Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Fundamentalist Zeal and Feelings of Being Threatened

Scot McKnight reflects on how overly strident attacks that come from liberal Christians can be just as vitriolic as those typically associated with right-wing fundamentalist believers, and wonders why so many people seem to get so violently upset so easily.

McKnight suggests that excessive zeal and absolute confidence in one's position is at the heart of this phenomenon. There is indeed something to be said for this. I've argued for the need for greater humility a few times on this blog. Some of the comments on the thread offer other insights. I'm particularly intrigued by one that argues that fundamentalism is more about the person's attitude--not just zeal but the lack of an attitude of love toward one's opponent--than it is about the nature of the beliefs themselves. And I've certainly seen such "closed-minded liberalism" (as I called it then, although I would agree that "fundamentalist liberalism" would have worked just as well) in my own past. Some have noted that some of those who have left a particular tradition reserve their strongest attacks for those who remain in the tradition left behind.

My own response is perhaps a bit more primal. I think that people fight the most violently when they feel threatened by something. This has certainly been demonstrated in fairly concrete ways by the reaction to the September 11th, 2001 attacks on our country, but I think it holds true in these ideological battles, as well. We've seen the fundamentalist diatribes against what they perceive as the "War on Christmas," complaints about "activist judges," and defenses of the "traditional definition of marriage" from one side, and corresponding fights (often on those same issues) from the opposite side. Of particular interest to me was that McKnight's reflections were apparently triggered by an incident where the grandson of "the architect of the social gospel" (McKnight's words) responded to an interview where Rick Warren criticized the social gospel. McKnight felt that the response was unfair and "needlessly trashed" Warren. I have yet to read all of the comments (McKnight doesn't link to them, and the Steven Waldman post I found seems to be an after-the-fact assessment), but taking McKnight at his word, I can certainly see this feeling of "being under attack," i.e., threatened, when one sees one's own grandfather mischaracterized (so the grandson seems to see it).

Anyway, I don't know how this insight might be used to quell such attacks (from the left or the right) in the future. Indeed, despite my own desire to advocate for humility in one's argumentation, I see the tendency to "fight back when threatened" in myself, and wish that I were more successful at keeping those tendencies at bay. Perhaps the best that can be asked for is that each of us become more self-aware of when we are likely to respond badly to a situation, and learn how to stop that reaction rather than give in to it.

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