Understanding World Religious Fundamentalisms, Part 3: Christian Fundamentalism in Philosophical Perspective
All religious fundamentalists oppose secular modernity. Modernity as an historical period began in the 17th century with the Scientific Revolution (7). Before the advent of modernity in the West, the Church and its teachings was the final authority intellectually and culturally. Two major events precipitated the rise of modernity: the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century that split the Western Church, leaving Christians without a unified authority, and the Scientific Revolution, which ushered in the Age of Reason, also known as the Enlightenment. For the first time, it was thought man could find truth through science without faith. Human reasoning based on the empirical method became the basis of intellectual authority rather than faith and tradition. At this point, philosophy split from theology and became a separate discipline. Since fundamentalists insist that faith and tradition are the ultimate authority, they strongly oppose modernity.
The Enlightenment period lasted until the end of the 18th century. In the 19th century, several philosophers rose up to challenge modernity. Kierkegaard saw faith as absurd, a gift from God, a passionate relationship with God that defies logic. He believed that human reason is limited and cannot grasp the eternal (8). Nietzsche attacked modernity as well as religion. Enlightenment thinkers looked to the future with confidence and optimism about the prospects of universal progress, and many looked toward an age without God or religion. But without God, Nietzsche believed humans were faced with meaninglessness, life without orientation or direction. Once people affirm the death of God, they face nihilism.
The optimism of the modernist liberals who saw promise in Western civilization suffered a serious blow on the bloody battlefields of World War I. Shortly after the war, Karl Barth published his commentary on the book of Romans and in it rejected 19th century liberal religious thinking. He agreed with Kierkegaard that God is transcendent and the human understanding of God is always inadequate. Barth rejected religion as man-made; he instead argued that people need to focus on revelation from God. He believed humans aren’t capable of judging what the truth is. They must accept by faith that the Bible is a witness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and it is God who grants a person the possibility of accepting that revelation (9).
In 1947 Carl Henry, a key founder of the evangelical movement, published The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, criticizing fundamentalists for being too sectarian and urging them to be proactive in overcoming social ills (10). He defended the idea of rational presuppositionalism, that all human thought starts with a set of presuppositions that can’t be proven but can be defended rationally (11). He proposed that Christians must start with the presupposition that the Bible is the Word of God, God’s revelation to the human race. He believed God’s revelation is given primarily in propositions that people can easily understand (an idea termed “the perspicuity of Scripture”). He saw truth as “objective, absolute, and universal” (12).
In the mid-20th century, critics of theologians like Barth and Carl Henry argued that the way people receive and think about truth is largely shaped by their culture. Philosophers, notably Ludwig Wittgenstein, spoke of a “linguistic turn,” “the idea that language is not simply a transparent medium for thought but is constitutive of thought and of the way we experience the world” (13). In other words, truth is not always objective, absolute, or universal.
Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, rejected both the liberal and the fundamentalist ways of thinking about God’s revelation. He believed that humans can’t know whether or not a revelation is from God but need to be open to the possibility. He taught that the process of learning what God is saying began in the Bible and must continue throughout history (14).
After World War II, a fundamentalist Muslim group, the Muslim Brotherhood, advocated the use of “politics and force” (15) to promote Islam. In response, modernist secularists and atheists have renewed their fight against fundamentalism. In general, such atheists see religion as a threat to society, a society that they think should be guided by reason rather than “blind” faith.
The rise of fundamentalist Christianity and Islam into politics in the 1970s has alarmed some. Since 9-11, criticism of religion, especially fundamentalist Islam, has gained a greater following. Voices raised against religion by the “new atheists”—such as Sam Harris, The End of Faith; Bill Maher, Religulous; and Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion—attack religion as irrational, intolerant, and even dangerous because, they say, intolerance leads to violence (16).
However, others argue that religious fundamentalism offers some things that are very attractive, things that secular humanism and the new atheists cannot offer: certainty, group identity, community, moral absolutes, and hope of salvation. Christian and Islamic fundamentalists both challenge modern rationalism and point to what they feel are its limits and inadequacies (17).
7. Tyler Roberts, Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition (Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company, 2009), 1. There is some debate regarding the exact dates of the period.
8. Ibid., 56-57.
9. Ibid., 76-78.
10. Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (originally published 1947; reprinted, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 35. Henry wrote “There is no room here for a gospel that is indifferent to the needs of the total man nor of the global man.”
11. Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1999), 607.
12. Douglas Groothuis, book review, “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism” (1 Jan 2004, Denver Seminary Website). Web. 6 July 2013.
13. Roberts, 102.
15. Ibid., 105.
16. See, for example, Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), the chapter entitled, “How ‘Moderation’ in Faith Fosters Fanaticism,” in which Dawkins refers to Christians blowing up abortion clinics and the Taliban’s unspeakable acts of cruelty, especially to women.
17. See Roxanne L. Euben, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism: A Work of Comparative Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). Euben presents the nature and scope of the challenges of Islamic fundamentalism to Western rationalism. She shows how the work of important 19th and 20th century Islamic thinkers has much in common with Western critics of modernity and how it also offers additional, fresh insights.
Part 1: Introduction to Religious Fundamentalism