What Can We Learn from Christian Fundamentalists? Os Guinness Responds

Editor’s Note: 9Marks Ministries recently dedicated their recent eJournal issue to discussing Fundamentalism. SharperIron has received permission from them to reprint the articles here for discussion. We will post ten articles over the next two weeks. If you would like the complete eJournal or would like to subscribe to further editions, please go to www.9marks.org.

Os Guinness

Guinness“A fundamentalist,” Jerry Falwell once said to me, “is an Evangelical with guts.” His point is a good one in a day when, in Peter Vierek’s quip, “Anti-fundamentalism has replaced anti-Catholicism as the anti-Semitism of the intellectual.” But there is more to the issue than that.

Fundamentalism began as a theological movement at the dawn of the twentieth century, and for all who love truth and orthodoxy its beginnings were praiseworthy. As every academic tutor and sports coach knows, what is more basic and productive than a “return to the fundamentals”?

But over the course of the century, Fundamentalism has morphed from its theological roots into a cultural movement, and as such it has now spread to characterize parts of all the world religions – and even secularism. Richard Dawkins, for instance, is a fundamentalist atheist just as the radical Islamists are fundamentalist Muslims. The impulses of the original theological movement are good, but those of the contemporary cultural movements are bad. For advanced modern fundamentalism is not in fact traditional; it is a modern reaction to the modern world.

Modern fundamentalism still has a religious identity, but it is also a social movement. What it does is reassert a lost world, a once intact but no-longer-taken-for-granted cultural reality. In doing so, it both romanticizes the past and radicalizes the present with its overlay of psychological defiance and cultural militancy. Herein lies its danger to followers of Jesus: the cultural overlay grows more and more alien to the call of Jesus to his disciples. In their zeal to resist modern culture, for example, Fundamentalists have been quick to abandon such costly teaching of Jesus as “Love your enemies” and forgive as we have been forgiven—without limits.

In my view, then, Fundamentalists demonstrate two valuable lessons to other followers of Jesus. On the one hand, they rebuke us for our lack of courage. Each of us must be prepared to take up our cross and count the cost. On the other hand, they warn us of the unintended consequences of faith in a fallen world. Declaring an aim to return to fundamentals is not enough. We have to go back again and again and again, to question our faith and our lives by the standards and teaching of Jesus himself. Semper reformanda is our watchword, which is why the Church is an institution that always goes forward by first going back—and keeps on doing so.

Os Guinness is an author and social critic, whose latest book is The Case for Civility – and Why Our Future Depends on It (HarperOne).

March/April 2008, ©9Marks

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