01 March 2010

Fundamentalists' Fragile, Fearful, Faith

Over the past several months I've been reading Fred Clark's critique of the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, on Slacktivist (and don't we all wish we'd thought of that pun?). It's slow going because he has literally hundreds of posts devoted to it (and here's a handy index to all of them). I've enjoyed them for many reasons. Clark's an excellent writer (unlike LaHaye and Jenkins), often laugh-out-loud funny, and has great insights into just why these books are more of a crap-fest than any randomly chosen set of Harlequin romances. Like this:
While trying to find some way home from the airport, Rayford Steele checks his mail and finds an in-joke between the book's co-authors:
Besides a pile of the usual junk, he found a padded envelope from his home address. Irene had taken to mailing him little surprises lately, the result of a marriage book she had been urging him to read. ...

That's probably a reference to one of these books by Tim LaHaye. He's written several books on the subject, which is interesting coming from a man whose own key to marital bliss was to convince his wife to get a job 3,000 miles away.

Or this, when a doctor hanging around the airport's first-class lounge after the rapture which has caused numerous planes to crash at the airport, injuring hundreds, decides to help out--by patching up another first-class passenger who's got an owie on his head.
Nothing to do in the airport except to sit around in the "exclusive Pan-Con Club" and stare out the window watching the rescue workers and EMTs below scurry from plane crash to plane crash. It's kind of amusing for a while, seeing them set up a desperate triage there among the smoke and the broken bodies, separating the gravely wounded from those in need only of First Aid and those merely suffering from shock after the loss of their loved ones. But it gets old eventually, just sitting there, so what the heck -- why not patch up that rich guy's bleeding scalp over there?

But I've enjoyed them also because he's a Christian (although not an Real True Christian (RTC)--read his posts to get the joke), and so provides a Christian critique of the "strange 19th-century heresies that L&J peddle as biblical truth" (aka, premillennial dispensationalism). Any non-Christian (or, like me, lapsed one) could mock their version of the faith, but there's a special insightfulness that comes from someone who still believes, that the others just can't match. Another day I will probably comment on some of Clark's critique of LaHaye and Jenkins' theology, but today his critique of fundamentalism's essential fragility is what caught my eye. It's spot on.
Working with other churches is perilously ecumenical. Ecumenism -- cooperation among disparate Christian churches in recognition of our underlying unity -- is not considered a Good Thing by people like Billings, or Lahaye and Jenkins. Even the most harmless-seeming forms of cooperation, such as taking turns providing shelter through a local interfaith hospitality network or some such, are too dangerous. It's a slippery slope from there to syncretism, the collapse of absolute standards, moral relativism, one world religion,...

The fundies' white-knuckled anxiety -- their barely repressed doubts and their fear that their faith may be a house of cards that would crumble if exposed to the wider world -- seems to be spreading to other branches of the evangelical movement. That's the predictable result of adding weird mythologies to one's faith. The fundies convinced themselves that if the world is any older than 10,000 years then Jesus doesn't love them. Thus they have to avoid all exposure to science. Evangelicals are trying to convince themselves that homosexuality is a choice and that the invasion of Iraq was God's Will. Like the fundies, they have welded these ideas to the bearing walls of their faith, so that if they are not true, then nothing is true. They thus find themselves, like the fundies, having to avoid exposure to an awful lot of the real world around them.

The irony, of course, is that fundamentalists believe in an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and eternal God, yet they don't believe in a God big enough to have created a 6.5 billion year old world or to have allowed evolution by natural selection to occur over the course of billions of years. It's not just that they don't believe the science--they believe that the science and God are mutually exclusive, which makes their faith exceptionally brittle. Even worse, while they will talk about the mysteries of God, about his knowledge that surpasses human understanding, they flatly reject the mystery of God both knowing the end and allowing it to unfold naturally, rather than supernaturally, precisely because it surpasses their understanding. Their talk of mystery is just empty words because their vision of God is not truly big enough to encompass mystery.

And for that they are to be pitied, for mystery, with its attendant wonder, is one of the sublime experiences of life. As Edmund Burke wrote, sublimity inspires fear, and "[i]nfinity fills the find with that sort of delightful horror which is the truest test of the sublime." But that sort of delightful horror is a terror to the fundamentalist, who, in a fearful desperation, seeks the certainty that comes with clarity. Burke, again, provides an insight:
To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary, for a great deal of apprehension vanishes when we are able to see the full extent of any danger. Night adds to our dread of ghosts; ... Clearness, on the other hand, is not the same as beauty; it is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination.

And there is the great failing of fundamentalism. By emphasizing absolute clarity, so that they do not have to experience the horror of sublimity which they so fear, they have created an ideology--not a faith, which does not require clarity, whereas ideologies do--that cannot truly affect the imagination. Which is to say that it cannot truly touch the heart, or the soul, which are always and ever stirred by the imagination.

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