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A Liberal Definition of Fundamentalism

Raymond J. Keating

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Was Pope John Paul II a fundamentalist? How about Pope Benedict XVI?

Raymond J. KeatingThe ranks of Roman Catholics who consider the former and current popes to be fundamentalists no doubt are pretty small. Even fewer fundamentalist Christians would count those popes indeed, any pope among their own ranks.

Nonetheless, at a lecture on September 21 at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, New York, the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church was categorized as fundamentalist by British author Karen Armstrong. The title of her speech was "The Battle for God," which came from her book "The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism."

Armstrong offered a variety of historical tidbits about fundamentalist movements in the three major monotheistic religions Judaism, Islam and Christianity. As one might expect in an address such as this, there were assertions to agree with and others to be taken to task. The latter, though, far outweighed the former.

Armstrong asserted that fundamentalists while desiring to get "back to fundamentals" do not embrace orthodoxy, but often offer new and unnorthodox views. There's some truth in that among various Christian fundamentalists, for example, regarding teachings about end times. She also pointed out that many fundamentalists choose to withdraw from society and create "sacred enclaves of faith." History shows that's not unusual.

Why the withdrawal? Well, Armstrong's bottom line was that fundamentalism is "a revolt against secular, liberal modernity." She went on to define two essentials of modern society. One being independence, including free markets and free ideas, and the second as innovation, which brings something fresh and new.

After listening to this well-educated, articulate person, however, it was nearly impossible to unearth clear boundaries of fundamentalism, particularly within Christianity.

When John Paul II and Benedict XVI get listed as fundamentalists - though fundamentalists in power, rather than in revolt, according to Armstrong -- such a definition of fundamentalism must be stunningly broad. Indeed, it is safe to say that most traditional Christians, cutting across denominations, worry about various ills of modernity. Does that make them fundamentalists? These Christians also embrace much of the freedom and innovation identified by Armstrong as lying at the core of modern society.

So, by the end of Armstrong's presentation, fundamentalism turned out to be murky and broad. That probably was a function of Armstrong's own views and leanings. Most of those outside liberal religious circles could be defined as fundamentalists by Armstrong's vague criteria. This former Roman Catholic nun rather flippantly classified Roman Catholics subscribing to papal infallibility, and Protestants to Scriptural infallibility as fundamentalists.

This contrasted sharply with her own beliefs, or perhaps more accurately, lack of beliefs. Armstrong declared that she didn't "belong to any particular tradition," and viewed "all as profoundly one." She continued: "I'm not much interested in defining belief." Armstrong didn't like certainty and doctrine, and asserted that "no one has the right answer for God." For her, she confessed, "at heart is compassion," that is "all that matters."

From a Christian perspective, problems with modernity are not about freedom and innovation per se. Instead, it's about modernism rejecting traditional, core beliefs and morals. Post-modernism then takes the next step in denying truth altogether.

Therefore, it was not surprising that Armstrong would classify traditional Christians, who have firm beliefs, as fundamentalists. Her views epitomize not just modernity, but post-modernism.

As a result, we got treated to the absurdity that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, along with seemingly all other Christians who challenge the relativistic left, rate as fundamentalists. In the end, of course, this reveals much more about the narrowness of so-called open-minded post-modernists, than it does about what a fundamentalist is or is not.

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Copyright Raymond J. Keating

Posted: 25-Sep-05

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