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Fundamentalisms Observed
edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby
University of Chicago Press, 872 pages, $40

An eminent British scholar of Buddhism took occasion in a recent essay to observe that contemporary Western university students are more likely to be taught about Hinduism than about the variety of Christian denominations. He gave one ominous example: “What . . . do our teachers of Christianity know or say about the doctrines and activities of the Southern Baptist Convention of the United States, a denomination with nearly 14.5 million members, most of them active, whose convictions about the inevitability and even desirability of a nuclear holocaust threaten to make our deliberations reach a rather premature conclusion?” 

This sentence displays a full measure of the ignorance it deplores. The most perfunctory acquaintance with a cross-section of actual Southern Baptists would give the lie to the notion that they all expect or desire a nuclear holocaust. How much terror might the author have been spared had he but contemplated a past American President named Carter. It is unlikely that this little piece of false witness would have been delivered with such complacency had its objects not been classed as fundamentalists. When it comes to people perceived as fundamentalists, otherwise scrupulous academics often find it quite natural to dispense with nuance. 

Fundamentalisms Observed , edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, is the first installment in an extensive project undertaken to redress past scholarly in-difference and/or flippancy. In the end there will be six hefty volumes dealing with the effects of fundamentalisms, the reasons for their rise, the elements common to them, and the implications of all this for public policy. The present volume provides extensive parallel accounts of fundamentalism, or approximations of it, in traditions ranging from Roman Catholicism to Japanese “new religions” and from Islam to Theravadan Buddhism. Each chapter is a monograph stressing historical and phenomenological description rather than extensive analysis. 

Readers may occasionally find the description overwhelming. Eighty dense pages on the Gush Emunim movement as “Jewish Zionist Fundamentalism,” or nearly as many on the Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But the detail is rich: simply to follow the stories of some of these movements is fascinating. There is grist enough for readers to frame their own questions and even their own hypotheses. 

A fundamentalism is defined as a counterattack in the name of religious tradition against the forces of modernity, a reaction that selectively recovers portions of the tradition in question while at the same time utilizing modern techniques. It is acknowledged to have a true religious spirit, and to forge a firm identity amidst crisis and change. In its nature, say the editors, a fundamentalism seeks a comprehensive system for human life and so is hostile to isolating religion from social and political life. (Many other features are also suggested, but they amount to little more than sociological truisms: fundamentalisms set boundaries, they exhibit missionary zeal, they “name, dramatize, and even mythologize their enemies,” they arise when there is a real crisis or one is perceived (are there actually any other times?). 

The clearest line drawn in the book is that between conservative religious movements and fundamentalisms. Substantively, of course, they may be identical; what seals a group’s identity as fundamentalist in the view of most of the book’s contributors is the decision to fight back, the refusal to acknowledge that modernity has won. The true hallmark is the conviction, at once quaint and frightening to outside observers, that the alternative vision, whether it be a Muslim society or a messianic state, can be fulfilled. It seems safe to say that the project of which this book is a part would never have come into being had the balance not been tipped from the quaint to the frightening side. Fundamentalism has forced its way onto the scholarly agenda by taking on an unmistakable significance in the public world of politics and culture. College students, we are told by the editors, now need to know about the phenomenon: “Some of them may even be fending off military and terrorist movements by fundamentalist extremists some day.” Perhaps equally pertinent to this project, fundamentalist militancy is displayed in the formation of “an integrated system that does not readily yield to the compartmentalizing tendencies of the modern social sciences.” 

It is hard to leave this book without reflecting on the methodology behind it, particularly since it appears with the impressive imprimatur of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. What sort of things are “fundamentalisms” and how should they be studied? The book does shy away from treating them as straightforward pathologies, analogous, say, to some cross-religious study titled “Racisms Observed.” There is a genuinely serious effort to recognize an authentic religious dimension in all the movements the book treats. Are we then, methodologically, dealing with other peoples’ religious faiths and should the requisite methods be those increasingly standard in religious studies”i.e., requiring not only empathy but dialogue, not only observation from outside but authentic voices from within? In other words, should fundamentalists themselves be included in the endeavor? As the title itself would suggest, the answer seems to be no. Such an idea was considered, the editors tell us in their introduction, but it was rejected on the grounds that the contributors made it their business to “take the interests of the fundamentalists into consideration.” One could hardly imagine a five-year project on monasticism or women in the religions, say, that would straight-facedly introduce itself with an analogous statement. 

That fundamentalism should be approached so gingerly is understandable. If the scholarly study of religion today inclines more to an ideal of empathetic appreciation than to one of pure objectivity, fundamentalism is the prickly case that defeats any pretense either of empathy or objectivity. As one of the contributors, Winston Davis, says with admirable frankness, “I do believe that fundamentalism in its pure form is a potential threat to the kind of open, democratic society in which I hope to live and raise my children.” To use the word fundamentalism “inevitably raises the problem of the fairness and/or bias of scholars who use it.” But, he continues, “to appreciate a religion is not necessarily the best or only way to understand it.” 

Condemnation is rarely so strongly commended as a mode of understanding in interreligious inquiry. As the religions one need not fear to judge, fundamentalisms expose an uneasily normative side of religious scholarship. The liberal, democratic society which is to be relativized through serious attention to other religions and other cultures must, insofar as it is the presupposition of the study itself, finally be the ruling value. Contemporary religious scholarship is used to responding to the moral challenge from its subjects, “By what right do you make us objects of your observation?” with a disclaimer of any dominating intent: study, say the scholars, is undertaken to rectify our own distorted perspective, to benefit us with new insights, to enhance our appreciation of the integral reality of others’ traditions and thus undergird our respect for them. 

Fundamentalisms by their very nature make it difficult for observers to affirm this objective with integrity. Fundamentalists are generally regarded as people who have not yet understood that there are arguments with knock-down cultural force that forbid appeals to substantive divine inspiration or ontological grounding. That this general idea may not comport well with a full understanding of fundamentalism is the welcome recognition that underlies the whole project. That the book speaks of “fundamentalisms” in the plural itself suggests that the term encompasses a wide diversity, and it is one of the virtues of this book that it demonstrates this. To note but one example, the useful chapter on Hinduism dispels the notion that a fundamentalistic Hinduism is a contradiction in terms, and yet illustrates the differences between such a movement, whose extremity lies primarily in not letting any insiders out, and, say, an Islamic one that seeks ultimately to bring all human society in. 

Indeed, so well is this diversity described, and so supple is the definition of fundamentalism, that one wonders finally why the circle has been drawn in quite the limited way it has. It is clear that Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are the paradigm cases for the project: without them in the first place there would be no effort to search out their correlatives. The search sometimes seems a bit forced. Tu Weiming’s stimulating piece on Confucian revival is explicitly dubious about how well his subject fits the theme, preferring to speak broadly of “the search for roots” as part of a “fundamentalist quest.” This willingness to look to the farthest shores, using watered definitions of fundamentalism in order to detect trace elements, contrasts oddly with a lack of interest in other candidates nearer home that seem to fit the formal criteria as well or better, from the Catholic Worker movement to Mormonism to the Hari Krishnas to that branch of radical feminism that revives supposed ancient goddess religions. 

Be all that as it may, Fundamentalisms Observed is a milestone, representing as it does a new seriousness in the discussion of its subjects. Most scholars will no doubt view it under the rubric of “Know your enemy.” Some may even regret the way acknowledging the global significance of these movements undermines the tactic of blank dismissal so common in the scholarly world. But this study is a rich resource for a more fruitful generation of questions. It not only tells us more about fundamentalism but challenges us to wonder whether the kind of grounding fundamentalists insist upon may not be an enduring human need and whether a resistant liberal society can itself long dispense with a transcendent grounding. Fundamentalisms are, as the editors say, “a mirror for the Western academy.” And the reflection is not an untroubled one.

S. Mark Heim is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School.