Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon in several of the world’s religions that arose in the early decades of the 20th century. It is now reaching its century mark, meaning that most don’t know their religious tradition without this voice, creating a sense that it has always been this way. Actually, Fundamentalism is a relatively recent development for religions practiced over millennia.
Fundamentalism arose in response to the Enlightenment of the 19th century. The Enlightenment celebrated human powers of reason and placed hope in scientific discoveries to provide a future we could only dream of previously. It also threatened the world-view of those who would later be called, “fundamentalists.” They did not see modernism as hopeful, but rather as an undermining of assumptions that represented God’s will for them.
In response to this threat, this movement urgently called all faithful followers back to the “fundamentals.” Differing lists exist for Christian fundamentals, but these lists acted as litmus tests. Either you ascribed wholeheartedly and without question to the fundamentals, or you were a heretic. Lists of the fundamentals for Christians usually included: the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the historicity of the biblical miracles.
When I encountered Fundamentalism thirty years ago, it was well-entrenched in most Protestant traditions. I had grown up in a mainline denomination where we were encouraged to think our way into faith. I’m sure it was more nuanced than that, but I recall a lot of emphasis on “learning” as the key to faithful living. We had “Sunday School” to teach us about our faith. We had the sermon to teach us about salvation. We went to church camp to learn about the spiritual life while in nature. I recall three experiences during these years that were formational for me: giving my heart to Jesus in the 3rd grade, receiving my baptism 6 months later, and recommitting my life to Christ in high school. All of these events lived outside my mind, convincing me through my inner knowing that God loved me and wanted a relationship with me. I recall feeling as though I needed to stop thinking long enough for my deeper senses to engage and help me reach the truth.
As I found my way to Christian community in college, I was ready to stop thinking about faith and start feeling it. I wanted doctrinal certainty so I could let go of needing my beliefs to make sense. I wanted the scriptures to mean just what they said so I could use them as a clear guide. I wanted truth to be true just because it is, not because I can prove it to be so. And, I found what I was looking for among the fundamentalists. I also found belonging by confessing the fundamentals because they were bedrock in our community life together. I recognized many couldn’t confess these fundamental beliefs so easily, but that just meant I was given the gift of a clear line between who is in and who is out. I held tightly to my beliefs, seeing anyone or anything that questioned them as a threat. I was willing to be ostracized by family or friends because I so deeply needed the emotional connection and intellectual certainty I found among the fundamentalists. I found much good there and remain grateful for practices I adopted while a part of that community: daily time with God, scripture memorization, group accountability, willingness to share with others about my faith, and intercessory prayer.
I am not a fundamentalist any longer. I do see its allure. I still wish (at times) for the certainty, the belonging, and security of eternal destiny that I found there. I admire the evangelistic fervor created when one is convinced of the right answer(s). The reason I can no longer live with all the benefits I discovered among the fundamentalists is because it doesn’t align with the character and nature of God that I discover in the scripture. This was a difficulty for me even when I fully confessed the fundamentals without caution or hesitation.
What should I do with a Jesus who was less concerned about religious rules and more concerned with making room for those cast out by those very same rules? What should I do with a God who remained faithful, even when the people did not? I knew grace was key, but I wondered when does grace end and judgment begin? That was a conflict I could never resolve in fundamentalism. We didn’t give much weight or credence to the Holy Spirit during my time as a fundamentalist, unless the leading of said Spirit aligned with the fundamentals. My experience tells me the Holy Spirit reaches beyond those limits and refuses to be tamed.
So, even fundamentalists struggle. No doctrine or set of beliefs is water-tight. What really made me incompatible with fundamentalism? I just couldn’t believe that saying yes to Jesus was it, that one’s eternal destiny was the first and last concern God had in relationship with us. I did believe in speaking persuasively about making a confession of faith in the saving act of Jesus Christ on the cross. I still believe that. Somehow, though, I thought there must be more. Surely saying yes to Jesus means more than assenting to a checklist and converting.
I found “more” as I took a deeper dive into the ancient traditions of Christianity. I discovered that grace, throughout the long line of Christianity, has been understood as more powerful than human will or choice. I discovered roots that could hold me through Christian community and keep me from my individualistic tendencies. I discovered the sacraments as a means of grace that will never bow to our explanation or understanding – or certainty, for that matter. I became more willing to embrace mystery, even as it meant that what I believed or didn’t believe was of much less consequence.
Now, I am in a much different place. Fundamentalism isn’t home to me anymore. Leaving home was hard; it always is. The loss I experienced when my community couldn’t receive me any longer will have to be the subject of another post. This post is about a fond look back at what was good while I lived in that home. Fundamentalism offered me gifts I treasure. There are days I wish I could return to the clarity I found among the fundamentalists. But, when it comes right down to it, I can’t define God that clearly and I struggle to trust those who do.
2 thoughts on “What I Learned as a Fundamentalist”
Your depth of thought always amazes me. When I listen to you or read something you’ve written it’s remarkable that we’re friends. You are so intentional while, for the most part, I seem to tumble through life. Your writings, however, touch a chord that shows me I am much less “random” than I think. Your words help to straighten my path and sort out what I feel to be true and good. You shepherd a flock because you are a wonderful teacher and guide. ❤️
Bonnie, I’m not at all amazed that we’re friends. You are such a beautiful person, inside and out. De Colores!