What Fundamentalism is (and why it matters)

Andrew posted a quote from Alvin Plantinga where Plantinga lamented the (over)use of the word “fundamentalist” as a sort of means to silent discussion. I think Plantinga is absolutely correct in suggesting that the word can take on this function. But what is a fundamentalist, and should we care?

If fundamentalism is simply holding to one opinion unwaveringly, then we are fundamentalists about a few things. I am a fundamentalist about my right to oxygen at the very least, and I suspect you are too. Even beliefs that are not related to our immediate survival don’t necessarily meet the requirements of fundamentalism. I don’t think most people would say that being a theist (or an atheist) in and of itself constitutes fundamentalism despite the fact that I would say there are both theistic and atheistic fundamentalists.

A Case Study:

What I was tempted to write next was that fundamentalists like to put some topics beyond the realm of debate or discussion. And yet, I don’t think that accurately captures what fundamentalism is either. What’s weird about fundamentalism is the set of things that it preoccupies itself with. Take King James-only fundamentalists, it’s not that they are unwavering in being theists, or Christians, or even having a high view of scripture. No. It’s all about one translation being extra special. In other words, it’s an issue that really isn’t central to Christianity at all, it’s peripheral.

Moreover, the question of the veracity of one translation or another is something that is open to a great deal of scrutiny. These are not questions of faith, these are things that you can actually investigate. You can look at the original texts, you can look at the level of reading ability required to grasp the KJV, you can evaluate several other factors and come to a conclusion. The best I can see is that the KJV remains an option but there is absolutely no basis for saying that it is the only acceptable translation.

It is, at most, a matter of personal opinion. Those that like the sound of the KJV (and aesthetically, I think you can argue it sounds the best spoken) can use if it they’d like, but it really doesn’t make a difference to me. Outside of the KJV-only set, there is no literature to suggest that there is only one English translation that is acceptable for all time. The basic facts about language suggest that no language is fixed and therefore as more time passes, it is reasonable to expect the KJV to become even more unintelligible, eventually as confusing as Beowulf is to us now.

But if you are a KJV-only type of Christian everything I said is wrong and pretty much beyond discussion. If I was start to sketch out what a fundamentalist is, this is a great example. Some traits worth noticing:

  • The issue that is being fought over is hardly central to the faith.
  • This is not an area of some genuine mystery (like the nature of consciousness or how exactly the trinity works), instead it is the sort of thing that pretty mundane scholarship can resolve.
  • People who think in this manner tend to think that the whole project of Christianity will inevitably fly apart if their beliefs on the matter at hand are inaccurate.

Again, I’m not trying to mark clear boundaries here, just the types of things that might indicate fundamentalism.