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Fundamentalism – Can we escape interpretation?

English: William Jennings Bryan, full-length v...

William Jennings Bryan, full-length view standing on stage, delivering campaign speech, another unidentified man seated to the rear of the stage. A portrait of Bryan from some years earlier is seen at bottom left. c. 3 July 1908 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea of Fundamentalism refers to religious or political groups adhering to a rigid, traditional interpretation of their particular belief system.

In Christianity, some fundamentalists seem to believe that they take the Bible literally. But as human beings it is arguably impossible for any religious person to escape the interpretive process.

It seems reasonable to say then, that fundamentalists adhere to an interpretation of scripture that they suppose is literal but which is selective and slanted to suit a particular psychosocial agenda.

A similar critique could be leveled against Christian liberals and other denominations.

The current split between Fundamentalism and science has deep roots, going back to the Scopes trial of 1925 in which Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan argued for a Biblical view over Darwin’s theory of evolution. Bryan’s campaign fought for banning evolutionary theory from American classrooms.

As for Islamic fundamentalism, the Oxtord Dictionary has this to say:

Islamic fundamentalism appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries as a reaction to the disintegration of Islamic political and economic power, asserting that Islam is central to both state and society and advocating strict adherence to the Koran (Qur’an) and to Islamic law (sharia)

Skip O’Neill, a leader of the fundamentalist Church of Bible Understanding’s branch here. November 12, 1976. (Photo by Jerry Engel/New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)

More recently, the term fundamentalism loosely refers to any kind of strict cultural preference. So we have Hindu fundamentalists who insist on the historicity of their sacred myth, Star Trek fundamentalists who accept nothing after TOS, Disney fundamentalists who maintain that anything after hand-drawn cartoons are bogus, and so on. These types of fundamentalists hearken back to a supposed “original” or “golden age” within whatever activity inspires them.


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Sigmund Freud

Entrance to Freuds consulting room

Entrance to Freuds consulting room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a Jew of Austrian parentage and the founder of psychoanalysis. He studied medicine in Vienna and then neurology and psychopathology. He was marginalized by the medical community for his interest in the idea of infant sexuality. Today he, perhaps ironically, is often frowned on as a reductionist.

Freud remains one of the great innovators of the modern age. He attempted to scientifically outline the idea of the unconscious which formerly had been represented in literature, philosophy and nineteenth-century occultism.

His psychoanalytic techniques of free association and abreaction were influenced by several other contemporaneous “doctors of the mind,” most notably Jean-Martin Charcot, but Freud made them uniquely his own.

His works were almost entirely destroyed by the occupying Nazis. In 1938 he reluctantly withdrew from Vienna to London, leaving behind several sisters, all of whom died in concentration camps.

A habitual cigar-smoker, his relationship with his daughter Anna became extremely close; she acted as secretary, friend and confidant. Freud eventually contracted jaw cancer but refused pain-killers because they dulled his mind and interfered with his work.

After Freud’s death Anna further elaborated on the idea of defense mechanisms, distinguishing herself as an important thinker in her own right.

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Anna Freud

Anna Freud (1895-1982) was the daughter of Sigmund Freud and an important psychoanalytic thinker particularly in the area of child psychoanalysis. Her The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936) elaborated on her father’s idea of defense mechanisms.

Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud Nederlands...

Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud Nederlands: Foto van Sigmund en Anna Freud, op vakantie in de Italiaanse Dolomieten (1913) Česky: Sigmund Freud se svou dcerou Annou (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Free Will


"WE'RE FREE TO CHOOSE" - National Archives and Records Administration (NARA, 1941 - 1945) - 516103 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Free Will is the belief that human beings have the ability to make choices. Most philosophers advocating the belief in free will agree that personal freedom has practical limits, but not all agree that the freedom to choose is limited with regard to ethics. That is, some say that we can always choose the good, even though we may not always be able to choose certain activities.

The view that we can always choose the good, however, is complicated. As both Catholic theologians and psychiatrists will say, personal culpability for doing bad things might be lessened by such factors as peer pressure (with teenagers), stress, trauma, emotional immaturity or instability, and so-called mental illness or mental injury. Of course, just what constitutes a bad thing is not always agreed upon among theologians and psychiatrists—masturbation being a good example.¹

J.-P. Sartre called the practical limits of personal freedom ‘freedom in facticity’, meaning that individuals have a limited range of choices, particularly with regard to available opportunities and activities.² But for Sartre individuals can choose to do ethically right or wrong actions, and to give or not give consent to issues involving ethics.

Some thinkers like B. F. Skinner and Daniel Dennet believe that we have no real freedom but our thoughts and actions are the outcome of a complex series of antecedent causes.

Meanwhile, the Protestant Christian reformer John Calvin believed that some people are predestined for hell and others for heaven.

Who can figure!

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¹ Here’s a good comment:

² When I was at school a common example you’d hear was, “can someone in a wheelchair be a mountain climber?’ Today, however, this example doesn’t really hold up because new attitudes about persons with so-called disabilities are, in many cases, contributing to these people being seen as persons with difference. And in many instances, truly extraordinary things are being achieved by persons different from statistical norms. See, for instance, The Blind Painter (below).

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Sir James G. Frazer

J. M. W. Turner's painting of the Golden Bough...

J. M. W. Turner's painting of the Golden Bough incident in the Aeneid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sir James G. Frazer (1854-1941) was a Scottish anthropologist best known for his classic study of magic and religion, The Golden Bough.

His work had a tremendous effect on Joseph Campbell, among others. And many see him as one of the founders of modern anthropology.

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Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece ...

Steel engraving (993 x 71mm) for frontispiece to the revised edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published by Colburn and Bentley, London 1831. The novel was first published in 1818. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Frankenstein (Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus) is Mary Shelley‘s novel of 1818 in which a Baron Frankenstein creates a horrible monster by reassembling and electrifying body parts from exhumed cadavers. The monster is never called ‘Frankenstein’ in the book but the idea stuck.

Apparently Mary Shelley, the wife of the poet Percy Shelley, awoke one morning after dreaming of the unwritten novel. She quickly wrote the plot and opening pages. The story has been set to several films, the most notable starring Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931).

Ultimately Frankenstein is a tragedy as the monster eventually destroys its creator. Symbolically, the Frankenstein monster represents anyone who, for all intents and purposes, seems ‘dead,’ callous and uncaring.

Like all archetypal images, however, we’d do well to remember that, in most cases, they represent aspects of real people. As such most people are far more complicated, valuable, and redeemable than a mere caricature. They may seem to be totally evil, but in some instances they can still behave ethically. In a few instances of psychopathology (and evil), however, some individuals appear to become totally engulfed by archetypal forces (or demons).

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St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Before becoming known as St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone was the son of a wealthy Italian cloth merchant, next in line to take over his father’s prosperous business.

In his youth Francis was a popular dilettante, enjoying friends and parties. In keeping with expectations for the young upper-class men of the day, he fought in the army and was taken prisoner. Suffering a serious illness, Francis apparently had some kind of powerful mystical vision.

He returned to his father, telling him he could no longer continue with the family business. Scorned by his father, Francis went to the central square in Assisi where he removed his clothing for all to see, which was his way of renouncing his life of worldly gain. Standing naked, a nearby person threw him a course blanket, which he took to wear. Francis went on to form the friars minor (fratres minores), a monastic order characterized by chastity and extreme poverty, and all of its members wore the same course cloth.

The order grew quickly. By 1219 the Franciscans swelled to over 5,000 members. His former friend and spiritual love, Lady Clare of Assisi, followed suit by likewise renouncing the world. She founded a similar but sequestered order and was eventually canonized.

Stories about St. Francis abound, telling of his love and tenderness toward animals, his writing a canticle to “brother sun, sister moon” and his insistence on complete poverty, which he affectionately personified as “Lady Poverty.” He apparently opened the Bible at random every morning and read a verse to set the tone for his actions throughout the day, believing that God directed him to the right passage. And with Papal permission he unsuccessfully tried to convert the Muslims in the Holy Land, who nonetheless were impressed by his piety.

He also endured a painful medieval eye operation using red-hot irons to remove cataracts. And he is one of the very few mystics said to have miraculously received the stigmata—physical marks of Christ’s crucifixion appearing on one’s own hands and feet.

St. Francis was buried in his native town of Assisi. He remains, perhaps, Catholicism’s most popular saint, probably because his kind of example can be easily understood by rank and file Catholics. However, it’s hard to know if his knowledge of God was a deep as, say, the contemplative St. Faustina Kowalska, who apparently saw Jesus on a near daily basis.

His feast day is October 4.

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