The Bible as a book does not exist. Tell this to the fundamentalist who is of the opinion that it is the inspired, verbatim word of God ‘”Himself.” But the Bible is composed of poems and parables, stories, and symbols. The language of the Bible is, in the main, figurative, allegorical, analogical, metaphorical more than metaphysical, lyrical rather than literal.
Fundamentalism is a form of religious literalism in relation to the reading of scriptural texts. Like the psychotic who takes words as things, the religious fundamentalist’s thinking is concrete; he/she engages in reification and hypostatization. The fundamentalist is unswervingly attached to the truth of their beliefs and to the importance of maintaining a strict demarcation between the ingroup and the outgroup. Fundamentalism rejects diversity of reasoned opinion, holding that their interpretation is the truth. Their reading of Scripture is selective. It harbours a prior ideological conviction and an uncompromisingly covert—and frequently overt—personalised stance, imbued through and through with presuppositions and prejudices. The fundamentalist sees through the prism (prison) of their own projections. This theological and puritanical puerility is passed off as unbiased, pristine purity, whereas in fact it is a deformity that ultimately distorts texts and damages lives. The fundamentalist believes in uniformity and univocity, in divine oracles and uncorrupted doctrines, untainted by human history, intervention, and interpretation.
Fundamentalism developed within the Protestant sects of the United States in the early part of the 20th century—though, of course, it was present for centuries, in many expressions and mutations. Their adherents seemed immune to the higher criticism of the academy and (some) seminaries. Examples when fundamentalism comes to bear on Catholic thinking include a rigid adherence to a literalist understanding and interpretation of Christian dogmas such as the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Bodily Assumption of Mary, and Original Sin. Inerrancy of Scripture is to Protestantism what Papal Infallibility is to (Roman) Catholicism. Both are idolatrous.
Fundamentalism offers security, but at the expense of critical thought and intellectual self-appropriation. One would have to say that fundamentalism infantilizes, offering the “Lady Bird” version of Christianity: the Old Man in the sky, Heaven and Hell as places (you can add Purgatory and Limbo if you wish), etc. The fundamentalist believes the world can be divided into facts and fiction. It knows nothing of mythic truths or symbolic realism. It operates and proceeds by way of dualistic rather than dialectical thinking and binary oppositionalism. Fundamentalism is ultimately a form of textual terrorism.
A study at the University of Edinburgh in 2011 found that of its six measured dimensions of religion, lower intelligence is most associated with higher levels of fundamentalism.
The attempt to recapture the original authorial intention of a text is a retro-Romantic fallacy/fantasy. The meaning of any text is born, as Paul Ricoeur makes clear throughout the corpus of his proliferous writings, in each instance at the intersection between the constraints which the text bears within itself and the communities of reading and interpretation. Just as a work of art elicits, solicits several interpretations, the interpreting community (philosophers, theologians, priests) contributes to the rich pluri-dimensionality of the text. Due to the phenomenon of plurivocity, hermeneutics remains humble. There is always a “conflict of interpretations.” Just as there are countless commentaries, so too are there divergent hermeneutic readings and reckonings. To think biblically—to think with the text—shouldn’t involve or require the suspension of one’s discursive intellect. Truth is a dialogical event in the Socratic sense. Theological reflection is narrative, historical, and hermeneutical through and through. The selective misappropriation of scriptural sources has justified misogyny, homophobia, and racism, to mention some humunculisms*. Scripture has many senses. The Bible should be more about transformational spirituality than transactional, institutionalised religiosity.
The opposite of fundamentalism? Hermeneutics, ethical exegesis. Texts have to be interpreted—by humans with all their cognitive blind-spots and biases. There is no “view from nowhere,” as it has been called. All views are from somewhere, and we bring this “somewhere” (facticity)—our educational qualifications, family background, etc., into the texts we read and on which we ruminate. The fundamentalist can’t cope with the cloud of unknowing at the heart of Christianity’s dark, uncertain faith—Mark’s prayer: I believe, help Thou my unbelief (Mk 9:24). The fundamentalist mistakes faith for belief. Every fundamentalist is a closet Gnostic (they know, and in so far as they are certain they have no need of faith). The Catholic fundamentalist’s favourite TV network is EWTN standing for, as one Augustinian Scripture scholar described it to me as (forgive the sexism), Elderly Women Talking Nonsense.
Texts (and any phenomena pertaining to a textual order) without contexts are pretexts. Scripture has multiple meanings, due to the polysemic and multivalency of language. A reading is not a recording. All interpretations do violence. There is a difference between a true reading (equipped with hermeneutic criteria) and a correct reading (absolutism as a hermeneutic heresy). Orthodoxy is riddled, replete with nonconformity and dissent.
The biblical stories are true and some of them actually happened. So, where does that leave us? Well, going forward, we could resolve to adopt a non-dual, mystical, contemplative, and conciliatory reading of biblical texts whose primary purpose is to form more than inform, and steer a via media between the Scylla of non-critical naïve fundamentalism and the Charybdis of overly-critical rationalism, through interfaith exchange. The logic of biblical interpretation is trans-rational, one that involves a “seeing-as.” There is not just one way of communicating truth. Biblical words are mediated by meaning and all-too-human mistakes. The Bible can’t be isolated and ripped from its historical context and community.
In short, unity (catholicity) is not the same as uniformity (Catholicism). One can take the Bible literally or seriously, but not both.
*A word not found in any dictionary but used by Viktor Frankl to signify the refusal and rejection of everything human.
Stephen J. Costello holds an MA and PhD degree in philosophy from University College Dublin. His doctorate was in hermeneutics—the work of Paul Ricoeur. He is also a logoanalyst and the author of eleven books, with his most recent one, Beyond Hope: Philosophical Reflections, published just before Christmas by Cambridge Scholars. He is founder-director of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland, which offers internationally-accredited online certificates and diplomas in logotherapy and existential analysis. Dr. Costello is a Catholic who has been inspired and influenced by the teachings of Advaita Vedanta. See his website for additional information and follow him on Twitter.