Pride and Despair

Almost eight years ago I attended a lecture (overview in Icelandic) at Pontificial College Josephinum, where Dr. R. Scott Appleby introduced the project Fundamentalism Observed, which he edited with Martin Marty.

Daniel Malotky mentions Fundamentalism Observed as an excellent source when looking at fundamentalistic movements in his article Fundamentalist Violence and Despair.

Malotky’s take on fundamentalists starts with this notion:

Partaking in the tensions of human existence, fundamentalists are drawn toward simplistic and inevitably abortive resolutions, a temptation we all experience, and into which we all occasionally fall. For some, the tensions become so unbearable, and the effort to overcome them so desperate, that they will stop at nothing to achieve relief.

Malotky’s claim is that the pride and demand for having the answers, should correctly be called out as a sin.

[Fundamentalists] make claims about access to knowledge that are unwarranted even according to the tenets of their own faith. Their attitude contravenes the basic religious sensibility, shared by all traditions, of humility before the divine mystery.

This fundamentalist understanding could be seen on the political scene, according to President Jimmy Carter, in the second Bush administration. Malotky addresses in the context of the second Bush administration whether it is accurate to talk about ignorance and/or pride as the basis of fundamentalist violence, as Carter seems to indicate or whether we should look at it from a different perspective.

Malotky seems to assume that even though Carter’s observation might have some validation, Malotky rejects the following assumption.

Our assumption, …, is that an epistemologically temporizing education is the answer. If we could only manage to dislodge these poor souls from their pre-modern absolutism, if we could open their eyes to the historicity of ideas, to the moral complexity of the world and to their own inconsistencies, fundamentalism would go away.

Malotky rightly points out that fundamentalists don’t agree about our assumption, and as our shortcomings or human failings are not only due to our limitations, or lack of knowledge, education, opportunity, resources, etc. it can be hard to sway those who think they have all the answers needed.

Here it is important to take notice that fundamentalists are not pre-modern movement, but quite the contrary based on a selective understanding of modernity. Underlying their fundamentalist understanding is the positivistic notion that we can figure everything out.

Malotky also mentions fear as a driving factor, but seems to blend together fundamentalism and conservatism in his writing. Even though conservatism and fundamentalism have some common traits, they are not mutually inclusive.

Malotky addresses the formation of enclaves to protect the believers from the outside world. I would like to point out that this is not limited to fundamentalist or conservative groups. Though the motivation might more clearly stated in the fundamentalist circles.

Malotky asks how the fundamentalists can so unaware of the uncertainty of moral and spiritual matters, when at the same time they seem to be fleeing away from it. The answer can be found in Chris Hedges writing, says Malotky, it is despair.

How can one be proud and in despair at the same time? The pairing of pride and ignorance is more straightforward, and it fits our stereotypes about fundamentalists, but Niebuhr’s conception of sin provides a framework that can incorporate despair and deepen our understanding. He appropriates the traditional Christian categories of sin as pride and despair, but he argues that they exist as ironic manifestations of each other.

This is because pride is always an attempt to cover anxiety about our own limitations. Despair calls us to respond to the same anxiety by withdrawing. We should therefore address fundamentalistic pride and despair as the sin of self-deception.

We claim too much or to little for ourselves: convincing ourselves that the identity is established in some significant way, or accounting ourselves as worms in an attempt to escape our sense of responsibility; …

The absolutistic claim of fundamentalism rejects any and all attempts of cross-cultural dialogue and is highly suspicious of any mainstream culture, attempting to speak to or on behalf of anyone, “like the mainstream media or the modern university.”

This rejection is ironically based on some sense of moral relativism, a concept one might think is foreign to fundamentalists.

Bruce Lawrence notes that in telling their own history, fundamentalists do not attempt to present a persuasive or objective account for outsiders. Their histories consist largely of the stories of their heroes.

I would assume that this notion of story telling and lack of theological apologetics is in fact an example of almost post-modern understanding of the truth, as a lived out reality, rather than a dissected modernist scholarly endeavor.

When we understand fundamentalists, not as a group trying to impose their worldview on everyone else, but rather as a group operating out of the sin of self-deception, out of pride and despair. The conclusion becomes that

[f]undamentalists have sought to gain political control, not to force others to believe as they do, but to protect their communities from a world that they believe threatens their destructions.

Similar responses can be seen outside of the religious sphere, f.x. in the immigration debate in Europe and the US.

Malotky accuses liberals of offering no real alternative.

That is, they promote the truth that there is not truth.

This mistaken tolerance

easily leads to terrifying practical conclusions in the hands of cultural warriors from the right or the left. Violence may grow from pride and ignorance, but it is as likely to stem from desperation, from the sense that in a Godless world, there is no other path to take.

The solution is, according to Malotky, to be found in understanding the sin.

The sin lies not in the attempt to reach beyond ourselves, nor does it lie in our positive claims to know the truth. The sin lies in forgoing the quest, either because of its supposed impossibility or because we claim that our constructions are, for whatever reason, beyond critique. We dare not abandon the search. We need only to be open to revising what we find according to the best arguments we or our interlocutors can muster.

Malotky’s use of the sin is extremely important in addressing fundamentalist’s behavior, and helps us to move away from the arrogant and elitist claims of ignorance. However Malotky rightly reminds us not to use the concept of sin as a judgement but a corrective.

My Personal Conclusion

The problem with any and all analyses of the other, assuming Malotky is not a fundamentalist himself, is getting the conclusions across. In the case of a fundamentalist groups, who reject cross-cultural dialogue as diabolic, this becomes especially difficult.

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