Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 10: No 2) >> Simms's Reading of History as Prophylactic Against American Religious Fundamentalism: The Issue of Fictive Technique in History >> Page 24

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Secondary Scholarship | 2002
Transcription in the scientist of Hawthorne's story "The Birth Mark" who wishes to rid his wife
of the one small flaw detracting from her otherwise perfect features, and he ends
in taking her life. The other, fundamentalism, fails to appreciate the subtlety of
the intellect, thinking that truth presents itself in univocal and transparent ways to
a mind innocent of paradox or metaphor.
The definition that we will use of fundamentalism here is distilled from
the religious philosophy of Eric Voegelin. Voegelin built upon the experience of
symbols as that which mediates, in mundane existence, a sense of the
transcendent. As this understanding of symbolism is elaborated, our affections
and our intellect are guided and ordered by an intuition and an inclination toward
the good, the true, and the just in such a way that a certain tension between this
transcendent order and the practical, sensible, order of life is maintained.2 In this
way the "prophetic vision" of what is good infuses the social order, the artistic
vision, the intellectual endeavor, and invests them with the lively virtues that lift
them far above the level of utilitarian interests and hopeless torpor or cynicism.
The tension between "heaven and earth," so to speak, acts as a leaven upon
mundane existence. To collapse heaven into earth makes for despair and an
Epicurean live-for-today existence. To collapse earth into heaven is to court
utopian dreams and madness.
According to Voegelin, the ordering power of symbols including those
provided by revelation and historical memory depends upon maintaining this
separation and tension between mundane existence and a transcendent vision of
what is good, just, and beautiful. If the symbols come to be mistaken for the
reality of the transcendent order, then a kind of intellectual disorder occurs that no
longer intuits the separation between experience and hope, or between the real
and the ideal. The symbols have become opaque. The transcendent is closed off.
It is possible to think that justice is easily attainable, beauty is no more than
mundane attraction made domestic by identity with personal tastes, problems are
not "solved" only because of ignorance or loss of courage, for the social and
personal "good" in every possible world is perfectly attainable.
Fundamentalism is the condition of the opaque symbols. The open skies
of a sense of the transcendent are closed off The world's reality is reduced to
"facts." The truth of the Bible or of historical memory depends solely upon the
reliability of each datum. Truth is no longer understood as that which is
continuously presented to the mind, through the medium of facts, but is reduced
to the facts themselves.
This phenomenon of a hardening and a making-opaque of symbols that
were formerly useful in provoking the human psyche to an openness, is found by
Voegelin along a broad front of experiences. The mystery of origins and destiny,

2 Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis, Trans. and ed. Gerhart Niemeyer (Columbia, MO: University of
Missouri Press, 1990) p. 21 if.