The Illusion of Certainty

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

Like many Christians, I have been curious and dismayed about what seems to be the increasing appeal of fundamentalism and fundamentalist thinking within Christianity. Actually, “fundamentalism,” rather than being within the mainstream of orthodox Christianity, may more profitably be seen as a relatively recent phenomenon that may be seen to be a sect that has grown out of Christianity, rather than existing as a movement within the rubric of orthodox Christianity itself. It is, therefore, indeed ironic that many people have come to equate fundamentalism with Christianity itself, and very often view Christianity as a legalistic religion when, in fact, and quite the opposite, it is a call to freedom in Christ, and is a religion of grace, love, and peace.

The term “Fundamentalism” originated as a series of pamphlets published between 1910 and 1915. Entitled “The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth,” these booklets were written by some leading evangelical churchmen and were circulated free of charge among clergy as well as in Seminaries. It was the emphasis on biblical criticism within Germany, as well as the beginning popularity of Darwin’s theory of evolution dealing with the origin of the universe, to which conservative churchmen responded. The result was the pamphlets. In 1920, a journalist and Baptist layman named Curtis Lee Laws coined the term “fundamentalist” as a designation for those who were ready “to do battle royal for the Fundamentals.”

“The Bible is the sacred text of the Christian Fundamentalists. Indeed, if there is one single thing which binds Fundamentalists together, it is their insistence that the Bible is to be understood as literally true. Further, Fundamentalists see themselves as the guardians of the truth, usually to the exclusion of others’ interpretation of the Bible. Fundamentalism in other faith traditions similarly proclaims guardianship of truth.” (From: Religious Movements Home Page Project at the University of Virginia)

None of us want to have our comfort zones invaded or have our worlds rocked in any way! Many of us are relatively uncomfortable with ideas and behaviors that call into question those ideas that we have come to revere as deeply held truths, particularly when these “deeply held truths,” and various ideas and behaviors, have been given approval by God as asserted by assorted clergy over the last several decades. Similarly, if any idea or any behavior is viewed by fundamentalists as contradicting “God’s Word,” as they interpret it from the Bible, they feel duty bound to condemn that idea or that behavior and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, condemn the people holding that idea or who engage in that behavior.

Fundamentalism’s main attraction seems to be its promise of “certainty” in a very uncertain world! I’m reminded of what Jesse Jackson said upon the murder of Ennis Cosby, Bill Cosby’s son: “We act as if life is certain and death is uncertain when, in fact, death is certain and life is very uncertain.” We’re frightened of this uncertainty and many people are, understandably, attracted to a voice that assures them that there is a certainty to be had by following the dictates of the Bible, or any other book viewed as “holy,” as interpreted and espoused by clergy and others who claim a mantle of authority to interpret that book.

It seems to me that most people who gravitate to “progressive” and mainline churches are likely to be somewhat more comfortable coping with ambiguity or, at least, are likely to be more willing to explore the many gray and multidimensional aspects of life and the spirit than those who attend fundamentalist churches. Moreover, they are usually much more likely to see the need to integrate social justice concerns with their understanding of the Gospel.

Clearly, when one is fearful and/or antagonistic to the uncertainties of life, one of the likely byproducts of the ensuing fundamentalism is the need for association with like-minded people, resulting in the creation of a “them” so that there can be an “us.” Hence, the incestuous socialization that we find in so many churches where people who aren’t in total agreement with the mind-set of the pastor and the congregation are considered “outsiders” and even “enemies” of both the people themselves but also are considered enemies of the “Truth” as the congregation sees that “Truth” as they interpret it from the Bible.

The need, sometimes the desperate need, to live in “certainty” drives many to torture logic, and deny even the most basic axioms of rationality, and assert such fallacies as the earth merely being about ten thousand years old, the lack of the existence of dinosaurs on the earth as the Bible doesn’t mention them, denial of the possibility of evolution as they (erroneously) think that it contradicts the existence of a Creator, etc. Although fundamentalism is attractive to many for malignant reasons, as well as to those with insufficient intelligence to deal with the many ambiguities of life, many people live in fear, and fundamentalism promises deliverance from fear by hammering home a view of God, the Bible, the world, and of people that breeds the illusion of “certainty” in an uncertain world, controlled by a God they have the temerity to claim they understand.

“We are fearful people. Fear has become an obvious dwelling place, an acceptable basis on which to make our decisions and plan our lives. Those we fear have a great power over us. Those who can make us afraid can also make us do what they want us to do.

“People are afraid for many reasons, but I am convinced that the close connection between power and fear deserves special attention. So much power is wielded by instilling fear in people and keeping them afraid. As long as we are kept in fear we can be made to act, speak, and even think as slaves. The agenda of our world – the issues and items that fill newspapers and newscasts – is an agenda of fear and power. It is amazing, yes frightening, to see how easily that agenda becomes ours.

“But fearful questions never led to love-filled answers; underneath every fearful question many other fearful questions are hidden. Fear engenders fear. Fear never gives birth to love. A careful look at the gospels shows that Jesus seldom accepted the questions posed to him. He exposed them as coming from the house of fear. ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? Is it against the law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever? What authority do you have for acting like this? Are you the king of the Jews? Lord, has the hour come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ To none of these questions did Jesus give a direct answer. He gently put them aside as questions emerging from false worries. They were raised out of concern for prestige, influence, power, and control. They did not belong to the house of God. Therefore Jesus always transformed the question by his answer. He made the question new – and only then worthy of his response.” (Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective, 16-19).

As Nouwen pointed out, “fear engenders fear. Fear never gives birth to love.” Because those who seek out Fundamentalism are likely to be very fearful people questing the certainty that fundamentalism promises, and which they perceive it provides, they are not likely be particularly loving people.

My wife and I spent about fifteen years in fundamentalist churches, for reasons that are best left for another article. In any case, we never really understood why most, though by no means all, of the people there were not particularly loving people.

For example, when they thought I was dying in the hospital from pancreatitis, my wife was a wreck and she called a “friend” and “prayer warrior” who was very well respected in the church we all attended. My wife asked her to pray for me because I was dying. This prayer warrior, who daily read and quoted from the Bible, and who led women’s prayer groups, said, “I can’t. I’m too busy now.” Believe me, if it didn’t happen to us, I’d have trouble believing it myself.

In another instance, when my wife was diagnosed with cancer not one of her “friends” or acquaintances, many of whom went to the fundamentalist church we went to, even picked up the phone to call her and ask her how she was feeling, let alone offer to help her in any way. Even the pastor never called! We were on our own! In another fundamentalist church the pastor’s wife told my then sixteen year old daughter that she was “a tool of Satan” because she listened to rock music. An acquaintance of mine, who went to a fundamentalist church, recently told me that the pastor’s wife approached him and said that she had heard that he was thinking of leaving that church. He replied, “I’m praying about it.” She replied, “I suggest you leave now.”

When one is afraid, one usually doesn’t have the psychic energy to empathize with another person, particularly when it is felt that the other person might conceivably be a “burden” in one way or another. Chronic fear, like any other type of neurosis, breeds self-absorption and, therefore, makes it rather unlikely that that person will seek to help out another person, since virtually all of that person’s psychic energy is being spent on “keeping it together.” And, fundamentalism’s success is that is does, in fact, help those who are fearful of life, of ambiguity, of the unknown, and of the complex multidimensional aspects of life and of God, “keep it together.”

For many people, fundamentalism is a desperately needed form of psychotherapy! This fact is not all bad! Most of us want safe places, safe havens, in which to rest, even if it means having our complex and existential problems addressed by a simple Bible verse, or by a rather trite remark such as, “God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle.”

This illusion of certainty, although it serves a needed psychological and social purpose for many of those who seek out fundamentalism, has another, much more dangerous, downside. Fundamentalism, by its very nature, requires that there be scapegoats! In the fundamentalist frame of mind, there has to be an “us,” and for there to be an “us” there has to be a “them.” And the current “them,” the enemy de jour, is LGBT people!

The psychological need for certainty morphs over to the social need for bonding with like-minded believers. Therefore, it’s “us” against “them!” Anyone who is viewed as not seeing God, the Bible, or the world as that person does is viewed as the outsider, the enemy. In my experience, many people in fundamentalist churches don’t even see those who go to “progressive” (Seeking to apply biblical principles, rather than apply every biblical and cultural practice, to contemporary social problems and issues.) churches as being “Christian.”

Furthermore, those who don’t believe or act in the way that fundamentalists believe is in the will of God, which is usually consistent with their own prejudices and stated behaviors, is viewed as “the other,” “the enemy.” And, to preserve our way of life, and be true to “God’s Word,” as these fundamentalists insist and perceive it, they come to deny “the other” the dignity and civil rights and civil liberties that they, the fundamentalists, take for granted are their God-given right to possess. Clearly, such a mind-set is not merely putting oneself in a psychological prison, quite contrary to the fact of the Apostle Paul’s assertion in the Scripture verse that precedes this article, but is ripe for fostering a climate of fascism that pays off for many politicians and religious leaders who frequently work hand-in-hand with each other for their own mutual material, financial, and what many perceive to be their own spiritual gain.

By its very nature, the psychological and social needs of most fundamentalists require that there be a scapegoat! There must be some constructed “enemy” against which to rail, so that one’s world-view is reinforced, and so that in-group solidarity is maintained. The famous sociologist, Emile Durkheim, gave us what is probably the closest thing to a law in social life. He said that when you have a threatening out-group, the in-group unites to protect itself against it.

Therefore, in order for there to be in-group solidarity, there must be an out-group which must be fought against. Even if there is no ready-made out-group(s), the in-group, the fundamentalists in this context, will actively, perhaps unconsciously, seek to create them until they find one or more that are viewed as “politically correct,” relatively “safe,” and “appropriate” to persecute. At one time the group was women; at another time it was African Americans; now it’s gay people. Even when it is no longer politically correct or appropriate to oppress gay people, fundamentalists will tenaciously seek out another out-group, as fundamentalism requires at least one out-group for it to not only flourish, but to even exist. In fundamentalism, there must be an “us,” and there can’t be an “us” without a “them!”

It’s always important to remember that Christians are principally defined by only two characteristics: the love for God, in that we trust God over and above seen circumstances; loving other people. One’s theology is relatively unimportant, in that there can be a wide variety of theologies and Christology among Christians. “Love” is what is important in the Christian life but, as shown above, since love can’t be a priority among those who live in fear and require black and white answers in a very grey world, fundamentalists emphasize one’s “theology” as being the criterion for membership in the Christian community.

Christians know the truth that “It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud.” (Proverbs 16:19) Most fundamentalists can’t psychologically or socially afford to absorb this central tenet of the Christian life. They may mouth such shibboleths as, “Hate the sin and love the sinner,” but the fact is (and, frequently, the consequences of their words and actions are) that they show themselves to hate those who they view as in any way opposing their views of God and of the world.

Freedom and humility are antithetical to fundamentalism! The Gospel of grace, faith, love, peace, reconciliation, and inclusiveness is antithetical to the arrogance that is part and parcel of fundamentalism! “Humility” is inconsistent with the belief that only one’s own views are the right ones, and all other views are wrong; those who claim divergent views, or engage in behaviors deemed ungodly or inappropriate by those who claim sole authority in interpreting the Bible and knowing “God’s will” are, therefore, usually viewed as not “moral” or “Christian,” or “in the will of God.”

Fundamentalist and allied churches meet deeply felt psychological needs of increasing numbers of people, and provide a safe space for incestuous socialization that reinforces the one-dimensional thinking and view of the world of many of these people, and provide a measure of comfort for their angst in wrestling with a world and a with a God none of us can really comprehend.

These churches are currently meeting deeply felt psychological and social needs of people. At a time of rapid economic, social, and technological changes, and the consequent fears that they generate, increasing numbers of people are looking for a measure of “certainty” that fundamentalism promises to provide.

And, many people tenaciously seek to grab on to this “certainty,” despoiling their own potential for psychological growth, and even and unwittingly do so at the expense of preserving and enriching the very fabric of civility of their society, even if this “certainty” is ultimately an illusion.