Saturday, August 01, 2015
There's a great clip from Richard Rohr by my buddy Travis Reed at Work of the People. In it, Rohr discusses how a major problem with the Bible has to do with who is reading it,
"If you put the word of God in the hands of an angry young man, they're going to misuse it, abuse it, distort it, murder the text, to make it fit their own agenda... The Bible is best put in the hands of mature human beings who are not filled with anger and fear and agenda." -Richard Rohr
The reason that we will never get to a time where there will not be fundamentalism is because fundamentalism has to do with a lack of human moral development. It is a reflection of immaturity, and unfortunately, to turn a phrase, you will always have the immature among you.
The real problem is not with the Bible, but with how we read it -- whether we read it like Jesus did as a vehicle to move us towards compassion, or read it like the Pharisees did in a spirit of unquestioning obedience that leads to hurt. In other words, the problem is not so much with the Bible as it is with people who are at a very low level of moral development which is characterized by black and white thinking and fear.
The theory of moral development, pioneered by Lawrence Kohlberg in the 1950s, observes that as humans we go through stages of development morally. The morality of small children is characterized by black and white thinking and motivated by avoidance of punishment. As we grow older, and our brain develops, we become capable of higher forms of morality such as empathy, understanding the perspective of another, and doing things not to avoid punishment, but because we care for others.
Little kids exhibit low level moral development because their brains are not developed enough yet to be capable of these higher moral functions (which is incidentally why children should not be tried as adults in our legal system). When adults exhibit low level moral development, this is a problem. It's moral immaturity.
It is important to stress here that by the term “fundamentalism,” I am not referring to those with conservative or traditional beliefs (many of which I myself affirm), but rather to a way of approaching belief that is authoritarian, judgmental, self-righteous, and ultimately fear-based. Such a fundamentalist environment encourages people (by means of shame and fear and threat) to remain at a low moral developmental level. Fundamentalism fosters fear, rather than helping people overcome it. It consists of indoctrination that stunts a person's moral development, and the more time a person spends in that environment, the more their moral growth atrophies.
The same is true with watching Fox News, or spending time in other toxic environments like internet comment boards filled with viciousness. Fundamentalism takes many forms: There's religious fundamentalism (including atheist fundamentalists), political fundamentalism, and so on. Basically, any ideology or belief system can be approached in a morally immature way, characterized by otherizing, fear, and black and white thinking. The more you feed on that diet of fear and anger, the more it stunts your moral growth, the more it shrivels the soul. When they say "you are what you eat" that's not talking about food.
The problem is that, rather than recognize this black and white thinking and fear as indicative of low level moral development, fundamentalism instead upholds this as moral virtue. Compromise is seen as failure, compassion as weakness; hate and judgment become virtues.
We need to recognize these things for what they are, and that is an underdeveloped morality. To the extent that we foster staying at that low level of moral development, we make people less good. That is what a fundamentalist church does.
But it is not just churches. Our public discourse -- whether this is grandstanding politicians, shouting pundits on the news, or the toxic posts on the comments section of any big internet site -- is characterized by people who exhibit very low level moral development: fear based, black and white, otherizing, incapable of understanding complexity or finding compromise. This moral immaturity is so prevalent that it feels like the norm, but it is not normal to have so many morally stunted adults (let alone is it the ideal), it's very broken.
To put this in typical Christian terms, it is a sin. I don't say that to place shame, but simply to underline that fostering moral immaturity as a virtue is bad. It hurts people because of how it otherizes and reacts in fear, leading to violence -- especially when we have morally immature people in positions of power and influence. Jesus in the Gospels spends quite a bit of time confronting this in the Pharisees. So while it is uncomfortable to be "negative" and to point out the problems, it is important to do so for the health of our ourselves and our society. So I want us to take note of moral immaturity that masquerades as a virtue.
Next time I'll talk about how we can work to move ourselves and others away from moral immaturity and towards higher level moral thinking, based on understanding Jesus' message of enemy love. Here's part 2.