Fear, Fundamentalism, and Moral Development

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.

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At 1:52 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

My big thing is kind of what you said about fundamentalism being judgmental authoritarian stereotyping and such things like that. I like how Matthew Vines says it. He talks about how he didn't just want conservatives to meet the LGBT community, but for the LGBT community to meet the conservatives to show them how much they do love and are loving. I think its a common logical fallacy and personal logical failure of mine to see conservatives at not knowing how to love people very well. They can. Just sometimes the tools they have in their toolbox are limited. And liberals sometimes have all the tools, but sit comfortably behind their logic and not comfortably behind their actions. Sometimes :) lol.

At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, I think there's a lot of true in that. With the example of Vines in particular, conservative Christian are very welcoming and embracing so long as you are perceived as an insider. So if a gay person is either still in the closet, or abstinent for example, they are able experience the love and support that one can as an insider.

If on the the other hand one is perceived as an outsider (for example a person who says that's it's fine to be gay and wants to be accepted with their partner), they are typically treated in a very different way -- publicly cut off from relationships, ostracized, defrocked, and even seen as a threat.

So long as you are in the circle, there is love. Outside of the circle there is hostility.

Jesus is all about widening the circles we draw around us which define who is in and who is out -- to the point of treating those who we would call "enemies" like valued and beloved insiders.

Coming back to Vines, I wonder how he would get people who are LGBT to experience things from the inside? That is, how does he get conservatives to regard LGBT people as insiders without them being "incognito"?

At 8:01 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

On that Rohr quote, maybe so.

But what I struggle with a lot is how staggeringly easy (at times) the Bible makes it for this exact thing to happen - by simply looking at the actual content of both testaments.

At 10:51 PM, Anonymous Phillip said...

Hi Derek ... I grew up in an independent fundamentalist baptist church in the south ... I remember going to "youth rallies" every year where, just before the alter call, they would turn down the lights and play the sound of screams mixed with crackling fire to motivate kids to come get saved ... Doubts were of the devil; guilt and shame were God-sanctioned conviction ... My image of the Holy Spirit as a young adult was basically someone who followed me around with a stick waiting to hit me if I slipped ... I was mired in fear and ultimately left church for two decades ...

After I got married and had a child, I decided to try church again ... I wish I could say I was motivated by good motives but, really, it largely came down to remembering those youth rallies and being afraid that if I didn't take my child to church she would go to hell ... So more fear-based reasoning ...

This time, though, we wound up at a Presbyterian (PCUSA) church ... Each time I went I was scared to death but it was much different than what I grew up with ...

One week, the pastor preached a sermon criticizing the penal substitution theory of atonement ... This threw me for a loop - and not in a good way, at first ... I was completely unaware there was another theory of atonement! ... And I was clinging to the idea that the only thing keeping me from God's wrath was Christ's sacrifice in my place ... So ... I started freaking out that, if the penal substitution theory wasn't true, I would be subject to His wrath ... (I really didn't understand the alternative theories of atonement he explained in his sermon.)

So I went up to him after church ... And I said that I'd really enjoyed being at his church but that I didn't think I could agree with him that the penal substitution theory was invalid ... Then I asked him if I could still be part of the church ... (In the church I grew up in, if you didn't subscribe to a major tenant of the teachings, your soul was at risk and you were not a member in good standing.) ...

The answer he gave me was full of love and was the beginning of my path away from fundamentalism ... He said, "Sure, if that theory of atonement helps you find grace, then hold on to it, and don't let it go. But there are others who see it differently." When I got home, I started googling other theories of atonement. In the process, I found your book; devoured it and many other non-fundamentalist, grace-based theology books in the last 12 months ... Today, I feel proud to call myself a Christian and I'm much less scared as I slowly learn to abide in Christ's love ...

At 11:58 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Phillip, thanks for sharing your testimony. It's a wonderful story of escaping from the bondage of fear!

At 12:20 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


For me what is important is to differentiate between when the author or speaker's intent is immoral (like where the OT promotes killing people as a virtue), and where something that is being said was intended for good, but can easily be misunderstood if taken literally (like with a lot of Jesus' teachings, for example "hate your mother and father").

I think Rohr is referring to the second where there is actually something that is genuinely good and deep that is being said, but where it takes maturity to get it. Love of enemies is a prime example of this. It seems like "foolishness" but when you get it, it's really brilliant. It's "solid food" that only the mature are ready to hear.

That perspective helps me distill good and life-giving stuff from the NT. I have to say I still can't do that with Revelation, (although others that I respect seem to be able to, so maybe I'm just not there yet), but I can do this with the rest of the NT.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger Paul Sherland, IX Brand SEO Services said...

Derek, I came to your blog after reading Disarming Scripture. It's a wonderful book and a continuing resource.

First, I suggest that greed should be added to the list of character traits like anger and fear that promote fundamentalism. I read Bruce Shelley's book, Church History in Plain Language last year, and he made the point that the institutional church doesn't spend much time (if any) on Jesus's teachings on money and wealth. Rev. Tim Keller summarized those teachings in Generous Justice by saying that Jesus typically called for the wealthy to give all of their money to the poor, except for one tax collector who was allowed to keep half. By contrast, most churches establish tithing as the standard of service and compassion, as it was for the Pharisees.

With regard to moving to moral maturity, in Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer says that based on conversations with his own extended family, there are about 30% of the people that you just won't be able to change. For the rest, one tactic he recommends, is engaging people in volunteer service projects to help less fortunate neighbors. By doing something to help others, we take the first steps to move away from fear, anger, and greed. Such projects also channel us into working with other people who have diverse backgrounds and beliefs, which tends to destroy the stereotypes that flow from fundamentalist thinking.

Bless you for your work, it's made a difference in my life.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Adam Stewart said...

Thank you for the post!

One thought that came to my wife as we were reading this is how the Fundamentalist system passes off these negative traits (judgment, otherizing, black and white thought) as love. I think this also is a regrettable consequence as it is counterfeit love.

Thanks again!

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, the love of money is really something we Americans are often blind to, and as Jesus says is "at the root of all kinds of evil"

At 1:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Isn't it wierd that people could think God would be annoyed at us for questioning things that could appear to show Him as unloving?
Keep the love flowing Derek.

At 1:40 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

that's interesting. Could you elaborate a bit on how you see fundamentalism portraying things like judgment, otherizing, black and white thought as love?

At 5:10 PM, Blogger Adam Stewart said...

Hi, Derek.

Coming from my experience as a reforming fundamentalist....

Fundamentalists know their bible. This means they know the "clobber" verses but they also know the love verses. The flat, all is equal, bible is the (unsaid of course) fourth member of the Trinity reading of scripture creates a bit of a dilemma in this case.

So, in order harmonize the negative outcomes with love, I see the potential contradiction often gets explained away with how "Leaving people without the truth is not love" or "the most loving thing we can do is tell people how God really feels about that sort of thing" or "if we love them we won't let them stay unaware in their sin." My former church declared it this way: "Christ is both 100% truth and 100% love, so we need to be both."

In my opinion, in this way, love gets redefined for no better reason that to avoid what our conscience is telling us, that this doesn't feel like love and helps keep us in, as you say, in a mode of unquestioning obedience.

Just a few thoughts....

Thanks again,

At 6:40 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Some very good observations here in your post and in comments. It was the inherent contradictions in the Penal Substitution interpretation of the Atonement that led me from Evangelicalism into the Eastern Orthodox communion of churches eight years ago. (Your commenter above who addresses this issue might be interested in a book that I recently purchased: http://www.amazon.com/Atonement-Justice-Peace-Message-Mission/dp/0802866425, and perhaps you might be, too, Derek.)

One of my favorite Orthodox bloggers, Fr. Stephen Freeman, frequently mentions that the reason we read Scripture is for communion with God. The critical importance of only judging oneself (and not in the sense of wholesale condemnation, but that of examining our own motives and actions in the light of Christ) and never judging others, but rather leaving them to God's judgment (which is merciful!) is deeply embedded in Orthodox spirituality (a spirituality given birth in the life and teachings of Christ and developed within early Christian monasticism). It is beautifully expressed in the Prayer of St. Ephrem repeated in Orthodox services throughout the season of Lent:

O, Lord and Master of my life,
Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk
But give rather to your servant the spirit of self-control, humility, patience and love.
Yes, O Lord and King,
Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge others
For blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.

A brief explanation of this prayer by the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann is here: http://www.sv-luka.org/misionar/lentenpr_n2.htm

At 8:51 PM, Blogger Adam Stewart said...

The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.

At 8:36 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


In regards to churches saying "if we love them we won't let them stay unaware in their sin" and so on, what I think this reveals is a lack of trust in the way of love as a means of bringing people to repentance and change.

My wife is a therapist, and thus is in the business of getting people to change hurtful behavior. However she knows, as a therapist, that you can't do that by "clobbering" and condemning. People change in an atmosphere of love, and in an atmosphere of condemnation they instead become defensive and closed. This is just basic human psychology (i.e. observations of how we humans work), and it's something Jesus understood way before modern psychology did. I just wish more pastors understood it.

I wrote a blog post on this here:
Sin, Guilt, and Psychology: What I Wish All Pastors Knew

At 9:21 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Derek, I was wondering if sometime you might write an essay or a blog that explains your reasoning on navigating and reconciling the bible and people of the LGBT community. I've read every book on the issue from Michael Vines, Brownson, White, and Boswell, but whenever I try to explain it to people, I just confuse people with a lot of exegetical jargon and greek interpretations. Is there an easier way? Do you have a strategic way to open the conversation without sounding pedantic?

At 10:44 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I guess I don't think people are won by arguments, but in relationships. So my focus would be in helping others to see LGBT people simply as humans that they know and care for. Then the question to ask is: if I care for someone who is LGBT, what do I need to do to help that person to flourish? What is it they most need?

I don't see any evidence that a loving mutual relationship is harmful. I do see evidence that rejection and condemnation of a person is. So I affirm.

At 11:19 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

Thanks Derek....So you, personally, would leave the bible out of it and keep it relational, and let the Holy Spirit work on people's hearts?

At 11:21 PM, Blogger Joel Kessler said...

What about the people who (and I just heard this today) say, "I have nothing against gay people, but God does."

At 12:08 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

If someone is reading the Bible like a fundamentalist, I would not start with the gay thing. I'd start much more basic, and show them how that is a really bad and immoral way to read. That's basically what I try to do in Disarming Scripture.

The basic argument is "I can't see anything wrong with this, but the Bible says it so, that settles it." However that argument works the same for slavery or for women's rights or for physically abusing kids. Exact same argument has been used over and over. That argument leads people to do things they feel is hurtful. That's really bad.


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