6 Things I Learned From Fundamentalism

Most of my spiritual history can be divided into two eras; my youth, when I fell into the arms of fundamentalism, and my adulthood, where I am struggling to piece back together a faith with eyes and arms. In this era of reconstruction and resurrection, I am deeply unsatisfied with some of the simpler confessions of my youth. I am willing, even eager, to consider new answers to questions once firmly settled, with an eye toward emerging with answers that are more robust, more tangible.

It would be tempting to wash the slate. It would be tempting to throw away the coat and start over, rather than mending and patching, searching for usable cloth. But that doesn’t seem to be the best way to go about this. There are things we can learn from fundamentalism, things that the more conservative voices at the table have to offer.

Here are six of them:

1) Guilt is useful. There are some things that we do that should make us feel guilty. And there’s a good reason why it feels bad; it makes me want to not feel that way again. Guilt, at its best, helps us locate moral error, with an eye toward repentance and correction.

2) God makes us awkward. The cross is still foolishness, the kingdom is still other-worldly, and possession by a spirit, holy or otherwise, still makes enlightened minds cringe. We do and say and believe things that mark us as people not fully at home in this place, and for good reason. Awkwardness, at its best, reminds us that we are citizens of a foreign land.

3) We should expect redemption to cause transformation. God is still a righteous God, and he calls his people to imitate him in that. That kind of imitation necessitates leaving some things behind. He calls us to personal transformation, and he calls us to communal transformation. We ought to work it out in ourselves, and we ought to look for those around us on the same path to be working it out in themselves as well. Expectation, at its best, allows the community to strengthen the individual.

4) Materialism is a corrupting force. It would be good for us to remember that we share this in common with fundamentalism. They, too, recognize that our consumer driven, materially motivated culture is difficult soil for the growing up of kingdom people. Frugality and Asceticism, at their best, recognize that the purposes of this life are not fiscal or material; they are deeper and richer and altogether more beautiful.

5) What we put into our minds affects what comes out. I watch movies. I listen to music. My tolerance for the ugly and the base has ebbed upward over the years. I know all of the exegesis that declares my freedom in Christ, that declares that it is not what goes in that makes me unclean, but I also know that the things that come in through my eyes and my ears stay in my mind, and become the source material for my private ruminations. Who I am, in some part, is altered by what I spend my time absorbing. Abstinence from baser things, at its best, acknowledges and values and preserves purity as a feature of the spiritual mind.

6) Worship, Awe, and Fear aren’t so unrelated as we think. Fundamentalism carries with it a sort of holy awe, a fear of the Divine that the rest of us somehow became too sophisticated for. Fear, the good kind of fear, isn’t an outward statement toward others, it isn’t a raised fist and a shouted, “Thus Saith The Lord!” – rather, it is an inward crushing humility, a full recognition of the real state of affairs. We should never forget that we are caged with lions, children in the presence of a mighty God. Fear, at its best, gives depth and texture to the wonder of intimacy.

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29 thoughts on “6 Things I Learned From Fundamentalism

  1. Pingback: Hey, Ya Know What?

  2. aly hawkins

    Michael, your humility is an example for all of us stumbling along the path of Christ. Beatiful writing.

  3. Morphea

    I find myself agreeing with you on most of these points, sunk as I am in godless self-absorption. Especially number 1. Guilt’s a tough word to bandy about in our world of pop psychology, but there’s a place, as you said, for unease in the way we’ve acted and turning away. I’ll add that the concept of penance, borrowed by my Theology prof. from the Catholics, also bears me through periods of guilt for wrong actions. Some sort of action that at least attempts to right the wrong and simultaneously symbolizes my going in a new direction. Sometimes it eases my regrets and sometimes it doesn’t. For instance, I (ew, this blows) accepted a cell phone call from my parents whilst having dessert and coffee with my husband. He felt pretty marginalized and I felt like pond scum. I felt so crappy that I gave him a long back massage before bed. Silly, I know, but a little of my regret at having acted like those jerks with cell phones that everybody hates (not to mention hurting Ramon’s feelers) went away and he 1. felt loved and very relaxed and 2. smelled like pears all the next day.

    Very thought-provoking, Michael. It would behoove me to remember that my spiritual life up until age 20 or so was not ALL bad. Maybe not even mostly bad. And I believe I learned good things. Thanks for the kind reminder.


  4. Morphea

    I think I just killed this comment line. Using the words “husband”, “back massage”, and “before bed” will never happen again, I promise you all. Hoo boy.


  5. aly hawkins

    [snorting with hilarity] You even made ME squirm for a split second! (The seventh thing I learned from fundamentalism is puritanical discomfort with anything which might be construed to indicate intimate relations between people, even if they are lawfully married.)

  6. Chad

    Nothing happened? What a shame! :) I am resisting the desire to make innapropriate comments about how to REALLY let Ramon know you’re sorry.
    I don’t know about the idea of penance, as I have never been schooled in Catholic doctrine. Off the cuff, I think the idea may be a little distracting to the actual work that Jesus calls us to do in our lives.
    The idea of the massage is more like the idea restoration in my book. You feel badly, repent, and try and act in a tangible, measureable, and meaningful way to communicate with the offended party that you mean what you say.
    The real test of one’s repentance is their resolve to change the behavior, and to continue restoration when one falls into it again. Perhaps I am caught up in semantics, as again, I have very little understanding of Catholicism.

  7. Morphea

    Restoration. Maybe that’s a better word for what I mean. At any rate, it really helps me to practice it. Thanks for clearing that up a little Chadlies. I don’t know much about Catholicism, either.

    I thought about offering a more…exciting token of my regret to Ramon, but it was late. Well, see, I’m doing it again. CHAD!!

    Thanks to whoever lets us break for a paragraph now without having to put a period there, by the way.


  8. Doug

    How about the word restitution? Certainly it had a place in the practice of the people of the Torah and in the gospels (“Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”)
    The wisdom of the Twelve Steps also includes this idea of restitution- calling it amends-
    #8 Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
    #9 Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others

    The goal in all of this, be it penance, restoration or restitution is our own healing more than to necessarily benefit or repay the injured party. There is something inherently selfish in that, isnt there?
    We attempt to assuage our guilt in a variety of ways, but could it be that we are more concerned about ourselves than the other?

  9. corey

    Doug, you make a good point- but to me it feels less capitalist (like am only investing in the wronged solely for the profit of their forgiveness or good graces) and more that I am a willing passenger on that timeline of God’s doing of a good work in me. It calls me to action, but I hope that while my hands and feet are in the process of restitution, my eyes are fixed on the One who has me doing it.

    I dunno, though. Didn’t CS Lewis say that nothing we do is entirely selfless? I have to agree that, as a broken creation, I am incapable of ignoring the fringe benefits that come from restitution.

  10. michael lee Post author

    Doug, your reformed roots are showing; sounds suspiciously like TULIP to me!

    I don’t know if I’m ready to consign everything we do on the basis of internal motivations to “selfishness” – certainly we do most things with a multiplicity of purposes. I think we tip over that edge when the satisfaction of the internal motivations leads us to treat others are merely a means to that end, and not as ends in and of themselves (look at that, it’s 300 years later, and Kant and Calvin are still duking it out!)

  11. Doug

    “All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you
    I’ve never had a selfless thought since I was born
    I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through
    I want God, you, all friends merely to serve my turn

    Peace, reassurance, pleasure are the goals I seek
    I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin
    I talk of love, a scholar’s parrot may talk greek
    but, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin” Clives

    We Calvinists don’t want claim any goodness of our own. We are always worried becoming Semi-Pelagian.

  12. Larry Edgar

    I’m trying to remember what it was like when I was in Catholic school back in the 60′s. But the Roman Church has changed so much, that I hesitate to say anything. And I suspect that interpretation of what constitutes penance will vary from place to place, from theologian to theologian.

    But since people were wondering, I thought I would look it up in my copy of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (articles 1459 and 1460) and share it. Forgive the extent of the post:

    “Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (eg, return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and his neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something mor to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance.’”

    “The penance the confessor (that would be the priest hearing the confession, nowadays I guess they call it ‘Sacrament of Reconciliation’) imposes must take into account the penitent’s personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, ‘provided we suffer with him.’(Catechism refers to Romans 8:17, 3:25, 1 John 2:1-2, Council of Trent, etc).”

    The Catechism continues with a quote:

    “The satisfaction that we make for our sins, however, is not so much ours as though it were not done through Jesus Christ. We who can do nothing ourselves, as if just by ourselves, can do all things with the cooperation of ‘him who strengthens’ us. Thus man has nothing of which to boast, but all our boasting is in Christ. . . in whom we make satisfaction by bringing forth ‘fruits that befit repentance.’ These fruits have their efficacy from him, by him they are offered to the Father, and through him they are accepted by the Father.”

    I’m understanding from another catechism I have that penance can be understood as the whole process of reconciliation, of notonly satisfaction, but of confession, contrition, absolution, too.

  13. michael lee Post author

    Thank you for sharing that, Larry. I’m realizing that a lot of my understanding of Roman Catholic doctrine comes from hearsay and assumption, and not so much from reading what they’ve actually written and said.

    This sort of penance sounds more like an act of spiritual discipline than some kind of ontologically efficacious self-redemption.

    (That last sentence doesn’t actually mean anything, but those words looked pretty all strung together like that)

  14. Morphea

    Well, I can always be accused of ontologically efficacious self-redemption, certainly, and it may be that my own personal picture of penance (helped along greatly by each and every one of you, esp. Larry, who is The Man) is indeed wrapped up in my own wish to assuage my own conscience.

    However, we are flawed – nothing we do can ever be wholly purely motivated (thank you, Corey) – and so I have to trust somehow that even well-intentioned (and well-thought-and-prayed-out) acts of righting our wrongs can be used by god for the good of our souls and those we may come in contact with during the act. And if I had dithered too much with doubting my motives Ramon wouldn’t have slept half so well.

    Doug, I believe penance is very much selfishly motivated, but I also believe (here’s your secular pop-psychology moment for the day) that we have a duty to caring for ourselves almost as tenderly as we’d care for a sister or brother in need. That’s where I believe you and I may differ, I’m not sure. You may also differ from the belief I hold that a sliver of innate goodness does rest within our best intentions and strongest impulses to inculcate justice in our own actions as well as insisting on it from others. Or if it doesn’t perhaps god steps in and fashions our stumbling efforts into holy acts. So I keep on trying it. Thank you for the poem and steps # 8 and 9, brother.


  15. Doug

    It is good and right to care for ourselves in the sense that we put ourselves in the path of grace so that we may receive healing. This is not totally selfish in that the more healed and whole we become the less likely we are to inflict further damage on others around us. As for innate goodness I can only speak of myself and I have not yet found any in me. Oh I do good things but my motive is often so that others will think me good or that I may convince myself of it. There is I believe a work of Grace in my life so that sometimes goodness comes forth in spite of me.

  16. aly hawkins

    I’ve got to go with the semi-pelagians on this one. I may not always do the good thing, but the desire to do good is always there, and if it’s not winning, it’s at least putting up a good fight with the desire to do evil. And I don’t think it’s just because I want people to think I’m terrific (though that would be nice.) There is a real, actual urge to be a part of making things right and beautiful in the world. Go, Pelagius!

  17. Morphea

    Well, I have to say that I was raised with “we are all as an unclean thing, all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Is. 64:6) crammed down my throat, so I of course would also like to to with the semi-pelagians as well.

    Thank you both, Aly and Doug, for putting both viewpoints so humanely. I’m going to have to copy them down and keep them somewhere – I’ve never had both sides presented so well.


  18. Larry Edgar

    I have a question and I’m not certain how to express it – would there be a relationship between the ideas of semi-Pelagianism and panENtheism, say that one would be the result of the other? I’ve been thinking about panENtheism recently.

  19. Larry Edgar

    As I read about it, I think I do “fall into” a panentheistic box, as opposed to a Theist box.
    Also I found in the breviary I’m currently using, “Celtic Daily Prayer” by the Northumbria Community, that they’ve replaced the Feast Day for St. Augustine with one for Pelagius. If I remember correctly, it’s Sept. 28.

  20. michael lee Post author

    Larry, I’m not sure that panentheism and theism are all that distinct in Christian thought. The word panentheism is big enough to encompass a wide variety of construals, but a Christian panentheism would be one that views God as the sustaining force behind existence, as a neccesary condition for anything to exist at all. An immanence that sees God present in all things. I think it’s a pretty common feature of Christian theism to hold to this kind of panenetheism.

    It gets a bit more difficult if we want to say that all of existene is part of the substance of God, or that existence of the material world is an essential component of the existence of God (a sort of panentheism that sees divinity as an emerging property of the organized universe). The word panentheism also gets used to describe that view of divine immanence.

    Maybe you can expand a little bit on the sort of panentheism you’ve been thinking about.

  21. Larry Edgar

    Well, basically immanence / transcendence, But what the balance is I’m not sure. In some ways is it possible to try to describe in words something which is beyond our ken, although maybe we can “point at it”. It’s something that I’ll have to go back to journal about.

    On the other hand, I wonder if a lot of us hold to some sort of underlying view that God is more of a stage magician / watchmaker. That viewpoint seems to me sort of gnostic, I guess. A symptom of that viewpoint I once saw a church marquee in Westminster that had: “B.I.B.L.E: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

  22. Larry Edgar

    Thinking more about panentheism, maybe I’m going off the deep end – I think I see that not only humans, but all animals, plants, even the stars and planets, all creation, has some “spark” of God in them. So much so that I understand that my weeding a garden, or helping to restore a native plant habitat, is valued service to God, irregardless of whether it helps people or not.

    But, is there God in Exxon, is there God in a nuclear weapon, or other things that humans have made?

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