CNEWA

The Roots of Religious Fundamentalism:
“We All Have It. It’s a Problem for All of Us.”

CNEWA’s external affairs officer, the Rev. Elias Mallon, was interviewed recently by Michael Swan.

CNEWA’s external affairs officer, the Rev. Elias Mallon, was interviewed recently by Michael Swan of the Catholic Register, and he offered some insight into what gives rise to religious fundamentalism:

Most people have never heard a homily preached on Deuteronomy 20:10-18. It’s kind of difficult to apply these God-given rules of war to daily life in the 21st century.

The part about enslaving the women and killing all the men and boys if the village resists attack has little application when asking a boss for a raise or negotiating a mortgage renewal.

The Bible was written in a very different place at a very different time by people whose self-understanding and world view was formed by forces people today might understand intellectually but struggle to feel deep inside.

Father Elias Mallon, a member of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, said it need not be so: It is possible to find some deeper Christian meaning in difficult texts from the Bible. But it requires study and an understanding of the history embedded in biblical literature, which was collected over a 1,000-year span and finally accepted as part of the Bible more than 17 centuries ago.

Father Mallon was recently in Toronto for a three-way discussion among Catholics, Muslims and Jews about reading and interpreting difficult texts. The event was hosted by the Archdiocese of Toronto.

The New York priest has spent a lifetime reading, translating and understanding the ancient languages which, once mastered, gave him insights into the Bible and the monotheistic cultures of the three Abrahamic religions. He’s been a contributor to Muslim-Christian dialogue since 1985, and he is the author of “Islam: What Catholics Need to Know.” He also serves as external affairs officer of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Learning to interpret tricky, terrible and difficult texts in sacred Scriptures is not some obscure, academic challenge. When preachers and ordinary believers misinterpret their sacred texts, the result is almost always fundamentalism, Father Mallon said.

“Fundamentalism is probably, and I mean this sarcastically, the ecumenical reality,” he said. “We all have it. It’s a problem for all of us — Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists. Right down the line, that’s the problem.”

Fundamentalism is usually the result of reading an ancient, sacred text as if it were a newspaper or a modern textbook — reading the words without any awareness of the culture or the historical circumstances in which they were first spoken, he said.

“All of our texts are ancient. All of our texts come out of a context,” Father Mallon said. “It’s a world that wasn’t pluralistic. It was more violent.”

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