The Hermeneutics of Fundamentalism

No one can turn on the news these days without hearing of fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalists form the fastest growing sect in the United States and are arguably the most politically potent. Both the president and vice-president, as well as prominent members of the Cabinet call themselves “fundamentalists.” In the Islamic world, fundamentalism has an equal currency. Everywhere ascendant, it has, since September 11th, become linked to terrorist attacks and the actions of suicide bombers. Among the Jews of Israel, it also has a growing influence. The fundamentalist “settlers” of the West Bank, most observers agree, hold the political process hostage. What, then, is fundamentalism? What do Christian, Islamic, and Jewish “fundamentalists” have in common that makes them worthy of this name? One answer is that all three religions are “religions of the book.” They all define themselves in terms of a religious text.1 There is here a certain reciprocal constitution. What makes a person a believer in one of these faiths is that he holds a certain text sacred—be this the Christian Bible, the Koran, or the Torah. Reciprocally, what makes these texts sacred is just such belief. It forms the context, the constitutive medium which allows the sacred character of these texts to appear. When the belief goes, so does this character. No one, for example, takes the ancient hymns to the Latin Gods seriously. We use the names of Jupiter (or Mars or Venus) neither to swear nor to blaspheme. Lacking the ancients’ belief, such actions would be pointless. Of course, not every believer in the sacred character of a text is a fundamentalist. Something else must be added. The thesis I am going to defend is that 2 fundamentalism is a way of reading a religious text. Those who engage in it maximize the “staying power” of this text. The price they pay, however, is that of denying the transcendence that the religions of the book claim for their texts..
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