A Free Mind Is A Challenge to Fundamentalism

by Philosophy

The bombing of Gaza, the social unrest in Egypt over political power-mongering, attempts at halting protests in the middle world, and the legal challenge by Liberty University to not be required to offer contraceptives are all symptoms of dedication to curtailing thought and expression from the perspective of a fundamentalist religious view of social interaction and the ethical development of the human person. There is a fear here involved that the world is teetering on the brink of an outright denial of a divine pattern to life, laid at the feet of advances in technology and science and the claimed resultant diluting of moral principles. This is not a new perspective, but it is a powerful one, and engagement with it, from a place of compassionate respect but grounded in an appreciation for humanistic value, is the only way to head off what will be a great deal of suffering.

Curiously, in my continued consumption of media, I came across a sermon by Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Presbyterian minister in 1922. He called out the fundamentalist adherents in Christianity who were looking to remove evangelical and so-called “liberal” elements from churches and noted then the foundation of fear that they operated from:

“The Fundamentalists see, and they see truly, that in this last generation there have been strange new movements in Christian thought. A great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s possession—new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws; new knowledge about human history and in particular about the ways in which the ancient peoples used to think in matters of religion and the methods by which they phrased and explained their spiritual experiences; and new knowledge, also, about other religions and the strangely similar ways in which men’s faiths and religious practices have developed everywhere…”

Given in 1922, this enumeration of new knowledge could just as easily have been given today, with advances in neuroscience, computers, sociological and biological understanding of the human species, and social changes to institutions long thought to be the bedrock of a just society. Change is difficult, knowledge and a progressive understanding of reality are not always initially felt to be free-ing. Whether the response is social involvement in a religious movement or identification with a narrow social institution (Boy Scouts comes to mind), the attempt is made to rejoin a time that is thought to be more fundamentally true, more secure, where power hierarchies gave a semblance of controlled structure to existence.

Fundamentalism is often associated with religion but I hazard to broaden it out to the individual as well, where social difficulty, change, and new information causes a retreat into the shell of preconceived and established notions of self and others, forgoing challenge and listening only to spoon-fed facts. Fosdick notes in that same sermon:

“Science treats a young man’s mind as though it were really important. A scientist says to a young man, “Here is the universe challenging our investigation. Here are the truths which we have seen, so far. Come, study with us! See what we already have seen and then look further to see more, for science is an intellectual adventure for the truth.” Can you imagine any man who is worthwhile turning from that call to the church if the church seems to him to say, “Come, and we will feed your opinions from a spoon. No thinking is allowed here except such as brings you to certain specified, predetermined conclusions. These prescribed opinions we will give you in advance of your thinking; now think, but only so as to reach these results.”

There is a form of safety to be found in retreat and projecting conclusions before study, but it is not a full engagement with the world and it does not lead to the fulfillment of the greatest qualities of what make us human. The political leaders in the middle world, the citizens supporting them and those here in the United States who would cut off dialogue, rightly fear where a free mind will travel. Hierarchy and systems of power differential abhor the free enterprise of thought/feeling.

We can however push back on fundamentalism by encouraging questions, holding the space in our relationships and societies for real discourse and free inquiry, and asking those in power to do the same. If there is a god worthy of the title, then surely she/he/it will cherish and see grace in the journey of creation thinking of itself and marveling at the splendor we have only begun to open ourselves to.

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