Incisive book on fundamentalism paints nuanced picture

Award-winning text shows how extremism can be dangerously attractive and points to its place in specific religious traditions
Incisive book on fundamentalism paints nuanced picture

Abdelghani Merah, the elder brother of Mohamed Merah who murdered seven people in France in 2012 in a spate of jihadist attacks, walks through Vitry-le-François in the country's northeast during a march toward Paris to alert people to the rise of religious fundamentalism on March 16, 2017. (Photo by Francois Nascimbeni/AFP)

 
Father William J. Grimm, MM
International
August 15, 2018
It is not surprising that Christian fundamentalists are attracted to the apocalyptic aspects of the Gospels, epistles and of course the Book of Revelation.

They describe the end, and fundamentalists are people whose world appears to be in danger of ending, or may have ended already and is in need of resurrection.

That sense of a world having been lost or threatened is not limited to Christians. Gerald Arbuckle, a Marist priest who is a cultural anthropologist and theologian, shows in his latest book how the threat or reality of loss is a common thread that links the various forms of fundamentalism.

His book, Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad: Analysis and Pastoral Responses, was released by the Liturgical Press in 2017.

Such loss, whether real or imagined, can result from intellectual, theological, economic, political, demographic or ethnic changes to the established situation, and no one is exempt from the tendency.

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"The disturbing fact is that every individual and culture is capable of fundamentalist attitudes and actions," writes Arbuckle.

In the first section of this six-chapter book, which won first place in the Professional Books category in the 2018 Catholic Press Association USA awards, Arbuckle presents the evolution of the concept as well as causes and characteristics of various forms of fundamentalism.

Among the examples he cites are religious fundamentalism, the presidency of Donald Trump in the U.S., Brexit in the United Kingdom and the Cultural Revolution in China.

"We are seeing something akin to a global epidemic of fundamentalism both religious and political," he writes.

Arbuckle's second chapter presents a series of nine "axioms" that show how fundamentalism can answer a basic human need for a mythology that provides a sense of ultimate meaning in a world that seems increasingly chaotic. In other words, it highlights how fundamentalism can be attractive.

There are various forms of fundamentalism, such as the economic version harbored by some capitalists or socialists, or that of diet faddists or what we can see in an entire nation such as North Korea. But there is no doubt that the major forms of the phenomenon are religious.

The author uses various examples that show the varieties of religion-based fundamentalism, including Soka Gakkai in Japan and "civil religion" in the West, especially the U.S.

He makes a distinction between fundamentalism and "refounding narratives" that build upon history and traditions to create new responses to new situations.

Having explained the nature and attraction of fundamentalism, particularly of religious fundamentalism, Arbuckle illustrates how fundamentalism works in two specific religious traditions.

Though people tend to think either of Muslims or Protestant evangelicals when they think of religious fundamentalists, Catholicism has not been immune to the attractions of fundamentalism.

The Counter-Reformation Catholicism before Vatican II that continues among various traditionalists abetted by Popes John Paul and Benedict was and is a fundamentalist phenomenon.

Other examples that Arbuckle mentions are the Roman Curia, as well as such movements as the NeoCatechumenal Way and Opus Dei.

This book is important for Catholics as a reminder that fundamentalism is a temptation and reality among ourselves, not just something that infects others.

This chapter, even without the previous explanations of fundamentalism, would be an important source of reflection and even repentance for Catholics.

Unless we recognize and rectify a tendency in ourselves to replace faith with the certitude of fundamentalism, we are unable to understand and confront fundamentalism in others.

Arbuckle then looks at Muslim fundamentalism in a chapter titled "Islamic Fundamentalism: Responding to Cultural Trauma."

The chapter presents a summary history of Islam and the various forms that fundamentalism takes in the Muslim world. That fundamentalism has some of its roots in the exploitation and denigration of Muslim societies by the West, especially during the period of colonialism.

The final chapter deals with practical ways to respond to fundamentalists. While it is probably useful for churches and individuals hoping to understand the phenomenon, deal with it, and perhaps overcome it, it is obviously directed toward those who are not the victims of fundamentalism. So this chapter probably has limited applicability in much of Asia.

The author, a New Zealander, is based in Australia and works in the West, so it is probably natural that his focus would be on those fundamentalisms that have an impact upon the West.

Therefore, he focuses his chapter on Muslim fundamentalism upon Egypt and the Middle East with some mention of the situation in East Asia. He barely looks at places like Buddhist Sri Lanka, Communist China, Hindu India or Muslim Indonesia where fundamentalism has not yet had a major impact on the Western world, but where it increasingly threatens Christians and other minorities.

A sign, perhaps, of how cursory is Arbuckle's look at Asia is his mention in passing of Japan's "Aum Shinriko" (actually Shinrikyo), where he assumes it is the name of an individual rather than the doomsday cult that launched a terror attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Its founder and a dozen leading members were executed in early July 2018.

This is a valuable book for understanding the phenomenon of fundamentalism, but apart from its exposition of Catholic fundamentalism it will not have its major effect in Asia until someone uses it as a model for looking at the situation on this continent where Christians are increasingly not merely observers, but potential or actual victims of fundamentalism.

 

Father William J. Grimm is a Maryknoll Missioner with over 40 years' experience in Asia including Japan, Hong Kong and Cambodia. He is the author of 'In Season and Out, Homilies for Year C.'

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