The problem with fanaticism — it’s not what you think

“It’s OK if someone is a Christian, as long as they aren’t fanatical about it.”

We all know what they are talking about. Religion is OK to most people (except to Richard Dawkins and kin), as long as people don’t get fanatical about it.

Fanatics make the news, and it isn’t pretty. Fred Phelps and his band of funeral protesters. Islamic extremists blowing themselves up in a crowded subway station. Perhaps your relative, neighbor, or coworker who is rather pushy or judgmental in your opinion.

Fanaticism among believers is clearly one reason people are turned away from the Christian faith. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has some good thoughts on fanaticism in his book The Reason for God:

“Pharisaic people [i.e. moral fanatics] assume they are right with God because of their moral behavior and right doctrine. This leads naturally to feelings of superiority toward those who do not share their religiosity, and from there to various forms of abuse, exclusion, and oppression. This is the esence of what we think of as fanaticism.

What if, however, the essence of Christianity is salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us? Belief that you are accepted by God by sheer grace is profoundly humbling. The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they’re not committed to it enough.

“Think of people you consider fanatical. they’re overbearing, self-righteous, opionionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding—as Christ was. Because they think of Christianity as a self -improvement program they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’ (John 8:7). What strike us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.

—from Chapter 4: The Church Is Responsible for So Much Injustice (emphasis added)

God, help me to be a fanatically loving, forgiving, serving, understanding, and humble. Help me to be increasingly committed to Christ, and therefore to be fanatic about loving the people I come into contact with.

Grace and Peace

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