Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What is Fundamentalism?

Sometimes we get so involved in a discussion that we forget what we're talking about, or else we forget that someone new may have just come into the room, who hasn't heard what's gone before or simply has a fresh perspective to bring.

It happened to me tonight. I had sent the link to yesterday's post around to some buddies at work, one of whom walked up beside me as I waited with mounting impatience for a belated PATH train (mind you, the PATH system is so efficient that if you have to wait longer than five minutes at rush hour, it's a problem). We got to talking about the pieces that Terry and I have posted this week on the subject of fundamentalism, and this young man asked me a very incisive question:

"What is Fundamentalism?"

It's the kind of question that should be asked recurrently, honestly, and probingly of every major concept in public debate or private discussion. So I answered him, much as I have answered the question in writing before, but with the added energy that a personal encounter provides. I told him that wherever truth is spelled with a capital T (or god with a capital G); wherever an insight is cemented into doctrine and placed onto a pedestal of untouchable, unchangeable, unquestionable, holy Truth, then there is fundamentalism. It most commonly appears in religious ideology, but is also quite frequently seen in politics, government, ethics, business, law, and even science. Newtonian mechanics was the fundamentalism of physics for some three centuries before anyone dared to question its core assumptions.

Then my friend asked another excellent question which few have the daring to ask: "what does a fundamentalist belief do for someone; what does it provide people that it seems to be so pervasive in our world?"

Now that's a question that could be the subject of an entire book, college course, or doctoral dissertation. It's asking, "what is the psychological payoff for adhering to and defending a fundamentalist belief—why would people be led to sacrifice their freedom and even their lives or their children's lives for the sake of such a belief?"

Since I had only the tail end of a seven minute trip underneath the Hudson River to respond in, I kept it crisp and short: it seems to boil down to security and a false sense of endurance or self-aggrandizement through affiliation. In other words, if I am walled off in my life by an institution or a religion that says it will protect me, preserve me and my family, and even offer me the promise of limitless rewards in a Kingdom-to-come; the sacrifice of personal independence for this safety and security will seem quite rational, even compelling. It may even seem like a minimal sacrifice to make, and therein cooks the great lie; for there is scarcely a greater or more foolish sacrifice of oneself and one's precious life possible.

Fundamentalism may say that Jesus is the Answer; and if you don't get the right Answer, of course, you will suffer eternal damnation. Fundamentalism can tell us that "either you're with us or you're with the terrorists"; and if you fall into the latter camp, you will be hunted down and your home/city/nation destroyed. Fundamentalism is a cubicle with no opening; a house with no doors or windows; an earth with no sky except the painted ceiling, just inches above your bowed head.

What fundamentalism is not is truth. For truth in Nature is alive and continually transforming in both essence and expression. Fundamentalism foreshortens both our feeling for and vision of Nature, including our own nature. It displaces the energy of our bodily currents—hunger, thirst, sexuality, relationship, love, knowledge, and variety in experience—and points them toward a system of belief that is portrayed as final, inflexible, unquestionable, and eternal (in a purely linear sense). Last year, I expressed this as follows:

...[it] is meant to turn you on, and then to turn you away. Away, that is, from yourself—from your body and its inviolable connection with Nature. Thus, in fundamentalism, the eroticism is a passing expedient, meant to arouse energy toward a violent ideology of the Exclusive—a picture of a world in which the adherents of a narrow system of belief and behavior will be rewarded according to the same organic terms that Nature had already placed within them, before the birth of any religious creed.


Here are some links where you may find some starting points in your own journey of separation from fundamentalism, and the recovery of your true self:

Henry David Thoreau There is, to my mind, scarcely a greater American, hardly a more articulate voice for personal freedom and self-discovery than this man. Read him for just 15 minutes a day, and you will soon feel scales dropping away from the eyes of your mind.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Another of the so-called "transcendentalists" (he personally made fun of that term), Emerson presents a distinctly spiritually-grounded vision of the life of independence; of freedom as the freedom to feel, with all one's being, the life of nature and god within oneself.

Lao Tzu The old Chinese philosopher/poet who has been featured prominently in the pages of Daily Rev. His message is one of growth through diminishment: recovering the true self by discarding everything that is not-oneself. The link will take you to my translation, but another and probably better one is that of Stephen Mitchell.

Alan Watts It scarcely matters where you look among this man's work; it is all good, all nourishing. And a lot of it is funny. I would recommend, for beginners, his set of talks under the title Eastern Wisdom and his The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. More than 30 years after his death, Watts' voice is vital, fresh, poignant, funny, and liberating.

Arundhati Roy One of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, in every way imaginable. For pure pleasure, you can begin with her The God of Small Things, and then go on to her brief and illuminating social and political essays, such as War Talk and An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire.

J.K. Rowling Reading Harry Potter might seem a little strange as a practice meant to free oneself from the influence of fundamentalism; but I think it works. If you've read the Potter tales and still think this a bit of a stretch, try this excerpt from my Tao of Hogwarts.

Albert Einstein The scientist who turned our view of the world on its ear, and whose message of truth as self-discovery we are still to fully learn in this world, has plenty to say, both to scientists and normal Joes like us. The World As I See It may be a good place to start.

Chogyam Trungpa For those who wish to get a vision of what a Buddhist experience of freedom from fundamentalism is like, the work of this extraordinary teacher is an excellent resource. I heartily recommend his Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which is a psycho-spiritual classic.

I Ching: The Oracle of the Cosmic Way This is a book that I've quoted extensively in my own books and at my other website. Carol Anthony and Hanna Moog present a vision of a personal life beyond the grip of what they call "the collective ego", through the living presence of a teaching experience that happens between a sincere seeker, an old book of Chinese insight, and the cosmic voice that arises from each, and connects them in a kind of quantum classroom of the true self.

Mitch Albom: Tuesdays with Morrie The inspiring bestseller that tells the story of a young man's coming to life and his teacher's transformative death. There is no calculating the number of lives that this little book has enriched; the number of living spirits it has revealed. This is inspirational literature as it is meant to be: unsentimental, nonsectarian, thoroughly pragmatic, and searingly beautiful.

Finally, for the politically-minded, there are all the links to the right, in the Blogroll. Eric Alterman is always sharp, penetrating, and absorbing in his personal insights and those he collects for his blog; and his books, starting with What Liberal Media are engaging and well-researched. You can spend a whole day over Daily Kos, Mother Jones, Think Progress, or Free Press and not be finished with all they have to offer.

The point is, however, to spend a little time each day with some of the material mentioned above, or something else that you discover for yourself. There is hardly a more practical, and for our time, a more urgent personal practice to undertake than the path of freedom from fundamentalism and its rigid and truly demonic consciousness.


Geek Wednesday

Last weekend, I picked up a copy of Adobe's Photoshop Elements for the Mac. It's an outstanding product with features that have probably never been seen before in consumer-grade photo editing software; the review at Macworld will give you a good picture of what this product can do, and how easily. I'll be using it to produce some of the illustrations for future Daily Rev posts, and then I'll have a more detailed review of the product to offer here.

Meanwhile, we're expecting a contribution from Nearly Redmond Nick for this space, which may arrive later on Wednesday. We'll squeeze it in as soon as it arrives. Meanwhile, the geek universe is humming with activity, much of it political in nature. Last week, we presented an introduction to the crucial challenge being presented to web freedom from the fundamentalist forces of corporate greed, who are trying to tip the scales of equality to web access in favor of multibillion dollar multinationals. This is a grave threat to virtually all Americans, and I don't think I'm overstating it in the least. If you'd like to learn more about it, take a look here, and then take action. It's that important. (Update: The Dems appear to be showing some rare backbone in resisting the restrictions being built into the COPE legislation. Now if a bunch of Dems in Washington can actually show signs of consciousness, we sure as hell can).

There is also more skullduggery afoot in Congress, pushed by the fundamentalist Christian right, to tighten the noose of "decency" around the neck of cable and Internet programs and providers. It's worth looking into before it's too late.

This, unfortunately, is just the visible tip of an iceberg of restrictive legislation and moralistic bombast that the neocon right is setting up so as to splinter the Internet just as it has broken up the other elements of our economic society into parts labeled "for us/the haves" and "for them/the have-nots". Guess who will be getting the longer half of this wishbone?

MS, god love them, continues to challenge both patience and intuition, as it continues to beat our language to death with neo-malapropisms:

Finally, if you're not in the Macintosh realm yet, this may be the time to join in and see what I've been crowing about to the Windows crowd these past couple of years. Retailers are starting to sell Mac machines equipped with XP and Mac OS X together; and Apple has come out with another jaw-dropping laptop, the 17" MacBook Pro. Ah, damn it, for the lack of $2,800...

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