church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

There are stupider things to do than arguing with a culty fundamentalist.  As the late great Jim Croce reminded us, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, and you don’t pull the mask off the ol’ Lone Ranger.  Arguing with a culty fundamentalist is, I admit, not as stupid as any of these things, but it is pretty stupid nonetheless, for it is a waste of precious time and utterly futile.

By “culty fundamentalist” I mean someone from a group which divides the entire world into a very small “us” and a very large “them”.  This “them” usually constitutes the entire world outside the boundaries of the group.  The group has very strict and well-defined boundaries, and they are very clear that they are the only people in the world who are truly saved, who know what’s really going on, and who know and have experienced God’s grace.  Outside the boundaries of the group there is nothing but darkness, danger, and damnation.

Obviously not all fundamentalists are culty fundamentalists as defined above.  The culty ones are characterized by their unshakable conviction that they alone possess salvation and that therefore leaving their group would be spiritually and eternally catastrophic.  All groups which make truth claims (groups like the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Baptists) are of course sad when their members leave them, believing their departure to be a mistake.  But these groups do not claim that those departing are thereby damning their souls or leaving the light for the darkness.  Culty fundamentalists do, and that is why they so greatly lament the departure of their members and describe that departure in apocalyptic terms.

I include in these groups organizations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (schismatic Mormons), and some Old Calendarist jurisdictions.

These groups are characterized by a fear of the modern world with all its complexity, nuance, and ambiguity.  That is why they regard this world not only as fallen and in the grip of deception (the historical Church has always believed that), but also as sufficiently dangerous as to warrant as much separation from them as possible.  Though such groups may not always retreat to a well-defined geographical space (such as a ranch or compound), it is still well-isolated from outside influence.  The invisible drawbridge is always pulled up to protect the group from outside contamination which real inter-action with society would inevitably bring.

I remember arguing with adherents from one such group when I was much younger.  They approached me by knocking on my door when I was home, asking if they could come in and share their message.  Being much younger than I am now, I imagined that I could provide a voice of reason and sow a seed of doubt in their mind about their delusion and maybe even rescue them.  Alas, no dice, and those hours are ones I can never get back.

That was not because (I fancy) there was anything wrong with my argumentation.  It was because I was from the wrong tribe and so everything I said was of course wrong.  They were hardly listening to my words, much less trying to understand them.  What I said was of no consequence because I was not one of them.  Before they had even knocked on my door, they had neatly divided the entire world into Us (who of course had all the truth), and Them (who of course were deceived, pathetic, and had nothing valuable or true to say).  If they could not refute my arguments, contradict my history, or fault my logic, that all just proved how clever the Devil (i.e. me) really was.  They didn’t worry that my arguments were better.  They knew that whatever arguments I could muster, I must be wrong because I belonged to Them.  I never had any credibility.  I scarcely had a name.  I was simply another lost soul unaware of its pathetic plight.  I was the Enemy, Babylon the Great.  In other words, I was a part of The Wrong Tribe.

In the world of the culty fundamentalist, theology is entirely a tribal activity.  Their tribe is right, and other tribes are wrong because they are other tribes.  If someone from their tribe said the same things as I did, it would be immediately received as wise because it originated from their (i.e. the correct) tribe.

This means, of course, that real scholarship is never found among such culty groups.  Real scholarship involves humility and the willingness to learn from everyone and anyone.  Thus (for example) if the late Fr. Robert Taft provided good liturgical scholarship regarding the Byzantine Liturgy (which he did) it did not matter at all that he was a Roman Catholic Jesuit and not an Orthodox.  Truth is truth, and real scholars are willing to learn from anyone who seems to know what they are talking about.  Labels—that is, tribes—are irrelevant.  All that matters is competence.

We see this in non-theological matters quite easily.  I cared less than nothing that the doctor doing cataract surgery on my one good eye was not a good Orthodox.  All that mattered was that he was a good eye surgeon.  It is the same for matters of scholarship.  Real scholars are tribally-blind:  they will learn from any source as long as it is a good source.  For culty fundamentalists, tribe is everything, and so they remain suspicious of any information or learning that does not originate from their tribe.

That of course makes the world in which they live a very small and lonely one.  And (allow me to say) usually a stupid one as well, since they have rejected almost all scholarship that originates from another tribe or challenges their own.  If you doubt this, peruse any copy of an Awake! magazine.

Why do apparently intelligent people embrace culty fundamentalism?  Generalizations are always tricky, but I suggest that the attraction of culty fundamentalism is that it provides a safe haven in a confusing and dangerous world.

The spiritual edifices that such groups build are erected upon a foundation of fear:  they believe that if you are wrong in your choices, God is waiting to smite and damn them, and He will only restrain Himself if you belong to the “correct” group.  Once you join that group, you have the assurance of safety—but only if you remain within the group.  If you remain within the group, you have nothing to fear, including the necessity of living in a confusing world and grappling with nuance and grey areas—an arena in which you might make a wrong choice and thus incite divine wrath.

One can see immediately why arguing with such people is futile and a waste of time:  you are asking them to risk their eternal salvation, to emerge from their psychological bomb shelter and forfeit their assurance of safety.  For them, that assurance is paramount, and they will not risk losing it just because your arguments seem to be better than theirs.  The world of gray areas and nuance in which you live is just too scary for them.

What then to do with our culty fundamentalist neighbour?  For of course whatever his exasperating flaws, he is still our neighbour, and we are commanded to love him.  I suggest three things.

First (and most obvious) of all, pray for them.  If they have closed their hearts and minds, only God can open them.

Secondly, resist the temptation to imagine that if only you are learned or persuasive enough, you can bring them to sanity and sense.  It almost certainly will not happen.  Your learning and persuasiveness count for nothing so long as you remain in the wrong tribe.  Remember the words of Solomon about how we should leave a fool because we will not find knowledge in his presence (Proverbs 14:7)—or at least remember Christ’s words about Pharisees and blind guides—our Lord told us to leave them alone (Matthew 15:14).  In other words, don’t waste time in long arguments with them.

Finally, deal with their challenges and errors plainly and directly, giving an alternative vision and version to their distorted and narrow one.  If their arguments are left entirely unanswered, it may give tender and vulnerable souls the mistaken impression that the culty fundamentalist assertions are true.  This last task is mostly the job of the Church’s teachers and representatives.

As long as the world remains a dark place, the temptation will abide to sweep away the uncertainty, nuance, and grey areas with a culty fundamentalist vision.  The Church is not a cult, and so while it boldly and clearly proclaims the truth, it also knows how to discern nuance and grey areas as well and to live with it.  That is because the Church, being the body of Christ, is not afraid.  The spiritual edifice the Church erects is built on the assurance that God loves us.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.