Review of Gerald Arbuckle’s Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad

Gerald Arbuckle is an anthropologist and Catholic priest from New Zealand who lives in Australia. He has written on a variety of topics including bullying, humanizing health care reform, humor, Pope Francis, and his latest book is on varieties of fundamentalism in the modern world.

Fundamentalism cover

In Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad, Gerald Arbuckle brings his understanding of culture as an anthropologist and his perspective as a theologian who sympathizes with the broad-mindedness and inclusiveness of Pope Francis. Recognizing that there is a “global epidemic of fundamentalism both religious and political,” he examines fundamentalism across the world and throughout history, paying particular attention to the rise of fundamentalism in the United States (what he dubs “Trumpism”), Islamic terrorism, the reforms of Pope Benedict, and even “siloism” in health care that creates fragmentation and competition. (28). He views fundamentalism as something all “individuals, cultures, and religions have a capacity for,” and that it is a “form of organized and institutional or civic religious anger in reaction to secularization, political changes and globalization; it often intimidates or coerces people to achieve its ends,” (28). He describes a typical fundamentalist leader as someone who “is a populist, homophobic, charismatic, authoritarian man who likes to bully,” (15). The book is very topical given the current fundamentalist movements across the globe that appear to be breaking out in an “epidemic.”

What is perhaps most useful in the book is in understanding how “we” (each and every one of us) can so easily turn to this ideology as a way of simplifying the world and resorting to black and white categories based on separation of the larger whole into smaller sub-parts. While it is useful to understand “others” fundamentalism as a response to cultural trauma and disorientation, it is more important to seek out our own fundamentalism. The sense of us vs. them paves the way for subtle discrimination all the way to self-righteous violence and genocide. Viewing fundamentalism as a reaction to cultural trauma and cultural disorientation, Arbuckle sees fundamentalists as “boundary setters” who oppose “openness and choice,” (9). He also describes suppression of dissent, even of moderate opposing views (such as we see with the stereotypical demonization of the media by fundamentalists). Arbuckle sees a spectrum of violence that can begin with a manipulation of facts on one end and physical violence against people at the other end. He describes the common fundamentalist tendency toward paranoia (which a psychological perspective understands as a projection of fantasies about one’s own unconscious on to another group).

In response to cultural trauma, Gerald Arbuckle describes four different possible reactions or solutions (75).

  • escape into an unreal golden age or utopian past
  • chronic paralysis
  • seeking to refound or reform the culture in light of changing circumstances
  • fundamentalist movements

We see all four of these responses “at home and abroad.” Many in the United States feel paralyzed, many escape into glorifying the past, but the fundamentalist movements are the most dangerous and are the primary focus of the book. Arbuckle does describe an alternative to fundamentalism: refounding narratives are positive solutions to cultural trauma that draw on the founding beliefs of a culture while adapting those beliefs to changing times.

Refounding is a process of storytelling whereby imaginative leaders are able to inspire people collaboratively to rearticulate the founding mythology of an institution and apply it to contemporary needs through creative dialogue with the world. The purpose of refounding narratives is to find a positive way out of trauma by allowing people to reenter the sacred time of their founding with imaginative leaders who are able to rearticulate the founding mythology in narratives adapted to the changing world. (93).

By mythology, Arbuckle does not mean something that is false, but rather a story that makes emotional sense of the past. The difference between a refounding narrative and a fundamentalist solution to cultural trauma is that the fundamentalist response is “closed to dialogue and…dissent” (94). The fundamentalist response is strident, closed, rigid, and aggressive, whereas a refounding narrative is creative, collaborative, open, and ultimately regenerative. There is a great deal of similarity in Arbuckle’s description of refounding narratives and the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell described, in which an individual and culture separates from traditions that are no longer adaptive, transforms into a new identity (by getting in touch with the “sacred time”), and then returns back to society, bringing personal and cultural transformation. Whereas a refounding narrative creates new meaning and new modes of being while incorporating the essence of the past, fundamentalist reactions are based on “ideological necrophilia,” the “blind fixation on dead ideas,” so that there is nothing new, only an aggressive attempt to recreate a past that may or may not have even existed in reality (78).

Gerald Arbuckle describes, in his last chapter, a number of antidotes or responses to fundamentalism, what he calls pastoral responses. A few of these follow.

  • We are all in danger of becoming fundamentalists.
  • Have a sense of humor. As Arbuckle amusingly points out “there is not much fun in fundamentalism” (155)
  • We need to be aware of the dynamics of prejudice and discrimination.
  • Receive without prejudice migrants and parishoners from cultures different from our own as Christ would wish.
  • Be alert: Ideology is a prejudice that is integral to all fundamentalist movements.
  • Cultivate the art of dialogue, which is the antidote to fundamentalism.
  • Remember, violence in all its forms, for example terrorism and bullying, is contrary to the Gospel.

Arbuckle Head Shot

Gerald Arbuckle provides a much-needed discussion of the cultural and religious roots of fundamentalism (both our own and other’s) as a response to cultural trauma and disorientation. He calls for us to be open and inclusive and to engage in refounding narrative of continually returning to the “sacred time” of the mythological roots of our cultures and histories and be continually adapting these to the present moment. Particularly for Americans it is of utmost importance to be aware of fundamentalist movements within the United States that can foster violence against ourselves as well as others. If fundamentalism functions through this separation of groups into self/other, then perhaps the antidote is to see us as all connected and all related, that, after all, is one of the founding narratives of this country of immigrants. We must use the same eyes to look at ourselves as we use to look at fundamentalism abroad. As Pope Francis encourages us, we should strive to be builders of bridges, not walls.

 

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel” (Pope Francis, in Arbuckle, xi).

 

 

 

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