People of faith rightly recognize that not all truths emanate from material reality. We are certain, without proof or the need of it, that our lives mean more than what we can experience with our five senses. We know that we are part of a great unity that connects us to each other and that gives the universe a purpose that we can only wonder upon; we cannot know it with certainty.
We are certain, yet uncertain. We give ourselves over to the fundamental truth that we are made for something greater than ourselves. At the same time, we confess that we do not, cannot, know with finality what that something is.
There is a spectrum among people of faith that runs from, at one extreme, those religious liberals who emphasize the uncertainty and revel in the ambiguity of our existance. At the other extreme are the so-called fundamentalists, those who build their faith on bedrock certainty about the divine plan and purpose of our existance, right down to the details of how the world reaches its end.
In truth, no one is so far to one of these two extremes that he or she does not admit even a small amount of the other. The liberal must rely on some unquestionable assumptions. One must believe in something to be a person of faith, so we are all "fundamentalists." We all have fundamental assumptions about the nature of the universe.
The self-proclaimed fundamentalists, too, must be open to some realms of uncertainty. If every one of God's thoughts were accessible to us, then God would be reduced to a spreadsheet in which all the boxes are filled with known quantities. We are all liberals in our acceptance of some uncertainties and the need for creative, flexible interpretation to fill the gaps of our understanding.
Personally, I fall fairly strongly on the liberal side of the religious spectrum; the side that is attracted to ambiguity and allergic to certainty. Before moving to Florida six months ago, my personal exposure to folks on the other side was limited to caricatures. Here, though, people who call themselves fundamentalists are the majority. I still cannot say that I know them well, but I have made some observations.
The people of faith who expect religion to give them definite answers to their questions, about how to live and why, are often people who are shocked by an amoral, anything-goes culture. They want their faith to set clear, identifiable boundaries to separate right from wrong. I can sympathise with that. I think that most people of faith are troubled by a culture that floods us with encouragement to pursue our basest desires.
I think this is why so-called fundamentalism is so attractive, even to people who do not follow its demands. Not every Protestant who attends services at an evangelical megachurch believes that every word of the Bible is God's unfailing truth. Not every Jew who donates to Chabad-Lubavitch even aspires to accept the duties of traditional dietary laws and Shabbat observance. Yet, many find comfort in a absolutist worldview in which there is unambiguous certainty. It's a nice place to visit, even for people who don't want to live there.
Fundamentalists often are portrayed as prudish, humorless and intolerant. However, the stereotype is not often true. They are just as likely, sometime more likely, to be people who who live exuberant, passionate and open-hearted lives.
The problem with fundamentalism is not that it is cold, mean or dry. The problem is that it relies on only itself for confirmation. (When you are convinced that you know God's plan, what other confirmation do you need? What other voice will you even listen to?) The problem with over-reaching fundamentalism is the unconcious arrogance of dismissing everything but itself in the search for truth.
When such a faith encounters thoughts, ideas, or even facts that contradict itself, all it can do is to dismiss, deny and ignore them. That's not good for a faith tradition. Bad things happen to religions when they start arguing with science, for example, about the physical properties of the universe. (Anyone care to defend the Catholic Church's treatment of Galileo?). And worse things happen to individuals who are taught by fundamentalism that the truths of their lives are, somehow, wrong—whether those truths are their thoughts, abilities, desires, creativity, sexual orientation, history of abuse, or even their gender.
As attractive as a strictly fundamentalist worldview can be, it is difficult for me to accept these consequences. For me, I cannot be so certain of my assumptions that I never question or doubt them. I cannot claim that I seek truth while shutting out experiences and traditions different from my own. For me, the dismissal of human beings who think, behave or who are created differently is a denial of Judaism's central teaching of universalism—the unity of God and the belief that we are all created in the image of God.
I am a Jewish religious liberal because I believe in uncertainty. I believe in a universe that is more vast, more mysterious and more sacred than my mind can encompass. I delight in the ongoing journey of discovering its truths hidden within all.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Ki Tisa: The Golden Calf Is Within Us