Monday, November 28, 2005

Puritanism vs. Fundamentalism: Two Types of Religious Revival Movements.

Islamic "fundamentalism" is a real misnomer as many people have pointed out. The classic "fundamentalists" of the 1920s American Protestantism were apolitical, pessimistic, separatist, and completely uninterested in social change or revolution. Since Islamic "fundamentalists" are political, optimistic, engaged with society (often to society's grief!), and totally focused on social change and revolution, Islamic "fundamentalism" is obviously a gross misnomer.

But one is not going to get a correct "nomer," until another general category is given. Much as I dislike the comparison, Protestant history supplies a strong, clear parallel: Puritanism, particularly the Puritanism that seized power in England from 1640 to 16660, founding a Christian republic in place of the English monarchy. Thus Puritanism, can be seen as a general religious category found within all Abrahamic religions (Shinto or Hindu puritanism is a flat impossibility).

Here are the marks:

1) Scripturalism: radical down-grading of commentary and a delight in shocking trespass of the oldest traditions.

This brings in its wake relative religious simplicity which in turn by reducing the amount of religious knowledge needed enables non-specialists to participate in religious discussions. It thus reduces the distinction between clergy and laity.

2) Theonomy: belief that God has given a relatively detailed prescription of social-political forms and laws that is transcendentally valid and a precondition for right social existence, and the added belief that the state has the duty to enact these laws and no more, and that the legitimacy of any state is dependent on whether it enacts these laws or not.

3) Iconoclasm: in defense of God’s transcendence a total rejection of material symbols/icons/idols of God’s presence.

Note though, in line with theonomy, puritanist groups stand out by actually doing it–they actually destroy religious images of other peoples’ religions (by definition, since they themselves don’t have their own icons to destroy). In this sense what marks the difference between an anti-iconic group and an iconoclastic group is more a factor of beliefs about relation of church and state than one of the role of icons.

4) Anathemization: Members of other sects within the religion are seen as falling into the emblematic negative category, whether that of the anti-Christ, or of kufr/jahiliyya (Arabic for infidelity/ignorance). This character is seen as thus fundamental to the era as a whole; one’s era is under the rule of Satan/jahiliyya, yet is also the dawn of the era of true religion and rule.

Compared to fundamentalism, puritanism is similar in its scripturalism and anathemization, but fundamentalism was/is neither theonomic (in fact it was both sectarian and distinctly anti-nomian), nor iconoclastic (although non-iconic). In addition, fundamentalism is apocalyptic (believing in the imminent annihilation of this wicked world), yet puritanism (Christian and Islamic) is, in fact, not particularly apocalyptic, believing in the end of the world, but not putting it imminently, and being optimistically more focused on seizing power here and now. In this picture, the early Christian church can be seen as a kind of fundamentalist movement emerging out of Judaism.

The prophetic tradition of Israel, by contrast, would be strongly puritan, differing only by the more strong apocalyptic element and its pessimism.

Given the puritan character of Israelite prophecy, and the fundamentalist character of the early church, neither style of religion can be categorically rejected as in itself always bad or wrong. (Both -isms here I am taking as general styles, apart from their specific doctrinal content.) The question is, how do we know whether either style is applicable today?