Fundamentalists or Mystics?


“I’ve always felt that if one wants to be religious, fundamentalism is the only logical choice.”  (Anthony Hecht in Half Life: Jew-ish Tales From Interfaith Homes.)

I half agree with Hecht.  In every religion there is a bottom line that is bedrock.  There is a claim that can not be “proven” but that is absolute – at least for its adherents.  But this kind of religion is fragile.  It is the kind that Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others rail against.  While it can be argued that they rail against a caricature of Christianity, it is difficult to refute them because so many hold to the kind of religion they critique.  To be “fair and accurate”, their target is larger than just the Christian one.  They take aim at religious fundamentalism in general.

I agree with their criticism of that kind of religion.  I do believe the fundamentalists have it wrong.  ”Fundamentalism” is not to be confused with “orthodoxy”.  ”Right believing” and “right faith” are not the same as “right practice”. Fundamentalists of every stripe practice their faith in ways that are unhealthy at best, dangerous and destructive at worst.  But throwing all religion out because some get it wrong would be like throwing all of physics out because Sir Isaac didn’t get all of it exactly right.

Throughout history there has been another expression of religion running a parallel course with fundamentalism.  Mysticism provides an alternative.  While both put Jesus at the center, Christian fundamentalists use their messiah as a tool of judgment that catapults them, spinning them out against a world going fast to hell in a hand basket.  Their certainty extends past the truth they know to the way that truth is to be laid upon all the world.  Christian mystics, on the other hand, experience their messiah as a center whose gravity draws them in.  Dallas Willard describes a Christianity whose adherents offer their life to the Christ.  In his book Knowing Christ Today, Willard writes: “[Jesus’] teachings, even mangled and broken, have an incredible power to disrupt human systems, including the ones that claim to own him.”  It’s not that fundamentalists don’t know this at some level; it’s just that they seldom peer into the depths of what it means for their own lives before thinking they know what it means for everyone else.

Willard has a lengthy quote in his book by sociologist Peter Berger.  I’m paraphrasing a bit, but I think the imagery holds.  Fundamentalists are like those whom Jesus has “called out of the Egypt of social mythology”.  Their theology stops there.  Mystics, on the other hand, are those who recognize that the message of Jesus also calls us out “of the Zion of religious security”.  This “exodus”, writes Berger, “takes us out of the holy city, out past the scene of cross and resurrection, and beyond into the desert in which God is waiting.  In this desert all horizons are open.”

There is good news.  Willard writes: “[Our] pride in orthodoxy (left or right) or in the form of religion [we] are practicing is [our] greatest danger, but it too can be overcome by paying attention to Jesus himself.”

Dawkins and Harris don’t see it that way; neither did Hitchens.  Jesus, his teachings and his person, “mangled and broken” … Maybe we have to spend some time in the desert in order for the truth of it all to sink in.

First UMC Burlington

A worshiping community, walking in the way of Jesus, believing in place.