If we discount for a moment Obeah, horoscopes and dream numerology the dominant religion in Jamaica is Fundamentalist Christianity. The name is a misnomer, for far from getting down to the fundamentals of the teachings of the Christ, that approach chooses a literal interpretation of the words of the Bible - usually in English, and usually from the King James translation of 1611; it should more accurately be called literalism.
I have argued in previous columns that one of the sources of Jamaica's backwardness is this dominant fundamentalism, which calls on its adherents to suspend reason and logic in favour of rote and recitation. The answer to every question and the solution to every problem is to be found simply in the quotation of a 'proof text' from some place in the Bible, often from the Old Covenant (the First Testament). And so the Bible is used to support flogging and capital punishment and the dominance of the male and so on.
Fundamentalism is the opposite of theology, the application of reason and logic to faith - faith seeking understanding. After all, God is the embodiment of logic - the Logos; in the later part of the Old Testament God is referred to as 'Wisdom', and holiness is identified with the search for deeper wisdom. Fundamentalism is the search for simplicity rather than wisdom, and I hope that I am not considered offensive if I say that it is simplistic and simple-minded. Fundamentalism in religion can lead to fundamentalism in other areas, such as medicine and ethics and science and economics. That is why I say that one of the important causes of Jamaica's backwardness is fundamentalism.
The Universal Centre of Truth in Kingston is to be congratulated for exposing the Jamaican public to the possibility of deeper wisdom from the Bible by sponsoring the visit of Anglican bishop and theologian John S. Spong to Jamaica. I was not able to attend his public lectures last month, but have listened to them on tape, and I enjoyed them thoroughly. Bishop Spong was described as being controversial, but he would only be so to someone of the fundamentalist persuasion.
In terms of modern Christian theology, his views are what would be taught in any mainstream theological seminary today, such as the Roman Catholic St. Michael's Theological Centre near Papine, or next door at the Protestant United Theological College. His theology is quite orthodox. If persons find his doctrine new or radical, this is an indication of their unfamiliarity with Christian theology - and the failure of the mainstream Jamaican Church to properly communicate the details of their message.
We should not need a Bishop Spong to come from foreign to tell us about our faith, although I am happy he did; we have good theologians and bible scholars right here in Jamaica. What is special about Bishop Spong is his control of language, his turn of phrase, his ability to communicate his message with homespun metaphor. He is well worth listening to, and well worth reading, I would imagine; I have never been fortunate enough to come across any of his books.
I say that Fundamentalism is contrary to reason, because fundamentalists believe that the Bible is directly inspired by God in such a way that every word is literally and historically true. For Fundamentalists, the very thought that the Bible could contradict itself is unthinkable and anathema, and rather than use reason to resolve contradictions to seek the deeper truth beneath, they deny that there is any contradiction at all and remain in their misconception.
Bishop Spong used an expression I have used for years in introducing bible study: The Bible contradicts itself, but it is 100% true. That in itself may sound like a contradiction, but history and science do not have a monopoly on truth. When a poet says of a woman: "She is like a rose", much truth could be there; her beauty, her softness, her fragrance, even her thorny disposition could be conveyed by such a statement; but a botanist would find the statement ridiculous. There are different types of truth, of which the historical may turn out to be the least meaningful. And so the bible contracts itself on many points of history and science, if we operate on that level (e.g. the creation story and the accounts of the resurrection in the four accounts of the gospel).
If you want to understand the truth contained in a Bible passage then you must try to discover the intention of the author. Few theologians today believe that those stories were intending to be science or history as we understand them today, and it is unfair to their authors to try to understand them in these modern categories. The Bible is theology, and must be read that way, otherwise we could miss the point! Our churches need to lead Jamaicans to a mature Christian faith which cannot be found in Fundamentalism!
Economic fundamentalism can also lead us to miss the point. Economics is a behavioural science, describing, for example, how actors behave in the marketplace, and therefore attempting to predict how the market will behave. So far so good! But when economics begins to tell me that I must behave in a certain way or I am being irrational, when it begins to be prescriptive, then it has crossed the line into religious fundamentalism, and the truth is left behind.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and environmentalist, and is a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.