a child I used to enjoy cowboy and indian movies. Very often we would
see the wagon train crossing the prairie when suddenly indians would
appear whooping over the horizon. The wagon train would immediately
form a circle. From within that circle the cowboys would shoot at
the circling indians and the indians rained arrows on the cowboys.
This is a good image of what it is to be conservative. When under
threat, we form ourselves into a protective circle to defend ourselves
against a real or imaginary enemy. This can be very good and very
necessary. However, if we are in constant fear of the enemy we may
never move out of the circle. If we do not take the risk of moving
out of the circle we cannot make progress. Those who tend to stay
more in the circle are considered conservative. Those who tend to
move out, sometimes taking great risks or sometimes just unaware of
the danger, are considered enterprising and/or liberal. Neither group
has a monopoly of wisdom or of foolishness.
world is one of great pressure and often of great fear. The advances
of modern technology are mind boggling. This can be frightening for
those who were at one time at the top professionally and now find
themselves computer illiterates. Now there is much greater freedom
of thought. Topics that were once considered to be taboo are being
discussed openly and endlessly. In the past, too, there was greater
certitude of religious truth. An authoritative church told us what
was right and wrong and the majority accepted this without question.
Today there are few issues that are clearly black or white. Gray areas
emerge and the questioning of what was once considered sacred can
be very threatening for many.
Life does confront us with situations where individuals or groups
can see no meaning in what is going on, and feel totally powerless.
Many years ago Eric Fromm pointed out that the popularity of Mickey
Mouse cartoons went back to the sense of powerlessness that people
felt. The situation in the cartoon would often have little Mickey
being harassed by a huge cat. Then he would emerge from his mouse
hole and give the cat a prick of a needle in the posterior. We would
all enjoy it because we identified with the powerlessness and oppression
that Mickey was suffering and also with his moment of triumph.
This kind of situation is faced in all walks of life. It is met in
different ways, one of which is fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is
the reduction of reality to some apparently manageable norms. It eventually
becomes irrelevant whether these norms represent reality correctly
or not. Once these norms are adopted they must be defended and no
deviation is tolerated. If I establish that by following these norms
I am right, I will have to say at least by implication, that everyone
else is wrong. In the time of Christ the Scribes, Pharisees and Saducees
represented different kinds of fundamentalism. The Pharisees reduced
life to following laws. Thus when the woman taken in adultery was
brought before Christ (John 8) they said, "We have a law and
according to that law she should be stoned to death." Jesus,
however, saw the situation more widely and upheld the dignity of the
woman. Today's fundamentalists tend to take a literal interpretation
of Scripture as the norm of truth. When they are "born again"
they alone have the truth and they tend to impose it on others. They
wear blinkers over their eyes so that they cannot see the truth that
comes from any other source.
In today's gospel the Saducees approach Jesus to put a question to
him. What they do is very characteristic of fundamentalists. They
are not looking for truth but only to prove that they themselves have
the truth. The Saducees do not believe in the resurrection. They try
to trap Jesus with a complicated story about a man who got married
and died. According to Mosaic law his brother should marry the widow.
In their story seven brothers in succession married the widow and
they ask whose wife she will be on the day of Resurrection. Jesus
will not allow himself to be boxed in by their ill-intentioned polemical
questioning. He simply affirms that God is the God of the living and
not of the dead and that all are in fact alive before God. Limiting
ourselves into any kind of box or narrow categories is very dangerous.
It makes no difference whether this box is one of righteousness, of
a God concept, or of a way of prayer. God is more and bigger than
all of them.
One of the ways in which fundamentalism is showing itself today and
curtailing people's freedom is through hysterical reactions to possible
dangers, especially the dangers of the New Age Movement. The interest
in this movement shows that people today are looking for a more experiential
way of being with God and a more contemplative relationship with him/her.
The movement itself is a mixed bag that espouses many less conventional
ways of doing things. Some beliefs it espouses may indeed be dangerous
and I do not recommend a naive acceptance of all that is New Age.
But there are many things that have merit in themselves: meditation,
reflexology, pranic healing, the Enneagram. If it happens that New
Age people also use these things, their use does not make you a New
Age supporter. It seems to me that more harm has been done in the
Church throughout history by the fear of error than by actual error
itself. Fearful over-reaction has often let to a suppression of truth
that was a greater evil and error than the original "heresy."
A much more positive approach would be to open up to people the rich
Christian tradition for deeper prayer and spirituality. These are
especially to be found today in centering prayer as taught by the
Trappists and in Christian meditation as taught by the Benedictine,
Fr. John Main.