Tuesday, 24 August 2010


In On Balance, Adam Phillips suggests that you can determine when a thing is fundamental if it turns up in dinner party conversation or after a few pints down the pub and the tolerant fa├žade people present begins to slip. The debate becomes agitated and sometimes violent. To protect us from such ugly displays, some polite forms of society have created the convention that we are never to discuss politics or religion…or, in other words, never to discuss anything that really matters, that pertains to Truth.

But, outside the etiquette of polite society, this is very hard to do. There are few human beings who live lives of obscene indifference. Most human beings consider something or someone as fundamental. Without this fundamental idea, without recognizing something as definitive, our lives are trivialised. The fundamental may be your children or the State of Israel or the Bible or your socialism. Whatever it is, it is fundamental to how you understand yourself, your place in the world and, for some, your eschatological purpose. In this loose sense, we are all fundamentalists.

It follows that we will want to protect these fundamental things from views that seek to harm them. “There is no such thing as free speech,” Stanley Fish writes in No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing Too, “because from the very start your sense of just how free speech should be is shadowed by your identification of, and obligation to, the good in whose name acts of speech are to be justified.” For example, the democrat will try and hold in some sort of harmonious tension the multiple views within society. However, if it is perceived that the fundamental idea of democracy is itself being threatened by a particular view then this dissenting view may considered inadmissible. Adam Phillips observes that “For the fundamentalist, as for the democrat, people can say what they like; but when they start saying things that aim to destroy the foundational preconditions of their given political culture there have to be penalties.”

But how do you manage fundamental beliefs in a pluralistic, liberal society? One possibility is that there can be what the political philosopher, Chantal Mouffe, calls "productive conflict", lively debate that invigorates democracy. Another possibility is that some consensual ground is mapped where we accept that there are fundamental things that we disagree on but other fundamental things (e.g., our common humanity, our desire for peace, our search for unity) that we can choose, at times, to recognise. Or society responds to these tensions by elevating the idea of tolerance with the result that vigorous “truths” are turned into flaccid “opinions” and bled of some of their power.

Increasingly these methods are being questioned. Productive conflict may be useful in a democracy, but who decides what is productive and for whom? Or what happens when discussions and negotiations keep breaking down and we are no longer able “to agree to differ”? I noted that in a recent article, an activist wrote, “it is not tolerance that we want, it is acceptance” signalling a philosophical shift to a position that is more sharply defined and, for the advocates of tolerance, threatening. Adam Phillips suggests the following modus vivendi:

We are talking about the moment in which people begin to believe, in despair or with relief, that co-existence rather than consensus is our best option; or alternatively believe that the unbelievers – those who are not of the same mind – must be eradicated. Coexistence, in other words, is the modern liberal’s last hope; the only remaining political ideal left, and one that will survive only if that is itself agreed upon.

Today the word “fundamentalism” is most often associated with religion. Islamic fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism is a complex phenomenon (too complex for a blog post) but it appears to arise, in part, as a reactive response to a contemporary world view, for example, to secularism or Western materialism. In this reaction, the balance between faith and reason tips towards more aggressive expressions. "The quest for certainty and simplicity becomes dangerous," writes Pope Benedict in Salt of the Earth, "when it leads to fanaticism and narrow mindedness. When reason as such becomes suspect, then faith becomes falsified." The fundamentalist becomes less concerned with honouring the fundamental and more concerned with strategies of conflict. When what is considered fundamental is defined as in-opposition-to rather than as a truth to be valued in itself, then the distorting effects of this process proliferate with grave consequences. When fundamental beliefs are imposed rather than proposed, human freedom and dignity is treated contemptuously.

“There is no goodness without belief,” wrote John Updike, “There is nothing but busy-ness. And if you have not believed, at the end of your life you shall know you have buried your talent in the ground of this world and have nothing saved to take into the next.” Most people accept that believing in something fundamental is essential if our lives are to have some moral coherence and purpose. Yet this can only be achieved if these fundamental beliefs are protected from the corrosive effects of fundamentalist designs. Adam Phillips advises that for the religious believer to achieve this involves keeping the vital relationship between faith and reason in play at all times. Without this relationship those things that believers consider fundamental risk spinning dangerously out of control. This is not a new idea, but it is one that Adam Phillips expresses eloquently in On Balance. For those, who believe in something they consider fundamental, this is a salutary warning.


  1. Suddenly being a hermit feels like the favourite answer!

  2. "The quest for certainty and simplicity becomes dangerous," writes Pope Benedict in Salt of the Earth, " Does it?

    Isnt there just one fundamental universal Truth. Regardless of whether you are religious or secular, or what country you come from, or what politics you embrace. Love (agape) is funadmental to all.

  3. What makes a fundamentalist. Is it just somebody with an excessive belief that ‘without this fundamental idea, without recognizing something as definitive within their lives, their lives would be trivialised’. Maybe.

    But what swings somebody from being a loving, caring, respectful human being even if with a fundamental core to their lives, into being an aggressive, disrespectful, intimidating, threatening, or murderous individual.

    My instincts are to look deeper than just their current fundamental outlook, and later influences in their lives. But beyond. To believe that any baby could grow up and turn towards evil and away from light in order to achieve what they believe is ‘their fundamental truth’ has to be just as much about their frustrations, feelings of repression, anger, as it is about their ancestors, their heritage, their time in the womb, their childhood, upbringing, motivations, education, adolescence, influences in adulthood, and their ungrace etc etc.

    I guess that’s why having a moral justice system is so important.

    Somebody once said to me “If you do not like something about someone’s behaviour, rather than looking at trying to change them, look at changing yourself” I think there is a great truth in this. But I am only one person in this world. All we can do is try and understand with compassion and change our own little corner.

    I think one of the hardest things for any person to do, is to truly forgive, and let God be the judge. Easy to forgive the little things, but to truly forgive things like murder especially of the masses and war and terrorism is so difficult.

    How do you manage fundamental beliefs in a pluralistic, liberal society? Well even before we determine Whether it be by co-existence "productive conflict", tolerance or mapping out consensual ground, I believe that compassion, forgiveness and therefore Grace has to feature.

    ‘Forgiveness is not the same as pardon, Forgiveness offers a way out, it does not settle all questions of blame or fairness, but it does allow a relationships to start over, begin anew.’ ‘Magnanimous forgiveness, allows the possibility of transformation in the guilty party’. If you can forgive a person who you once branded as powerful and evil you can then see them as a person weak in his needs. ‘When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover the prisoner we set free was us’.

    Again if everyone’s fundamental beliefs were of Love and Grace as they SHOULD be regardless of origin one wonders what a different world we would all be a part of today.