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If by definition one wants to use recourse to the infallible Scriptures of early Protestant fundamentalism in the USA, it is not necessary to ask all religious movements which canonical writings they have and how they go about using them. Rather, the question is who or what their respective ultimate, justifying authority is and whether or not they consider it to be infallible.

If the concept of fundamentalism is to have anything to do with the word ‘fundament,’ one has to ask every school of thought what they understand to be their primary fundament and not to impose the concept found in one religious movement on all others.

If one strictly goes by whether the Scriptures are considered to be infallible, then all Muslims would be fundamentalists – (whereby one gladly block out that the written records of Mohammed’s sayings and his associates, the hadith, are likewise taken to be infallible and for instance are of great importance for the sharia). Perhaps the most important western historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, calls the application of the term fundamentalism to Islam unfortunate and misleading, since it was originally used with respect to Christianity. Use of the Protestant concept cannot be applied to Islam since the belief in the divine origin of the Koran is one of the foundations of the religion. For that reason every Muslims, insofar as the meaning of the word is concerned, would be a fundamentalist.

Under this scheme no Catholics would be fundamentalists, save those who reject the historico-critical method in contrast to the guidelines given in Rome, or save those lay people whose readings associated with the Bible are often undistinguishable from Evangelical standards.

In Judaism all Orthodox and Ultraorthodox Jews would be fundamentalists, since they either take the entire Torah or at least the commandments in the Torah to have been given directly by God to Moses. Alternatively they could all be seen as non-fundamentalist, since they take the rest of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and interpret it very freely and with much variation.

Practically all separate groups arising out of Christianity, such as the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but also all such novel eastern religions in which the founder left behind seminal writings, would be completely fundamentalist.

Religions such as Bahai, which accept the writings of multiple world religions, would be harder to classify.

All eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism as well as all nature religions would be unassailable. This is due to the fact that they either have no writings or have a large collection of writings at their disposal, with no single writing standing out as particularly ‘canonical.’ If, however, a movement chooses a certain writing and holds it to be divine and inarguable, as is the case for instance in neo-Hinduism or in Sri Lanka’s Buddhism, then they are automatically fundamentalist. Among revered writings are the Bhagavad Gita in Hinduism, the Sutta Pitaka in Buddhism, the Avesta in Parsism, and the Adi Granth in Sikhism. Within all of these religions there are movements which give these writings canonical position similar to the Bible or the Koran.

In short: If ‘fundamentalism’ is to have something to do with the word from which it originates, ‘fundament,’ this cannot be done by basing it on the question as to whether a religion uses the concept of canonical writings and whether such is held to be infallible. Instead, the question has to be asked about what the inviolable element is that justifies everything else. Then comes the question of whether this is used as a justification for violence against those who think differently, for political activities, or whether it is otherwise used in a fundamentalist manner.

Example: Political Hinduism, which seeks to make India into a purely Hindu state and does not refrain from either strict legal steps or violence against Muslims and Christians, is surely one of the newer ‘fundamentalist’ movements with grave consequences. One has to note, however: To which degree can an individual speak about a ‘fundament’ or a reversion to some sort of writings or truths in this connection? Hinduism is certainly not a uniform religion but rather an assessable diversity of traditions, divinities, and points of view that does not possess anything that would approach a common dogma. Furthermore there is no religious leader or an organized church. Its idea pluralism always integrates other religions. In spite of that, it can wrest maintenance of old Indian order, above all the caste system and religious practice, independent of its own justification. Furthermore, it decries the religiously neutral state as well as religious freedom. “At this point one has to allude to a distinct difference to Islamic or Christian fundamentalism. In Hinduism we are confronted with a form that does not place a certain interpretation of dogma above all others and then declares these other interpretations to be wrong and invalid. Rather, it is one that holds religious practice to be unalterable. Hindu fundamentalism is based on the belief in the immutability of an all-determining dharma and a societal form that is tied to that, the caste system and the cultic differentiation between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean.’ Even Hindu fundamentalists have little difficulty with the universalistic and basic concept of their religion. They interpret Allah, God, Ahura Mazda, etc. as manifestations of reality that are unable to be articulated. Every change in the existing system of order is a violation of the divine order, which receives negative sanctions or even has to be prevented at the outset. Hindu fundamentalism is for that reason a fundamentalism of orthopraxis and not one of orthodoxy.” (Katharina Ceming. “Hinduismus“. http://them.polylog.org/5/ack-de.htm).

Example: Buddhism: Buddhist theologians use the Mahavamsa writings to justify the exercise of force to protect Buddhism in Sri Lanka, which in actuality are not canonical texts but rather central writings which substantiate the inseparable connection between religion and the state. One could almost come to the conclusion that the role of these writings first gained untypical significance through their political use.

Example: In the Compact Series volume Koran and Bible, I compared the understandings of scripture found in Islam and Christianity, which could not be more different. If one only asks if God’s word exists, then one overlooks the profound differences that the formulation ‘God’s word’ has already had in each of these two religions for hundreds of years. At this point the term fundamentalism resembles the view when looking through a pair of glasses that give a blurry picture, and as such it is something that distracts from a true appraisal of the basics of a religion.

Among Christian denominations, fundamentalism should not simply be attached to the manner in which the Scriptures are dealt with. Rather, it should be tied to what acts as the final authority, for instance the papal teaching authority in the Catholic Church.

Gottfried Posch aggressively assails Evangelical groups, because they would seem to allow for an infallible basis. Regarding the Catholic Church, however, he says that due to the papal office (which does not let itself be outdone by zealots), an “underlying Catholic fundamentalism . . . according to its self-image, is conceptually excluded” and can only exist in splinter groups. Here one can again see: It is always the others who are fundamentalists, for which reason he is unable to take off his Catholic glasses. It has little to do with academic propriety. And that the infallible pope is the guarantee against a set of fallible Scriptures, which after all are interpreted and discussed by millions of fallible Protestants, is sociologically incomprehensible.

Karl Lehmann thinks that ‘Scripture fundamentalism’ in Catholicism is not very widespread. How could it be? That was precisely the reason why Protestants broke away and why the Catholic Church condemned Protestants. In the Catholic Church what counts is not the Scriptures as they are interpreted by every individual, but rather the papal teaching office and its interpretation of Scripture and tradition.

Wolfgang Beinert maintains that Catholic fundamentalism is in itself an utter contradiction. Fundamentalism is structurally heretical. This may be the expression of faith of a Catholic, but it is surely not a fair comparison from a religious studies point of view.

The Evangelical understanding of Scripture has led to an unbelievable diversity of opinions and groups, and among them are fundamentalist opinions and groups. In contrast, the Catholic view of the teaching office makes such a lay theological democracy impossible. For example, the Evangelical world discusses in a broadly exegetical and ethical manner how divorce and remarriage are to be assessed, and in the meantime has predominantly offered room to both in theology and the everyday life of the church. With respect to the Catholic renunciation of both of these issues, there is nothing to change as long as the papal teaching office does not undertake to do so.

What we are dealing with here is not a retrieval of Evangelicals’ honor (how does a person want to evaluate half a billion people?) or a cheap criticism of Catholics (the same applies to another half a billion people), but rather to show that the concept of fundamentalism can easily lead to a premature contortion of reality and covers up just how everyday theology and faith really look.

Confessional Foundations of Christianity that can be used in a fundamentalist manner

  • Traditional Protestantism: The Bible and confessional writings
  • Evangelical Protestantism: The Bible (and Experience?)
  • Pentecostal Protestantism: The Bible and direct divine inspiration (primarily to leaders)
  • Liberal Protestantism: The results of theologians working in academia
  • Catholicism: The papal teaching office of the pope, which interprets the Bible and tradition
  • Schismatic Catholicism: The teaching office of the pope in written documents prior to 1962
  • Orthodoxy: The tradition found in the early centuries of Christianity as it interpreted the Bible
  • Separate groups, e.g., Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons: the Bible and the writings of group founders

The opposite also applies: Not everyone who dogmatically holds to the infallibility of some sort of founding authority is for that reason a fundamentalist and guaranteed to be unprepared to find democratic solutions through discourse with others.

It is often the case that a ‘fundamentalist understanding of Scripture’ is in itself seen as a “danger.” I consider that to be nonsense. The question of what justifies that viewpoint always has to be posed. There are pacifistic, completely apolitical groups who interpret the Bible literally. A person can theologically hold their attitude towards Scripture to be wrong, and yet they are politically and socially completely innocuous. Still, they are wrongly warded off together with terrorists with the use of a fundamentalist cudgel.

In addition to that, a person still has to ask what ‘infallible’ means in practice. For instance the Evangelical world traditionally holds the Bible to be infallible, and yet at the same time via hundreds of universities, thousands of researching and publishing biblical scholars, professional journals on the Old and New Testaments, and dozens of series of commentaries, there is a global and well organized continuous discussion about how the biblical texts are actually to be understood and applied. With this there is not a single question that is left untouched in the discussion. For instance the question of the ordination of women is an issue that is running rampant in the Evangelical movement, and it is being conducted with exegetical justification.

Example: USA: Naturally it is not understandable to a European to hear that 50% of Americans state that the Bible is God’s word that has to be literally interpreted, that is to say, a number which goes far beyond the number of Evangelicals there. Among these Americans, there are those who derive a justification of capital punishment from the Bible, and there are those against capital punishment who call upon the Bible as inerrant. There are those who directly find democracy in the Bible, and there are those who think that the Bible enjoins all political activity. In earlier times there were some southerners who found slavery in the Bible, and their opponents called even more vehemently upon the Bible.

Example: The Jehovah’s Witnesses have perhaps the most literal and most radical understanding of the Bible, since there has not yet even been a discussion regarding interpretation. I consider them as completely fallacious, and from top to bottom I do not share their leadership style. I consider their style of mission to be offensive, and I know the psychological problems of individuals who have dropped out. Yet dangerous to society? Where have Jehovah’s Witnesses ever conducted attacks or just even made political demands? At this point, when compared to the old sect concept –which had appeared to be largely overcome – a much worse verbal cudgel was taken out of the bag: fundamentalism.

Example from the USA: It is, of course, not fathomable for Europeans when 50% of Americans indicate that the Bible is God’s word that has to be literally interpreted. That is a number that far exceeds the number of Evangelicals. Among these Americans are individuals who derive capital punishment from the Bible and those who without fail call upon the Bible in opposition to capital punishment There are those who find democracy directly in the Bible and those who think that the Bible disallows all political activity. It used to be that some Southerners found slavery in the Bible while their opponents all the more fervently referred to the Bible.


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