Last night someone said to me, “So you were part of an Eastern form of fundamentalism.” For a moment I was taken aback. Me, a fundamentalist?
On this weblog I like to foam at the mouth about the dangers of fundamentalist religious attitudes. (By the way, did you hear the one about a man who walks into a bar and sits down between an alligator and a born-again Christian woman?)
In my view, a fundamentalist religion is a religion, any religion, that when confronted with a conflict between love, compassion and caring, and conformity to doctrine, will almost invariably choose the latter regardless of the effect it has on its followers or on the society of which it is a part.
Somewhat similarly, Bruce Lawrence says that fundamentalism is “the affirmation of religious authority as holistic and absolute, admitting of neither criticism nor reduction.”
Focusing on the root of the word, my take is that fundamentalists mistakenly assume that they have attained something fundamental, and cling to it with all their might no matter what. Even when evidence points to that supposedly fundamental thing as being contingent, subjective, shallow, or derivative.
Yesterday, during a meeting of our Salem churchless discussion group, I was talking about how someone had emailed me and asked if I was an initiate (a.k.a. “satsangi”) of Radha Soami Satsang Beas (an Indian-based spiritual organization). If so, she wanted to know “are you still in it or found another way?” I replied:
I am indeed a RSSB initiate—from way back in 1971. Last Sunday I was asked by a friend, “Do you still call yourself a satsangi?” Good question. I said, “I don’t know what to call myself now. The word ‘satsangi’ doesn’t mean much to me anymore. It’s just a word. I am still avidly interested in knowing who I am, and what the nature of ultimate reality or God is. That’s the important thing, not what I call myself.”
Have I found another way? Another good question. I don’t follow the RSSB vows with the same diligence I used to. I meditate for about an hour a day, not 2 ½ hours. I have an occasional glass of red wine. I experiment with alternative mantras.
Maybe I’m doomed. But I figure that if God is so picky and demanding that He/She/It will send me to hell, or deprive me of salvation, because of these seemingly small things, then maybe this isn’t a God that I want to be saved by. My wife forgives me for my faults (except when I forget to re-seal the whole wheat bread loaf in its plastic bag with a twisty tie—that’s unforgivable!). Won’t God?
My way now, whatever it is, is more open than it used to be. I’m less sure of myself. I’m more receptive to other people’s ideas and beliefs, so long as they aren’t dogmatic about them. I don’t believe that RSSB possesses the whole truth about the cosmos, though it might. I just don’t know.
It was after I told the group my “sins” against the RSSB commandments—less time spent meditating, some wine now and then, repeating a different mantra than I was taught—that the Eastern fundamentalism comment was made. Interesting. I’d always thought of these more as rigid rules rather than as manifestations of fundamentalism.
But I readily admitted that Eastern religions are as prone to fundamentalism as are Western religions. In the case of RSSB, or Sant Mat, the rigidity doesn’t come so much from dogmatic adherence to scripture as from a belief that the guru who heads the organization is a God-man.
When God speaks, you’d better jump! However, the problem with purported scriptural or personal God talk is that it’s impossible to know from what source the words really spring. Divine or human? Can’t tell.
So the reasonable thing to do is to keep an open mind. God talk always comes to us through a human writing or voice. Thus it is most likely that “God” actually is a member of Homo sapiens who honestly but erroneously believes that God is speaking through him, or is deceiving us about the source of his all-too-human revelation.
Like I said, though, you just don’t know. And that “don’t know” is what separates fundamentalism from genuine spirituality. Fundamentalists deny their not-knowing. Genuinely spiritual people humbly admit to it.
For several decades I was a true believer. I didn’t meditate for two and a half hours a day, using the mantra I was given by the guru, eschewing even a drop of alcohol, because I was experiencing a greater degree of spiritual realization via these disciplines. No, I was doing these things because I never thought of questioning them.
I was a fundamentalist. Obedient, dogmatic, unscientific. I liked to say that I was a spiritual scientist conducting the experiment of meditation. But I didn’t question why the results I was getting weren’t what was hypothesized. Nor was I open to altering the experiment based on those results, as any genuine scientist would have done.
My eyes are open now. Of course, a RSSB fundamentalist would say that I’ve been blinded by my ego, or maya, or mental machinations, or bad karma. Maybe. I don’t know.
All I know is that mystery has come to seem fundamental to me, not particular rules, commandments, dogmas, or theologies.