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Crossan’s Definitions for Literalism and Fundamentalism

October 7th, 2008 · Posted by Hugo · 16 Comments

Thanks to Cobus for providing a link to this video clip in a comment on the previous post — John Dominic Crossan on The Dangers of Fundamentalism:

Please watch this video clip, especially if you are religious. It contains the food for thought that we need to think carefully about the dangers of certain ideological strains in our religions. My utmost respect for how Crossan expresses himself, in this video, and in the book I’m reading right now (The Last Week, co-authored by Crossan and Marcus Borg, which I so far extremely highly recommend to any Christian, or Christian-curious — as too many Christians focus only on the last day, ala Mel Gibson’s gorefest, while having no clue about the importance and significance of the week that lead up to it).

I like to distinguish between literalism and fundamentalism. […] A literalist is someone who takes everything in the Bible that could be taken literally, literally. […] A fundamentalist says “and if you don’t take it literally, you’re not a Christian. And if you say it shouldn’t be taken literally, you’re an anti-Christian.” […] Every religion today, must take responsibility for its own fundamentalism. Because religious fundamentalism is probably the most dangerous thing in the world at the moment.

In the future, I will stick to his definitions for everyday use.

Two things to look out for in the video clip:

  • Irrespective of whether you take the texts literally or metaphorically, they still mean the same thing.
  • There is a path from ideological fundamentalism through rhetorical fundamentalism to physical fundamentalism, a path capable of escalating ideology to the point of violence or genocide. Crossan illustrates such escalation through the example of Mein Kampf and the Nazis.

As the commenter hardheadjarhead wrote on YouTube about three weeks ago:

History bears out what he claims about fundamentalism, whether it be Christian or Muslim. Martin Luther in his work “The Jews and their Lies” was a classic example of the religious intolerance Crossan is talking about.

If you have not heard of Luther’s darker side, it’s certainly worthwhile to recognise the evils inadvertently produced and propagated even by your favourite heroes.

From the Other Side, Yet Again

Bear with me while I ponder the potential of a similar understanding on the other side… also in another attempt to understand why some people suggest the “fundamentalism” label can also apply to Dawkins et al (the so-called New Atheist Movement). I know I may bore some of you to death with rehashing this over and over… but…

Could the ideological framework of well-meaning atheists escalate from “religion is implicated in most of modern terrorism and violence” via “if we are able to eradicate religion, we will have a better society” to “in what ways might we successfully eradicate religion?”

This is not to debate the point, it is to provoke thought. Is it necessary for atheists to take responsibility for the results of their thoughts and ideas? Is being “factually and rationally correct”, as they claim they are, sufficient defence against any evils that might result from the eventual abuse of their ideas? Maybe. Who can judge? It may really be. I just know I’d personally rather focus on understanding the value of anything I deconstruct or challenge, and figure out ways to protect the good while hacking at the bad, replacing rotten or sandy foundations by foundations built on rock, or if renovation is not possible, putting much effort and energy into constructing a new house, built on rock, that provides all the essentials and as many of the benefits of the prior dwelling as possible, before indiscriminately bulldozing every sand-built shack I come across.

Enough melodrama and propaganda for now: it’s the thought that counts, and the thereby inspired thinking/reflection that helps.

(Besides, there are more than enough defenders-of-religion hammering incessantly on this very same thought, whether legitimately or illegitimately, which is why many are sick of hearing it. May that, together with this section of this post, my latest attempt at expressing the idea in the best way I can come up with, be adequate in letting me put the issue to rest.)

ps. He talks about something sounding like “the story of Ah-mey-us” — can anyone tell me what that last word is?

Categories: Religion and Science
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16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hugo // Oct 7, 2008 at 12:41 am

    It is to provoke thought, yes, but much of what I write seems also an effort to defend my own path. So the question that naturally raises: why do I care so much about other people’s thoughts about my path? Am I insecure about it, looking for external justification with people saying “ah, good choice, you go, hugo!” — which is bleh — or is it maybe more about trying to find others that can join me on this journey?

    And finding the black-and-white answer to that question also misses the point: the ponderings in this comment are about being aware of the role-players in my behaviour, as each has a contribution to make, and then managing them to balance them better. It should be about the latter, not the former, but in the end everyone does enjoy a little external motivation.

    Or… is it about trying to force everyone else to take the same path? This threatening meme is one I’ve been aware of for some time, and I feel confident that I’ve rejected it, but it still serves a useful purpose to remind myself to leave other paths open in my writing, as far as is possible while achieving the thought-provocation I’m aiming for. It should hopefully reduce conflict, of which we’ve had enough in the past year.

    Conflict was useful, it helped hack out some place in the woods, it helped lay out some basics, but the time eventually comes when we should start focusing on building that nice little log cabin of peace and cooperation, outgrowing the tribal warfare in our past.

  • 2 miller // Oct 8, 2008 at 2:58 am

    This is one of the things that bothers me about PZ Myers of Pharyngula. A careful observer will realize that PZ’s whole inflammatory, foul-mouthed style is just that, a style, or a persona. It is merely a method (and a successful one at that) to make stories much more interesting and to get people enthused about atheism. It’s a way of escalating ideology into action… hopefully the good kind of action.

    But how many of his readers are careful observers?

    In the scheme of things, I think the leaders of the “new atheist” movement (Dawkins, PZ, etc) are actually quite moderate and reasonable. Many religious people find them to be offensive and extreme, but that’s because they’ve misread or misunderstood. However, many atheists seem to misread it the same way, and agree with the extreme version!

  • 3 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 10, 2008 at 2:56 am

    OT: XKCD comic from your mini-blog is put into practice:

    The influence of the Web comic xkcd apparently knows no bounds: It has now spawned a new and potentially game-changing feature on YouTube.

    In this recent xkcd strip, comic creator Randall Monroe suggests that YouTube users would leave better comments — or, more precisely, avoid leaving stupid ones — if they first heard their words read back to them out loud.

    Recognizing a good idea when one is offered up for free, YouTube developers went ahead and built the feature. I just tried it: Wrote on one video, “Man, this is lame,” pressed the “audio preview” button, heard a reasonably audible rendition of the phrase read back to me, thought better of my contribution, and hit delete…

  • 4 Hugo // Oct 11, 2008 at 12:47 am

    Hehe, I love it! Go YouTube/Google!

    In other off-topic news, I recently (very) spoke to an atheistic libertarian who would be horrified (wrong word) if Obama wins. He’s not voting, not really wanting to vote Republican, but fiscally lines up with Republican ideas. So he’d be happy if McCain won. And he’s not at all concerned about Palin as head honcho should the hypothetical “McCain as president gets heart attack in two years” be accepted… Palin has more experience than Obama, in his books, pointing out he’s only been in the senate four times as long as I’ve been at my new company.

    It was mostly a philosophical discussion, not a political one, so it was really cool. The small-government ideas and arguments are still spilling around in my head, as are the differences between demand-side versus supply-side thinking. I’ll probably still lean left when the dust settles, but I’ve picked up some more appreciation for free market and small government ideas with which to inform future discussions/thinking.

    Pity I didn’t have some nice pro-Obama/Biden political arguments in my arsenal, I would have loved to see what direction they might take the arguments in. (Including heavy anti-Palin arguments. Maybe in a future discussion…)

    OK, now back to on-topic! (Yea, right…)

  • 5 Ben-Jammin' // Oct 11, 2008 at 6:48 am

    fiscally lines up with Republican ideas

    He probably lines up with Republican propaganda, not actual Republican ideas. With 8 years of Reagan and 12 years of Bushes writing budgets, the actual ideas that Republicans use to guide their fiscal policy is to bankrupt the country. You don’t get from almost no debt to $10 trillion debt ($30,000 + per citizen, or ~$130,000 for my family of four) by accident.

    So he’d be happy if McCain won.

    I’ve heard commentators say this election is a referendum on Roe v. Wade, but I don’t agree. It’s a referendum on Habeas Corpus. The Supreme Court recently upheld Habeas Corpus by a 5-4 vote, a vote that McCain called the ‘worst decision’ in (Supreme Court history? something like that.) If McCain wins, and any of the SCOTUS justices have to be replaced in his term, U.S. civil rights are gone.

  • 6 skoembs // Oct 12, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Maybe you can take a look at this and pass it along.

    A Conservative For Obama [Broken HTML Fixed by Hugo]

  • 7 skoembs // Oct 12, 2008 at 8:29 pm

    A Conservative For Obama

    In case the HTML breaks again:

  • 8 Linda // Oct 17, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Hi Hugo,

    Regarding your p.s. question, here ya go!

    And FYI, there is a Christian retreat/leadership/discipleship training program by that name which is well known to Christians in my circle:

    It does not appeal to me in the least, but it is a well organized group.

  • 9 Hugo // Oct 18, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    I’m not sure you have the right bit there – how can that piece be about “give God’s food to a stranger”? Unless there’s another story set in Emmaus…

  • 10 Linda // Oct 18, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    I think he’s referring to the story of Emmaus where Jesus appeared to the two men (disciples) walking toward the town of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35).

    They invite the stranger who had joined their walk to stay with them when they get to the village. They share their food with him, who they still have not recognized as Jesus. I’m thinking that’s what Crossan means by “giving food to a stranger.” In the story, only when the stranger breaks the bread do they recognize him as Jesus and realize the significance of all that was told to them during the walk.

  • 11 Hugo // Oct 18, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    Ah! *comprehension dawns*! Metaphorically speaking, it would be a case of discovering that, in helping a stranger by the side of the road, you then discover Jesus in them… “What you do to the least of us, you do to me” kind-of idea?

    Thanks Linda. I think I get it. I’m just surprised that Crossan would take such a “fundamental” example – thought he was talking about some minor bible story, rather than daring to take a bite out of something that cuts to the very sensitive heart of the issue: the resurrection. I’m impressed at the daring, actually, but the point still stands: as a “way to follow”, the *way* doesn’t differ in the slightest on the grounds of metaphorical vs factual – as a “way” it stands strong. (And the fighting is really just about the “beliefs”, killing one another based on something that makes no real difference? Silly, eh?)

    Ok, that’s just one way of seeing the situation, of course.

  • 12 Hugo // Oct 19, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Um… no, I’m still looking for alternative hypotheses with regards to what he’s referring to. “Share God’s food with a stranger” just doesn’t sound like a very plausible summary of the story when the only mention of food is this:

    30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.

    It still might be the case, but I’m asking around a bit. Will drop another comment if I find something, or if I find no other potential passage.

  • 13 Linda // Oct 19, 2008 at 10:00 pm

    Haha Hugo, you are such an investigator. ๐Ÿ™‚ I can’t claim to know too much about the Bible, but I have no problem with the reference, because the story IS about inviting a stranger to stay with them and to share a meal. I can see the walk to Emmaus, the invitation to stay with them, and the breaking of the bread in both the literal and metaphoric sense.

  • 14 Hugo // Oct 19, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    Yup. I acknowledge defeat. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Here’s an attempt to translate what Cobus van Wyngaard explained in an email (I think I should finish reading my Crossan book, and maybe read another) – if the translation or word choice seems a little strange, it’s because I’m going for as literal a translation as possible, not wanting to add or remove connotations:

    Luke 24 yes. Why would you want to believe it’s something else? Try reading the story…

    Two disciples (remember, 12 apostles but many disciples, in the gospels already) are walking, and meet some random stranger. They don’t recognise him. He is a stranger travelling on a dangerous road, to walk further at night was not at all safe. Thus, they’re not inviting Jesus, they’re inviting a stranger.

    When they’re sitting down for dinner, and the stranger breaks the bread, the stranger becomes the risen Jesus, or they recognise the stranger as the risen Jesus.

    Is it that much of a stretch to think that Luke didn’t write the story of the people in Emmaus as [just?] a proof text for the resurrection, but also as a story that calls us “to share God’s food with the stranger”. It would fit with the motives of Luke’s gospel, it was after all what he was busy with the whole time, to show how Jesus focused on the outcasts. Now come tell the story that the risen Jesus becomes visible when doors are opened for strangers.

    Interesting then, as Crossan also says, that this meaning isn’t necessarily dependent upon where you find yourself on the so-called “conservative-liberal line”.

    I shall play skeptic no more (on this issue anyway), and fall asleep with a smile on my face (or in my mind, anyway), liking this Crossan clip and appreciating the important nuances introduced by understanding the context around the text.

    And start thinking about putting together a nice list of people I can spam when I have questions like these… ๐Ÿ˜› And Linda, irrespective of how well you know the Bible, I’ll listen when you’re talking. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • 15 Linda // Oct 20, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Aw, thanks, Hugo! But I love being questioned and challenged. (and often proven wrong) ๐Ÿ™‚

  • 16 Pepper-Spraying Streakers at Shofar // Oct 31, 2008 at 9:57 am

    […] this discussion does actually take off, I’ll end up pointing some people to a previous post: Crossanโ€™s Definitions for Literalism and Fundamentalism. So why don’t y’all go watch that video clip now before commenting, if you […]

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