A must-read piece from Andrew Sullivan on fundamentalism and reason in religion. He does things like re-translate the beginning of John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was reason. And reason was with God. And reason was God.” – which is a completely acceptable translation. The word usually translated “word”, logos, means much more than that and is used today as a suffix (“-logy”) to describe all forms of science. Most interesting and insightful to me is his description of fundamentalism:
I refuse to believe in something that has been disproven, however socially useful or salutary or admirable its social or personal effects may be. Fundamentalism, in this sense, is not a rigorous theology. It is rigid resistance to a rigorous theology. It’s a form of denial and despair. It is rigorous only within a theological structure that does not account for the growth and expansion of human knowledge. It is therefore, to my mind, an expression of a lack of faith rather than an excess of it.
The desperate need for certainty and a complete set of answers to all relevant questions – fundamentalism – is at war with the entire idea of faith, and has done such havoc in religious circles that the world faith is now used by religious and nonreligious alike virtually as a synonym for “certitude,” despite the fact that their meanings are nearly opposite.
The faith position does not fear: you do not need to run your eyes over the “Deposit of Faith” – and close your eyes to everything else – a thousand times a day to hold yourself in rigid subservience to its clauses, for fear you will fail the quiz at the pearly gates. You can have faith that the maker of the universe is not out to trip you up (this is a key belief of fundamentalism – the evil of the world – which explains its consistent hostility to free inquiry. It is, in this sense, gnosticism more than orthodoxy). You can have faith that if what you believe is really true, it will be part of one truth, and you can find it in the most isolated wasteland, in the distant stars, in the most unlikely book, or in your own home and your own life. You do not need to put your thumb on the scale to make sure you get the right result. The results belong to God. You do not find much social control preached by Jesus: no protesting to close down the Roman brothels (supposedly he even ate dinner with the prostitutes!), no petitioning of the senate to criminalize abortion or poppy cultivation, no burning the books of the philosophers. ”You have been called to freedom, brothers.” All the other stuff came much later – it’s hard to keep mud out of a big river, I suppose.
This is why fundamentalism, driven by fear, is “rigid resistance to rigorous theology.” Any true theory will find itself ready to be tested – the word “temptation” (peirasmos) now given a sexual-moral meaning, means in the Gospel languages “testing” and is the root of the word “empiricism” too. Fundamentalism is too fragile for the world – not built on any rock (merely on our need for certainty), it knows it can be swept away all too easily. ”A little salt of science would dissolve all their religion.” All the fundamentalisms have their own points they particularly want to cover up. For Catholicism it is moral theology: the hierarchs always talk about “the dangers of relativism.” A grown-up theology would eat relativism for breakfast. (Relativism is probably essential for Christian ethics – “not judging.” Paul: “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls”).
The one way in which I disagree slightly with Sullivan is that the belief in one truth also means on some level that everything that is useful must be useful because it corresponds to some truth or other. If something works, it should at the very least be investigated more. There are things which work which I consider utterly disgusting. But it is worth asking what it means about us and the world that abhorrent actions often are so very useful. But who knows? Perhaps this is a myth. Perhaps we will discover by investigation moral laws which justify books like Crime and Punishment and all our myriad hopes for morality.