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  • New Age fundamentalism

    10 comments Published May 7, 09 AM
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    By Scott Robinson

    When my wife was teaching me to sail, she would say things like, “The boat’s thinking about jibing now.” Which is nonsense, of course; boats don’t think. But it was a useful and even poetic distillation of what was happening, and of what I needed to do about it—which was, of course, how I took the statement. (Not that I didn’t end up capsizing us anyway.) If I had taken it literally, it would, besides being of no use, have remained the nonsense that it appeared prima facie. And there’s a word for that: “fundamentalism.”

    You hear a lot of this sort of thing among New Agey-type folks.  Someone once advised me to “let the negative energy flow out through the soles of your feet into the ground.” Which is, once again, patent nonsense; energy is neither “positive” nor “negative,” and anyone who tells you otherwise is betraying an appalling ignorance of physics. But like my wife’s statements, this one is a useful description of a type of experience, as well as a guideline for how to have the experience. Unfortunately, an awful lot of people, it seems, take this sort of statement literally—which makes no more sense than Young Earth creationism, if you ask me. Happily, no one is pushing to have this sort of thing taught in our public schools (yet).

    My own Christian tradition conveys its teachings primarily through narrative, rather than aphorisms and precepts.

    Jesus, after all, only gave only one recorded sermon—but He told a lot of stories. And stories of and about Jesus have inspired some incredibly heroic people: Mother Constance and the Martyrs of Memphis, Charles Lwanda and the Martyrs of Uganda, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe, Cesar Chavez  and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few.

    But the story-based approach is also a liability for the Gospel faith, because it lends itself so readily to fundamentalism. When people tell their children that the fossil record (which, interestingly enough, corroborates the creation story of the first chapter of Genesis on many points) was put there by God to test our faith, they may preserve their literal interpretation of a metaphorical-poetic story, but they don’t do anything for our scientific competitiveness. And they end up wasting colossal financial, political and emotional resources trying to force their worldview on our public institutions.

    For me, one of the most damaging effects of this kind of fundamentalism is that it sets up a straw man for the most militant and—dare I say it?—fundamentalist brand of atheists to attack.  By engaging exclusively with the most dunderheaded versions of the Divine, as set forth by our most unevolved religious thinkers, they render it all but impossible for a non-dualist like me to make them understand how very much we have in common, and how very little we differ.  All they can see is their “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” and I am deprived of fellowship with some otherwise formidable minds.

    What about your tradition?  What fundamentalisms do you run up against in your practice of Yoga, Buddhism, Sikhism, Pastafarianism, atheism or what-have-you?

    About Scott Robinson

    Scott Robinson heard Krishna Das say, “I don’t think my high school guidance counsellor had ‘kirtan walla’ on his list of professions,” and every day he feels better for having heard that. In his mid-forties, Scott gave up college music teaching and embarked on full-time a kirtan/spiritual direction/dad track in 2009. He is currently finishing up study in spiritual direction at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, and has begun study at the New Seminary for Interfaith Studies in New York. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two brilliant daughters and two incessantly shedding dogs. You can learn everything you ever wanted to know about Scott’s work and more at www.opentothedivine.com .