In a new book edited by Peter L. Berger, James Davison Hunter reflects on the fact that rhetoric aside, both relativism and fundamentalism are “weak cultures” when they animate people and shape their beliefs and values in a society.
On the face of it, relativism is the foundation for a weak culture. In the case of western Europe and North America where the structural dynamics that underwrite relativism are most pervasive, all aspects of the dominant normative order are fragmented and the plausibility structures that frame any particular subculture are fragile. It is no wonder that in these societies one finds little by way of strongly held beliefs, values, ideals, practices, and rituals shared in common. Relativism itself, whether a philosophy or a working set of assumptions for the average person, has no ethical coherence and it provides no language or vision for a common future and therefore it offers few if any resources for collective action.
By contrast, fundamentalism asserts itself as a strong culture. However implausible, unattractive, or impractical it is to most people, fundamentalism (in its variety) is rooted in a strong epistemology and therefore, in a limited way, it operates with a strong ontology, coherent ethics, and clear teleology. It is true that against the ubiquity and force of the global economy and its torrential flows of information, entertainment, and technology, fundamentalism is institutionally weak. Yet the culture of fundamentalism provides a strong normative framework for collective action.
But even as a normative order, the various fundamentalisms are far weaker than they appear. The weakness of fundamentalism is betrayed by its essentially negational character, a character that takes form in its highly cultivated resentments. What is also common to all fundamentalisms, in other words, is an identity rooted in a narrative of injury in which the faithful understand themselves to be victims. This narrative is reinforced by the very real external threats of secularism (and relativism) carried by globalization, by liberal parties within their own faith tradition, and by other hostile religions. In this light, resentment provides a distraction from the questions and doubts forced upon everyone to some degree by the modern world. For the fundamentalist, it is far easier to target enemies outside of the tradition than to seek answers within it. This is not to say that fundamentalism provides no answers to the important questions of life or that there is no genuine faith that animates the believers. Neither statement could be made categorically. What is true is that the narrative of injury and the hostility it generates increasingly become the dominant expression of the faith and the primary sources of collective identity for the most committed believers.
Another, perhaps more important, manifestation of the weakness of fundamentalism as a culture is the flip side of resentment. As a culture, fundamentalism in its variety is marked by an incapacity to make strong and constructive affirmations. As Josef Pieper has argued, healthy and sustainable cultures make space for leisure, philosophical reflection, scientific and intellectual mastery, and artistic and literary expression, among other things. In a vital culture, individuals, families, and communities are animated by the idea of bettering themselves. The genius of all the great world religions has been their capacity to transcend the limitations of time, environment, and human circumstance by providing resources to imagine the horizons of progress and improvement. With fundamentalism, however, there is an inverse relationship between militancy and intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic vitality. Fundamentalism can point to no creative achievements, it offers no constructive proposals for the everyday problems that trouble most people, and it provides no vital solutions to the problems of pluralism and change. Indeed, just the opposite.
What this means is that it is not just contemporary relativism that is nihilistic in character. In a different way and for different reasons, fundamentalism is every bit as nihilistic. The bitter irony for the fundamentalist is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, fundamentalists unwittingly embrace one of the most corrosive aspects of this deterioration, namely, the will to power. This is one more way in which fundamentalism expresses its intrinsically postmodern character. It embraces a Nietzschean Zeitgeist that, in effect, reduces all social relations (especially with non-believers) to power relations.
Excerpted from: Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious resources for a middle position edited by Peter L. Berger (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing; 2010) pp. 32-33.
Peter L. Berger is senior research fellow at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University.
James Davison Hunter teaches sociology at the University of Virginia.