What Is Missing From Fundamentalism?

In its simplest and most elemental form, the energy that drove the original development of fundamentalism was at the heart of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. A scribe asked Jesus the fundamental question: “What commandment is the foremost of all?” His response was: “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Jesus’s words, read carefully and in context, make it clear that the test of whether I am following these two commandments is not whether I am experiencing the proper emotions, not whether I feel good about my neighbor, or like my neighbor, or even know my neighbor. The true test is whether I allow the spirit of God to transform me and to transform how I act toward my neighbor.

How can that impulse to ask the fundamental question help to generate a profoundly healthy response to the challenges facing America and the world in the 21st century? Globalization has forced us to confront an extraordinarily diverse world that is undergoing massive change at a pace unimaginable to our parents or grandparents. The very ground on which the structure of 20th-century fundamentalist theology and politics was built has crumbled into sand. The reason for which modern fundamentalism was created—in opposition to modernism and liberal theology—has been swept away in the avalanche of new ideas, in new dialogue between different faith traditions.

By the early 21st century, the most profound consequence of globalization and the culture of the Internet has been an expansion of our understanding of who our neighbors are. Ideas and influences can travel around the world and touch the lives of millions within seconds. Your closest “neighbor” might be male or female, young or old, gay or straight, living 3,000 or 10,000 miles away, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic or not, spiritual but not religious, literate or not, mountain-dweller or plains-dweller, rural or urban or suburban. At the same time, you may have never met or spoken to the people who live in the house right next door to yours on a quiet street in your hometown.

Your neighbor might be a young man from Saudi Arabia who decides one day to strap on a bomb and blow himself up on an airliner, or a Dutch newspaper editor who decides to publish a cartoon offensive to Muslims, or a man named Madoff who built a pyramid scheme to defraud investors of over $18 billion, or a 13-year-old girl rescued from the rubble of a Port au Prince building nine days after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Your neighbor might be a friend on Facebook, or someone you follow and who follows you on Twitter, or someone you met when she commented on your blog, or someone living in Florida from whom you purchased a flowerpot on eBay.

What would it mean to your life to become a fundamentalist in the sense that Jesus himself would likely have defined the term?