A reader here recently commented on the topic of interpretation and of understanding what a text says in context. The title above is a good example of why context matters. You do not know if this post is about Christian fundamentalists, Muslim fundamentalists, or some other fundamentalists. You might assume that I am going to give examples of arrogance among fundamentalists or simply rant about how arrogant they are; however it is possible that the title is sarcastic and my intent is to show that fundamentalists are not arrogant.
Here you go. I am writing about Christian fundamentalists, and I am hoping to show that they are not as arrogant as some people think. Now you know what the title means–from the context that I just gave you.
In one sense I am a fundamentalist. I believe in the fundamentals of Christianity–the inspriation of the Bible, the virgin birth of Jesus, the atonement provided by Jesus on the cross, and the resurrection of Jesus, among other things. However, in another sense I am not a fundamentalist. I do not identify with the stereotypical fundamentalist. I play poker (though never for money), I watch movies that would make my mother blush, I sport a goatee, and I drink alcoholic beverages on special occasions. I have a master’s degree from one of those secular universities. I am also kind to my wife and consider her my equal. Oh, and she is not my blood relative. So, when I hear wisecracks about fundamentalists, I do not at all see myself as the object of the jokes.
Based on the fact that my beliefs are consistent with fundamentalist Christians, I feel that I can comment to some extent as an insider. I certainly have had the typical charges leveled against me, namely–
- You think that you are right and everybody else is wrong.
- You are narrow minded.
- Who are you to speak for God?
- Why are you so arrogant?
When I hear the first charge, I am tempted to ask, “Do you think that you are right about that?” You see, the fallacy in it is that everybody thinks that they are right about what they believe. An atheist, for example, doesn’t think that he is wrong when he says there is no God. He thinks that he is right, and he thinks that the people who believe in God are wrong. That’s how everybody operates. So, if you tell me that I think I am right and everyone else is wrong, my answer is of course, and so do you. You might say, no, I am willing to accept that I might be wrong. So am I, but until I know that I am wrong I am going to keep on believing what I think is right. I am sure that you will do the same.
When I hear that I am narrow minded, I think so what? It doesn’t actually matter if somebody is broad minded or narrow minded. It only matters if he or she is right. Would you want your surgeon to be broad minded or narrow minded? If she knows how to perform the operation properly, I would not want her to be broad minded about it. I want her to be very, very narrow minded about how it should be done. I don’t want the chef in the restaurant to be broad minded about whether to cook fresh food or spoiled food. I want him to be very narrow minded about that. Don’t you? I don’t want the bank to be broad minded about how much money is in my account. I want them to be very narrow minded when it comes to my balance. Who wouldn’t.
You might say, but religion is not so straightforward. I suppose that’s true, but religion is a lot more important than any of those things. If we need to right about anything, I suggest that we should be right about religion first and foremost. There is a lot at stake, according to those who are religious.
You might say, yes, but you should be open to new ideas. True, but there are two ways to respond to new ideas. One is to accept a new idea, and the other is to reject a new idea. Both are possible, and sometimes the latter is more desirable. Should I drink the arsenic or not? Should I punch my neighbor for returning my rake with dirt on it or should I overlook it? Should I withdraw the money in my retirement fund and risk it at the casino or should I keep it in there a while longer? When one is presented with either-or choices, it doesn’t really matter whether one is broad minded or narrow minded but whether one makes the right choice.
Asking who somebody is that they think that they can speak for God is an excellent question. Anybody with half a brain would ask such a question. The answer is that I am nobody. Absolutely nobody. I do not presume to understand God on my own or to be able to figure out by myself what he is like or what he might say or what he might do. When fundamentalists appear to speak for God, it is because they believe that God has spoken to them. In most cases that means that God has put his message in the Bible, and when we faithfully transmit the words of the Bible, we are transmitting the message of God. You can disagree with the Bible, or with God himself, but fundamentalists claim to be nothing more than feeble and imperfect messengers. So don’t take it out on them.
Some fundamentalists believe that God has spoken to them in other ways–or at least that he has shown himself to them somehow. Nobody would think it arrogant if a person said, “Hey, your wife just called. She wants you to buy some milk on your way home.” So why is it arrogant for a fundamentalist to say, “Hey, God has some things to say to you in the Bible. Would you like to hear them?”
You might think that fundamentalists are wrong for taking the Bible as the Word of God. That is a different matter. You are welcome to think that you are right, and they are wrong. However, you should not accuse them of something that they do not intend. They intend to represent what God has said. They do not believe that they are making up the words but that they have found the words and are passing them on.
Which is why fundamentalists are not arrogant.
Joe Fundamentalist did not wake up one moring and say, “Hey, I think I’ll make up a new religion. It will involve a guy called Jesus, and I’ll say that He was crucified and that He came back to life. I’ll say that you can go to heaven after you die if you believe that Jesus died to forgive your sins.” If Joe Fundamentalist did that, then it would be arrogant for him to say that he is right and everyone else is wrong. If he really made the whole thing up in his imagination, then he has no right to expect anyone else to believe it.
Joe Fundamentalist did not make up the Christian religion. He received it. And he believes that what he recived is true and right and good.
Under those conditions, it would be arrogant if he denied those things or if he withheld that information from other people. It is humble for him to accept what he believes to be true and to risk ridicule (and death in some parts of the world) in order to pass that news on to other people.
It is not arrogant for the surgeon to say, “Yes, I know how to perform this operation.” It is not arrogant for the chef to say, “This meat is rotten. I will not cook it.” It is not arrogant for the bank to tell me that I have only $50 in my checking account.
Fundamentalists might be arrogant in other ways, and I am sure that they are. I know that I am. However, they are not arrogant for holding on to what they believe is true or for realizing that the opposite cannot also be true or for wanting other people to know what they believe is true. Not by a long shot.