Today Claire shared this article on her advocacy FB page. I now realize that this is pretty old (2014 looks like). Whatever the case it is a blog post that offers a perspective on why it’s so difficult to try to engage fundamentalists in real conversation. And there is a part of it that I tend to agree with– namely the specific critique of the strong tendency in fundamentalism to prefer debate to dialogue, and the explanation that debate is really about us/them and a warfare approach to words. The purpose of debate events isn’t really persuasion of the other, but the opportunity to bolster support from fundamentalist loyalists. I was there, and I remember that (I was actually at the Douglas Wilson vs Andrew Sullivan debate). That’s what the debates were for. Even Doug Wilson supporters knew that.
And I agree with Ryan that we should look for ways to have real and human conversation with people who are different from us. That’s more or less what I blogged about last night. But there were/are a few ideas embedded in his article, and probably also in my blog post from yesterday that I want to explore some more, because I think there may be some sticky business.
One of the main themes of Ryan’s critique is that fundamentalists want to put ideology before people. They’d rather stick to their dogma, than listen to the practical concerns of real people. Ryan even goes so far as to say this:
“At the root of these various fundamentalism is, I believe, a mindset that values ideology over people.”
Ryan claims he wants to nuance discussion and humanize it, but I’m concerned that this glossy statement really doesn’t further this cause. The problem is really that he’s not offering the fundamentalist the kind of charity he’s critiquing the fundamentalist for not exhibiting.
Here’s what I mean: fundamentalists are not, in their own minds at least, putting ideology ahead of people, they just believe, and I think sincerely believe that “the truth” is the only safe place from which to love people– to make decisions about what love for others should look like. And while Ryan critiques them for a lack of humility, there is at least one sense in which this adherence to standards is born out of humility. The fundamentalist recognizes his own limited and fallible perspective as a potential pitfall and seeks a solution in authoritative standards. This impulse, far from being malicious, can and should be understood as coming from the best of motives, and as being held with great sincerity, and even at great cost to the fundamentalist. Perhaps he likes being cut off from his neighbors and being isolated, but then again, perhaps it’s not his first choice to be a lonely and despised outcast in his own workplace, neighborhood, or family.
And here’s where it get’s especially tricky for me. Ryan has a pretty entrenched prejudice against “fundamentalists.” They are oppressors and cannot be given empathy, or credit for good motives. I think this is a mistake. The only way to reach anyone is through empathy, and that even extends to oppressors. It is important not to collude with the lying narratives that keep the oppressors convinced that their oppressions are inescapable, or justified. We should not support the speeches and justifications that keep them hardened, but not all empathy is collusion, and that is the difficult and careful work that we have to engage in to teach people to stop acting as if power is something to grasped. Believing that even violent and dangerous people are still people who are trying to do well seems like a risk not worth taking, but I think it’s the only way to really make change.
So in the end, my critique of Ryan and even of myself is that all distinctions are about creating some kind of us vs them divide. So we have to figure out how to do that, consistently, and as a real invitation to fellowship and conversation. That means granting to the enemy-other, the best possible motives, the most nuance we can muster. I don’t believe Ryan has done this at all with fundamentalists. He’s oversimplified his fundamentalist enemy-other into a shape that almost all fundamentalists would confront as not being accurate. Fundamentalists believe that commitment to the truth is a pre-requisite to loving a neighbor. Loving God according to His word is the only safe way to learn how to love my neighbor. That’s what commitment to ideology looks like from the fundamentalist perspective. The commitment to the standard is the natural and logical response to the recognition of any individual’s perspective as limited and fallible. The fundamentalist adheres to the standard because he loves others, and doesn’t arrogate to himself the role of omniscient law-giver for either the overall truth about the world, or the specifics of the situation in front of him.
In the end, while I appreciated the article’s point about changing the way we dialogue, I found the underlying explanations of why the fundamentalists were wrong, oversimplified and lacking. To truly reach the fundamentalists and the people they influence, I think we have to see their sincere good motives, and call that out. And I think we have to look for better more nuanced explanations of the underlying reasons why “fundamentalists” divide the world along a battle-line and then make words into weapons.