of their non-fundamentalist co-religionists for what they would characterise as their lukewarmness. They see them as making unacceptable compromises with the world of unbelievers merely for the sake of a quiet life here-and-now. Yet such lukewarm co-religionists are not quite so far outside the fundamentalists’ pale as those who belong to a different religion; maybe it would be a much greater leap from one religion to another than from lukewarmness to fundamentalism; surely it wouldn’t take all that much to turn a lukewarm Christian into a fundamentalist one. But maybe this too is exactly the wrong way of looking at the matter; maybe, for example, dissident Christians have more in common with dissident Muslims than they have with fundamentalist Christians, who in turn may have more in common with fundamentalist Muslims than with their formal co-religionists. Maybe it’s objectively easier to make the leap from, say, being fundamentalist Christian to being fundamentalist Muslim, or from liberal Hindu to liberal Christian, than to change your style of religion, from liberal to fundamentalist for example.
Perhaps we are talking here about individual psychology as much as about cultural and social influences; perhaps what unites fundamentalists of every kind is a lack of understanding, an apprehension or even an outright fear of how the world is changing. Fundamentalists are keen to get back to the foundations of their religion, and two words there ought to give us pause: ‘back’ and ‘foundations’. As a pilgrim people, we can go only forward from where we really are now; back there is where we have come from, not where we are going. To want to stay where we are, let alone to want to go back, shows a lack of courage, a lack of faith. We might not agree about what direction we ought to take from here, but that’s a different discussion. And ‘foundations’ gives us the wrong picture, of a building whose shape and stability once established must owe little or nothing to the inspiration or creativity or changed circumstances of later builders. If this is right, we need, first to reject decisively Christian fundamentalism, and then to learn far more than we generally do about our fellow non-fundamentalists in non-Christian religions, about their religious customs and their ways-of-speaking about spiritual matters.
It has sometimes been observed that converts to any religion are often ‘more Catholic than the Pope’. Unlike most birthright members of a religion, they know – or think they know – exactly why they have converted. They can’t help seeing their pre-conversion views as wrong and perhaps evil rather than merely different and maybe misguided or just underdeveloped. They also have to show their new co-religionists how keen they are in their new religion. For all these reasons, converts have a marked tendency towards fundamentalism. That may be in itself a good reason not to encourage conversion – the making of an abrupt change of religious allegiance – but rather to encourage ‘developmentalism’. I’d rather see Muslims developing their understanding of Islam to take account of what they learn from other religions and ways-of-thinking, including the scientific method, and still praying in the mosque, than see them converting to Christianity. For the same reason, I’d prefer to see birthright Christians being encouraged by the churches to develop their inherited religion to take account of new understanding and new circumstances rather than being driven by church inertia and stubbornness towards a possibly ‘fundamentalist’ Atheism. And in both cases, ‘developing’ will mean discarding old ideas as well as adopting new ones – exactly what fundamentalist cannot bring themselves to do.
We might ask which approach might be favoured by the Jesus who could see past the Good Samaritan’s bastardised Jewish religion to his human kindness; the Jesus who quarrelled with his extremely observant, one might say ‘fundamentalist’, fellow Jews, the Pharisees; the Jesus for whom the Sabbath had to have human utility. And also the Jesus who carefully showed how his approach to faith built on, but crucially went beyond, his inherited Judaism. I’m pretty sure that Jesus would find himself in the ‘developmentalist’ rather than the ‘fundamentalist’ camp. If you think you take notice of what Jesus said – as distinct from what St Paul said he was – I don’t think you can be a fundamentalist. The real Jesus demands your attention, not your worship. 

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