It probably pertains to all religions, but at least in Christianity there is a basic
fault line between the fundamentalists and the mystics.
The fundamentalist impulse limits the faith to its past expressions. It carries a
narrow, strict, fearful, and closed understanding of faith, which is then enforced rigorously, even violently, often upon
The mystical approach realizes that the object of our faith — the God revealed
in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit — is beyond human words, ideas, doctrines, and concepts. It has to do
with bringing people to a different reality.
Times of rapid and comprehensive change, such as our own, bring out the fundamentalist
in many of us. No matter where we stand on the issues, we may fall into fear, insecurity, defensiveness, and suspicion. This
is often very clear in church meetings. Some folks come to the church because they think of it as the last bastion of "the
way things were." They expect it to hold out forever against the dizzying changes going on all around. If there is any hint
of disloyalty or compromise, or even of listening to another side, people can react with hysteria and even violence. This
is true of "conservatives," "liberals," and people in between, by the way.
The essence of fundamentalism is to make an idol out of the finger that points to
the moon, while forgetting to look at the moon itself. It is to ignore the gift while worshiping the box in which it came.
It is enshrining the words while disregarding the reality to which the words refer. Most of all it reveres the past, while
remaining deaf to the call of the future.
I have been framing my own personal journey as a "search for bedrock." That is, I
wanted to find something basic, reliable, ancient, and, yes, fundamental, in which I could anchor my life in changing times.
As part of my search I visited the Isle of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, which was a center of early Christianity. The
island itself is one of the oldest pieces of exposed rock on the planet. And yet a geologist informed me that even this stable
and ancient stone was once 60 miles deep beneath the surface, before being forced up eons ago by volcanic or plate activity.
This tells me that even the things we take for bedrock in this world are still subject to change.
Perhaps the answer is to look, not below for stable bedrock, but above. Sailors,
faced with the wildly unpredictable environment of the oceans, were guided by the stars, as were the astrologers who sought
and found the infant Christ.
A recent Bible Study class I was leading stumbled on the insight that faith is kind
of like sailing. A sailor fixes upon a goal on the opposite shore, or beyond, and sets out to reach it. But, due to the effects
of wind and current, it is impossible to follow a straight line. Sometimes, in order to get closer to the goal, the boat must
tack right or left. We cannot keep the boat’s rudder and sails arranged exactly as our predecessors had them, for conditions
are different now. To do so would be to veer wildly off course and lose sight of the destination.
The point is not doing exactly what our forebears did, but having the same goal
they had, and continuing towards it with the same energy and integrity. The great exemplars and leaders of Christianity were
at their best when they kept their attention riveted upon Jesus Christ, the Word of God. When changes in their historical
conditions forced them to make adjustments in their approach, these were only and always to keep the boat heading towards
the same true destination.
This can be a dangerous way of thinking because we are so prone to adjust things
according, not to the goal, but to our convenience and taste. This is why Christians need to be constantly reminded that it
is Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Scripture, who is our only destination. When changing circumstances force us
to make adjustments in our tactics we do it purely to keep our journey oriented towards him.
African-American spirituals talk about this as "keeping your eyes on the prize."
I am also reminded of their song about the stars, "Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd." Even if life requires temporary course
modifications, the greater goal is the same: keep heading towards freedom.
In a rapidly changing and conflicted world, it would be good if we could focus not
upon what divides us, or even upon the past and our differing views of it, but on the reality of Jesus Christ who unites us
and calls us forward.