An otherwise wise and helpful column from David Brooks—a column noting that it’s somewhat hypocritical for American liberals to defend Charlie Hebdo’s anti-Muslim provocations—takes an epistemologically naive turn at this point:
Provocateurs and ridiculers expose the stupidity of the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are people who take everything literally. They are incapable of multiple viewpoints. They are incapable of seeing that while their religion may be worthy of the deepest reverence, it is also true that most religions are kind of weird. Satirists expose those who are incapable of laughing at themselves and teach the rest of us that we probably should.
Brooks has access, it appears, to a transcendent standard by which most religions may be judged “weird” and some, a few, “not weird.” What that standard is and how he got access to it while we religious fundamentalists missed it, he doesn’t say.
“Fundamental” simply means “foundational,” and everybody has intellectual and moral foundations. Even if those foundations are in disarray and have gaps, they’re there. People have ultimate reasons for (and I’d say, following St. Augustine, even more ultimate loves generating) the moral positions they take, and those reasons (and loves) tend to fall into some kind of system. People’s first principles—whether tolerance, or equality, or the Old and New Testaments—tend to organize their other values. In that sense everybody’s a fundamentalist.
Taking Everything Literally
I don’t know what “take everything literally” means in Brooks’ mind, but I assume he’s speaking of interpretations of biblical, quranic, talmudic, vedic, and other texts viewed as holy by respective religious groups. When Brooks and other classical liberals complain about such literalism, their charge is not actually that religious believers are tone-deaf to literary devices such as metaphor or synecdoche. In general, we’re not. We all know that Jesus is not literally a physical door swinging between rooms in a heavenly mansion (John 10:7ff.) and that God is not literally a physical fire burning at 777º F in a heavenly grate (Heb. 12:29).
No, what Brooks, et al. tend to mean is,
You ought to read your holy book relative to a standard other than itself—namely my standard. My worldview standard says that doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly are good. So take Micah 6:8 literally. But my worldview standard says that God didn’t create the world in six twenty-four hour days, so don’t take Genesis 1 literally.
I can’t speak for holy-text interpretation outside the Bible, but I can say with confidence that people like Brooks almost never advance literary arguments that Genesis 1, or Jonah, or Exodus 14 should be viewed as allegory and not historical narrative. They advance materialist or evolutionary or scientific or classical liberal arguments instead.
It would be nice for them to say so, rather than cloaking our worldview clash in fake literary garb. Just say, “The first principles of my interpretive community are in conflict with those of yours.” Don’t tell me I can’t read my own holy book.
Laughing at One’s Foundation?
Now, I can laugh at myself. I am weird in some key ways. I admit it. I’m finite—most worldviews, whatever their foundation, would agree with me there—and what’s more, according to my (religious) worldview, I’m fallen. I’ve got foibles. I’m a finite, fallen fundamentalist with foibles.
But if my life is indeed built on the foundation that no man can lay (1 Cor. 3:11), there are some eternal verities I simply can’t laugh at or acknowledge as weird. To do so would be to adopt a standard outside Christian truth—something I can’t do without denying Christianity.
I have resources within my worldview, within the Bible, to explain why I ought to show kindness and tolerance toward my “enemies” in this age, whether they work at Charlie Hebdo, at ISIS, or on the New York Times editorial board. Classical liberals, for their part, can’t tolerate me or they’ll give up their first principle—tolerance. They can’t tolerate anyone who claims access to a divine foundation, a transcendent standard. But that brings me back to my first point: by electing any first principle, even tolerance, they commit themselves to a certain “fundamentalist” intolerance.
Perhaps our object ought to be to build our lives on the right foundation rather than to pick one, pretend we didn’t, and then claim that firm life-foundations are bad. I haven’t advanced arguments for adopting the Christian worldview in this little response, but it seems clear to me that the secularist liberal worldview is untenable.
P.S. Read Stanley Fish’s essay on Boutique Multiculturalism, please!