About us



Vol 38 No 2


Jim Quillinan

Michael Trainor

Trish Madigan OP

Michael Fallon MSN

Phil Riordan

Mark Raper SJ

Bob Irwin MSC



Fundamentalism and The Wiggles

IT IS A PITY, I feel, that the word ‘funda mentalism’ refers to something unaccept able. The word itself has a good ring to it. One would expect it to refer to ‘relying on the foundations of faith’, and that was the meaning intended by those who coined it. Unfortunately, though, it refers to a reaction that sets up false foundations for faith.

One of the conclusions that we may draw from the articles on fundamentalism and biblical literalism in this issue of Compass is that our access to the mysteries of faith must never be impeded or blocked. Fundamentalism and biblical literalism are unacceptable because they do place blocks in our path: they elevate a particular level of discourse—magisterial pronouncements divorced from their historical contexts, the crass literal meaning of the bible text—into final expressions of eternal truth. Our journey of faith in, and insight into, the mysteries of God and salvation grind to a halt in face of these unrelated, unincarnated, unhistorical pseudo-criteria of truth placed in our path.

All who have the ‘care of souls’ are surely very conscious of the importance of keeping open the paths into the mysteries of faith. A couple of weeks ago I had a delightful visit from a group of two-year-olds who were taking the first steps along the path. It happened like this.

I received a phone call from the lady director of a local child-care centre asking if it would be possible for a group of nine of her charges to pay a visit to our parish church. A day and time was set, and I offered to take them into the church and explain things a bit.

The director explained that the children had passed the church on a number of occasions and were becoming curious about what might be inside. There were a number of opinions. Some thought there might be dinosaurs in there; others thought that there might be monsters. Seeing that they were a little spooked by these conjectures, the director had suggested that there might be nice things inside. Which prompted the most favoured hypothesis: the Wiggles might be in there.

That was the point along the path into the mysteries that they were at when they arrived: not sure, but believing there might be something nice in the church—if not the Wiggles, then something just as nice. Two of the nine had been inside a church before, one with her parents for a funeral, and the other had been to church with her mother. For the other seven entering a church was a completely new experience.

(I need to explain that our parish church was radically made over about twelve years ago to adapt it to post-Vatican II liturgy. We have a good open space, with pews in the round, and a separate chapel for reservation and veneration of the Blessed Sacrament.)

On their arrival the little visitors met the nice parish priest; there were nine tiny boys and girls who hardly came up to my knees, and two lady carers. Photos were taken. Formal introductions and welcomes completed, I led them into the church foyer and into the liturgical space; the sun was streaming in and the church was decorated on that occasion with lots of flowers.

The children found it a complete knock-out. What a beautiful place! With squeals of excitement they ran round and round, follow-the-leader. Some tried sitting in the pews—photos were taken. One by one they tried sitting in the presider’s chair—more photos.

When the excitement subsided a little we sat them down in a front pew, and I started on my explanation. ‘Now, this is God’s house.’ Straight back came Patrick: ‘Where is God?’ I tried to give him the benefit of all my years of study of the matter, but could not satisfy him. ‘Where is God?’ he insisted all the more. I think he should have been named Thomas.

One little girl asked, ‘Is God angry?’ Wondering where a two-year-old might get that idea from—perhaps she was one of those who had favoured the monster hypothesis—I assured her on that point: ‘No! Not at all! God is not angry. God is a loving God; he loves everybody; he loves you; he loves all of you; he loves me.’

I then began preparing the way for a visit to the Blessed Sacrament chapel. I told them that we were going to go to a very special place where God is specially present. Trying to catch a glimpse of Patrick’s expression I pointed through the glass partition at the tabernacle and explained that that was where God was specially present. I told them we will now go into that room and we have to be very quiet and respectful in there, because that is where God is specially. No talking in there; no noise; we must be very quiet. (The carers assured me that they understood ‘respectful’.)

So in we went, very quiet, not a murmur or a movement out of place. They were all holding hands, day-care fashion. I made a profound bow, and then whispered that they say after me: ‘Hello, God’. Nine little whispers, ‘Hello, God’. (At least, thinking of Patrick, I dared presume there were nine.) I whispered, ‘Thank you, God, for being so good.’ Nine whispers accordingly.

Then, having given them time to take in the silence and sacredness of the place, very quietly we moved back into the foyer, and the visit came to a close—with mandatory photo of Fr Barry waving good-bye at the church door.

They had not found the Wiggles on their visit, but I dare to hope that they found something they thought was at least as nice, and maybe something or someone even nicer.

It is possibly a wild leap from that story to my title: ‘Fundamentalism and the Wiggles’, but I like it. Fundamentalism and biblical literalism would keep our journey of faith and understanding halted at the level of the Wiggles hypothesis. But we have so much further to go, and the depth of the mysteries is all along a path ahead of us.

It would be a mercy if fundamentalism could do no worse than place obstacles on our journey of faith but, of course, it can do a lot worse. The violent, rampaging fundamentalists of our day show what people can do in the name of fundamentalism.

In our own Church history we have had episodes when our interpretation of Scripture came into conflict with developments in scientific theory when a less literalist interpretation would have been both more correct and allowed believers to get along better with the new theories. The conflict over the theory of evolution in fairly recent times provides one instance. The condemnation of the

Copernican hypothesis (interpreted realistically) in 1616 and the subsequent condemnation of Galileo in 1633 for promoting the hypothesis did much more damage long-term.

In the first term of each of the past three years we have put Galileo on trial again in the School of History and Philosophy of Science in the University of New South Wales. It is part of a course for undergraduates in which staff and students take part. I represent Cardinal Bellarmine in the exercise. The first year Galileo was pronounced ‘Not guilty’. After that we of the prosecution honed our skills some more and in each of the last two trials Galileo was found ‘Guilty as charged’.

That is the correct verdict, historically speaking, but it rested on a literalist interpretation of Scripture and exposed not only the inadequacies of Catholic theology but, more generally, the unreadiness of the Catholic Church for the modern world that was dawning. Besides, it allowed a largely mythical account of the Galileo Affair to endure down to the present: Galileo the enlightened hero fighting for freedom of thought against ecclesiastical bullies and bigots. That was not good for the Catholic Church’s public image! Nor was it history. But it shows that fundamentalism and biblical literalism are no help to orthodox religion.

—Barry Brundell MSC, Editor.