Bishop Bhai Articles

The Challenge (and Danger?) of Fundamentalisms

Leobard D’Souza
Archbishop Emeritus of Nagpur

In my salad days, when my companions and I began the formal study of moral theology, we used to be amazed at the fact that we learned an absolute, and then the one hundred or so exceptions to it! You will understand that most of us felt that this gave a whole new definition to the world “absolute”. As one wag eventually put it, “The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.”

In my maturity now, at least chronologically and I hope otherwise, I see the wisdom of the Catholic tradition in this. The best of our moral theologians taught us that we can never be completely certain of our knowledge. We have to use our brain power, to know the history of what seems to benefit humanity and what hurts it, but there is a point at which we must admit that we do not know all that we need to know or we would be God! We inform our consciences and those of the persons in our charge and ultimately we must leave the outcome of their decisions in the hands of God.

Not so with fundamentalists of any sort. Fundamentalists are proponents of the “only way”, whether they are political, social, or religious fundamentalists, and sometimes they are a combination of all three. This is why I refer to fundamentalism s in the title of these reflections. Many see fundamentalism as religion’s “least enlightened form” (Bernard Brandon Scott) and surely not without reason. But it is spreading throughout the world in terms of all the major religions and also in a variety of cults and sects. Some even suggest that fundamentalism is thriving although we do not know how many converts to fundamentalist ways of living remain with the organizations. As one young woman put it recently, “I have been high on both drugs and Jesus and neither lasts.”

But we need to account for fundamentalism especially if we intend to give our lives to religious and philosophical concerns and to the authentic animation and empowerment of people. The fundamentalist politicians in India are important for us to understand but for this article I want to stay with Christian fundamentalism which has major applications, for example, to groups like Catholics United for the Faith and even some segments of the charismatic movements.

The roots of modern Christian fundamentalism can be traced to the United States beginning in 1910. A series of pamphlets appeared then designed to “save” Christianity from the onslaught of the biblical criticism coming from Germany and from Darwinism. There were fundamentals at the essence of the Christian tradition which could not be ignored or changed, according to these people who soon came to be called Fundamentalists. They also insisted and insist on a literal interpretation of the bible something which is a sham because there is no literal interpretation of those books possible.

Jesus was not a shepherd nor did he keep sheep. “God did not have intercourse with my mother so why call God father?” the Jesus Seminar scholar Brandon Scott questions while adding, “It sounds crude to make this point in this way but I am trying to point out the obvious. Biblical statements are all metaphorical as is the case with all significant religious statements.” (Religious liberals can, of course, also fall victim to literalism but that is the subject of another reflection.)

From 1991-95 two North American scholars, Martin Marty and Scott Appleby undertook a project to study fundamentalism. It is cross-disciplinary and consists of five volumes of over 8,000 pages. (A succinct summary of this work can be found online at The characteristics of fundamentalism are grouped under family resemblances, ideological characteristics, and organizational characteristics. Brandon Scott suggests that as Christians there are two characteristics we ought to look at immediately, viz.: 1) fundamentalist movements are led by males; and 2) they are opposed to the modern efforts to distribute power, especially to women.

Simply put, the fundamentalist system is “father makes the rules, and/or enforces the rules.” Everyone else gets to keep the rules. This making and enforcing of rules is the male prerogative reminding us of the adage making the rounds in enlightened Christian circles that “where God is male the male is God.” What is at work here is the hierarchy and patriarchy of the ancient Roman and Greek world still so much a part of so many of our institutions today. The message is, there are rules, and they are absolutes allowing for no exceptions. Relativism is immoral. These rules are based on the natural order of things and those who break them must be punished. The world is black and white, no grays, and a terrifying place which can be saved from total chaos only by the rules.

Christian fundamentalists often talk of their nation as a family, and their church as a family, and they mean a traditional family with a male in charge of it. They need and want this father figure as an enforcer. They are usually fearful and often even reluctant to admit that a truly good family has both a father figure and a mother figure, and that the mother is usually the nurturing parent. It is reported of the late John Paul I that one of his first comments after his election was to the effect that “Our God is far more a Mama than a Papa.” It is likely that his hope was for his pontificate to be of the nurturing rather than the enforcer variety. We need not look too hard to see what the father as a strict enforcer does. It results in dysfunctional families and depressed women.

Brandon Scott, whose field of expertise is the parables, argues that the bulk of Christian fundamentalists and of Christians in general, do not accept that when Jesus speaks of and to “Abba” he is not addressing the strict enforcer father God but the nurturing parent God. Scott cites the parable of the Prodigal Sons in particular in which the father responds in maternal ways of the time, even in addressing the elder son as teknon, a mother’s term for a child like, “Baby, you are always with me.” Brandon also reminds us that in a very early period some followers of Jesus grew uncomfortable with the intimacy of Abba and shifted away from the egalitarian to the hierarchical until the bishop becomes pater familias in the Roman hierarchical and patriarchal mode. Jesus appears to have been far more comfortable with his title of teacher.

I am simplifying some of these issues almost to the point of caricature but I think some things are eminently clear. Jesus was about nurturing and Abba was and is the Divine Nurturer. Read the documents of Vatican II carefully and you will see that nurturing is tantamount in them! Some women have told me that they read those documents with tears of gratitude streaming down their cheeks feeling that they had finally come into their own right in the church as nurturers.

What practical insights ought we to take from this all too brief reflection on this huge topic? I remind you that the bulk of our people experience religious life in liturgy. I suggest we need far more democratic and nurturing metaphors in our liturgy. As Scott puts it “We no longer need hymns to Jesus our Lord and Master, but to Jesus our lover and friend.”

We need liturgy that celebrates life in the present moment not just the past. We need inclusive language as a start and we need poetry. Should we perhaps have liturgy that provides rituals for divorce as well as marriage, for recovering alcoholics and members of other twelve-step programmes? Should we be sure that our language is genuinely uplifting and poetic instead of transliterations of ancient language that has no meaning in the twentieth century scientific worldview?

Surely we need a new asceticism that celebrates silence and tells us to drown out the media roar that distorts the possibility of our true life. Perhaps above all, we religious professionals must admit to ourselves and to our people that we know a great deal but we do not know it all. We must admit that along with all our brothers and sisters we are searching for the Truth, a never-ending commitment to the absolute justice and compassion inherent in the nature of the loving kindness of our God.

We must believe that each of us knows something and not one of us knows everything. We must be open to learning from and with each other and all others. Is there any other way for the nurturing Jesus and his Abba to be alive and well among us?


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