How to Be the Right Kind of “Fundamentalist”?


by Davor Džalto  |  ру́сский

“Fundamentalism” is a difficult concept to define. The difficulty does not primarily stem from the demanding task of describing certain actions, beliefs, and ideas and drawing general patterns that would help us differentiate “fundamentalist” phenomena from what they are not. The way the concept of “fundamentalism” is often employed, both in the public discourse and in academia, shows that the major obstacle consists in the underlying logic behind many implicit or explicit definitions of fundamentalism, which differentiates between actions and ideas that “they” propagate and do (which can be labeled as “fundamentalism”), and same or similar actions and ideas that “we” do. That means that the concept of “fundamentalism” is more often than not used as an honorific term, whose lack of descriptive value is compensated by a strong judgment value.

Take, for instance, the categories that Leonard Weinberg and Ami Pedahzur offered in their attempts to define “fundamentalism” in Religious Fundamentalism and Political Extremism (2004). They identified a couple of main types of “fundamentalist” groups and movements (such as “reactive” groups and movements; movements that “define the world in dichotomous and Manichaean terms…Choices between good and bad are always clear-cut and straightforward”; fundamentalists that hold the sacred texts to be “of divine origins and consequently inerrant and beyond questioning”; and so forth).

Certainly all of us can think of those religious radicals and fanatics who conform to some of these descriptions, or maybe to all of them at the same time. The problem, however, is elsewhere. Following these descriptions, as Scott Appleby (Rethinking Fundamentalism in a Secular Age 2011) warned us, fundamentalists can be conveniently juxtaposed against “a standard model of the rational, enlightened, educated modern person” (meaning “us”). The result is that the descriptive value of the definition loses its power if and when it’s applied selectively (as it usually is) to describe those phenomena that appear to “us” (those “rational, enlightened, educated” and also “liberal” modern persons) as problematic and unacceptable, while “we” refrain ourselves from characterizing many of the ideas and actions that come from our own social, cultural, religious or political milieu as “fundamentalist” even though those ideas and actions fit the above given definitions quite well.

However, based on the Appleby’s understanding of fundamentalism as something that can be situated within the context of modernity, modernization, and secularization, one can, I think, differentiate between, on the one hand, a “tradition-oriented” fundamentalism, which, in my view, can be radical (in its, for instance, insistence on self-discipline, ascetic practices, etc.), and, on the other hand, an aggressive, pro-active fundamentalism, as another manifestation of a modern mentality. This distinction is the basis for my differentiation between the negative understanding of fundamentalism, as a phenomenon which exhibits all of the typical manifestations of what in theological terms could be called the hypertrophy of individuality—alienation from others, perception of the other as an existential threat, conviction that only “we” or “I” are on the right track to salvation, etc.—and a positive concept of Christian radicalism, which aspires to affirm Christian anthropological and metaphysical maximalism (which often results in quite a radical life style, the rejection of “this world” and the like), yet without the fearful rejection of the other, without the isolationalist extremism and a Manichean division between “us” (who are the saved ones, the good ones, and the righteous ones) and evil, wicked, poisonous “them.” 

I want to propose that Christianity, when taken seriously, implies a certain sense radicalism, or even extremism. This “Christian radicalism” can be a “non-fundamentalist” radicalism (or a “good fundamentalism”): in other words, a radicalism that can and should be affirmed without the exclusion of others, without endangering them.

Let us imagine someone who rejects social conventions, who calls for the renunciation of family values and ties, who does not make any compromises about what he/she believes in, whose message is the one about the rejection of the absolute meaning and importance of political authorities, and who finally dies for his/her cause. This would certainly qualify for a case of “extremism” and “radicalism,” if not “fundamentalism.” And yet, we’ll all easily recognize in this description the New Testament figure of Christ and his apostles. Indeed, they were “radicals” and “extremists.” They were labeled as dangerous within the prevalent culture of the Roman Empire and, if the legal authorities of their time could have borrowed from our modern political vocabulary, no doubt that they would even be called “terrorists.” These ancient radicals were so persistent in their obscure beliefs and ideas, they were so fundamentalist, that they would rather die than to do what all normal, decent and god-fearing citizens would do—offer a minor act of sacrifice, which shows respect and loyalty to the state and the dominant social/ideological system.

Over the centuries, Christians have also been accustomed to quite radical practices, such as rigorous fasting, asceticism, or holy foolishness and many others, and in many of these cases the consequential application of these practices—in addition to the mercy of God, of course—made them saints. This means that from a theological perspective, the question should not be whether or not we accept “radicalism.” It seems that a certain radicalism and extremism is a vital part of believing, something that constitutes the very identity of a committed believer who aspires to become the likeness of God, to enter His Kingdom (“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Revelation 3:15-17)

What can be concluded from this is that Christians should indeed be radicals and even fanatics. But they should be fanatic lovers of love and freedom. Not as impersonal ideas but as existential realities. And this is unthinkable without other persons. This is, in my view, the foundation of the “right kind” of fundamentalism or radicalism. A true Christian radical knows that the enemy is primarily (in) him/herself. The major obstacle we are facing in this world is the very mode of our existence, not someone out there who threatens us.

Therefore, no concepts, formulae, ideologies, or abstract principles should be an obstacle in embracing another human being, in affirming love as the “substance” of the eschatological existence.

Davor Džalto is Associate Professor and Program Director for Art History and Religious Studies at The American University of Rome President of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Christianity.

A version of this essay was originally presented at an international conference on “Orthodoxy and Fundamentalism,” organized by the Institute for the Study of Culture and Christianity and the Volos Academy for Theological Studies and co-sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University on May 10-12, 2018 in Belgrade, Serbia.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.