So I’m reading Tribes by Seth Godin, which is a fantastic book on leadership that I highly recommend to those of you who like to think outside the box, pursue big ideas, or quit your job and stick it to The Man.
The book is not specifically religious, so I was a bit surprised to bump into what I thought was a really interesting assessment of religious fundamentalism on page 63, where Godin writes:
A fundamentalist is a person who considers whether a fact is acceptable to his religion before he explores it.
As opposed to a curious person who explores first and then considers whether or not he wants to accept the ramifications.
A curious person embraces the tension between his religion and something new, wrestles with it and through it, and then decides whether to embrace the new idea or reject it…
It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is for someone to become curious. For seven, ten, or even fifteen years of school, you are required to not be curious. Over and over and over again, the curious are punished.
I don’t think it’s a matter of saying a magic word; boom and then suddenly something happens and you’re curious. It’s more about a five- or ten- or fifteen-year process where you start finding your voice, and finally you begin to realize that the safest thing you can do feels risky and the riskiest you can do is play it safe…
What we’re seeing is that fundamentalism really has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with an outlook, regardless of what your religion is.
These observations reminded me of a frustrating conversation I had with some friends a few weeks ago about the theory of evolution. My friends told me that they had very strong convictions regarding evolution, and yet no desire whatsoever to explore the science surrounding the issue. They had already determined that evolution could not be true based on their religious convictions, and so any logical or scientific inconsistencies within the young earth creationism model were dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders and a pithy statement about the mysteries of God.
“I’m just not so arrogant as to think that I can understand the ways of God,” one of them explained.
It is a conversation I have repeated over and over again, though in the context of many different issues and with many different people. Nothing is more frustrating than engaging in a good, healthy theological debate, only to reach a point in the conversation when, rather than conceding that you might actually have a good point, your opponent defers to “God’s mysterious ways,” as if reason is only useful up to a point, when it supports what he already believes.
And then things start to get personal when your curiosity gets you accused of “trying to know the mind of God.” I hear this all the time, whenever I have questions about creationism or Calvinism, the Problem of Evil or the destiny of the un-evangelized. “Who are you to question your Creator?” I am asked.” But I’m not questioning my Creator!” I want to shout. “I’m questioning you!” I’m questioning whether a certain position is biblical or rational or consistent.
It is as though there is an invisible line between acceptable inquisitiveness and dangerous rebellion that I inadvertently cross whenever I make someone uncomfortable.
Now, before this turns into a self-righteous rant, I should note that I too am guilty of defaulting to “God’s mysterious ways” when backed into a corner, and there is a degree to which this should be expected within a faith community. As Christians, we must recognize that paradox is inherent to our tradition, that mysteries will always exist, and that faith is more often a matter of the heart than the brain.
However, the fact that we can’t know everything about God should not lead to the conclusion that we can’t know anything about God and therefore shouldn’t try to understand his character and his world better.
Perhaps the solution is to simply enter into every theological conversation acknowledging the shared assumption that we see through a glass darkly, but that reason is God’s good gift to mankind and that we insult his generosity when we refuse to use it. Perhaps the solution is to give our brothers and sisters the benefit of the doubt and assume that they already believe that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” rather than reminding them of it when they make a good point or ask a good question or challenge us a little more than we want to be challenged.
Have you ever felt as though you were punished for being curious? Have you ever been in the midst of a stimulating theological conversation only to have it end abruptly when someone reminds you that “God’s ways are higher than our ways” or that “in much wisdom is much grief”? How do you respond? And what do you think of Seth Godin’s definition of fundamentalism?