Fundamentalism vs. Contemplation?

In his book Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World, Orthodox Christian author David Carlson explores how contemplative spirituality might offer a way of responding to the ever-present danger of terrorism and war in today's world. Haunted by the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Carlson devoted a sabbatical to visiting a variety of both Orthodox and Catholic monasteries throughout North America, interviewing nuns, monks, and other spiritual seekers about how to discern a truly Christian response to political violence.

Toward the end of the book, he offers a fascinating insight based on a conversation with a monk called Brother Stravros: "the antidote to the absolute certainty fostered by fundamentalism is contemplation. . . . A respect for mystery, not absolute certainty, is the mark of the person who 'thinks with the heart.'" Carlson goes on to declare that "contemplation is a foreign and suspect spiritual activity in fundamentalist circles. And that means that contemplative Christianity, Judaism and Islam and fundamentalist Christianity, Judaism and Islam lead to two very different attitudes toward violence and vengeance."

Carlson here is using the word fundamentalist not in its historical sense of a Christian who embraces pre-modern evangelical beliefs, but in its more general, broad sense, referring to any kind of aggressively intolerant religiosity—as Wikipedia puts it, "the demand for a strict adherence to specific theological doctrines . . . combined with a vigorous attack on outside threats to their religious culture." With this definition in mind, it's easy to envision this dichotomy: fundamentalism is the quest for (or belief in the attainment of) "absolute certainty" as a religious or theological stance, while contemplation is grounded in a "respect for mystery" which implies faith, rather than certainty, as its defining character.

Clearly, not all terrorists are religious fundamentalists; nor are all fundamentalists violent. But violence with ties to religious belief—from the Israel-Palestine conflict, to the troubles of Northern Ireland, to abortion clinic bombings, to 9/11—all seem to arise from a religiosity anchored in a sense of certainty: "We are right, you are wrong; we are conformed to the will of God, and you are not. Therefore we have a moral obligation to deal with you."

By contrast, contemplation—the "respect for Mystery"—tends to prefer silence to debate, humility to certainty, and a preference for asking questions over dispensing answers. Because of this, contemplatives ask questions and counsel restraint that fundamentalists—even within the same faith -- may well find troubling.

It's certainly no secret that Christian fundamentalists disavow contemplation. Websites like Lighthouse Trails Research and Apprising Ministries have built their entire mission around attacking Christian contemplation from a theologically conservative (read: fundamentalist) perspective. Carlson comments on "al-Qaeda's fierce hatred of the mystical tradition of Sufism in Islam," and I have heard Jewish Kabbalists speak about how their tradition is viewed with suspicion by other segments of the Jewish community. It seems that contemplative Christians, Jews, and Muslims have more in common with each other than with the fundamentalists who share their respective faiths! But where the contemplatives seem eager to embrace interfaith dialogue and understanding, the fundamentalists often harbor overt or veiled hostility toward those whose faith is different from their own.

Fundamentalism may indeed be the enemy of contemplation, but ironically, it is a one-way conflict. This reminds me of the charming poem "Outwitted," by the American poet Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out -
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

I am not suggesting that contemplatives have no criticism of fundamentalism. Certainly no one likes to be attacked, even verbally. But to contemplatives, fundamentalists are not adversaries but rather persons at a different stage in their spiritual life.

From James Fowler to Clare W. Graves to Ken Wilber, numerous psychologists, theologians and philosophers have theorized on how spirituality appears to evolve over the course of a normal human life span. Such theories often suggest that the need for certainty can unfold into a more nuanced faith that embraces paradox, mystery, and unknowing—often accompanied by a deepening commitment to compassion and tolerance.

Fundamentalism, therefore, represents a kind of spiritual "arrested development" that seems to plague individuals or even entire communities. For contemplatives, this means that fundamentalism is not a threat that must be defeated, but rather an existential malady that needs a cure. This is not to say that boundaries are unimportant—clearly limits are necessary, particularly where violence is concerned. But the wisdom of Jesus's "turn the other cheek" applies here. Only by meeting the fear and hostility of fundamentalism with the understanding compassion of contemplation, can we ever hope for healing—whether on a personal or planetary level.

4/24/2012 4:00:00 AM
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