On leaving fundamentalism

I didn’t know I was a fundamentalist.

I knew the theology I’d been taught was conservative, that everyone I knew was a Republican, that faith didn’t exist outside a proper reverence for TULIP and Rush Limbaugh. I knew the Religious Right like the back of my hand, and that peoples are saved with legislation. I knew God judged a woman by her skirt length and a man by the ratings of the movies he watched. I knew that pastors who donned T-shirts were suspect, probably preaching postmodernism. I knew men were born leaders with an upper hand on spiritual understanding, while women fulfilled delicate supporting roles with ladies’ teas and children’s ministry. I knew God, with all the fury of Israel’s Old Testament warring, punished nations for gay marriage and Lady GaGa.

But I didn’t know I was a fundamentalist.

Fundamentalists were the crazies, the legalists. We weren’t those. We were just righteous. We were just right.

I didn’t know I was a fundamentalist – I just knew I fundamentally disagreed with many aspects of this interpretation of Christianity. I disagreed with the theology that told me my uneasiness was merely a testing of my devotion or a misunderstanding of truth. That feeling God doesn’t matter, as long as you follow him. That discomfort is always doubt, that disagreeing with a few man-made doctrines meant overturning the entire celestial gospel. That answers were black and white or they were false.

It was their way or the highway to hedonism and hell. There was fundamentalism, or there was heresy.

Over the past couple of years, as my skepticism grew and convictions shifted, this attitude led me to believe I was losing my faith. Until the day I understood: I am not deconverting from Christianity, only leaving fundamentalism. I hadn’t known that was an option, partially because I hadn’t known I was a fundamentalist.

They’re the crazies, you know. The legalists. We weren’t those. We weren’t, we couldn’t be. We were righteous. We were right.

But sometimes we weren’t right: When we put sins in hierarchies. When we reacted to an increasing societal acceptance of homosexuality by treating people like props and policies, not souls. When we settled for soundbite answers on complicated issues. When we prioritized political battles over spiritual outreach. When we made pop culture and holy living mutually exclusive. When we listed which denominations glorified God and which were distracted by their liturgy or methodology. When we settled for don’ts instead of encouraging dos and bes. When we insisted we had it all figured out. When we robbed sinners of their imago dei and sapped God of his mystery.

I can’t stomach that kind of belief.

Not because the gospel itself is not true. Not because truth is relative or because theology doesn’t matter or because religion is bad. But because fundamentalism, as I have known it, too often confuses personal choices and manmade rules for universal orthodoxy and divine mandates. Because fundamentalism says “this is what faith is” when actually, this is just what fundamentalism is, and Christianity is a broader and richer tapestry, in all its history and diversity, than any one little strand.

Like so many of my peers, I am relearning what I believe. I am learning. For the first time in my life, I can’t outline a systematic theology. I can’t conjure up a personal belief statement, proof-text my thoughts, or label all my doctrine. For the first time in my life, I don’t have all the answers. I am madly uncertain – yet deeply confident in my faith.

So it is with shaky-kneed steps I stumble forward, toward a God who values justice, healing, freedom, and grace. A God who is mysterious and wild, near to sinners and saints, orphans and widows, the wandering and the oppressed. A God who is so much more than I think I know about him.

I am not a fundamentalist, but I am discovering a Christianity I can believe in.

So as not to misrepresent: For every person in the fundamentalist parts of my past who spewed weird or hateful ideologies, there were many others who were well-intentioned and kind. Like any system, it is a spectrum, with the vocal extremes often influencing but misrepresenting the greater population.

So as to clarify, kinda: “Fundamentalism” is a fraught word with many definitions and connotations, a movement with many branches. I am referring here to a system of beliefs and methodologies I saw implemented in my childhood and adolescence in (some) communities and institutions I was part of which fall under the umbrella of fundamentalism but which may not have looked like all the churches or stereotypes associated with fundamentalism.

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2 comments

  1. Kate….I could have written what you said here. I am no longer a Fundamentalist….but a believer….www.churchabusepoetrytherapy.com…something positive coming from the ashes of spiritual abuse……….My name up on a big screen followed by the words, “Conduct Unbecoming a Child of God……not once, but 3 times….on my birthday no less (because I got a divorce after 31 year of abue and let the x live i the house fr awhile)

  2. Yeah, me too. I don’t even know what else to say. This is so much where I have been in the last year, and you perfectly articulated it.

    My shaky knees are growing stronger, and with them my voice.

    Thank you for your voice.

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