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Orthodoxy And Fundamentalism

Sullivan quotes Peter Rollins:

Fundamentalism can be understood as a particular way of believing one’s beliefs rather than referring to the actual content of one’s beliefs.

It can be described as holding a belief system is such a way that it mutually excludes all other systems, rejecting other views in direct proportion to how much they differ from one’s own [bold mine-DL]. In contrast, the a/theistic approach can be seen as a form of disbelieving what one believes, or rather, believing IN God while remaining dubious concerning what one believes ABOUT God (a distinction that fundamentalism is unable to maintain). This does not actually contradict the idea of orthodoxy but rather allow us to understand it in a new light…

If we define “fundamentalism” this way, we would necessarily classify all religious systems that have any authoritative doctrinal definitions as fundamentalist.  When Judaism teaches that God is one, it doesn’t mean that God can also be many (even though there are names for God that are in a plural form); the most basic belief of monotheism excludes that which flatly contradicts it.  (The Church defends the paradox of Trinitarianism on the assumption that God is one, and that the Trinity does not imply many gods.)  In other words, every kind of religious orthodoxy would have to be classed as fundamentalist, which makes the term so broad and ahistorical that it’s not clear to me how it even describes something either within or against any traditional religion.  With this definition, every form of traditional Christianity would be defined as fundamentalist.  Even though Sullivan has usually applied the term fundamentalist far too broadly, I doubt that he really wants to use such an expansive definition. 

To state that something is orthodox is to exclude in one way or another those things that disagree with it.  The very name orthodoxy, right opinion, implies that there is something wrong or false that it opposes.  In one sense, exclusion is the wrong way to think about it, since it is not orthodoxy that is partial, limited or sectarian, but those teachings that mistakenly take one part of orthodoxy for the whole or obsess on one particular formulation to the exclusion of others. 

If Christ is the Incarnate Word, He is not merely divine nor merely human; the latter views are necessarily excluded by affirming the central tenet of Christianity.  The Resurrection is real, in which case salvation is possible, or it is a metaphor and a nice story and there is no salvation.  At some point, even in a revelation that celebrates paradox as the Gospel does, affirming one thing will rule out others.  Orthodoxy, and I am speaking now specifically of Orthodox Christianity, does not reject allegory or mystery or unknowing, but includes all of these things, while at the same time being able to engage in positive theology that points towards divine reality in a correct way.  God in Himself is incomphrensible, but can be known inasmuch as He has revealed Himself to us, and that knowledge is a reliable guide to understanding something about God.  Everyone has personal doubts, but to make a virtue out of doubting, as Rollins seems to do, is to strike at the certain hope that the Gospel offers.   

If Rollins were talking about apophaticism here, that would be one thing, but he isn’t.  He isn’t saying that definitions are never exhaustive of God’s existence, and that God can never be fully described because He is unknowable in Himself and infinite.  (Incidentally, even apophaticism relies on claims that exclude other, contrary claims, i.e., that God is finite, knowable, etc.)  Rollins is saying that affirming X and rejecting its contrary in Y is fundamentalist.  So now even logic and rationality are fundamentalist.  He is also saying that making any authoritative statement about God is fundamentalist.  Conceivably, if someone held that he could know God in His essence through rational means (which is the heresy of Eunomios–no relation to this blog), or that a doctrinal definition told us everything about God that there was to know, that person would be a fundamentalist, but then he would also be a heretic.  In Rollins’ view, we could not exclude this heresy as contrary to Orthodoxy without becoming fundamentalists, but, in fact, the ability to exclude such views is the way that Orthodoxy remains a living, dynamic tradition and does not become simply a list of claims and rules but remains a vivifying, enlightening experience of the Life of God.  Arguably, fundamentalism could be defined as the kind of religion that is satisfied with the bare minimum of definitions and rules and never looks beyond them.  But that is also far too sweeping and not really accurate, since there are virtually no people in history, including people who called themselves fundamentalists, who believed in this fashion.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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