Friday, March 16, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Mission and Religious Fundamentalism

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

One of the major challenges or hurdles for global peace, justice and reconciliation is religious fundamentalism. Why should missiologists be interested in engaging religious fundamentalism? If mission is God’s mission (mission dei) in the whole cosmos, then what is going on in the world is of utmost important as instruments of mission ‘join in’ mission. ‘Joining in’ requires an incarnational understanding of sitz im leben (life in real context). Fundamentalism is a reality in our context today.

Further, mission requires responsibility, accountability, solidarity and mutuality. According to Thomas Thangaraj, missio dei should be complemented with missio humanitas – the mission of humanity (“Toward a Dialogical Theology of Mission,” in Theology at the End of Modernity: Essays in Honor of Gordon D. Kaufman. Edited by Sheila Greeve Devaney. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991, pp. 161-176). The challenge of missio humanitas is to comprehend critically a better understanding for mission today and engage in a social analysis – that is a missiological task.

Thus, missio humanitas is tasked with critical questions as part of missional engagement in all times:
  • What are the causes of religious fundamentalism? Are there systemic causes and non-systemic causes?
  • What are the missiological responses to religious fundamentalism and its transformation?

Competing extremisms
In Sri Lanka, we speak of extremism (antavadaya) and religious exclusivism. Like many parts of the globe, in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka religious fundamentalism has caused so much violence and destruction. Today so many are concerned about Islamic fundamentalism, its tendency to provoke and actualize violence. Of course, on an equal footing we must reflect and deal with Christian fundamentalism as well.

Fundamentalism is a global phenomenon and thus scholars are discussing not just ‘fundamentalism’ but fundamentalisms and even competing fundamentalisms. Prof. Sathianathan Clark, a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, recently published a work entitled Competing Fundamentalisms. Here, Clark deals with Christianity, Islam and Hinduism and discuss how the extremist trends in each of these religions compete in a socio-religious market place at a global scale today.

What is common?
In religious fundamentalism, religion and politics overlap at many points. But what is religious fundamentalism? What elements do they have in common? In 2013, I was asked by the Oblate seminary in Kandy, Sri Lanka to conduct a seminar on religious fundamentalism.

In it, I reflected on some elements that are common to all fundamentalism, and they are:
1) A sense of crisis in a global dimension and of the impending damnation of the world.
2) A sense of a vacuum of authority in the religious institution to which they belong.
3) A return to their founding scriptures (holy texts) to rediscover in their literal interpretation the unbreakable authority of divine revelation.
4) Clinging blindly to the purity of doctrine and moral precepts of those scriptures as the sole norm of life and only doctrinal authority.
5) Utter condemnation of all those who fall outside their religious views.
6) Willingness to kill for the sake of their faith (fanaticism).

Politics and fundamentalism
There may be several types of religious fundamentalisms. The first we can speak of is a type that pretends to be apolitical and views politics (and indeed all aspects of political and social existence) as being this-worldly and, therefore, bound to damnation, in frontal opposition to the revealed truth. This is largely a Christian variety of fundamentalism. From this perspective, the political and social life should be organized on the basis of what are seen as essential or original religious principles, commonly supported by a belief in the literal truth of sacred texts.

On a cursory analysis of their preaching and teaching, one immediately discovers that in certain types of fundamentalism pretended apoliticism and condemnation of the things of this world is only a pretension without any empirical foundation; deep down, most of the Christian fundamentalist movements and groups are staunch defenders and legitimators of the extreme rightwing side of the political arena.

Another type may be a fundamentalism that is openly political and overtly sets out to give legitimation to the politics of the extreme right. One views this type of fundamentalism as essentially an aberration, a symptom of the adjustment that societies make as they become accustomed to a modern and secularized culture.

Yet we observe another type too – fundamentalism of enduring significance. One believes that it is a consequence of the failure of secularism to satisfy the abiding human desire for higher or spiritual truth.

All these types lead to extremism of one form or the other.

Landmark year 1910
While the global Christian leaders, especially the Protestants, met in Edinburgh for the World Missionary Conference in 1910, something significant happened parallelly in the US. That was when the term ‘fundamentalism’ came into existence and wider usage. The prime source of the term was the publication, beginning in 1910, of the conservative Christian manifesto in 12 volumes titled The Fundamentals. The “Fundamentals” included the basic (fundamental) Christian doctrines in response to scientific liberal thoughts and higher biblical criticism, which were coming to the fore at that time.

But fundamentalism is a new designation for those Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and others whom sociologists, historians, philosophers, and other scholars include under that title today. It is interesting to note that two modern movements, the ecumenical movement and fundamentalism – to my mind one positive and the other negative – emerged simultaneously in 1910.

From a missional view point, the ecumenical movement for Christian unity in evangelization and mission is a positive movement with its ups and downs through the history. Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Pentecostals have positively contributed to this movement. But globalization of religious fundamentalism is a negative movement for the humanity and rest of the creation, yet a powerful one with religious affiliation.

Three questions come:
1) Has the ecumenical movement failed to engage critically with the ‘signs of the time’ and dialogue with fundamentalists?
2) Has the global peace movement failed to interpret, analyze and transform fundamentalisms?
3) Have we – the moderate conscientious communities all over the globe – engaged in sufficient social analysis to comprehend and transform the phenomenon of fundamentalisms?

These questions require a deep discussion.

Strange way forward
Let me suggest three ways to grapple and respond to the phenomenon of fundamentalisms; my thinking is on long-term investments and more in the educational approach.

1. Intra-religious work: every religious community can have an educational plan to understand the world religions and indigenous religious traditions in a more comprehensive way for their own religious community. That would be part of an educational process for global citizenship and peace-making. Every religion must encourage internal critical discernment and assessment on their own faith tradition in a fully honest way.

2. Education of youth: all public and private schools can conduct a systematic educational program and offer resources on inter-religious understanding for global peace.

3. Missiological work: Missiologists should engage with missiologists of all faiths, especially with the missionary faiths like Islam and Buddhism and semi-missionary faiths like Hinduism. Interfaith missiological sessions could be held and can lead in developing collective approaches to fundamentalisms in the world today.

Finally, we have to LOVE fundamentalist too; praying, understanding, engaging and loving is a non-negotiable ‘missional call’ in dealing with the phenomenon of fundamentalisms today.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 3:8).

1 comment:

  1. Disappointing article. Extremely biased in regard to Christian fundamentalism. I know many Christian fundamentalists and most of the 6 points listed do not apply and are quite offensive. I've also read Vol 1 of The Fundamentals which provides a good scholarly critique of higher criticism and its claims; though dated, it is still useful both as a resource and as an historical document.

    Also, the article treads on dangerous ground in attacking Christian fundamentalism as it was originally defined. I.e., do you really view the original "5 Fundamentals" as controversial and dangerous?
    - Biblical inspiration and the infallibility of scripture
    - Virgin birth of Jesus
    - Belief that Christ's death was the atonement for sin
    - Bodily resurrection of Jesus
    - Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus
    As a Wesleyan, none as these should be controversial in the least. When you were ordained, you stated your agreement with our Articles of Religion and Wesley's sermons which affirm these points.

    What's presented is a very disappointing caricature of Christian fundamentalists based on an inaccurate popular view of their theology, e.g., close-minded legalists. The author clearly is not an expert on Christian fundamentalism and states his own theological biases as "facts". As Wesleyans, this is not helpful. The promotion of non-Wesleyan positions in this article (e.g., negative view of Christian exclusivism) is also problemmatic.