Future Tense — not just a book

by Yule Heibel on December 16, 2004

Everyone at my house is reading Gwynne Dyer’s Future Tense. I finished it a while ago, my son just finished it, and my daughter’s reading it right now. (We’ll even get the husband to read it!)

YOU should read it, too.

Other reviews and commentary here (The Tyee) and here (Pulse Niagara).

Among many other things, Dyer makes an interesting distinction between fundamentalist (which is a label that should be applied to Christians) and Islamists (politically radicalised Muslims):

The word Islamist is better than fundamentalist because Islamism is a political project based on a religious interpretation of what is happening in the world, whereas fundamentalism ….well, actually, fundamentalism is a Christian concept, and in Islam it is virtually meaningless. The two relgions draw so heavily on Judaism in their vision of God and their moral categories that they have sometimes been described as twin Jewish heresies, but in the matter of scripture there is a huge difference between them — and fundamentalism is all about scripture.

Both the old and the new testaments of the Bible were written by a number of different individuals, and the various prophets and evangelists don’t always agree on the details. So Christians are free to believe the gospel of Luke, for example, which claims that a Roman census obliged Jesus’s father, Joseph, to return to his birthplace to be counted, thus ensuring that Jesus was born at Bethlehem in Judea. Or they can observe that none of the other gospels mentions this story, that there is no other record of this alleged census, that the ultra-practical Romans were not likely to do something as pointless and crazy as insisting that everybody return to their birthplace to be counted — but that Luke’s story conveniently deals with the awkward fact that Jesus grew up in Galilee, whereas prophecy clearly stated that the Messiah would be born in Judea. The very nature of Christian scripture encourages a diversity of interpretations, and so there is a special name for those who accept every word of the Bible literally (ignoring the numerous contradictions): fundamentalists.

The Quran is different, because it was not written by a number of men. In fact, Muslims believe that it was not written by a man at all: rather, it is the direct word of God as dictated to and written down by the prophet Muhammad. Because it has only one author, it is a far more unified text, containing no glaring contradictions of fact — and all Muslims are fundamentalists in the sense that they are bound to accept the Quran as literally the words of God. That does not mean that all Muslims are rigidly conservative in the way they interpret God’s will in their daily lives; every religious community finds ways to contain and express the diversity of human personality and experience, and Islam does it as well as any. There are liberal Muslims; there are conservative Muslims, and there are some very radical Muslims indeed, but fundamentalism in the Christian sense has no meaning in Islam.


The fact that the Islamists have turned themselves into a revolutionary political movement is not intrinsically wrong or sinful in Muslim eyes, because religious movements have often played that role in Muslim history. From its earliest days, Islam was the religion of conquerors and of the state itself, so it does not make the same distinction between sacred and secular power as Christianity, which spent its formative years as the religion of underdogs, outsiders, and slaves. Indeed, since the authority of the Muslim ruler came from God, anybody wanting to oppose or overthrow an existing Muslim government had to couch his criticism in religious language, accusing the ruler of failing to respect and uphold true Islamic principles. (pp.75-78)

I’ve used the “fundamentalist” label repeatedly myself, indiscriminately applying it to both Christians and those of other religions. But this distinction is useful. It strikes me that Ayaan Hirsi Ali might argue along similar lines in the book she’s writing, “Shortcut to Enlightenment.”

What I (along with many many others) find so especially scary right now is that we currently live in times in which Christian (and neo-conservative political) fundamentalists determine the general tenor of discourse — and that the days of hermeneutics and post-modern interpretation of the Bible, and of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man deconstructing various aspects of language and meaning, appear like halcyon days of yore when, in spite of all the pomo jargon, we still had Enlightenment, namely dispute and interpretation and hermeneutic reading.

Oh my god. (“Yes, and mine, too,” as Peter Sellers, playing The Pink Panther‘s Inspector Clousseau, would reply….): it’s over, for the time being. What dangerous waters are we in when freaks on both sides — those that read everything literally (without hermeneutics, without deconstruction) and those that believe that separation of church (i.e. mosque) and state is a heresy, are determining the conversation.

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