[H]is mind [was] soaked and sodden with sorrow, or dry and brittle with the hopelessness that comes from knowing too little and feeling too much (so brittle, so dry he is in danger of the reverse: feeling nothing and knowing everything).
Toni Morrison (Jazz)
Post # 3
I did some thinking about fundamentalism in preparation for a podcast with Doug Wheeler who is host of From the Belly and a wonderful interviewer, and with Charles Strozier, who has written many excellent books, including two on fundamentalism.
My thoughts about fundamentalism flow from my practice as a psychologist but even more from living in the US through our recent years of tumult and tribal antagonism. Since the main focus of this blog is fiction writing, I thought I’d talk about fundamentalism through the lens of an as-yet unpublished novel of mine, called In Thy Name and a bit through a psychologist’s lens, In the book, I explore a number of different “fundamentalisms” and the web in which they grow. Some individuals rush to that web and become entangled while others flee.
If I look at the characters in the book, I see a few things that emerge about the imagined people who are fundamentalist in orientation. Their lives all center on a powerful authority existing outside the self. That authority is idealized as awe inspiring. It is felt to deserve deep respect and obedience. It often demands that obeisance. For most of these characters, the authority they bend to is their particular version and voice of God. The actions commanded by the godly authority are seen as justifiable in all instances. Even extreme violence against non-believers is defensible. The God or other authority requires the follower to adhere to a particular view of what is right and what is wrong. Nonadherence is punished and obedience is rewarded, sometimes in a life after death. Most importantly, the voices silenced include those of the authentic self–guided by feeling and empathy–and those of other human beings whose feet are planted on the ground, who live their lives with attention to ordinary human emotions including daily desires, needs, and fears.
Some of these dynamics are portrayed in a fictional passage from In Thy Name that describes an Islamic fundamentalist and those–not yet converted–who keep company with him:
The other young men in camp saw Sangar, several or more years their elder, as the recruit with the light of Islam behind his eyes. They knew not to bother him with trivial talk about the night’s tasteless dinner or the cold slicing wind. Nor did they discuss the sweet or silly sayings of their young brothers and sisters back home. He lived in a place removed. The others did not like him. He brought no wit, offered little camaraderie. He would have been joyless as a schoolmate or a brother. But they sensed in his single-mindedness the most powerful of weapons in the fight they all waged passionately, the fight against the West….No doubt he, sooner than they, would be capable of boarding a plane knowing that within the hour he would blow himself and all else to dust. And he would do it gladly, in a placid state, perhaps even a euphoria, because he was Allah’s dedicated servant and he was already joined with Him in the life beyond, already departed in some way from this life with all its grinding miseries and quicksilver pleasures…. All through history such strange men of discipline and passion had existed and lived beyond the brown bread of community in quiet, holy partnership with Allah.
In the novel, over and over I found myself delineating tensions between those who adhere to external, non-earthly authority–often doctrinal–and those who are moved by ordinary daily realities. The fundamentalists of my imagination were cut-off from their own inner life of wishes, fears, loves, and hates and were deeply deficient in empathy. Because of that alienation from compassion, one character balked at surgically repairing a birth defect in his own child because he believed the defect was a Godly stigma, a mark left by God for God’s purposes. He lost touch with how the child’s life would be burdened by the abnormality and had no sympathy for his wife who was deeply moved by her child’s plight. He lacked any real insight into why he believed the birth defect was God’s work. He could not differentiate his own beliefs–no matter how odd–from what he took to be God’s commands. So whatever he himself believed became God’s voice.
Fundamentalist thinking makes it easy for one person or group to dehumanize another as sub-human by citing that person’s deviation from God’s word or from some esteemed doctrine. Ironically, such dehumanization is itself a powerful display of inhumanity in the believer. The one who says to another, ‘You are less than human’ is themself behaving inhumanely. We see this dynamic all the time in racists who demean others’ humanity and in doing so feed the least humane parts of themselves.
Many threads could be picked up and followed from this central reality of alienation from the human and elevation of the abstractly principled or divine. For example, one can think of psychological structures that roughly parallel fundamentalism. The person afflicted with what psychologists call obsessive-compulsive disorder abandons their own authority over their life and loses the ability to use reason, intuition, and self-compassion. Instead they bend to an authority they experience as external, and see it as a source of an absolute “should” or “thou shalt” that establishes strict rules and threatens dreadful punishment if the imperatives are breached. The commanding voice might require that the person perform bedtime routines in a precise order with the warning that failure to maintain the order will result in personal humiliation the next day, failure in school, or a fatal accident befalling the person or their loved one. If the person makes a mistake in the order of bedtime routines, they have to start over and perform the actions again, no matter how many times it takes. The commanding voice is merciless with respect to the person’s time, exhaustion, or embarrassment.
We might question how any person can be so submissive and surrender their own personhood and authority. When we make that inquiry, we sometimes find that the person is engaged in hidden rebellions, often unrecognized. The person with OCD may have a sexual fantasy life in which he or she is a sadist or dominatrix who holds authority over others and inflicts pain. The tables have been turned and the person is now on top–perhaps sexually but more importantly in personal power–in relation to others. Like the person with OCD, the religious fundamentalist may show their aggression obliquely. They find their voice and authority in subjugating others. They bow to God’s will but bend others to their will. The OCD sufferer differs from the fundamentalist in many respects–for example, they seldom find community in their obedience to external dictates–it is a private affair–and they don’t routinely focus on the afterlife, as fundamentalists do, but they do share with the fundamentalist the abandonment of a personal voice and the loss of regard for their own and others’ vulnerable humanity.
Toni Morrison, in her book Jazz, tells a wonderful story of a woman betrayed in marriage who turns to violence against the dead body of the young woman who had an affair with her husband. Violet is the name of the betrayed woman but she comes to be known as Violence and she lives in a fundamentalist world of her own making in which she sees in others evil behavior that calls out for punishment. She becomes the Godlike avenger and she is uncontainable in her vengeful fury.
Before the affront to her personhood, Violet lovingly tended caged birds. But after her psychological injury she releases all her birds and casts them out to live or die on their own, without her tending. One bird, a parrot, will not fly off but lingers outside her window–presumably wanting readmission to her heart and home. It will not desist from uttering the refrain, I love you, which she–in her gentler days–taught it. The bird seems to represent the humanity Violence the fundamentalist discards and stomps with all her might, which never entirely dies but waits bereft at the window.
One last thread to follow here takes us into questions of why a human being would abandon humanity to trade it for submission and obedience to the abstract and the domineering. This topic is a large one. One road to fundamentalism seems to involve a wobbly experience of selfhood and a yearning for personal substance and worth that leads a person to find a pillar of strength outside the self. The worshipper can ally with the esteemed outside force in order to borrow some identity, some direction, and maybe some reflected glory. A number of the male fundamentalist characters in my novel are fatherless or have rejecting fathers. For some, in seeking identity through doctrine or membership in a doctrinally-driven group, the self-definition and worth that might come from a parent can be found. The turn toward fundamentalism may also follow from a feeling of being overwhelmed by intractable problems–personal or global–that cannot be grappled with in ordinary human ways, with mortal powers and at an earthly pace. One must find something stronger. Often the deliverance from crushing present-day problems of poverty, mental illness, loneliness, forbidden sexual expression, fears of an uninhabitable earth and the like requires directing one’s attention to an afterlife, as yet unavailable, but accessible with the help of a powerful God or force to which one devotes one’s life. For some, a movement toward tight affiliation with a single-minded group organized around externally-imposed directives is a transitional phase. The person may strengthen their identity through the experience of inclusion and obedience, then move on to a more individuated and emotionally attuned way of living.
I will end here with another passage from my novel that aims to depict a personal transition into a fundamentalist world view:
Jerry’s early reading difficulties caused Dad to train a sour yellow light on all his endeavors as if Dad, never truly hopeful about his progeny, had faced that single defect head-on and given up on the boy. Soon Dad was disappointed in how Jerry wobbled the front tire of his bike and failed to comb down his ludicrous cowlick, how he used his grubby pointing finger to pry out the large black seeds from the watermelon and left toilet paper streaming from the roll so that it glued itself to the damp bathroom floor.
As an adult, Jerry heard from Preacher Bob that all his daughter Betony’s confounding questions about the death of forests due to acid rain, the spate of devastating hurricanes and tsunamis, the economic blight of several dozen third world societies, and the mental depression of millions within the world’s wealthy nations might in each and every case be the early Tribulation and thus occasion for rejoicing. Jerry’s unrecognized grief, his shame over many bypassed opportunities led him to vibrate like a struck bell and powered a sharp tilt toward embrace of the life hereafter. He felt catapulted out of earth’s atmosphere and orbit. He exited with relief.
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