Overcoming Fundamentalism

Vladimir Fedorov

Remaining faithful to the tradition of the church means being successful in avoiding unmeasured liberalism, modernism, and globalism on the one hand, and fundamentalism, Pharisaism, and triumphalism on the other. Conflicts between Christians do not arise because of denominational motives but out of a clash between two types of mentality: fundamentalist and creative.

A fundamentalist position implies attitudes of exclusivity, sectarianism, and, sometimes, even aggressiveness. Research into this phenomenon seems most urgent because the future of Christianity depends to a large extent on its capacity to overcome the disease of fundamentalism. According to Jürgen Moltmann and Hans Küng:

Individuals, groups, and peoples will not be able to live in peace if those who have commandeered the “fundamentals” for themselves believe that they can deny others the right to exist, or, if non-fundamentalists, do all they can to exclude fundamentalists, or in intellectual arrogance simply pass them by. There will be no peace without a readiness for understanding on both sides.1

The Russian Orthodox Version of Fundamentalism

Russian Orthodoxy observes the Holy Scriptures and holy tradition faithfully, but the Orthodox approach to Holy Scripture does not insist on adhering strictly to the letter, which would indicate a lack of respect for exegetics and hermeneutics. In addition, adhering strictly to the letter would suggest a lack of concern about the necessity to have the holy texts translated into modern languages from an ancient language that is treated as sacred. On the other hand, the Orthodox approach tends to be accompanied by other strict rules. These include the refusal to compromise any principle, absolute asceticism, nationalistic fervor (trimmed with anti-Semitism, but seldom openly so), closeness, anti-ecumenism, triumphalism (exultation due to the triumph of Orthodoxy), obscurantism to culture, anti-democratic positions, support of monarchism, and Pharisaism. All of these are frequently combined with a sympathy for Soviet and Communist demagogy. The weakest point of the position thus briefly described is a lack of love our Savior spoke of when he said, “A new commandment I give unto you that ye love one another as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).

A characteristic manifestation of Orthodox fundamentalism in Russia (in particular, at the post-Soviet stage) is the search for an enemy. In other words, there is the necessity to create an enemy complex: It is our enemies who are to be blamed for our misfortunes; we must find them, expose them, and suppress them.2

State Church Aspirations

Fundamentalism also manifests itself very often in the form of the aspiration to be a state church (this may be declared openly or cherished secretly), and by attempts to cut off all contacts with the rest of the world and to have church publications censored. Sectarianism is an essential feature of fundamentalism. This carries with it a strongly negative attitude toward other Christian traditions and denominations and a particularly negative criticism of other religions. Such sectarianism is combined with a hostile view of Judaism and deep-seated anti-Semitism.

Usually, it is fundamentalism that makes many people in Russia remain outside the church, either just outside its door or far off. I refer to people for whom the values of a democratic society are essential. Their number is not insignificant in today’s Russia.

Overcoming Fundamentalism

Overcoming fundamentalism will serve the interests of society at large as a way toward creating stronger unity and life without distrust, nationalism, pseudo-patriotism, and obscurantism. Overcoming fundamentalism is a spiritual task for which churches need to use all available resources, especially theological education. Today, the problem of fundamentalism has a new implication. For now, the danger of terrorism that resorts to religious fanaticism for ideological support does not seem to exist in Orthodoxy. However, many Orthodox enthusiasts use the slogan—Orthodoxy or Death!—to advocate the use of force in inculcating piety in Russians. Of the same strident, doctrinaire approach is the former St. Petersburg newspaper and ongoing popular website, Orthodox Russia (Rus’ pravoslavnaya), http://www.rusprav.org. These are some of the trends that oblige us to take very seriously any manifestation of fundamentalism.

It is usual to regard fundamentalism as a reaction to humanism, secularism, liberalism, and modernism, but missiology urges us to attend to the reverse mechanism. Here, secularism, liberalism, and modernism are seen as a reaction to clericalism, fundamentalism, magic, and obscurantism.


1 Jürgen Moltmann and Hans Küng, eds. Fundamen­talism as an Ecumenical Challenge (London: SCM Press 1996), p. vii. 2 See the collection of articles, “A Trap Set by ‘Renewed Orthodoxy’” [V seichas obnovlenchestva] (Moscow: Russkiy Vestnik, 1995).

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Vladimir Fedorov, “Ecumenical Missionary Needs and Perspectives in Eastern and Central Europe Today: Theological Education with an Accent on Mission as a First Priority in Our Religious Rebirth,” International Review of Mission 92 (January 2003): 66-83.

Archpriest Vladimir Fedorov is director of the Orthodox Institute of Missiology, Ecumenism, and New Religious Movements; associate professor of psychology, State University of St. Petersburg; and the second priest at St. Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia.