How do you explain the rise of fundamentalism?

Jon Meacham: I think that literalism – fundamentalism – is the refuge for people who are fearful. I think that it’s much easier to put on a coat of amour and stand still, or to fight blindly or reflexively, than to judge the slings and arrows of fortune as they come because that part’s scary. It’s hard to try to reconcile . . . I believe in a god who ultimately is a force of love and justice, and yet children have cancer and children starve. I mean that’s an utterly . . . they seem utterly incompatible. And that’s very hard, and it’s a mystery, and I have no earthly idea how to reconcile them; but I’m gonna try because to be fundamentalist on either side is to foreclose whole realms of experience, and thought, and potential illumination. If one’s entirely secular, then you foreclose the possibility of the miraculous. If you’re entirely fundamentalist in Christian terms, then you are accepting as inerrant a book and a tradition that is clearly the product of human hands and hearts. So that, to me, is an irrational reaction to scripture. Scripture is fascinating, but it’s a historical document; and it’s as flawed as any other historical document. So my sense of fundamentalism is people who want a comfortable way to react to an ever-changing world tend to seek refuge in a more fundamentalist world view than I’m comfortable with. Literalism. Literalism. Yeah, that’s good a moment ago. Islamic literalism. It’s Christian literalism. It’s this idea that we have access to the complete truth and all the answers, and that those who do not agree with us are somehow subhuman, are infidels, are justifiable targets. And we got in trouble in epically tragic terms in the 20th Century when various people, various systems dehumanized others, and that’s essentially what we’re living with now. And the engine of that dehumanization is a fundamentalist view in one’s own virtue and one’s own . . . the correctness of one’s own. So to me the largest story of our time will be a reformation, a moderation of forces of extremism around the world, including some at home, but chiefly around the world. Because people are sometimes a little, I think, too sanguine about terrorism. The idea is, well, al-Qaeda is “small beer”, I think the Economist put it recently. Yeah, unless you lost someone, or unless there’s a weapon of mass destruction that falls into the wrong hands. So whatever we can do to reduce the oxygen flow to those pockets of hate and destruction, I think we’ll be what this generation is remembered for or not.

 

Recorded on: 7/3/2007

Literalism is a refuge for those who are fearful.

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