Giles Fraser: Why faith always asks questions

09 April 2008

The Times columnist Matthew Parris gave the former Prime Minister a “fail” for his lecture on religion at Westminster Cathedral (Comment). Mr Parris believes that there is no such thing as progressive faith; for the beating heart of all religion is fundamentalism.

To which I say: no, no, and no again. The heart of all religion beats in the interrogative. Faith begins in questions: Is this it? What is the purpose of human life? Is there anything other than the things we can see and touch and smell? Whither justice? The ultimate religious starting point is the big “why?” And this is a million miles from fundamentalism.

In that great work of theology, the film The Matrix, Orpheus attempts to explain to Neo that the world he has taken for granted for so many years is not real. Neo has always had some sort of inkling that things were not quite as they seemed. Orpheus describes it as being like “a splinter in the mind”. That is a phrase of great insight: it captures the way a sense of the other will not leave some people alone.

“This World is not Conclusion,” says the poet Emily Dickinson: “A Species stands beyond — . . . It beckons, and it baffles.”

When Jesus called the fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, he certainly did not give them some sort of faith test before he allowed them to become his followers. There was no checklist of beliefs, no great examination of metaphysical commitments. They just dropped their nets, probably in a great deal of confusion and fear, and set off after this charismatic stranger who spoke so compellingly about the God he called “Father”. They set off, in what that great Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard called “objective uncertainty”.

Fundamentalists are not a single group, though mostly they are those who just cannot cope with the intrinsic uncertainty of religious belief. Some of these are people who live in circumstances of such extreme poverty and violence that uncertainty is read as a threat to life itself. For such as these, this fundamentalism is an anchor in a sea of trouble.

On the other hand, some fundamentalists are wicked manipulators, keen to appropriate the power of faith so that their own lust for authority can exist beyond rational contradiction. Often, this latter group exploits those for whom fundamentalism is emotional and existential security.

Fundamentalism is a 20th-century invention, in many ways a response to the rapid social change brought about by modernity and global capitalism. It is a perversion of religion, and in no way the real thing.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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