A couple of years ago I signed up for a computer game, which was rather unusual as I’ve always considered that kind of entertainment utterly pointless and dull. But this one was unlike any other. It involved going out and visiting local landmarks, monuments, places of cultural or historical significance, and so on. In the game, an imaginary mysterious energy was emanating from those places. Within the game itself, human reactions to this discovery fell into two opposing factions: the ‘Enlightened’ fought believing that their actions would uplift humanity and bring about the next chapter in human evolution, whereas the ‘Resistance’ believed that they were protecting humanity and preserving humanity’s freedom. In the process of signing up, I had to decide to commit to one or other of these factions. The decision was irreversible. To my surprise it took me quite a while to make my decision – mainly because it couldn’t be changed in the future.
Sometimes, in real life, people face similarly difficult decisions, with the consequences affecting themselves, their families, their friends or even whole countries. In many corners of our world, belonging to a particular religion or a political party, or a nation or a tribe, can be a matter of life and death in the literal sense. We can recall historical examples of the Reformation and the following religious wars and persecution; we can think about Nazi Germany, or the communist Soviet Union. People’s choices about which side to back can cost them dearly, unlike in a computer game. Quite often the driving force of the persecutors is a utopian vision of superiority or purity; in fact, quite often the two are intermingled. This is the ideology behind the persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East, Muslim minorities in Myanmar, both these minorities in parts of India, every religion in North Korea, and non-believers in many religious countries. Ideologically pure and perfect societies always leave behind a trail of non-conforming victims, treated as the affordable cost of the revolution.
Fundamentalism is not reserved to any particular religion or ideology; we can hear of fundamentalist Christians, or Muslims, or Buddhists as well as fundamentalist atheists, communists, pacifists or militarists. Behind every fundamentalist lies an unshakable belief of holding the only true and right truth, impenetrable to any argument and closed to any discussion or debate. Any attempt to question the dogma is considered as a malicious attack deserving of fierce opposition, preferably by killing off those who dare to challenge it. Today’s gospel presents a fragment of a much longer dispute between Jesus and those who followed him after the feeding of thousands in a miraculous way. Jesus challenges them, but – as we will hear next Sunday – they remain deaf to his arguments, and eventually will abandon him in disgust, certain of being in the right themselves.
In our minds we can easily condemn such an attitude; but are we really more open-minded than those people from the gospel, or the modern-day fundamentalists? Are we ready to be challenged about our customs, habits, traditions and beliefs? I have some serious doubts about myself! I realised that on a minute scale while Emmet was staying in the parish house during his pastoral practice. As a man living on his own with just the dog, imperceptibly I had got used to following a particular pattern in my day and having things put in certain places. That order was somehow disturbed purely by the presence of another person with his own pattern and habits. I had either to adapt or to make his stay a living hell in the name of doing things my way. That unintentional challenge was indeed a very good thing for me. It helped me to realise how easily I can become a wee fundamentalist and – if unchallenged – easily scale it up. Arguments like ‘it’s always been like this’ are not arguments at all, because the world around us is changing at a dizzying pace. In this constantly-evolving landscape we have to renegotiate our attitudes and habits, or become irrelevant. Incidentally, I didn’t play that game for long: even in the world of virtual reality I couldn’t be an unchanging fundamentalist.