Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 4, 2002
What is fundamentalism?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
Since the September tragedy in the U.S., we’ve seen a lot of references to fundamentalism. Exactly what is fundamentalism? Where does it originate?
There are so many ways this term can be interpreted, my response is bound not to satisfy everybody. But I shall try to give you a bit of background and then look at how it is used today.
Originally, the word referred to a specific conservative type of Christian belief that was influential in North American Protestantism. Fundamentalism was an interdenominational movement which began in the early 1900s in reaction to secularism and liberal theology in the seminaries and universities.
In 1895, a Christian Bible conference drew up five points of strict belief which became the rules of fundamentalism. The first was on the literal inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible which served as the basis for the others; the deity of Jesus Christ, the Virgin birth, Christ’s atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, Christ’s physical resurrection and future bodily return to judge.
The movement is considered to have begun between 1905 and 1915 with the publication of 12 small volumes entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. These defended the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, opposed higher criticism, evolution and the social gospel. In 1919, a militant World’s Christian Fundamentals Association was founded and rallies were held throughout North America.
In the 1920s, the name “fundamentalists” came into use. Many Protestant churches were split into fundamentalist and modernist groups. Fundamentalist theological seminaries were founded -- among them Princeton, Harvard and Union -- to counteract the influence of the more liberal theological schools. Today, neither the methods nor the name of the former movement are used, but its ideas are, by no means, extinct.
There were parallel tendencies in Catholic theology. Some opposed the scientific study of Scripture and tried to defend nearly every sentence in the Bible according to its literal interpretation. They rejected the distinguishing of literary forms in the Bible. However, the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943 and other instructions from the Pontifical Biblical Commission have supported scientific and literary study of Scripture.
Today the word “fundamentalist” refers to those who hold a literal interpretation of scriptural texts, as well as other beliefs, and live by that understanding. There are fundamentalists in every Christian denomination.
Fundamentalism seems to be an attempt to hold on to simple, easy answers rather than dealing with the messiness of human lives and their struggles. It seems to stem from a fear of change, of involvement in a complex modern world.
But Jesus did not give simple answers. He gave his responses by telling parables, stories of nature, of real life. He challenged people to have faith, but also to change and not remain static. It’s not surprising that frequently Jesus says, “Fear not,” for fear is our greatest enemy.
The term “fundamentalist” is applied to people from other religions too, not just Christians. Each religion seems to have varying degrees of understanding and application of their Scriptures. Hence, you have different groupings of Muslims, of Jews and of others according to the strictness of their beliefs and practices.
There are different degrees of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists generally believe that their interpretation of their scriptures is correct and there can be no other. This interpretation forms their supreme law. They are usually against anything modern, including self-determination and freedom. Sometimes their view is authoritarian and radical.
Taken to extremes, this form of fundamentalism can lead to intolerance and violence, as we saw in the Sept.11 tragedy.
The literal interpretation of Scripture seems to give simple, easy answers to people who seem to prefer not having to use their own conscience and judgment in deciding life’s issues. Therefore it is not surprising that fundamentalist views appeal strongly to many people at this time when the world is in turmoil.
For us – Catholics -- the Church no longer seems to make great demands on us or give us rigid answers to our questions that it seemed to before Vatican II. So we tend to develop our own narrow views, or we turn to some of the churches which do provide strict direction and simple answers.
But we need to really listen to Jesus telling his disciples and us, “Fear not . . . I am always with you . . . My Father and I are always working for you . . . Peace be with you.”