The Fanatical Situation

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Under the Fence: Everything Is Shaking

Everything is shaking. And it’s not because of the fence that now divides us. No matter how high the fence between Trump-ers and Never-Tump-ers, the earth shakes under the fence and on both sides of the fence. The ground itself is quivering, seizing, lurching, caving in on itself, like a sinkhole that stops traffic on a street we assumed to be secure. Everything is up-for-grabs.

Deeper and Wider than Politics

What haunts us across America is not primarily political. All politics rise from something deeper. Like oak trees and poison ivy, the shape and substance of what we see spring from depths we cannot see.

Photograph of Willem Zuurdeeg.

Dutch philosopher Willem Zuurdeeg, author of Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born of a Cry, and An Analytical Philosophy of Religion (APR), uses a phrase that may seem strange.

Until we pause to think about it.

Search for solid ground

”The establishment of one’s existence is the background against which imperialistic and fanatical claims have to be understood.”

Zuurdeeg, An Analytical philosophy of religion, p. 89

To ‘establish’ one’s existence is to ‘secure’ it, to keep it from blowing away. We become fanatical and aggressive because we are insecure. We grab for something solid. When we feel the ground shaking, anxiety grabs for something solid. Something that will stay still. Everything is soul-sized. Something in us gasps at the knowledge of human frailty, our mortality, the inevitability of death. The gasps turn into grasps for a secure foothold.

Fanatical Zeal from Hidden Anxieties and Insecurity

Professor Zuurdeeg proposes that we speak of “fanatical claims” rather than “fanatics.” Like most books published in 1958, An Analytical Philosophy of Religion‘s speaks in the gender specific male pronouns. We cite the following paragraphs from page 81:

We have to say: The 'fanatical claimer' sees his own group as more than just a group. It is a fanum. The word "fanatic" is derived from the Latin fanaticus, and this word is related to fanum, a temple, a sanctuary. Fanaticus meant: first, pertaining to a temple; second, inspired by a divinity, especially with the meaning of a frantic zeal for such a divinity. We can say that for the fanatical claimer his group is such a fanum, a sanctuary, a privileged domain which relieves him of his hidden anxieties and insecurity. 

The fanatical Nazi is "the victorious German nation" (his fanum); the Orthodox Dutch Calvinist of the war against Spain (1568-1648) is the Chosen Nation, and is his God of Old Testament wrath. The fanatical claimer cannot permit his basic presuppositions to be questioned because such questioning would imply a doubting not only of these convictions but of the whole structure (his own person, his fanum, his God) cemented together by the process of identification.

-- An Analytical Philosophy of Religion, p.81

It is through the lens crafted in Zuurdeeg’s workshop that I have come to see the world. In the days following the 2020 election, stunned by the “alternative fact” alleging that the election was rigged and stolen, watching the mob storm the Capitol January 6, and hearing the deadly silence of the President of the United States of America betraying his oath of office to enjoy the show, I saw the frantic zeal of a fanum.

The Focus

But there is more. Drawing from French existentialist philosopher-playwright Gabriel Marcel‘s Man Against Mass Society (1952), Zuurdeeg expanded his analysis:

“Marcel justly points out that there is still another element in the convictional situation of the fanatical claimer, the focus. Marcel suggests that such a focus is an individual; and that is sometimes the case, as with Hitler or Stalin.” (APR, p. 81-2)

Photo of Gabriel Marcel (c. 1951)

America 2021

Everything is up-for grabs. The ground is shaking under our feet. We look for someplace solid, a sure foothold against the chaos. I see the world — or try to — in these terms. But the wise professor and the playwright-philosopher urge us to go deeper than what can be seen and managed, for we are “complex and ambiguous being(s)” who only know ourselves partially. “We are therefore not allowed to speak of a non-fanatical person.” (APR, 84). Although I think I know what Zuurdeeg and Marcel would say if they could see us now, they caution me that only a “fanatical claimer” is without doubt.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief commentaries on faith and public life, Brooklyn Park, MN, October 20, 2021.