Today we hear about nothing more than the “collision of civilizations,” the notion that the primary site of global conflict in our world is between two powers, the liberal cosmopolitan power of global capitalism and the backlash against that from traditional societies, largely in the Middle East, fundamentalism. The conflict seems to be, as Žižek notes, between “anaemic liberals” and “impassioned fundamentalists.” All it takes is a little perusing on YouTube to find countless examples of these sort of frightening, bizarre, passionate fundamentalists. So it seems that the conflict in our world comes down to a conflict between the Western liberal notion of the secular, and the theocratic ambitions of fanatically devoted fundamentalists.
However, this way of reading the matter is deceptive. The truth of the matter is that there are precious few true fundamentalists around these days. Or at the very least, the people we tend to nominate as such, are in fact not authentic fundamentalists at all. If fundamentalism is understood as “the strict maintenance of the ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology” (Oxford English Dictionary) then those whom we consider fundamentalists today, be they Muslim or Christian are not truly fundentalists at all. The key mark of true fundmentalism, is as Žižek notes “the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the non-believers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found thier way to truth, why should they feel threatened by non-believers, why should they envy them?”
Yet it is manifestly the case that today’s fundamentalists, whether they are maniacal street preachers or suicide bombers, are deeply and viscerally threatened by the reality of the non-believing world. The seeming totalization of religion in the life of today’s fundamentalist is only apparent. Their zeal masks a deep insecurity about their own convictions; that is why they are desperate to defend them with violence, be it rhetorical or physical. Again, to quote Žižek, “In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued, fascinated by the sinful life of the non-believers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful Other, they are fighting their own temptation. These so-called Christian or Muslim fundamentalists are a disgrace to true fundamentalism.” Žižek’s description seems a particularly apt way of describing how so many ultra-conservative Christian’s are obsessed with the public ridicule and degradation of homosexuals. Their trenchant condemnation of homosexual behavior masks a perverse voyeuristic fascination with the phenomenon.
Herein lies the fascination of pseudo-fundamentalism, their very passionate intensity “bears witness to a lack of true conviction. Deep in themselves, terrorist fundamentalists also lack true conviction–their violent outbursts are proof of it. How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be, if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a low-circulation Danish newspaper.” And here is the crux of the matter, the issue is not that the rest of the world thinks fundamentalists are inferior and stupid, “but rather that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.” “The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that fundamentalists are already like us, that secretly they have already intenalised our standards and measure themselves by them.”
The problem today is not that we have too many fundamentalists, but that we have far too few. What passes for fundamentalism these days is nothing like true, authentic fundamentalism, the radical and passionate commitment to a particular cause, theology, or way of life. If we were true fundamentalists, the kind whose beliefs are “fundamentalistic” precisely because they are not a reaction to the world around us, things would be far more interesting indeed. Ironically what the church needs today is a call, not to become less fundamentalistic, but to discover, perhaps for the first time what an authentically fundamentalist notion of Christian identity would look like. When the term is understood rightly, we come to see that what we truly need in today’s church are more fundamentalists, not less.