Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems on religious fundamentalism:
Twenty-five years ago when I was a young zealous seminarian studying to be a minister I slipped an unsigned piece of paper under a professorís door that read MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN (roughly translated ďYou have been weighed in the balance and found wantingĒ). I slipped the Aramaic portent of doom under my professorís door because I believed the position heíd taken on a particular issue on campus at the time proved that he was unsaved, racist, and evil. I was wrong.

I was wrong for wrenching those words from Daniel 5:25 and using them to repudiate someone I disagreed with.

I was wrong for thinking I knew God well enough to know what plans God had in store for my professor.

Whether my professor was unsaved, racist, and evil, as I believed, or not, I had no business doing what I did. I was wrong for trying to get back at him in that militant sort of way that Christians have for settling scores, namely by hurling random passages from the bible at someone I perceived an enemy.

Worst of all, I was wrong for fanatically believing somehow that I was doing Godís will in slipping that unsigned note under my professorís door.

Karen Armstrong, a celebrated historian of religion, is someone I turn to when I want to understand why religious people do the things they do. Especially religious fundamentalists. Armstrong focuses on the rise of religious fundamentalist movements in the 20th century in her book, The Battle for God which is a great way for describing what fuels fundamentalism whether itís Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, or Islamic fundamentalism.

Writing about all three fundamentalist movements, says Armstrong: ďThey are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil.Ē

I certainly saw myself as in a battle with my professor for the soul of our campus. I was convinced, along with other students who shared my religious beliefs, that the battle we were in with the administration was larger than the parties involved, that it was a battle between the forces of God verses the forces of, well, the ďun-God.Ē It was ďusĒ vs. ďthem,Ē and, believe me, it feels intoxicating to believe itís you and God against the world.

However imperfect the word ďfundamentalismĒ may be for describing such a complex phenomenon, itís as good as any when it comes to trying to capture a position that sees modernity as a threat to God and that urges a return to some idealized past and set of doctrines steeped in a world thatís long gone.

Hereís what I know for sure as a former fundamentalist.

Itís a short bus ride from fundamentalism to fanaticism.

What I mean is that fundamentalists love reading tea leaves. Tragedy and misfortune are a specialty. In fundamentalism, all adversity is a test. Every disagreement is a battle. Every difference of an opinion has cosmic implications. Which explains why fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were quick to get on the news and proclaim that the collapse of the World Trade Center was Godís judgment for the sins of the secular humanists in the U.S.

Whether itís flying planes into buildings, gunning down medical personnel who work in abortion clinics, strapping on bombs and detonating them in synagogues and mosques, assassinating heads-of-state and toppling governments, brandishing guns and bats at church meetings, labeling those whom you disagree with theologically as evil or the devil, slipping notes of condemnation under a seminary professorís door, or dashing off long, rambling emails filled with bible verses masquerading as prophecies (of doom) Ė fanatics are not only convinced that they know Godís will. Fanatics convince themselves that they are doing God a favor by the cruel, unloving acts they commit ďagainst the enemies of God.Ē

Thinking back on it now, when I wrote my third book, Listening For God, I was not, as the jacket cover says, writing simply about the waxing and waning of the faith. I was writing about the death for me of a particular kind of faith. I still believed in God. I just no longer believed in the kind of God I once believed in. I still read my bible, I just stopped asking it for answers it was never meant to yield. I still believed myself to be a Christian. I just no longer believed there was only one way to be a Christian. That is a hard realization to awaken to when youíre a young black girl from the Protestant south. Things were no longer either black or white, so to speak. And that was a kind of death for me. I still loved and longed for God, and still do. Thereís just no place in my heart for a particular sort of belief anymore.

Instead of demonizing him, I should have made an appointment with my professor and talked to him about our differences. I should have risked hearing him out. I should have tried to find common ground. But I didnít. I didnít want to see the world through his eyes. I didnít want to understand him. Above all, I didnít want him to see how scared I was of him. I wanted to be in the right, and in order for that to happen, someone had to be wrong.

Iíve been in lots of other ideological scuffles since I slipped that note under my professorís door. Iíve even lived long enough now to become the professor who walks in to find anonymous slips of paper under her door and anonymous emails filled with God talk in her box. When Iím feeling charitable, I smile and remember. I remember what it feels like to be zealous for God. I also remember what it feels to use God to mask your fears.

What made you change? someone wants to know right now. If only, there were simple answers. What makes anyone change? Life. And being open to mystery. As well as being open to contradictions and being wrong, I suppose.

A few years after I slipped that note with the words MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN under my professorís door, his wife got sick and died a slow painful death. A short time after that, so did my mother