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Fidelity without fundamentalism:…

10 November, 2010

162 pp. Darton, Longman & Todd Books. To purchase this book online go to www.dltbooks.com

What is fundamentalism? The question discussed here is really about protecting a valuable tradition (the fundamentalist’s concern or the freedom one is allowed in translating that tradition so that it is not in conflict with a contemporary world-view (the concern of a modernist). The beauty of this book is its author’s clarity of thought. He looks at some of the pitfalls of translating the tradition and how to get at the core of what the tradition is. Some of the issues he examines are: how we understand what the Bible says about creation, about Jesus – his birth, his resurrection and some of the things that he said. He also discusses theological issues, such as, how we understand the humanity of Jesus and how we can reconcile his divinity with monotheism, how we understand transubstantiation and the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. He discusses whether absolutism or relativism is the better to deal with moral problems, ecumenism and women’s ordination, switching off a life-support system and animal rights. In general, the author argues for a balance and feels that fundamentalists underestimate the complexities of the questions and hasten to a dismissive dogmatism that in the long run is more likely to corrode faith rather than to support it. It’s a good read.

Patrick Duffy


Fundamentalism: A Preliminary Look 

1. Tradition and Translation

2. The Pitfalls of Translation 

  • A faithful translation? Some illustrative examples
  • Reaching across culture gaps
    • How can we understand the ancients?
    • Can we ever ‘reach’ others?
  • The perils of extremism
    • How one gets in touch: the professional translator
    • In touch with what? Postmodern scepticism
    • It’s really very simple: the rigorist
  • What makes cultural exchange possible?
  • The project again.

3. Beyond Mere Words 

  • ‘Speech acts’: what we can do with words
    • Speech acts in general
    • Three sayings of Jesus: how to take them?
  • Large-scale misunderstandings
    • The infancy narratives
    • The resurrection narratives

4. The Challenge of the Sciences 

  • The birth of modern fundamentalism
  • Physics, astrophysics and Galileo
  • The age of the sciences: fundamentalist panic

5. Shifts in Philosophical Vocabulary

  • Was Jesus of Nazareth a human person?
  • What exactly is transubstantiation?

6. Behaviour in Different Cultures

  • How do we know what someone is doing?
    • The fuzziness of action words
    • The moral complexity of actions
    • Fundamentalism and ‘relativism’
      • Moral relativism and moral absolutism
      • Moral pluralism
  • What do we mean by the imitation of Christ?

7. Fidelity to a Moral Tradition: Living as They Lived?

  • Some (comparatively) uncontroversial examples
    • Closeness to sinners and the outcast
    • Collaboration and revolution
    • Relations between churches
  • Some less simple examples
    • Pacifism
    • The priestly ordination of women
  • What if there is no tradition?
    • Genetic manipulation
    • Death and life
  • Coping with uncertainty

To Sum Up



Few people, even among those who would commonly be described as fundamentalists, would welcome being called one. It is not usually intended as a compliment, even though the precise criticism implied is often only vaguely hinted at. Sometimes the suggestion is that to be a fundamentalist is to be some kind of political extremist, with a tendency towards violence justified by an appeal to religion. People can speak of Islamic fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists, sometimes also of Buddhist and Tamil fundamentalists, where the common element is a political and cultural intolerance issuing in violence; a Roman Catholic fundamentalist recently assassinated a doctor who ran an abortion clinic in the United States. Exactly what the link is between such people’s conduct and their religious beliefs is often very vague, and is in any case repudiated by their co-religionists, who are every bit as religiously committed as fundamentalists but who totally reject the implication that their religion justifies such actions. But there are also believers in all the major religions who, in a less violent sense, are accused of being fundamentalists because they adopt very literalist readings of sacred texts, or, on religious grounds, take up indefensibly conservative positions on morality or liturgy.

Yet there are – or at any rate there were – also people who are proud to be described as ‘fundamentalists’. The term was first used
by a group of Christian theologians in the early 1920s. In so describing themselves, they proudly proclaimed their desire to
return to and protect the very foundations of their faith and their Christian tradition (1). Their opponents were a varied group of theologians to be found in most of the principal Christian denominations, who were commonly referred to as ‘modernists’ and who accepted the Higher Criticism of the Bible along with evolutionary theories in science, and suspect views on morality. In contrast to them, Christian fundamentalists typically hold a very strong view of the authority of the Scriptures (though they often differ widely in the justifications they give for this position) precisely because they wish to be faithful to the very basic tenets of their faith. Some Christian accounts of biblical inspiration closely parallel some Muslim views of the Qur’an: both groups insist that the texts themselves clearly assert that they are directly inspired by God. ‘The Word of God’ means what it says. Other Christian fundamentalists will also hold that the texts are guaranteed to be free from error; but they will do so on the rather different grounds that the factual assertions in the texts can be verified by historical or archaeological research. Still other believers, Christian and Muslim alike, will hold that within strict limits specified in the texts themselves some adaptation to changing circumstances can be made; but they will still totally reject the kind of scholarship typical of much of the higher criticism, which raised and still does raise fundamental questions about the authorship and literary genre of passages in the Qur’an or the various books of the Bible. Still other Christian fundamentalists pride themselves on adhering to what they would describe as the literal sense of the biblical accounts of creation, the virgin birth, the atonement through Christ’s death on the cross and his bodily resurrection. These ‘fundamentals’ of Christian faith are not to be undermined by any modern literary theories about what texts – any texts, whether biblical texts or works such as Hamlet or Finnegan’s Wake – might mean, or by any of the fashionable doubts which modern critics might wish to cast on whether we could ever discover what St Paul or an evangelist meant by what he wrote.

So it will be helpful at the outset to try to give some account of how I shall understand the term ‘fundamentalism’. First, some disclaimers. I am not trying to deal with the political movements commonly described as ‘fundamentalist’ other than indirectly, in so far as their political behaviour is justified by strictly religious considerations. Nor am I trying to single out believers in any particular denomination or religion – there can be and have been fundamentalists who are Catholics, Baptists, Evangelicals, Muslims and Hindus. I hope that any believers who are not Christians, but have the patience to read these pages in which most of the examples are taken from Christianity, might well find their own parallels to the issues discussed here.

Two psychologists of religion have defined the term very helpfully:

By fundamentalism’ we mean the belief that there is one set of religious teachings that clearly contains the fundamental, intrinsic, basic, essential, inerrant truth about humanity and deity; that this essential truth is fundamentally opposed by forces of evil which must be vigorously fought; that this truth must be followed today according to the fundamental, unchangeable practices of the past; and that those who believe and follow these fundamental teachings have a special relationship to the deity (2).

This is intended as a definition of ‘religious fundamentalism’, as the authors make clear. I am willing to use the term more broadly rather than restricting it to certain groups of religious believers. As I shall use it, a person can be a fundamentalist Marxist, or member of the Labour Party, or fundamentalist about the dress code for the Long Room at Lords, or for examinations at the University of Oxford. The key point is that, though I am primarily interested in religious fundamentalism, I do not think that fundamentalism in general is essentially a matter of the content of a person’s belief system or code of practice. It is partly a matter of the attitude which people take towards that system of beliefs or practices, and partly a matter of the grounds on which that system seeks to defend itself and rebut the criticisms of it made by those ‘outside’. The attitudes and, I shall argue, the means by which fundamentalists seek to defend their attitudes are by and large the same almost irrespective of the particular topics about which they have these views.

In particular, fundamentalists place a great deal of emphasis on tradition and on the importance of being faithful to that tradition. Of course, one can, and I would think that most people do, believe in the value and importance of traditions without being fundamentalist about them. What I take to be specific to fundamentalists is the way in which they commonly regard some tradition(s) as both important to their well-being and as under threat and in urgent need of defence. Those traditions must somehow be put, and indeed seen to be put, beyond criticism or reassessment.

In general, it seems that all fundamentalists believe that respect for an important tradition is threatened by some feature or other of the contemporary scientific, moral, political or intellectual climate, which calls in question either the authority of the text, or the traditional interpretation of the text, or the necessity of the practice, or all of these. Key features, on which the tradition essentially depends, are imperilled or altogether lost. So, for example, it might be felt that once the Higher Critics are let loose on the Bible, the very foundations of Christian faith are eroded; or, unless stringent tests for citizenship are insisted upon, Europe will lose its identity; if some traditional moral views are abandoned as inadequate for our modern age, the entire fabric of society will inevitably collapse. Or, quite in general, if we listen to all these modem theories of how ancient texts such as the Bible or the Qur’an are to be understood, the very basis of any religious belief will be undermined.

Fundamentalists respond in various ways to such threats. They can try to meet the threat head on, by arguing that their views –Creationism, or Intelligent Design, for example – can be harmonised with the scientific evidence just as well as stories about the Big Bang or the evolution of species. They can dispute entire methods of interpretation – for instance ‘the historical-critical method’ – or attack the more detailed conclusions of those scholars who argue that biblical texts often make no claim to be stating historical facts, or that the precise meanings of ancient texts are of necessity going to remain to some extent uncertain. But defence along these lines is fraught with difficulties, since it involves flying in the face of arguments which are certainly very strong. The alternative strategy is a kind of displacement. Elements in the tradition are selected which are not directly threatened by such theories, and fidelity to the tradition is redefined in terms of just those elements. Hence there are conservative traditionalists who focus upon the precise performance of special rites, or upon specific criteria for membership of the group, or upon some moral crusade, or some kind of authoritarian guarantee of orthodoxy which does not itself rely upon argument or evidence. Edmund Farley, describing these features as ‘mediations’, puts the matter very well:

Stressed by the experience of a radically secularizing diaspora of religion, some religious leaders suppress religion’s perennial awareness of the limitations and fallibilities of its mediations and this is what constitutes the fundamentalist response to the modern. The fundamentalist phenomenon, then, despite its constant appeals to God and its declared intent to be God’s people, do what God wants, believe what God believes, is a kind of atheism in this respect. To the extent that the holy is suppressed or displaced, fundamentalism, paradoxically, is itself a sign of religion undergoing secularisation (3).

Many fundamentalists would, of course, object strongly to this allegation about the ultimate implications of their whole approach, their ‘meta-theology’ so to speak. They would argue that, far from resulting in a kind of sacrosanct atheism, their view of how theology ought and ought not to be conducted is alone going to be able to safeguard religious values in a predominantly hostile world. Any attempt to dialogue with (to put it nicely) or parley with (with its suggestions of somewhat dishonourable compromise) contemporary culture can end only in subjecting God’s revelation to mere human opinions – changeable human fashions – about what is ‘acceptable in this day and age’. This challenge is not lightly to be dismissed by someone who, like myself, believes fundamentalism to be indefensible. The only way to meet the fundamentalists’ criticisms is to show that respect for tradition, which is what they most value, need not involve the kind of rigidity which they regard as the only sure guarantee of fidelity. It is the aim of this book to suggest ways in which this might be done.


1. See Harriet A. Harris, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, [ 1998] 2007). Her conclusions are conveniently summarised in her final chapter and in the appendix, pp. 313-36. Also James Barr, Fundamentalism (London: SCM Press, 1981), and Hans Kung and Jurgen Moltmann (eds.), Concilium (1992/93).
2 Bob Altemyer and Bruce Hunsberger, ‘Authoritarianism, religious fundamentalism, quest and prejudice’, International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2(2), pp. 113-33.
3 Edward Farley, ‘Fundamentalism: a theory’, Cross Currents (Fall 2005), vol. 55, no. 3.



Fundamentalists and their critics can easily agree on two points.

The first is that quite in general it is foolhardy to abandon traditions as though they had nothing to teach us. Indeed some of our traditions are not simply practices from which we might have a good deal to learn, but are in a stronger sense authoritative. An obvious example would be our tradition of the ‘common law’. For centuries courts have applied themselves to a wide variety of difficult disputes and have tried to arrive at acceptable solutions. Moreover, courts have often been asked to assess the ways in which their predecessors have performed this task. Precedents are established, interpretations of legal texts are taken as authoritative, and yet it is nevertheless possible that changes in circumstances might call for those decisions to be revisited and possibly revised or overturned. Other traditions are authoritative in different ways and to varying degrees. There are traditions enshrined in the British way of life, in the many different rituals for marriage and other rites of passage in different cultures, in sacred texts such as the Bible, the Qur’an and the Vedas, in the proper way to conduct scientific experiments and submit them to peer review, or, less precisely, in the ideals of European civilisation, or the American way of life. One way or another, we have all been brought up to respect the traditions of the societies and professional groups to which we belong, since those traditions provide the very framework within which we can construct our own personal identities, organise our ways of conducting our affairs, and in general benefit from the wisdom of our predecessors and ancestors.

Secondly, fundamentalists and their critics can agree that if one wishes to be faithful to a tradition, it is clearly essential to have a correct understanding of what that tradition is – its origins, what its texts say, what its practices mean – and to have procedures for determining what those meanings are when disagreements about them arise. It is obviously the case that if a tradition is valued, it is valued for what it has been and still is. A traditional text, or a traditional practice, or indeed any traditional claim about what is to be taken as valuable or true, is useless in default of a clear understanding about the actual content of such a claim.

These points of agreement, however, do nothing to disguise the many differences in the ways in which fundamentalists and their critics seek to go on from there. Gaining the accurate understanding which, it is agreed, one must have is often enough a much more complex task than might at first sight appear. Typically, fundamentalists and their critics will have very different views on this point, with the critics emphasising the complexity of the quest for understanding the tradition and its origins, and fundamentalists trying to demonstrate that a proper understanding can be reached quite readily. They need to eliminate any kind of threatening complexity right at the start. Moreover, the differences of opinion about the true meaning of traditional texts and customs will often in practice become entangled with what might at first sight seem like an entirely different dispute about how we are to understand fidelity to a tradition. It will be rare to find anyone who believes that fidelity to tradition requires absolutely no adaptation of that tradition to the needs of its contemporary adherents. At the very least, for instance, there is often the need to translate the texts in which truths are traditionally taught; traditional practices have to be sensitively and carefully interpreted, and proper procedures for doing so must be laid down. But, of course, as soon as words like ‘translation’ and ‘interpretation’ and ‘proper procedures’ are introduced into the very notion of understanding fidelity to a tradition, some fundamentalists will at once feel that the pass has already been sold and the betrayal presented as a fait accompli. Indeed I myself shall presently be arguing that translation is a far from straightforward activity. In general, then, respectful adaptation presupposes that one has good reasons sometimes for accepting, sometimes for denying, that what is traditional must somehow be adapted to fit the changing circumstances of one’s own times. Even if adaptation is considered to be a good thing in principle, disputes about exactly what might have to be altered to meet our modern requirements are not going to be easy to resolve. To complicate matters further, the issue about how to arrive at a correct understanding of the meaning of tradition will routinely be interwoven with the apparently different question about the degree of authority which tradition, once rightly understood, is to have. What will seem to one person to be clearly an appropriate adaptation of tradition to meet the needs of our times will seem to another to be little or nothing short of an abandonment of all that is valuable; instead of exhibiting respect for tradition, when it comes down to it such accommodations will appear to amount to a denial that tradition has any authority at all. I shall argue that it is essential to keep issues about correct interpretation and issues about the authoritativeness of tradition as distinct as possible.

As a general model for thinking about how we are to learn from tradition, I propose to examine the practice of translation; and, more particularly, to use some of the problems involved in translation as illustrations precisely because they have little or nothing directly to do with the ‘hot’ issues of religious disputes. I do so in the conviction that when important personal or religious issues are at stake, it is very hard to discuss the importance of tradition without one’s personal involvement skewing the discussion. Much better, then, to start with more neutral issues which can more easily be examined purely on their merits, and then to argue that conclusions reached about those issues can usefully be applied to other matters where we are much more deeply involved. I hope that looking at the theory of translation will provide such a (comparatively) neutral starting point.

The aim will then be to apply the lessons learned from translation in this neutral setting to different spheres of religious tradition. The application is immediate where religious traditions rely upon texts which are taken as authoritative; for traditional religious texts commonly have to be translated if they are to be used at all. But I shall argue that the translation model has a wider application. As well as being an account of what happens in the use of texts, the account can be applied to translation in a broader sense: for the fundamentalist will often, indeed usually, wish to be faithful to the same ways of behaving as are to be found in the original ideal — the behaviour of Christ or of the early Christians, or the life of the Prophet — and they will have a particular version of what such fidelity will require. So the account of what translation involves can be used very widely to illuminate what is involved in learning from tradition in the spheres of ethics, liturgical and other religious practices, and even, I shall suggest, in dealing with the interactions between religion and science. In short, the question is, how can we give a faithful translation of our various religious traditions into the languages and cultures of our contemporary world? I shall endeavour to show that the various versions of fundamentalism embody mistaken theories of translation, and hence untenable views on what it is to understand and to be faithful to one’s traditions.

I shall then endeavour to show how it is that translation theory can also account for what it is for a tradition to be authoritative. In so doing, I hope to complete the project of offering a balanced view of what is involved in being faithful to any authoritative tradition, without having to resort to the indefensible claims of many fundamentalists.


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