What Fundamentalists Need for Their Salvation
by David James Duncan
The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall
govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule
it by fictitious miracles.
- John Adams, to Thomas Jefferson, 1815
I was born a chosen person, though this state of affairs was not of my
choosing. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were staunch Seventh
Day Adventists -- an Apocalypse-preaching, Saturday-worshiping fundamentalist
sect that arose in the mid-nineteenth century. Our faith's founder prophesied
Jesus' Second Coming and "the Rapture" in 1850. When both failed to occur, he
instead formed the church into which the matriarchs of my family were later
born. These strong women gave their offspring no choice but to attend the same
churches and share their faith, so attend and share we did. My father and
grandfather, however, did not attend church, and none of my friends at public
school were SDAs either. I, in other words, was "saved" -- no plagues of boils
and frogs or eternal hellfire for me -- whereas my father, grandfather, and
school friends were, according to our preachers, impending toast. Sound
suspicious to you? It sure did to me.
My earliest memory of Adventist faith-training is of being four-years-old in
Sabbath School and having to sing "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam" while making
our fingers extend out around our faces like 'sunbeams.' I felt nothing for
Jesus as we did this -- and I loved Jesus; found him heroic from earliest
memory. All I can recall feeling during the sunbeam song was bafflement that
our teachers would make us do such silly things.
Similar confusion invaded my attempts to recite "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep"
at bedtime. Not only did this prayer not give me courage to face the night, it
felt unfair to say it. To expect God to listen to a rote ditty, then protect us
in response, seemed like offering Him almost nothing but asking Him for a lot.
As for the time I asked Jesus for a base hit at a ball game, when I stepped to
the plate and struck out on three pitches I was relieved: if every kid in
America could get a hit just by asking Jesus, we'd all bat a thousand and ruin
baseball in a day.
Intense spiritual feelings were frequent visitors during my boyhood, but they
did not come from churchgoing or from bargaining with God through prayer. The
connection I felt to the Creator came, unmediated, from Creation itself. The
spontaneous gratitude I felt for birds and birdsong, tree-covered and snowcapped
mountains, rivers and their trout, moon- and starlight, summer winds on
wilderness lakes, the same lakes silenced by winter snows, spring resurrections
after autumn's mass deaths -- the intimacy, intricacy, and interwovenness of
these things -- became the spiritual instructors of my boyhood. In even the
smallest suburban wilds I felt linked to powers and mysteries I could imagine
calling "the Presence of God."
In fifteen years of churchgoing I did not once feel this same sense of
Presence. What I felt instead was a lot of heavily agendaed fear-based
information being shoved at me by men on the church payroll. Though these
men claimed to speak for God, I was never convinced.
On the day I was granted the option of what our preachers called "leaving
the faith," I did, and increased my faith by so doing. Following intuition
and love with all the sincerity and attentiveness I could muster, I chose
to spend my life in the company of rivers, wilderness, wisdom literature,
like-minded friends, and quiet contemplation. And as it's turned out, this
life, though dirt-poor in church pews, has enriched me with a sense of the
holy, and left me far more grateful than I'll ever be able to say.
Three decades of intimacy with some of the world's greatest wisdom texts and
some of the West's most beautiful rivers led me to assume I'd escaped the orbit
of organized religion entirely. Then came a night in Medford, Oregon. After
giving a literary reading to a warm, sometimes raucous, not-at-all-churchlike
crowd, I was walking to the car when one of the most astute men I know -- my
good friend Sam Alvord -- clapped me on the back and amiably remarked, "I
enjoy your evangelism."
The last word in Sam's sentence flabbergasted me. Evangelism? I was a
storyteller, not one of those dang proselytizers! The evangelists I'd known
since childhood thought the supposed "inerrancy" of the Bible magically
neutralized their own flaming errancy and gave them an apostolic right to
judge humanity and bilk it at the same time. The evangelists I'd known
proclaimed themselves saved, the rest of us damned, and swore that only by
shouting "John 3:16! John 3:16!" at others, as if selling Redemption
Peanuts at a ballgame, could we avoid an Eternal State of Ouch. Evangelists,
as I saw 'em, were a self-enlisted army of Cousin Sidneys from Mark Twain's
Tom Sawyer, preaching a tattletale religiosity that boiled down to the
cry: If you don't believe what the Bible and me say, and pay me for saying
it, I'm gonna tell God on you and you're gonna get in Big Trouble!
Then clear-eyed, honest Sam says, "I enjoy your evangelism"?
Shit O. Deer.
My first response to Sam's remark was to repress the living bejeezus out of
it. Ten years passed before I dared look up the "e-word" in the Oxford
English Dictionary. What I finally found there was, well...I guess the
word pretty much has to be, damning. Though the range of meanings
surrounding the root-word "evangel" is broad, a whole raft of definitions
tied my public readings, literary writings, and me to Sam's characterization.
Insofar as I believe Jesus is the bee's knees, and insofar as I speak words
that could be seen as spreading the spiritual intent of the gospels, I must
admit, with "fear and trembling," that I am (gulp!) evangelical.
Now, having damned myself in what we might call "anti-evangelical circles,"
I'd like to qualify my confession by stating what the word "evangelical"
suggests to me.
Religious laws, in all the major traditions, have both a letter and a spirit.
As I understand the words and example of Jesus, the spirit of a law is
all-important, whereas the letter, while useful in conjunction with spirit,
becomes lifeless and deadly without it. In accord with this distinction, a
yearning to worship on wilderness ridges or beside rivers, rather than in
churches, could legitimately be called evangelical. Jesus himself
began his mission after forty days and nights in wilderness. According to
the same letter-versus-spirit distinction, the law-heavy literalism of many
so-called evangelicals is not evangelical at all: "evangel" means "the
gospels", the essence of the gospels is Jesus, and literalism is not
something that Jesus personified or taught.
I would also propose that one needn't be a Christian for the word to apply; if
your words or deeds harmonize with the example of Jesus, you are evangelical in
spirit whether you claim to be or not. When the non-Christian Ambrose Bierce,
for instance, wrote, "War is the means by which Americans learn geography,"
there was acid dripping almost visibly from his pen. His words, however, are
aimed at the same antiwar end as the gospel statements "Love thine enemies" and
"Love thy neighbor as thyself." And "Blessed are the peacemakers." Bierce's wit
is in this sense evangelical whether he likes it or not.
Evangelism was never intended to mean the missionary zeal of self-righteous
proselytizers claiming that their narrow interpretation of scripture will
prevent eternal punishments and pay eternal rewards. Evangelism implies, on the
contrary, the kind of all-embracing universality evident in Mother Teresa's
prayer, "May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in."
Not just fellow nuns, Catholics, Calcuttans, Indians. The whole world.
It gives me pause to realize that, were such a prayer said by me and answered
by God, I would afterward possess a heart so open that even hate-driven zealots
would fall inside. There is a self-righteous knot in me that finds zealotry so
repugnant it wants to sit on the sidelines with the like-minded, plaster our
cars with bumper stickers that say MEAN PEOPLE SUCK and NO BILLIONAIRE LEFT
BEHIND and WHO WOULD JESUS BOMB?, and leave it at that. But I can't. My sense
of the world as a gift, my sense of a grace operative in this world despite
its terrors, propels me to allow the world to open my heart still wider, even
if the openness comes by breaking, for I have seen the whole world fall into
a few hearts, and nothing has ever struck me as more beautiful.
The whole world, for example, seemed to fall into the heart of Mahatma Gandhi,
not only on the day he said, "I am a Christian, I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I
am a Jew," but on the day he proved the depth of his declaration when, after
receiving two fatal bullets from a fundamentalist zealot, he blessed that
zealot with a namaste before dying. For the fundamentalists of each
tradition he names, Gandhi's fourfold profession of faith is three-fourths
heresy. It is also a statement I can imagine Jesus making and, for me
personally, a description of spiritual terrain in which I yearn to take up
The world's great religions, though far from identical, are close enough
in ultimate aim that huge-hearted individuals within each faith have shown
themselves able to love and serve their neighbors regardless of their
neighbor's various faiths. I consider it evangelical, in the Jesus-loving
sense of the word, to serve followers of Abraham, Mohammed, Shakyamuni,
Rama, and Jesus, or nonfollowers of the same, without discrimination or
The gulf between this open-hearted evangelism and the aims of modern
fundamentalism is vast. Most of the famed leaders of the new "Bible-based"
American political alliances share a conviction that their causes and agendas
are approved of and directly inspired by no less a being than God. This enviable
conviction is less enviably arrived at by accepting on faith, hence as fact,
that the Christian Bible pared down to American TV English is God's "word" to
humankind, that this same Bible is His only word to humankind, and that the
politicized apocalyptic fundamentalists' unprecedentedly selective slant on
this Bible is the one true slant.
The position is remarkably self-insulating. Possessing little knowledge of or
regard for the world's wealth of religious, literary, spiritual, and cultural
traditions, fundamentalist leaders accept no concept of love or compassion but
their own. They can therefore honestly, and even cheerfully, say that it is out
of Christian compassion and a sort of tough love for others that they seek to
impose on all others their tendentiously literalized God, Bible, and slant.
But how "tough" can love be before it ceases to be love at all? Well-known
variations on the theme include the various Inquisitions' murderously tough
love for "heretics" who for centuries were defined as merely defiant of the
Inquisition itself; the European Catholic and American Puritan tough love for
"witches," who for centuries were defined as virtually any sexually active or
humanitarian or unusually skilled single woman whose healing herbs or
independence from men defied a male church hierarchy's claim to be the source
of all healing; the Conquistador's genocidally tough love for the Incas,
Aztecs, and Mayans whose gold they stole for the glory of a church meant to
honor the perfect poverty of a life begun in a manger and ended on a cross;
the missionaries' and U.S. Cavalry's genocidally tough love for land-rich
indigenous peoples whose crime was merely to exist; and, today, the Bush
team's murderously tough love for an oil-rich Muslim world as likely to
convert to Texas neocon values as Bush himself is likely to convert to Islam.
Each of these crusader groups has seen itself as fighting to make its own or
some other culture more Christian even as it tramples the teachings of Christ
into a blood-soaked earth. The result, among millions of non-fundamentalists,
has been revulsion toward anything that chooses to call itself Christian. But
I see no more crucial tool for defusing fundamentalist aggression than the four
books of the gospels, and can think of no more crucial question to keep asking
our crusaders than whether there is anything truly imitative of Jesus -- that
is, anything compassionate, self-abnegating, empathetic, forgiving, and
enemy-loving -- in their assaults on those they have determined to be "evil."
The appropriation of Christian terminology by the American political movement
known as neoconservative has resulted in a breed of believer I'm tempted to call
"avengelical," but in the interests of diplomacy will simply call right-wing.
The fusion of right-wing politics and religiosity has changed America's
leadership, altered our identity in the eyes of the world, and created a mood of
close-minded vehemence in millions. Critics of the right-wing/fundamentalist
conflation are now often demonized not just as traitors to America, but as
enemies of a new kind of Americanized God. A growing number of people of faith,
however, believe that Americans are being asked to worship a bogus image of God.
Though examples of the deception are numerous, I'll describe two which came to
my attention through the writings of the evangelical Christian Jim Wallis.
On the first anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center, President
Bush gave a speech in New York in which he said that the "ideal of America is
the hope of all mankind." Six billion people on Earth are not Americans; to call
America their hope is, to put it mildly, hubristic. What's more, all those who
places their hope not in nations but in God are obligated by their faith to find
Bush's statement untrue. But Bush's speechwriters ratchet the rhetoric up even
further. After calling America the world's hope, Bush added, "That hope still
lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not
overcome it." As Wallis points out in "Dangerous Religion" (Mississippi
Review, Vol. 10 No. 1), these last sentences are lifted straight out of
the Gospel of John, where they refer not to America or any nation, but to the
word of God and the light of Christ.
Second example: in his 2003 State of the Union address, the president said
that there is "power, wonder-working power in the goodness and idealism and
faith of the American people" -- words stolen from a hymn that in fact says
there is "power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb." This thievery
is breathtaking, and leaves me wondering what Bush's speechwriters might steal
next. John 1:1 perhaps? In the beginning was America, and America was with
God, and America was God....
"The real theological problem in America today," writes Wallis, is "the
nationalist religion...that confuses the identity of the nation with the church,
and God's purposes with the mission of American empire. America's foreign policy
is more than preemptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral,
but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but...blasphemous."
I would add the Bush administration's notion of stewardship to Wallis's list
of blasphemies. To describe the current war on nature as stewardship is to
forsake the very teachings of the Bible. In Genesis, men and women are made
in the image of the God who just created and blessed all creatures and their
ability to multiply, and Adam is placed in Eden merely "to dress it and keep
it." In Exodus, the Sabbath rest is given to animals as well as humans. In
Leviticus, humans are told by God to tend the land carefully and not treat it
as a possession, because, "the land is mine, and you are but aliens who have
become my tenants." And again in the psalms: "The Earth is the Lord's, and the
fullness thereof." Then in the gospels we meet, in Jesus, a leader who refuses
political power and defines dominion as "Thy will be done, on earth as it
is in heaven," a king of kings whose life is characterized throughout by
sensitivity to the meek, the weak, the poor, the voiceless, field lilies,
the fowls of the air, and all other forms of life.
American fundamentalists, despite avowed love for this same Jesus, predominately
support an administration that has worked to weaken the Clear Air and Clean
Water acts and gut the Endangered Species and Environmental Policy acts; this
administration has stopped fining air and water polluters, dropped all suits
against coal-fired power, weakened limits on pollutants that destroy ozone,
increased the amount of mercury in the air and water, vowed to drill in the
Arctic wildlife sanctuary, stopped citizen review of logging proposals in the
people's own forests -- the list goes on and on. I wish that none of it were
true. I wish that devastation, extinctions, ever-more-powerful hurricanes,
epidemic diseases, and cancers were not raining down upon us as I write. But
since they are, I must ask: how righteous, how truthful, how Christian
is the cunning of speechwriters who place words meant to praise God, or even
Christ's spilled blood, in the mouth of a man who instead uses them to exalt
an empire born of the destruction of America's own ecosystems, civility,
diplomacy, and honesty?
The manipulators who convert the very "blood of the Lamb" into the phrase "the
American people" force those of faith to make a call. To treat the Earth as
disposable and the Bible as God, turn that God into a political action
committee, equate arrogance and effrontery with evangelism, right-wing politics
with worship, aggression with compassion, devastation with stewardship,
disingenuous televised prattle with prayer, and call the result Christianity,
is, according to the teachings of Jesus, not an enviable position, but a fatal
Those of us struggling to defend ravaged landscapes, demonized Muslims,
ecologically disinherited children, vanished compassion, and every other
casualty of neocon-fundamentalist rhetoric are dealing with end results, not the
primary cause. We might do better to shift our attention to the fundamentalist
Contemporary American fundamentalism is more a manufactured product, or even
an industrial byproduct, than a result of careful reflection. The "Christian"
Right's fully-automated evangelical machinery runs twenty-four hours a day --
like McDonald's, Coca-Cola's, and ExxonMobil's -- making converts globally.
But to what? The conversion industry's notion of the word "Christian" has
substituted a "Rapture Index" and Armageddon fantasy for Christ's interior
kingdom of heaven and love of neighbor; it is funded by donors lured by a
televangelical "guarantee" of "a hundredfold increase on all financial
donations," as if Mark 10:30 were an ad for a financial pyramid scheme and
Jesus never said, "Sell all thou hast and distribute it unto the poor"; it
has replaced once-personal relationships between parishioners and priests or
preachers with radio and TV bombast, sham healings, and congregation-fleecing
scams performed by televangelical rock stars; it has trumped worship
characterized by contemplative music, reflective thought, and silent prayer
with three-ring media-circuses and "victory campaigns"; it inserts lobbyists
in its pulpits and political brochures in its pews, claims that both speak for
Jesus, and raises millions for this Jesus though its version of him preaches
neocon policies straight out of Washington think tanks and spends most of
"His" money on war; it quotes Mark 10:15 and Matthew 5:44 and Matthew 6:6 and
Luke 18:9-14 a grand total of never; it revels in its election of a violent,
historically ignorant, science-flaunting, carcinogenic-policied president who
goads us toward theocracy at home even as he decries theocracies overseas; it
defies cooperation and reason in governance, exults in division, and hastens
the degeneration of a democracy built upon cooperation and reason; it claims
an exclusive monopoly on truth ("America is the hope of all mankind...") yet
trivializes truth globally by evincing ignorance of Christianity's historic
essence and disrespect toward the world's ethnic and religious diversity and
astonishingly rich cultural present and past.
To refer to peregrinating Celtic monks and fundamentalist lobbyists, Origen
and Oral Roberts, the Desert Fathers and Jerry Falwell, Dante and Pat
Robertson, St. Francis and the TV "prosperity gospel" hucksters, Lady Julian
of Norwich and Tim La Haye, or John of the Cross and George W. Bush all
as Christian stretches the word so thin its meaning vanishes. The term
"carbon-based life-form" is as informative.
Though it may shock those who equate fundamentalism and Christianity, ninety
years ago the term "fundamentalist" did not exist. The term was coined by an
American Protestant splinter-group, which in 1920 proclaimed that adhering to
"the literal inerrancy of the Bible" was the true Christian faith. The current
size of this group does not change the aberrance of its stance: deification of
the mere words of the Bible, in light of every scripture-based wisdom tradition
including Christianity's two-thousand-year-old own, is not just naivete,
it is idolatry.
This, in all sincerity, is why fundamentalists need to honor, respect, even
love those who are no such thing. How can those lost in literalism save one
another? As Max Weber once put it: "We [Christians] are building an iron cage,
and we're inside of it, and we're closing the door. And the handle is on the
The protagonist of my first novel, The River Why, was a fly fisher and
spiritual seeker named Gus. In that book Gus voices serious reservations about
the Being some believers so possessively refer to as God. But a problem that
Gus and I ran into in telling his story was that, after a climactic all-night
adventure with a river and a huge chinook salmon, he had a sudden,
transrational (or, in the old Christian lexicon, mystical) experience that
left him too overwhelmed to speak with accuracy, yet too grateful to remain
mute. This paradox is autobiographical. As the recipient of several such
detonations, I felt bound by gratitude to let my protagonist speak. But as
a lifelong witness of the fundamentalist assault on the Christian lexicon,
I felt compelled to speak in non-Christian terms. Though Gus spoke of a
presence so God-like that in the end he dubbed it "the Ancient One," his
account of his experience did not once invoke the word "God."
Reader reactions to this climax have been neatly divided. Those who have
experienced similar detonations have sometimes been so moved by the scene
that their eyes filled as they thanked me for writing it -- and those who've
experience no such detonation have asked me why I ruined a dang good fishin'
yarn with woo-woo. I admire both reactions. Both are constitutionally correct.
Both are perfectly honest. What more should a writer want from his reader?
What more, for that matter, can a mortal, be they skeptic or mystic, offer
The French novelist and philosopher Rene Daumal describes the paradox I faced
perfectly. He wrote: "I swear to you that I have to force myself to write or
to pronounce this word: God. It is a noise I make with my mouth or a movement
of the fingers that hold my pen. To pronounce or to write this word makes me
ashamed. What is real here is that shame. ...Must I never speak of the
Unknowable because it would be a lie? Must I speak of the Unknowable because
I know that I proceed from it and am bound to bear witness to it? This
contradiction is the prime mover of my best thoughts."
Another word for this shame, in my view, is reverence. And
fundamentalism, speaking of the Unknowable, too often lacks this essential
quality. The kind of fundamentalism that now more or less governs our country
does not just proudly pronounce the word "God," it defines and Americanizes
God, worships its own definition, and aims to impose that definition on all.
What an abyss between this effrontery and the Christ-inspired self-giving of
a St. Francis, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King! What a contrast, too,
between this kind of Christianity and that of the Amish, who practice no
evangelism, who tease those who quote the Bible too often (calling them
"scripture smart"), and who consider it laughable to pronounce oneself
"saved," since God alone is capable of such almighty judgments.
God is unlimited. Thought and language are unlimited. God is the fathomless
but beautiful Mystery Who creates the universe and you and me, and sustains
it and us every instant, and always shall. The instant we define fathomless
Mystery It is no longer fathomless. To define is to limit. The greater a
person's confidence in their definition of God, the more sure I feel that
their worship of Him has become the worship of their own definition.
The word "God," looked at not as a Being but as a word, is very simple. Three
letters. "Dog" backwards. And the word is English, mind you. Three letters of
a language invented just a thousand years ago, by Norman conquerors trying to
work out a way to command their Anglo-Saxon chattel. To kill or condemn others
in the name of a three-letter mongrel Norman/Anglo-Saxon word is tragically
absurd. A mortal being who presumes, via the study of Holy Writ, to know the
will of Absolute Being and kill in accord with that "knowledge" is, I think
you could say, Absolutely mistaken.
If America's literature has arrived at any theological consensus concerning
what humans owe the Divine, it might be this: better to be honest to God, even
if that means stating one's complete lack of belief in any such Being, than to
allow one's mind and imagination to be processed by an ideology factory. In
literature as in life, there are ways in disbelieving in God that are more
loving, and in this sense more imitative of Jesus, than some forms of orthodox
belief. There are agnostic and atheistic humanitarians, for example, who believe
as they do, and love their neighbors as they do, because the cruelty of humanity
makes it impossible to conceive of a God who is anything but remiss or cruel.
Rather than consider God cruel, they choose doubt or disbelief, and serve others
anyway. This is a backhanded form of reverence, a beautiful kind of shame.
It seems to upset some fundamentalists that literature's answer to "the God
question" is as open-ended as the Constitution's. There is also no doubt that
the openness our literature and Constitution encourage results in a theological
cacophony and mood of irritable interdependence that bear little or no
resemblance to the self-righteousness now reigning in the average conservative
church. But America remains a country that stakes its life and literature on the
belief that this cacophony and interdependence are not only legal, but essential
to our health.
Edward Abbey remains welcome to say, "God is love? Not bloody likely!" Goethe
remains welcome to reply, "As a man is, so is his God; therefore God is often
an object of mockery." And readers of both remain free to draw their own
If my tone here has been sharp, it's because I don't see a way to engage in
peaceable exchange on faith matters with those so full of certainties that they
only preach, never listen. Every fundamentalist who believes there is just one
Holy Book is ignoring the fact that the Christian Bible, Koran, Torah, and Vedas
are each considered to be that one book, and the God of each faith has become
the empowerer of millions of potentially violent literalists. The proponents of
all four faiths consider themselves chosen, they are all now armed with nuclear
weapons, and the zealots of each faith are prepared to kill in defense of their
chosenness. This is why each faith stands in need not of a turning away from
tradition, but of a compassion rebellion against the presumptuous "certainties"
of the zealots within each tradition, and a universal recognition of the sigh
within the prayer is the same in the heart of the Christian, the Muslim, the
Hindu, and the Jew.
Far from feeling dismayed by the differences between these faiths, I am haunted
and heartened that Christians sigh for the One called Jesus; Muslims
for the One named Allah; Jews for YHWH, "He who causes to be";
Hindus for Brahmin, "the Big," who speaks the beginning-middle-end
word, AUM -- and all four traditions hold that these Names cannot be
properly said lest we first garb ourselves in utmost humility and surround
our naming with silence.
All faiths call humanity so love, service, and stewardship, and all acts of
love, service, and stewardship are holy. To put the call in Christian terms: it
is this world, not the next, that God loved so much that He bequeathed it His
Son. In response to the Armageddon fantasies of his day, the Son himself said,
"The kingdom of God cometh not with observation...for behold, the kingdom of
God is within you."
There is one irreplaceable Earth, and she is finite. She can absorb just so
many wounds or poisons before she ceases to support life. Millions of us have
recognized that in wounding the Earth for centuries we have been wounding
There is likewise, for most humans born on Earth, just one mother tongue, and
it is less widely recognized that a given tongue at a given time consists of
only so many words, and that these words can absorb only so many abuses before
they cease to mean. America's spiritual vocabulary -- with its huge defining
terms such as "God," "soul," "sacrifice," "mysticism," "faith," "salvation,"
"grace," "redemption" -- has been enduring a series of abuses so constricting
that the damage may last for centuries. Too many of us (myself included) have
tried to sidestep this damage by simply rejecting the terminology. But the
defamation of a religious vocabulary cannot be undone by turning away; the
harm is undone when we work to reopen each word's true history, nuance, and
depth. Holy words need stewardship as surely as do gardens, orchards, or
ecosystems. When lovingly tended, such words surround us with spaciousness
and mystery the way a sacred grove surrounds us with peace and oxygenated
air. But when we abandon our holy words and fail to replace them, we end up
living in a spiritual clearcut.
If Americans of European descent are to understand and honor the legacy of
Celtic, European, Middle Eastern, and other Christian traditions and pass our
literature, music, art, monasticism, and mysticism on intact, the right-wing
hijacking of Christianity must be defined as the reductionist rip-off that it
is. To allow televangelists or pulpit neocons to claim exclusive ownership of
Jesus is to hand that incomparable lover of enemies, prostitutes, foreigners,
children, and fishermen over to those who evince no such love. And to cede the
word "Christian" to Earth-trashing literalists who say "the end is nigh" feels
rather like ceding my backyard henhouse to weasels. For my hens (and morning
omelettes) such a concession would sure enough bring on "the end of the world."
But neither my chickens nor I consider the end of our world something to yearn
for or work toward.
The God of politically organized fundamentalism, as advertised daily by a vast
array of media, is a Supramundane Caucasian Male as furious with humanity's
failure to live by the prohibitions of Leviticus as He is oblivious to the
"Christian" Right's failure to live the compassion of the gospels and
stewardship of both testaments. As surely as I feel love and need for food
and water, I feel love and need for God. But these feelings have nothing to
do with Supramundane Males planning torments for those who don't abide by
neocon "moral values." If the "Christian" Right's God is indeed God, then all
my spiritual heroes from Valmiki and Laotze, Bodhidharma and Socrates, Kabir
and Mira Bai, Rumi and Hafiz, Dogen and Dante, Teresa of Avila and Julian of
Norwich, Eckhart and the Beguines, Aquinas and Sankaracharya, Black Elk and
Chief Joseph, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Thoreau and Muir, Shuntyu and D.T.
Suzuki, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, to Merton and Snyder, will be consigned
to perdition with me -- for the One we all worship is an infinitely more
loving, infinitely less fathomable being.
Based on the lives and words of the preceding heroes and on the Person
and gospels of Jesus himself, I believe humanity's situation to be rather
different. I hold the evangelical truth of the matter to be that contemporary
fundamentalists, especially those aimed at empire and Armageddon, need us
nonfundamentalists, mystics, ecosystem activists, unprogrammable artists,
agnostic humanitarians, incorrigible writers, truth-telling musicians,
incorruptible scientists, organic gardeners, slow-food farmers, gay
restaurateurs, wilderness visionaries, pagan preachers of sustainability,
compassion-driven entrepreneurs, heartbroken Muslims, grief-stricken children,
loving believers, loving disbelievers, peace-marching millions, and the One
who loves us all in such a huge way that it is not going too far to say
they need us for their salvation.
As Mark Twain pointed out more than a century ago, the only truly prominent
community that fundamentalists have so far established in any world, real or
imaginary, is hell.
David James Duncan, author of The River Why, The Brothers K,
and others, and is writing a novel about reincarnation and human folly
titled Nijinsky Hosts Saturday Night Live (a.k.a. The Reincarnatio).
He lives in Montana.