Thursday, August 20, 2009

Doubt and "Fundamentalism"

A strong Christian friend of mine recently showed me an article by Gregory Rodriguez in the L. A. Times. The article discussed a new book by Peter L. Berger and Anton C. Zijerveld: In Praise of Doubt: How to have Convictions without becoming a Fanatic. I admit I have not read the book, but the article raised an interesting question. Attempting to summarize Berger and Zijerveld, Rodriguez says “you must have conviction and uncertainty simultaneously in order to ward off fundamentalism. Beliefs are necessary.” He proposes that radical relativism is dangerous because it encourages people to respond by retrenching into a radical fundamentalism; that the chaos and angst generated by those deconstructing society causes people to retreat into the “safe” territory of believing in really absolute absolutes and thereby becoming equally undesirable “fundamentalists.” (I don't really like this use of the word fundamentalism - but it is so common we must deal with it).

The antidote, Rodriguez tells us, is balance: believe a few “core certainties”, but be flexible about other “negotiable beliefs.” Then we are told that: “The most important core certainty, and one found in most belief systems, is ‘do unto others ...’ -- the Golden Rule. It leaves enough wiggle room for your beliefs, my beliefs and their beliefs to coexist. And what makes it all work is the same thing that burdened us all to begin with: doubt. Berger and Zijderveld believe that doubt can serve as a type of psychic cushion between all our different certainties.”

I think this line of thinking has appeal for many people today. First, many people have doubts about things that are important to them. It is human to doubt. The Bible tells us that after he had been in prison for some time, John the Baptist began to doubt if Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus sent him back the message of the works and words of his Messianic ministry to reassure the soon-to-be martyr. Some of us deal with our doubts by encouraging others to admit they have doubts – a sort of cultural group therapy that makes us all say “I’m ok and you are ok about doubts” These people are especially comfortable with the sort of opinion Rodriguez is documenting. And there are many people in this position in our society today.

A second group of doubters deals with doubt by violently embracing it: for them doubt makes God and the whole world false. I think of the “new atheists” and the old German philosophers when I think of this group. At some level and to some degree we all know innately and from reason that God exists, that he is not identical with the created world or ourselves, that God has standards, and that we have not lived up to those standards. Many of us place faith in God that he has redeemed us from this situation himself in the person of Jesus Christ through his life, death, and resurrection. But for some people, when God does not play by their rules or meet their demands – whether for empirical certainty or for moral license or rescue from the tragedies of life in a fallen world – they respond by being so angry with God that they try to punish him by telling people he does not exist. In a way, these dogmatic unbelievers are a culture of fundamentalism all to themselves. Rodrigeuz et al are probably right that this assault on the foundations of the Universe turns some people into what they call “fundamentalists.” But is this really why people become “fundamentalists”?

A third response to doubt is to embrace doubt with sad sentimentality like the philosopher George Santayana. The great liberal theologians, who believe in religion, but not in God, often come from this stock. They too can probably be seen to encourage fundamentalism by their smug refusal to see that their argument of an emotional need for religion is an evidence for a true religion somewhere, not a proof that all religions are false. By contrast to the liberals, C. S. Lewis argues that a world in which all get thirsty is evidence for the existence of water. Somehow these sad philosophers who embrace doubt with feigned reluctance prefer to speak of the “beautiful myth of water” while dying of thirst.

Second to last in my analysis, though undoubtedly in reality we could find hundreds of categories, are those who do deal with doubt by what I suspect the authors mean by “fundamentalism.” These are those who deal with doubt by violently forswearing doubt. You see, because doubt is rooted in our imperfect human nature, we not only all have it from time to time, but we sometimes feel guilty about it. One way to deal with this guilt is to suppress it and deny it: to emphasize to yourself and others just how certain you really are – because you think doubt would be unacceptable to them or to yourself. In traditions where doubt is punished, or might even be fatal, this out is common. This repression can break out in persecution of others, fear, hostility, and all the other negative behavior that Rodriguez, et al, are thinking of when they think of “fundamentalists.” This kind of doubter tries to drown his doubts in zeal. Because he is still human, and therefore still sinful, the repressing doubter sometimes impresses others as a hypocrite rather than a “believer.”

Would the approach recommended by Rodriguez moderate these repressing doubters? They probably would not be changed. They would reject the suggestion that they should hold even questionable beliefs less tightly. It would also not deal with what I believe to be the driving force behind what Rodriguez thinks of as “fundamentalism” – the guilt about doubt. Accepting some doubts without more than a pragmatic reason for doing so would only cause more doubt and more guilt.

But who are my fourth group of doubters? I will call them the “believing doubters.” Believing doubters vanquish the cultural and psychological trappings known popularly as “fundamentalism” through additional knowledge and faith in a few key ideas that deliver them most of the time from the pitfalls of doubt.

Believing doubters know God has called them to love their enemies. This means treating people with respect and dignity. It does not mean we cannot disagree. It does not mean we cannot try to persuade others. It does not mean we cannot tell others they are wrong. It may not even rule out the use of humor, satire and parody to convince others. In extreme cases, love does not rule out just wars. But love does mean, to paraphrase the late ethicist Lewis Smedes, that we must wish our enemies well and act reasonably to further their best interests to the extent it does not harm others. We cannot lie about our enemies. We cannot demonize them. We must not try to convert them through violence nor try to exterminate them because they will not convert.

Believing doubters know God is the source of their faith. When they doubt, they say “I believe, God please save me from my unbelief.” They do not panic when a doubting thought comes into the mind because they know their salvation depends on the love and sacrifice of Christ, not on their own effort. They know Christianity is about being in God’s hands, not about clinging to the edge of a cliff through their own power. The believing doubter is a real person. The believing doubter can have doubts. They can go through the dark night of the soul. They can feel angry with God. They can feel disillusioned by the failings of fellow humans or themselves. But ultimately their faith is about God, not about themselves.

Believing doubters know about human fallibility – including their own. They know that humans are sinful and often wrong, so they are slow to anger on the peripheral issues where our beliefs are based more on judgment and philosophy than on revelation. In the areas where revelation is clear, they believe firmly. Where revelation is unclear, they believe, but hold their belief more loosely. Believing doubters know that human sinfulness has lead to unjust persecutions throughout history; so they do not trust themselves or other individuals with corrupting absolute power over the whole of the state and or the whole church.

The believing doubter is also forearmed against doubt by the doctrines she/he believes. Because the believing doubter knows he/she is a sinful human being, knows he or she is weak, and knows how bio-chemistry and circumstances can prey on his/her mind, the believing doubter knows that doubts cannot be trusted. The believing doubter doubts her/his doubts more than his or her faith. For this reason, some believing doubters go through life almost appearing to have no doubts at all because the few fleeting doubts they have are such mere shadows without substance that they are mistaken to be no doubts at all.

Believing doubters know their own experience is limited. Though they may be tempted not to do so, they try to put the universally true revelation of the whole of scripture ahead of personal experience (a luxury people who lived before scripture did not have). So if they see evil triumph, they remember that the Bible says God will eventually bring the evil to judgment. If they see the bad things happening to a person, they do not assume that it must be caused by his/her sin since the bible clearly teaches there are other reasons that bad things happen to good people.

As you can tell, I believe that only Christians can be real “believing doubters.” The “believing doubter” has had his mind illumined by the Holy Spirit of God. He or she believes in the Bible and takes it seriously, recognizing it as a self authenticating message from the living God. The believing doubter follows Augustine and Anselm in “believing in order to understand.” The believing doubter’s faith is rational – but by a God-centered rationality that flows from the mind of Christ, not a self-centered rationality that depends on the power, experience and ego of the believer’s mind alone.

Everyone should be a believing doubter. But the difficulty is that it is something you can ask God to do in you, but not something you can do for yourself. But if you ask God for a good gift, like the gift of faith, surely he will give it to you. He may give it on his own terms and in his own time and in his own way – but faith will come if you seek it. It will not be guaranteed to make you rich or to solve all your problems or to free you from all temptation. I can’t even guarantee you will not be considered a fundamentalist. But I do believe that the negative behavior associated with what Rodriguez means by “fundamentalism” will be less common in believing doubters because of what they believe.

Believing doubters may solve the personal problem for some, but what of the global problem of fundamentalisms like radical jihadist Islam? I don’t think there is an easy answer to that question because I do not believe the problems and mechanics of belief are the same for all religions. And I do believe that there is real evil in the world; not just the typical evil of each fallen human, but dark spiritual evil that raises up evil empires and false ideas to enslave and denigrate human beings if it can. In responding to evil we must remember the sin within our own hearts and not succumb to being as bad or worse than those deceived by the dark spiritual forces we are resisting. We do need to maintain religious liberty. As Peter L. Berger and Anton C. Zijerveld say, we ought to keep the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And we need to remember, that quite literally, but for the grace of God it would be us advocating some terrible false idea because of the pressures of family, culture, and sword.
People with dangerous false ideas can sometimes be contained. But if they are persistently violent, they may need to be converted by persuasion or defeated militarily to prevent harm to third persons. Persuasion is often still a necessity. War alone cannot solve problems caused by ideas. Happily, uncontainable error is rare. False sects within America can easily be tolerated and dealt with merely through words. With the exceptions of guerilla wars, Korea, and Viet Nam, Soviet Communism and Chinese Communism have largely been contained and converted, except on University Campuses. The Communists killed 80 million people, but their expansion was limited. Nazism required a war to defeat, but we also had to deal with the ideas behind it. Radical jihadist Islam has led us to war, but is so widespread that war alone, at least on a humane scale, cannot solve the problem. Persuasion is always the key. To do so we must try to persuade – not try to accept. Persuasion does require understanding and love, though. And it requires more. In the final analysis we need God’s help to persuade others. Prayer is our most potent weapon against “fundamentalisms” like radical jihadist Islam, Communism, and yes even fundamentalist atheism. But sadly, the only cure to fundamentalist Islam will strike those with an allergy to Christianity as “fundamentalist Christianity” because it believes in what they, as fundamentalist secularists, will not believe in. But we cannot help that. We can be well behaved on behalf of the truth, but we cannot change the truth to accommodate error.

Rodriguez in his understanding of the book he is reviewing draws on our emotions. We all know people who believe things we think they should not believe or who are obnoxious about their beliefs. But asking people not to believe strongly in what they believe cannot be the right answer if truth really exists (which I believe it must). The only course of action can be to seek truth and encourage others to do likewise in the faith that real truth brings virtue not vice.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Great Law Quotes: Calvin Coolidge

"About the Declaration of Independence there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. . . If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, that is final. . . No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward. . ." - Calvin Coolidge