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The Ways of the Fundamentalist and the Mystic

Not all approaches to religion are the same.

Key points

  • For many people, being religious means being a religious fundamentalist. However, religion is a more complex phenomenon.
  • Religious fundamentalists generally approach their faith through reliance on a sacred text.
  • Religious mystics generally approach religion experientially and through open exploration.

For many people, being religious means being a religious fundamentalist. From the media, this is the impression often given. However, decades of thinking and research in the psychology of religion suggest there are multiple ways of being religious, with distinct pros and cons.

Let me elaborate with a few personal stories.

About 20 years ago, I happened to be visiting a conservative Christian college when I was somehow invited to a retirement party for a faculty member—I believe a theology professor—who had worked at this college for many years. At one point, this man took center stage and spoke about his long and distinguished career. The professor’s speech started as you might expect—with references to the meaningfulness of his work, gratitude for colleagues, etc.—until he took a surprising turn and honestly reflected on some of his struggles. The professor started crying. He had a difficult time finding his words. Eventually, though, he explained how he called himself an “agnostic Christian,” someone who wasn’t certain about religious and spiritual truths but still felt like he knew enough to make a commitment to Jesus and his interpretation of a Christian lifestyle. He discussed how the juxtaposition of “agnostic” and “Christian” was sometimes not welcomed by conservatives at this college, but how this self-understanding felt so important to him and to his identity that he was moved to tears in sharing it.

For me, the professor’s presentation felt like a revelation, for a few reasons. First, and most importantly, this was the first time I had ever heard someone openly acknowledge how they were both deeply uncertain about religious and spiritual truths while still being deeply committed to a faith. There was a raw honesty in this confession, and the juxtaposition created a new way for me to start thinking about my own religious and spiritual identification as well. Second, the professor demonstrated to me the importance of adjectives in the religious world. Apparently, some people don’t simply identify along the lines of “Christian”; some identify as “conservative Christian,” “agnostic Christian,” “social justice Christian,” or “mystical Christian.” In these cases, which of the two words is the adjective and which is the noun also can be enlightening to consider.

Fast forward a few weeks, when I found myself in a large group discussion about religion and spirituality at my public college. People were sharing their diverse ideas about religion and spirituality, and I thought I would “float” the above story and how it fit with my own self-understanding. A few people I didn’t know had joined us from a conservative Christian student club on campus, and after I shared, they walked over to me. I will never forget what happened next. One of them bent down and whispered into my ear: “You can’t be Christian and not know.”

Many people do not seem to recognize there are different ways you can be religious.

 Volodymyr Hryshchenko/Unsplash
Source: Volodymyr Hryshchenko/Unsplash

As far back as the first American “psychologist,” William James; continuing with the famed personality psychologist, Gordon Allport; and up to today, psychologists of religion have discussed how there are multiple ways of being religious. To put it simply, some individuals approach religion as fundamentalists and some approach religion as mystics.

According to psychologists of religion, Ralph Hood, Peter Hill, and Paul Williamson, in their book The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism, religious fundamentalists approach their faith through exclusive reliance on a sacred text as the foundation for truth and living. They believe their sacred text is (1) divinely inspired, (2) without error, (3) sufficient for expounding on many kinds of truth claims, (4) privileged over other ways of knowing, (5) authoritative for providing insight and guidance into one’s life, and (6) unchanging. With all this seems to come a sense of certainty in religious and spiritual beliefs and a missionary zeal to persuade others to the same beliefs.

A mystic approaches religion quite differently. Although there may be many ways of approaching religion as a mystic, as discussed by Frederick Bauerschmidt in his outstanding book, Why the Mystics Matter Now, mystics generally approach religion more experientially. He points out how the term “mystery” derives from the Greek root word “mu,” “meaning to close or to hide.” Thus, religious mystics are much more likely to focus their religious activity on aspects of faith that are unclear or ambiguous. There is more room for questioning and doubting and exploring, sometimes about very difficult matters. This is the orientation that allows Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, to write about:

“the realm of spiritual darkness: fear of the unknown, familiarity with divine absence, mistrust of conventional wisdom, suspicion of religious comforters, keen awareness of the limits of all language about God… [and] doubt about the health of my soul.”

Research in the psychology of religion shows how approaching religion as a fundamentalist and approaching religion as a mystic have unique psychosocial advantages and disadvantages. For example, approaching religion as a fundamentalist appears to correlate with better mental health, greater optimism, and a tighter religious community within one’s group. In contrast, approaching religion as a quest seems to predict greater cognitive flexibility, more inclusivity, and less prejudice.

In closing, I’m also reminded of a story about a church that advertised a Wednesday night program with the words, “Have all your questions answered.” A Quaker Meeting House across the street responded with its own sign: “Have all your answers questioned.”

Not all approaches to religion are the same. The path of the fundamentalist and the path of the mystic are very different paths indeed.

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