Monday, 17 July 2017

Pity the Fundamentalists

Posted by Mirjam Scarborough*
          with Thomas Scarborough

Ferdinand Hodler - Die Lebensmüden (Tired of Life) 1892

What is it that sustains the fundamentalist?  I should say, the religious fundamentalist.  In particular, the fundamentalist who is willing to give up everything for God?  Of this description, there are fundamentalists of many kinds: missionaries, militants, medics, volunteers – priests, nuns, imams, rabbis – anyone for whom God means the world, and proves it by his or her sacrifice.

I had the privilege of researching religious fundamentalism through a ten-year study of women missionaries in Central Africa.  These represented the most committed members of fundamentalist faith**.  In a sense, they were the foot soldiers of the avant garde.  They were the leading edge – ready to give up everything in the name of God: friends, comforts, health, security, even freedom, children, life itself.

The reason why they did it, not unexpectedly, was that fundamentalists see themselves as being under orders – and these are orders from God himself.  The orders may go by various names: God's summons, commission, commandment, burden, among other terms.  In the case of the women missionaries, it was a 'call'. 

This call from God is not 'empty', so to speak.  It is rich in content.  Yet one thing characterises it above all.  God’s demands are high.  His paragons are perfect.  One gives much and expects little.  The orders which the religious fundamentalist receives make the highest demands – indeed they represent, generally speaking, the hardest tasks that anyone may aspire to. 

The question of my research was simple: 'What is it that sustains such a call?'

My intuitive answer was: God himself.  It is sufficient to know that one is called by God, to see one through any challenge and hardship on earth – and then, in many cases, to add to it love.  In fact, this proved to be true, and was borne out by the research.  Orders from God – or the perception of orders from God – encouraged the religious fundamentalist to great commitment and endurance, heroism and sacrifice.

However, it didn’t last.  It couldn’t last.  In the long term – which was about four years – the heroes crumbled.  There were intense stresses.  Their expectations were deeply challenged.  They suffered severe emotional trauma and exhaustion.  In fact, it was accepted as the norm that one would 'break down' in year four. Most, if not all of the missionaries I interviewed, needed medical interventions to stabilise their condition.

Even then, statistically, 50% of them were lost to the mission every thirteen years. Worse than that, anecdotal evidence showed that their spouses and children may have suffered the deepest trauma.

The call of God sustained them at first. It inspired them to extraordinary commitment and endurance. Up to a point, my assumptions were on target. Those who feel that they are called by God – perhaps ordered, summoned, commanded, commissioned by him – are sustained by the call. But as months grow into years, they nearly all crumble. They are utterly depleted.

However, there was a surprise.  Some of fundamentalism's foot soldiers – by far not all – rebounded.  After their first leave of absence, broken and beaten, they returned to the mission field repaired, if not refreshed – to the very same circumstances – never to experience such crisis again.

What changed?  It was not their fundamentalism, really.  They did not lose the sense of being under the call and commandment of God, nor did they feel in any way that his high demands had slipped.  But they let go of personal effort, and they trusted God to do it – in spite of them.

It all turned, therefore, on their understanding of their trust in God. No longer did they trust God to give them super-human powers for the task, or an indomitable will.  Rather, in brokenness, they trusted him to bless their great weakness.  Some called it the purification of the call.  Some called it repentance.

It all hinged on this one thing: God is great – but he does not impart his greatness to us.  It does not rub off on mere mortals.

The religious fundamentalist – the avant garde – missionaries, militants, medics, volunteers – priests, nuns, imams, rabbis – anyone for whom God means the world, and prove it by their sacrifice – all are of only fleeting usefulness to the cause, if any usefulness at all, until their call is purified.  In fact, until then, if anecdotal evidence would be true, they do great damage not only to themselves but to all those close to them.

It is tragedy and ruin – until they find a realistic sense of themselves, and a realistic sense of the God they serve.  Pity the religious fundamentalists, and all those near to them – at least, those whose call has not yet been 'cleansed'.

* Rev. Dr. Mirjam Scarborough (1957-2011) was a doctor of philosophy and a missiologist.
** My study included some who are sooner referred to as 'revivalists'.


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I received a comment behind the scenes, from a theologian of note. It may be helpful to readers. While Mirjam Scarborough characterised the missionaries she studied as 'fundamentalists and revivalists', there is a question 'whether or not the definition of "fundamentalist" used is now in need of some refining and development for it means a range of things. Not all missionaries who were intensely committed were what we would normally call fundamentalists ...'

Keith said...

An interesting essay, Thomas! I do have a couple of follow-up inquiries, if I may. The placement of ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘radicalism’ as links at the bottom of the essay evokes the terms’ deep historical relevance and their deep modern relevance. In that push-pull dynamic between history and modernity, how might exegesis, in particular, get folded into the discussion here? Is there the potential for cleavage among religious fundamentalists in their approach to textual interpretation? That is, might there be tension, in both philosophy and practice, between, say, ‘originalists’ or ‘literalists’ — their conservatively hewing to the original wording and historical context, as best anyone can imperfectlyhope to know original intent — and ‘modernists’ — their liberally interpreting the wording to fit the many and varied modalities of today’s societies? I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith.

The fundamentalists and revivalists in Mirjam Scarborough’s study realised that they had misinterpreted what theologians would call special revelation (that which, in their view, was God’s communication with humankind, including his actions in this world). That is a matter of exegesis. But then there is the question as to how much dogma we may derive through healthy exegesis and how much of it is in fact ingrained in special revelation, regardless of the exegesis. Special revelation so-called, or which people accept as such, from here on.

Is the ‘actual dogma’ of special revelation, in any given case – assuming that one’s exegesis was sound – compatible with the way we think today? Or rather, is there any way that we can find it to be compatible with the way we think today? Even if we must adjust our thinking? If not, then the actual dogma must either be rejected, or it must be liberally interpreted. Assuming, that is, that we are able to tell the difference between actual dogma and liberal interpretation. Here is my personal view, which unfortunately I cannot adequately unfold in a comment:

There is special revelation which is false, not on the basis of the claims of its special revelation, but on the basis of its ‘truth value’, which is what above all ‘reaches actions’ to use a term of Thomas Jefferson's. The question then is how one may find the truth value before one approaches special revelation, to decide that it is true or false. Most theologians, I think, would say that this cannot be done. I think it can be done, in a sketchy kind of way.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr proposed that one may validate special revelation on the basis of its truth value. He wrote, ‘The truth of faith is correlated with all truths which may be known by scientific and philosophical disciplines.’ As I interpret him, special revelation (one may here read, history) is ultimately beyond proving or not – assuming no materialistic presuppositions. It needs to be credible not merely from the point of view of special revelation, but from the point of view of what is credible in itself, its truth value. That is my own answer, and I realise that it raises various questions.

If, though, one has a religion then where the truth value is contrary to the truth value of the state, then one has a situation where that religion is fundamentally seditious. Thomas Jefferson, by way of comparison, isolated the outer manifestations of religion, if I remember correctly. I would doubt, therefore, that he would have thought that religion can be fundamentally seditious.

What Mirjam Scarborough believed, I think, was simpler: that the particular fundamentalists and revivalists she studied had a special revelation that could be relied upon, but they misunderstood it.

docmartincohen said...

This is a very skilful essay, blending deep ideas with an elegant style. My own take on its message is that the religously motivated fundamentalists become (after their 'fall') people more like philosophers.

Keith said...

A lot to unpack and digest here. Thanks, Thomas, for taking the time, and investing the thought, to craft an in-depth response to my earlier query. I found all informative. A topic clearly near and dear to you.

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