How to talk to a fundamentalist

I grew up in a conservative church and am familiar with Christians who would be classified (by themselves, or by others) as fundamentalists. I admit, I’ve spun far off from this galaxy, in terms of my own belief system. So even though I remember the language and the pattern of thinking, it still catches me by surprise when I meet or talk with someone who still lives within that framework. Wait, you think what? Where is your sense of logic? It can feel like our different belief systems come clashing together all of a sudden.

This has become more relevant for me because I’ve been in a context recently where I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with a self-described fundamentalist. I forgot just how aggravated I could get about theological things until the small group I’m a part of (which includes the fundamentalist) got into some heated conversations. We just differ so very much in our theological beliefs. The language we use to talk about things is so different. Grace, brokenness, spirit, soul, the afterlife, prayer, meditation… these are loaded words, or loaded topics. I have often felt like he takes my free-form, floating ideas that I try to express and squeezes them into a fundamentalist box so that they become comfortable and understandable to him. Perhaps he feels that I take his neatly boxed ideas, stretch them apart, and throw them to the wind… I don’t know.

After a particularly trying conversation, where all parties probably left feeling frustrated and unheard, I tried to reflect on what would help these exchanges to go better. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

1) Recognize we are all fundamentalists. I need to recognize myself as a fundamentalist as well. Yes, my fundamentals may be extremely different from your typical “fundamentalist.” But we both hold to our beliefs with tenacity and consider them a fundamental base from which we operate in our everyday life.  Additionally, I’ve seen the following pattern too often: that liberals decry conservatives for being intolerant or exclusivistic in their beliefs. ‘You must believe this way!! You are so narrow minded!!’ Is it fair to demand they change their beliefs… or is that, perhaps, intolerant?

2) Don’t take anything personally. Basically, nothing anyone else does or says is because of me. Maybe this seems obvious, but think about how often we take personally the things that others do.  We do a lot of projecting: that is, imagining onto someone else that which we can’t or refuse to see in ourselves. By blaming someone else for my irritation, by making them the cause of my anger and unhappiness, I try to make myself feel better by not holding myself responsible. So in this case, what my fundamentalist friend is saying that really aggravates me or even causes harm is about him (for example, Really? In your belief system, only your kind of Christians are “saved?” Really? So what are you thinking about ME, then??). These are his beliefs, his need to see the world a certain way. But hey, I can choose to not let this bother me! It’s okay if he believes I’m not coming to heaven with him… because this was NEVER ABOUT ME. Imagine the surprises awaiting all of us when we die!

3) Approach with humility. I admit, I have a strong emotional connection to theology and spiritual issues (just glance through this blog). So when someone starts pushing my theological buttons, man, something in me wants to come out swinging. Let’s take the basic example from above of who is “saved.” Seriously?? You are that convinced that you are the only ones who are right??? I want to denounce with logical, cohesive arguments designed to persuade someone to the light- the rational side- MY right side!! Or failing that, I want to present an emotional argument. Don’t you know how many people you are hurting when you believe the things you do?? But when the approach is made that forcefully, both sides just keep on building the Great Wall in between their positions. People become defensive and we can’t listen to each other. What would happen if we gently, humbly, tried to hear and understand people from exactly where they are? What if we tried to lay aside our presupposition of being right while we do our best to truly hear the other out?

4) Be realistic. I’ve quickly found that in order to persuade a fundamentalist of my position (or anything close to it), I would have to dismantle their entire theological position. With fundamentalist Christians, you usually have to start with a particular “literal interpretation” method of reading the Bible, and that is an enormous “box” to unpack in the course of one conversation. So let’s face it. This is not going to happen! And do I really want it to? First, it presumes that I’m right (see guideline #3), and second, they have this position for a reason. It is serving some useful function for them: as all of our belief systems do. Perhaps it brings a sense of security to their world. Perhaps they had their own intellectual wrestling journey and landed here. Perhaps they had an emotional experience that convinced them of truths in the Bible. I need to respect that. I would hope for the same respect for my beliefs.

 

Well, readers, what do you think? How can we best get along with people who are very different from us, especially in ways that push our buttons? I invite comments from all points on the spectrum.

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