Saturday, July 30, 2005

What's wrong with being a fundamentalist?

Recently the word fundamentalist has become an almost uniformly derogative term, most often applied to Moslems, and often to Christians, but in many other areas too. I think this is unfortunate.

Quite a few years ago I learnt to play the Oriental board game called Go, (also known as Igo, Wei Chi, and Baduk). A little yellow book by Toshiro Kageyama called Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go was the book that helped me improve the most. Whatever level in the game I had reached, I could come back, reread it, and my game would always improve. In the introduction he talks about the importance of fundamentals in all areas, and starts comparing baseball in America and Japan. He says:

"In every confrontation with a real American professional team it seems that what we need to learn from them, besides their technique of course, is how uniformly faithful their players are to the fundamentals. Faithfulness to fundamentals seems to be a common thread linking professionalism in all areas. If we consider the American professionals as the real professionals in baseball, then I think we have to consider their Japanese counterparts, who tend to pass over the fundamentals, as nothing more than advanced amateurs."

What should "Islamic fundamentalist" mean? I am not a Moslem, but in my understanding the most fundamental thing must be the confession you make if you become a Moslem. The Shahada (confession) is, in translation "I testify that there is no God but Allah; I testify to His Unity and that He has no partner; I testify that Muhammad is his servant and his Messenger." or in an even shorter form, the kalima, "I testify that there is no Allah but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah". I disagree with this statement, but it does not seem to include many of the things that seem to be called Islamic fundamentalism, but I'm not really qualified to comment.

I'm much better qualified as regards Christianity. I'm a Christian, and many might call me a Christian fundamentalist. So what do I think the fundamentals of Christianity are? It has to be, in the simplest form, the accepting of Jesus Christ as both Lord and Saviour. The Apostles Creed, long taken by Christians as a way of defining their faith, is all about Jesus, not about Christians and what they do.

So what if by fundamentals you mean how Christians should live and what they do? If you accept Jesus as Lord this has to be defined by his teachings. And the shortest, simplest summary of his teachings is (from Matthew 22:34-40):

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Now those people who are normally called fundamentalists are those bombing abortion clinics (which I condemn), hating homosexuals (which I condemn) and creationists (as the term is commonly used - I don't condemn them, but I think they are misguided). These are only related to fundamentals in one way, and that is the authority of scripture. Many Christians, myself included, think the Bible is the inspired word of God. Unfortunately, we cannot always agree on how the Bible's teaching applies to a particular situation. That doesn't mean that the fundamental (the Bible's authority) is wrong, just that at least one of our interpretations is wrong. However, if any group abandons its fundamentals, it becomes trivial and shallow.

I'm very conscious of the fact that one of the wonderful things about the English language is its dynamism and that meanings change and develop. And I'm also aware I sound like the old man who makes himself look ridiculous by bemoaning the fact that gay no longer usually means "Showing or characterized by cheerfulness and lighthearted excitement; merry". But I wish people would use the word extremist rather than fundamentalist, when that is what they mean. Because being a fundamentalist, thinking about what is fundamental, should be a good thing.

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