Progressives deliver lofty words about embracing people who are different from us, but we often fail to put those words into practice when it comes to religious fundamentalists. In truth, there are many deep forms of spiritual wisdom that fundamentalists could share with us if we approached them with humility, care, and curiosity:
1. Fundamentalists go whole hog. They know what they believe. They know who’s right and who’s wrong. How do they do it? Do they do it about everything? Try asking a fundamentalist: What is it exactly that is fundamental for you? What are the commitments from which you will not budge? Are you able to stay open-minded on religious or political issues outside these commitments? Different fundamentalists will have different answers, of course. But it’s no betrayal of our own commitment to open-mindedness to consider emulating fundamentalists if we find something worth emulating. Which of our own beliefs are we willing to throw ourselves into without reservation? On what are we willing to take a stand from which we will not budge?
2. Fundamentalists have faith. Some of what they believe they believe without objective, empirical evidence, or even against scientific evidence. Are we able to see that they embrace faith not out of stupidity or ignorance but because their faith is confirmed by what they perceive as some deeper spiritual evidence? Can we see the ways that a demonstrably irrational faith can be motivated by entirely reasonable and real concerns and needs? Faith is not simply a choice to believe something without evidence. It begins as an experiment: “What happens if I try believing X?” And when something good happens, it grows. Are we interested in cultivating our own faith? Faith in what?
3. Fundamentalists have been at it a long time. They follow traditions that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. They’ve had time to build up a vast repertoire of practices, concepts, rituals, bits of wisdom. Their rearguard scramble to defend their traditions from modern threats may keep the most absurd parts of their program in clearest relief, but dig a little and you’ll find the richness of all they’ve built and that has sustained them over centuries.
In a previous piece I asked, what can we learn from true believers? Things like grace, hermeneutics, and contemplative prayer come to mind, but the list is inexhaustible. I plan to write on specific concepts or features in future articles.
I want to distinguish my position here from that of Alain de Botton (”Even if religion isn’t true, can’t we enjoy the best bits?”) who suggests we can co-opt anything from traditional religion and repurpose it so atheists or humanists don’t miss out on the good stuff. My sense is that we can look at concepts or practices in isolation, but if we really want to learn how they work, we may need to experience them in their natural habitat. You can’t see the profundity of grace without immersing yourself in a worldview in which grace is an active concept. We don’t have to become fundamentalists, but how far can we or will we go in pursuit of spiritual understanding? Would we go as far as Tanya Luhrmann?
4. Fundamentalists are “others”. The overarching theme of a century or two of progressivism has been about recognizing the rights and dignity and humanity of the oppressed, the marginalized, of “others”. We can tell ourselves that fundamentalists aren’t oppressed, that they (or many of them) come from the dominant, oppressive classes in our society. But ask yourself honestly, who is more likely to be successful in most respected American professions outside politics and the clergy: a tolerant, liberally educated, open-minded agnostic or a homophobic, racist Born Again Christian or Ultra-Orthodox Jew who seriously thinks the world was created 6,000 years ago? If you think people like that experience no economic or social discrimination or oppression, I’m sorry, but you’re blind. So, yes, these people are themselves attempting to oppress women, people of color, LGBTs, but can we find a way to invite them into the growing tent of the human, of those who deserve all the opportunities, respect and compassion we want for ourselves and for the more obviously oppressed?
5. Fundamentalists are not going to drop their regressive ideas by being made to feel stupid and evil. The regressive ideas held by certain fundamentalists are not a necessary corollary of their fundamental beliefs. Their regressive ideas are generally an expression of a fear-based us-and-them attitude which is stoked by some of their less admirable leaders and are further inflamed by the disapproval and animosity of those who don’t share their fears. If we care about combatting these ideas, but denunciation of them cannot be our only strategy. Fear subsides more easily when it is gently and compassionately acknowledged than when it is categorically denied.
6. At this moment in American history, ideological bickering does more damage than bad ideologies. I can’t claim to have a working strategy for politicians–Obama’s attempts to compromise with Republicans got him nowhere–but without some massive improvement in our nation’s ability to engage in cross-ideological dialogue, government shutdowns and dysfunction will drive us to dictatorship or a complete abdication of political rule to corporations and the wealthy. As political progressives we need sincere, open-minded and energetic dialogue with the political right, which seems all but impossible right now–which is why it is even more incumbent on us, as spiritual progressives, to open such dialogue with the religious right and fundamentalists. Our bickering serves as a perfect smokescreen for political corruption and malfeasance. We’d be better off handing the country over entirely to honest, independent Republicans than to keep sharing it between wealthy-donor-dependent Republicans and Democrats. Can we make honesty, transparency and friendly communication higher priorities than adherence to ideological platforms? What will we have to do to get all sides to play?
7. Nonviolent communication with and love for our “others” is the next moral frontier. There is no special merit in loving those who agree with us, but loving those who tell us we are wrong, across ideological divides, across religious divides, or across the dinner table—that takes serious spiritual guts. We owe it to our own greedy quest to accumulate good Karma to reach out a friendly hand to those who repel us. And one great way to do this is to engage with fundamentalists, up close or at a distance, but with a genuine humility and curiosity.
You’ll notice that I shifted at item 4 from a portrayal of fundamentalists as holders of valuable wisdom to a portrayal of them as obstacles in the path of our own vision for a better world. Different fundamentalists may be a better fit for one of these views or the other, but we tend to lump them all together and see them as the latter. The hope and invitation here is to see them as partners and sometimes as teachers rather than as obstacles and, thereby, not to be obstructed by them.
By combining the spiritual learning ideas in items 1-3 with the cross-ideological communication ideas in items 4-7, we can create a virtuous cycle. Without our political motivations and our commitment to nonviolence we might not be able to get past our distaste sufficiently to communicate at all.
Then if we can communicate around our interest in fundamentalists’ spiritual wisdom, we not only stand to gain significant wisdom, we will bring real curiosity, even humility, to the conversation, without which our attempts at nonviolent political engagement are likely to come off as insincere, patronizing and insufferable.
Buddhas, saints and prophets have been urging us to embrace our enemies since the Axial Age. Have we finally evolved to the point that this is possible for more than the occasional religious genius? I begin to think so when I consider, as a tiny sample, books like When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God referenced above, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, and The Genesis of Values; modern prophets like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.; and contemporary movements like Nonviolent Communication and Spiritual Progressivism.
I outline this virtuous cycle with the hope that one or two people might read it and be inspired somehow–maybe see a way to conjoin aspirations they felt a little stuck about so the combination is easier and more fun than either on its own. But if this article sparks nothing like that in you, please know that I don’t want to guilt you into anything of this; I just hope you enjoyed this trendy list format enough not to be grumpy for having read this far.