Self-styled South African prophet Penuel Mnguni, 24, feeds a snake to one of his congregants. Photo: Facebook/End Times Disciples Ministries.
The recent ‘snake pastor’ incident is simply the latest in a long line of outrages committed in the name of fundamentalist religion. If anything it is comparatively mild compared to others: the Jim Jones death cult in Guyana (1978) led to hundreds of deaths when followers committed suicide by drinking poisoned orange juice at the command of their psychopathic pastor.
We need to demythologise fundamentalism. It is not a return to some pure, original form of a faith but a modern phenomenon rooted in a late 19th/early 20th Century reaction by segments of (initially) the Christian churches to critical theological thinking that sought to reconcile faith with advances in science, politics and culture – in short, with modernity. Biblical scholars came to see how the Bible was itself an intricate combination of sources and literary genres, sometimes drawn from sacred texts of other ancient cultures, that read the history of God’s encounter with humanity (i.e. revelation) in a variety of ways. Historical events were overwritten with ancient myth; theological truths were told through literary fiction (e.g. the meaning of suffering through the fantasy of Job) or poetry (e.g. the Psalms or Song of Songs). The same is true for other great religions.
This insight is nothing new. Early Church theologian Augustine commented that it was mad to imagine the world’s origins as happening literally in seven days. Medieval and early modern giants like Aquinas, Luther and Calvin were also all too aware of the distinction between truth as fact and truth as symbol. Their insights were mirrored in thinkers of other great faiths like Hinduism and Judaism.
Ironically one might say that fundamentalists’ obsession with literal truth was religious capitulation to the very pathology they fought: modernity’s abandonment of the truth we find in poetry and literature, symbol and imagination in favour of a narrow and bland ‘scientific’ literalism.
Fundamentalism also serves a more sinister purpose in many cases: cults of personality and dependence around charismatic pastors who either kept congregations in ignorance of new theological insights or were themselves poorly trained. Religious leadership can attract a range of personalities. Most (I hope) act out of faith in God and a genuine desire to help others grow in the love of God. Some, however, are authoritarian personalities drawn by a desire for power and sometimes wealth. And a few are just mad.
Why does fundamentalism (and dangerous fundamentalist preachers) exist? It claims to defend faith against modernity and doubt, at the price of us leaving our minds at the church door. It offers alleged certainty: because we are too afraid (and sometimes too intellectually lazy) to live and engage critically with religious and moral complexity we prefer to hand ourselves over to irrational religion. The result is that occasionally we end up eating snakes or drinking poisoned orange juice. Some, when they realise they’ve been duped, abandon religion completely. And to religious outsiders, fundamentalism makes all religion seem nonsensical. At bottom fundamentalism exists because we let it exist.
By Fr Anthony Egan SJ