Confessions of a Former Fundamentalist: Progress, Utopia and the Kingdom of God

One of the primary characteristics of fundamentalism is the use of confirmation bias, but this merely speaks to a deeper issue that is part and parcel of living in a complex world, which directly relates to questions pertaining to truth claims and moral difficulty. And it isn't just that the world is complex, but it is filled with an unmanageable increase in information and exponentially changing technology, both of which are unparalleled with any other time in history. Speed is one of the promises of capitalist industrialism, implicit to the modernist assumption, carrying the triumphal connotations of human progress.

But speed and progress tend to threaten long-held assumptions, challenge social constructs, and threaten the leverage and privilege dominant cultures have and believe to be their rightful domain. With so much complexity, constant change and consequent threats to privilege, power and identity occurring at a spectacular pace, the need for certainty and simplicity becomes not only real, but a necessary resolution for conquering the disorienting impact of fear.

If the progress of modernity tends to dismantle or even overtly reject one's own status and identity, fear as a centering reaction is almost inevitable, especially if one's assumptions are allowed to exist on the basis of bad faith, wherein questioning one's assumptions is itself considered to be a sign of weakness or a sin, or even a notion advanced by the devil. At worst, questioning one's own assumptions might be understood as caving to modernism itself, which in its pursuit of progress seeks utopian ideals that are counter to the certainties of one's own fundamentalist distinctive beliefs, which are reified, or thingified, as part of the natural order.

There are a number of social constructs, which one must remember are extremely strong arbiters of identity and the employment of power by dominant cultures, and not weakened merely by the fact that they are socially constructed, that are ostensibly "under attack" in the so-called culture wars that have been engaging public life in America for the last several decades. Race, gender and class are three of the big ones. Dominant cultures in relation to these three include those who are white, those who are male, and those who are wealthy. I happen to fit two out of the three criteria - I will leave it to the reader to guess which two.

My heritage as someone who is privileged has included the interpellation of values - not just directly through the theological apparatus of the church and its rationales for inequality, but also through living in the west as an American who has participated in a civil religion that has borrowed its stripped values of niceness from Puritanism - with which I have identified and that substantiate stratified social constructs.

I was explicitly taught as a Protestant fundamentalist that some of the values imbued in these constructs are absolute, that they come directly from God and that they are revealed in nature.

I recall well after my conversion when I was nineteen years old being taught by a fundamentalist teacher who briefly mentored me that it was a sin for women to work, that the place of women was in the home where their unique gifts, imbued in them due to their femininity or femaleness, could only flourish in its proper place. In 1986, such an idea was still strong, at least a decade after the Equal Rights Amendment failed, but well into second wave feminism.

It was present in my community, where I bombastically assailed my friends with the good news of my conversion, and preached to them, having a few of them baptized in my backyard swimming pool, about how they too could become like me. My mother was pressured to feel guilty for having a job, and some weird Christian even told her that perhaps her purpose in life was to have given birth to me. I can imagine this church lady even though I wasn't there when she said it. I see her wide-eyed with piety and nodding her head, and extremely nice, basically telling my mom that she had very limited value as a person, a mimicry of the standard marginalizing assumption that a woman's primary worth lies in her sex organs.

All of these ideas in which I was enmeshed terrify and embarrass me now, not because I have seen the light of progressive politics and am looking forward to some future utopia where men and women are the same. God forbid! My thinking has changed as a direct result of a long relationship and experience of Orthodoxy, which includes wrestling and questioning my own assumptions, motives, thoughts and ambitions, and inculcating values that are directed towards the personal and are expressive of seeking justice in the world, rooted in the synopsis of ethics that Jesus teaches in the sermon on the mount and sums up in the Beatitudes.

With that more or less configuring the backdrop of my world view, my understanding of progress is not aligned at all with secular utopianism, but I am not opposed to the idea of progress, per se. I have heard well-meaning, nice Christians say that the end of history is in God's hands as a way of debunking progress. The implicit assumption is that any desire to make human progress is a sell-out to modernity and an attempt to steal the show and take the reins from God's sovereign hand. But because the values that I gather from my experience of Christianity in the Orthodox Church embrace the kingdom of God as an eschatological reality that is present with us now, and includes creative moral freedom coupled with human responsibility,

I do not see any conflict in seeking social progress as an objective of being a human being in the world, especially when it leads to justice. We may not be responsible for the ultimate outcome of history, but we are definitely responsible for each other within history. The Hebrew prophets who condemned nations for the way they treated those who were marginalized, including foreigners *see just for one example, Hosea), makes that clear.

My idea of progress is related to the only feasible utopia, which is the kingdom of God, but it is not motivated by seeking to spread the kingdom of God in an abstract or external, coercive way. Such an assumption misses the point.

When Jesus started out, this is the gospel that he preached. The kingdom of God is within you.It is not an external system or construct that can be forced on citizenry, though such attempts have been tried in the past, and are continuously being made today by the Christian right through appeals to moral law, and the conflation of abstract and depersonalized morality with politics and culture.

But that's not what the kingdom of God is. It is an inward, personal and communal reality that is expressed from the inside and always moves towards the outside; it begins small like a seed and grows into a large tree.

Jesus in fact speaks of the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven as a mustard seed that is planted, but then grows and becomes a large tree. The potential inherent in a small seed to become a tree implies a progression of growth and understanding. The birds of the air cannot rest in the branches of a seed that has the implied tree within it. It has to develop and become a tree, and that development and growth may speak to an idea of progress that emphasizes responsibility and healing rather than social adjustments and technology.

James Hillman, a psychoanalyst and student of C.G. Jung, famously writes about the fallacy of valorizing growth for the sake of growth as a virtue in itself. Growth is for children, he reasons, and the fact that we live in a culture obsessed with growth is evidence of a lack of maturity, or of fullness, or to put it another way, lack of healing. Hillman correlates the lack of maturity, as well as egregious and ego-driven politics, to a cultural fascination with the child archetype. If one continues to pursue growth as an end, he says, after he has already grown up, it is not a good thing. It opens up the potential for death, not a more enriched life. The overgrowth of cells become cancer.

Similar ideas may be appended to our notions of progress. Human progress does not portend growth for growth's sake, or even a teleology that supposes an advancement into earthly political utopia. We may progress, however, as a church into the gradual fulfillment of what it means to be the kingdom of Heaven, and insofar as the influence of the church is felt in the surrounding society, it also benefits others and conditions improve for everyone.

The progress implied here does not suggest building utopia from the ground up solely through reason. The utopia already exists. It has been planted like a seed in our hearts, as well as in the church, and the church in the soil of the surrounding culture. This suggests potential, not determinism; a seed needs to be planted in good soil, nurtured, watered and tended.

The idea, however, that the kingdom of God may grow into a full tree and into maturity suggests development, interaction with the environment, and, as was the case for Jesus, growth in wisdom and stature. That is the kind of human progress which I suggest is our calling not only as a church, and not only as Christians, but as human beings.

And this, really, is the salvific goal and the meaning of healing and wholeness: not to become good Christians, not even to be Christians, but to become and be genuine human beings, or, to put it in hopefully more lucid terms, to become who we are whatever that looks like.

Such an understanding tends to shatter many of the fundamentalist ideas rooted in fear and rather offers a perspective of humanity redeemed -- all of humanity, all of humanity valuable, worthy of respect and love, even and especially those who are marginalized, the subaltern and abject who stand as objects of stigma when abstractions, due to reasons of fear and invested identity, are preferred over the personal.