THE BLOG
06/21/2012 11:09 am ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

How Can Religious Cultures Become Less Fundamentalist?

In her recent Huff Post interview with Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Sister Joan Chittister, author and member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, spoke forcefully about the Vatican crackdown on nuns, with arguments that also addressed the broader issue of doctrinal dissent and how -- indeed, whether -- religions can find a way to accommodate it.

Of the current Vatican crackdown, Sister Joan spoke of a "Daddy knows best" attitude that implies: "Sit down and shut up. We will tell you what to think, we will tell you what to do -- what would a woman know?" Beyond the structural hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the question of Papal infallibility, the issue, according to Sister Joan, concerns a form of fundamentalism about doctrine and belief. As she put it, characterizing the current position: " 'We tell you what to think about scriptures, because you will destroy the sacred word. You won't understand it. You'll destroy it.' "

Fundamentalism of all stripes tends to display the same anxious authoritarianism, both in its obsessive attempt to control the faith and actions of believers and nonbelievers and in its slavish insistence on scriptural literalism. By contrast, the position that Sister Joan advocates is capable not just of tolerating difference and dissent, but also of imagining an ecumenical relation to faith, based (as the word "ecumenical" tends to mean) on "establishing or promoting unity among churches or religions."

The interview and its positions, which I found courageous, led me to thinking about cultural and historical examples when doctrinal dissent came to seem of paramount importance, and how such conflict eventually was made to dissipate.

What first came to mind were the "Tracts" that devout Anglicans published and fiercely debated in the 1830s over the Church of England's 39 Articles of Belief. The Articles stipulated positions that had been hammered out three centuries earlier, in 1563, as the cornerstone to England's Reformation and break with Rome. Some of them therefore have a distinctly legalistic flavor -- for instance, "VI. Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation." Inconveniently, though, some of them now clashed with the findings of relatively young sciences such as Botany and Geology, some of whose representatives had come to doubt the second half of the principle enshrined by the opening Article: "There is but one living and true God ... the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible."

One reason these debates mattered so much was because, as statements representing the doctrine of the nation's Established Church, the Articles had (and continue to have) legal standing. When for instance J. Anthony Froude, a deacon-in-training who later became a prominent historian, published his semi-autobiographical agnostic novel The Nemesis of Faith in 1849, his college at Oxford University debated quite seriously whether to charge him with a crime. (One of his tutors settled instead on tossing a copy of the novel into a fire in front of him and his peers.)

During that intense period, when disputes among Anglicans and devout nonconformists played out against hostility to Catholics, who until 1832 were barred from standing for Parliament, pamphlets appeared as naked propaganda warning: "A clear line must be drawn with regard to the claims of the Roman Communion upon us. We can no longer go on playing with Romanism, or live on the borders of her encampments, while we are members of the Communion of the Church of England."

Those words, written by the vicar of Harrow in 1850, come from his pamphlet "Reasons for Feeling Secure in the Church of England." Especially in its military rhetoric ("borders" and "encampments"), it signals how disputes over denominations and the 39 Articles quickly went to the heart of a perceived national crisis over membership and exclusion, insiders and outsiders.

Nevertheless, the other key factor to stress is how such issues got sorted out. Not only did a change in British public opinion make it possible for Parliament to pass the Roman Catholic Relief Act and Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 and 1832 respectively, but subsequent national debates focused heavily on how different groups and denominations interpreted religious doctrine.

When a modest collection of Broad Church essays appeared on the subject in 1860, for instance, it became a national bestseller, despite bearing the bland, nondescriptive title Essays and Reviews. One reason for its success was because it featured an impressive lineup of scholars making (for the time) earth-shaking arguments that much of the Bible, including its account of miracles, should be viewed "through the latitude of poetry." Far-outselling even Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published one year earlier, whose first edition had sold out on its first day, Essays and Reviews flew rapidly through nine editions in its first year alone, selling more than twenty thousand copies in its first two years and at least the same number again over the 1860s as a whole. The controversy the volume caused was remarkable, arguably dealing a more severe blow to the Established Church than even Darwin's theory.

"The unchangeable word of God, in the name of which we repose," wrote classicist Benjamin Jowett, one of Plato's most-respected translators, in sentences that proved to be incendiary, "is changed by each age and each generation in accordance with its passing fancy." He continued, "The book in which we believe all religious truth to be contained is the most uncertain of all books," because it is inconsistent and "interpreted by arbitrary and uncertain methods."

Those who deny such variability, Jowett cautioned, and prefer a "minute and rigid enforcement of the words of Scripture," put expectations on the Bible that it cannot hope to satisfy. It is not the Word, he declared, if by Word we mean something so absolute and unchanging that it lacks any historical sense of how it came to mean in the first place.

In criticizing assertions of biblical infallibility and suggesting that some aspects of the Bible might best be interpreted historically, even figuratively, Jowett made an argument that initially was devastating for congregations brought up to believe that the Bible was literally the Word of God.

Still, in helping to melt what one scholar (Jude V. Nixon) recently called "the unmeaning frostwork of dogma," Essays and Reviews -- like other works of historical scholarship from the time -- encouraged a culture that supported inquiry, including into religion. That in turn fostered ecumenicalism and freethought, the exact catalysts that help to modernize cultures, turning fundamentalism and its associated fanaticisms into religious moderation and secular humanism.

In invoking the example of Essays and Reviews, I'm suggesting that the path to religious moderation passes through acceptance of the role of metaphor in religious belief. Unlike the kind of dogmatism that Sister Joan rightly criticized -- the kind that implies, "We will tell you what to think" -- religious moderation is an antidote to fundamentalism: it encourages faith and inquiry to coexist without assuming that one of them must subordinate or try to eliminate the other.

Parts of this essay are excerpted from The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty.