The word ‘fundament’ means base or foundation, so you’d expect religious fundamentalism to be rooted deep in history, but it’s not. It started in the Southern United States after the First World War, a reaction to modernity’s brazen questioning of Christian authority. The Bible, ambiguous, contradictory, sometimes just plain indecipherable, was abruptly declared to be ‘literally true.’
Since then, insecure Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have followed suit and established their own varieties of fundamentalism, all to the general detriment of civilization. Around the globe, people threatened by life’s inexplicability cluster together to share fictitious certainties.
We don’t all react that way, and yet we do all feel that insecurity from time to time. Yesterday I was walking to the post office under unremarkable skies when the fact of existence seemed momentarily bizarre. ‘Why am I conscious,’ I thought. ‘Why does anything exist? Couldn’t the universe simply not be?’ It was visceral.
These are childish thoughts. I don’t mean to scorn them but to remember that they come from early days: before schooling, perhaps even before upbringing, training or culture of any sort. We humans are thinking machines, compelled to consider what we experience. The trouble with these particular thoughts is that they make us uneasy. They provoke a powerful sense of wonder, or fear, but don’t lead anywhere. They undermine every edifice of thought. Even when we dismiss them as foolish, they come back to haunt us; particularly when death lurks.
Such feelings are fundamental in the literal sense; they never really go away.
But neither do they linger. My mood shifted to irritable as I waited in line for my mail. We get on with our appetites and creativity, such as they are. Satisfaction demands attention and we forget those existential thoughts; then, expectation breeds disappointment and we’re back on the wheel of life. It’s dizzying at the rim; the hub is more manageable. At the precise mathematical centre it’s motionless, surely.
Do we really want that perfect serenity, or are we putting on a brave face when we pray for peace? Do we fear silence? Or, in the still of the night, tortured by whirling thoughts, is that what we really long for, that terrifying thing?
How do we let go of meaning and yet pursue life with gusto?