fanatic – 1. Person filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something. 2. excessively enthusiastic. (Derivation – Latin, fanum – temple)
zealot – 1. An uncompromising or extreme partisan; a fanatic.Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.
Humans are “hard-wired” for language and for belief, for faith. Recent genetic research has strongly suggested these conclusions. As a parent and grandparent, one has only to observe the marvel of a new child’s development to see the reality. Fundamentally, we simply cannot live without meaning. Evolutionist Progressivism tells us there is no inherent meaning but that which we may existentially choose to attribute, but, nevertheless, we must and will still search out meaning of a deeper sort.
Holocaust and Gulag survivors repeatedly observed that the victims of horror who survived seemed to find some sort of meaning even in the midst of the most terrible circumstances. This gave them purpose to keep on going and not just revert to the despair of animal savagery. Ironically, the victims often retained their humanity while the inflictors surrendered theirs. Even from an evolutionary perspective, humans must find a cause worth living for in order to find the will to survive. “Progress” simply doesn’t fill the hole in the heart and soul.
“We cannot get to the full solution to the problem of evil by mere progress, as though, provided the final generation was happy, the misery of all the previous generations could be overlooked or even justified …”
N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God. (IVP Books, 2006), p. 96.
At one level, meaning can be found in the care for a loved one, the protection of family, or even in revenge. But sooner or later, whether this immediate purpose is achieved or fails, caring for another, or revenge, prove hollow in themselves and something more profound and visceral must fill the heart’s hunger. Perhaps that is why we sometimes witness and hear of “death-bed conversions.”
Some stories of “death-bed conversions” of some of the famous are possibly apocryphal, but they demonstrate a truth (beyond the perhaps wishful thinking of the ‘faithful’). One of the best known concerns the famous French “father of the Enlightenment” Voltaire (1694-1778). Voltaire was especially vitriolic in his scorn and hatred of the Church and Christianity for most of his celebrated life. During his last twenty years he lived in a château hard by the Swiss border so he could escape arrest in France should they come for him. As a famous author and promoter of Enlightenment values, Voltaire tirelessly advocated freedom of expression and the primacy of reason and science as the beacons for future progress.
During the 1770s, King Louis XV was seeking a more liberal approach to society and the economy and, with greater toleration in the air, Voltaire returned to Paris amid great acclaim in 1778. The excitement and strain on his 84-year-old constitution proved too much and he collapsed. He lay for days unspeaking in his bed, dulling his pain with opium. When it was clear that he was dying, he began to rail in delirium. He is reputed to have cried out, against all that he had declared so often about God and superstition, “I know there is a God and that I am going to hell.” When asked if he wanted a priest to give him the last rites, he refused and turned to face the wall, speaking no more.
There is a similar story about Charles Darwin. It says that, as he lay dying, he wished he could retract all that he had written. He agonized about how he would answer to God for all the harm he had done.
While these are not ‘conversion’ stories, and I am not claiming that they are necessarily historically true in every detail, they illustrate the innermost hunger in the human soul to know who and what we are. They show that the most reasonable and ‘scientific’ interpretations of reality do no more than superficially plaster the hole in the center of our being – what Blaise Pascal called “the God-shaped vacuum” and Augustine of Hippo called the “hunger of the soul.”
It is not fashionable in our post-modern, post-Christian West to display too much zeal, to be a ‘fanatic.’ Unless of course it is in adulation of a sports star, a rock star, a great entertainer, or one of the reputable causes such as advocacy of action to control Climate Change. One has only to observe to see that there is no greater fanatic or zealot for a cause than a new convert to it. Despite our public distaste for too much zeal, only real dedication and zeal will push a person to achieve something extraordinary. Many of us might say that we wish (however fleetingly) we could ‘be like that.’
Zeal and dedication are a matter of choosing. Such a choice requires a strong enough motivation, a cause you believe in so strongly that you are willing to become really enthusiastic, committed, dedicated to – perhaps even dedicate your life to. Worthy goals and a worthy purpose in life must be strong enough to sustain you when persevering gets really tough. This is so even in the best of relationships and in living with real commitment according to what is true and right.
Zealots or fanatics may be motivated by a variety of influences, including hatred, anger, and a desire for vengeance, or perhaps fear. But the paradox is that these powerful emotions are actually perversions and distortions of love. The cause of fear is often ignorance, but its cure is often knowledge, and knowledge is an essential step towards love. We may be infatuated by someone or something we know little about, but we can only really love someone or something once we really begin to ‘know’ the person or ‘it,’ to become intimate with him/her/it.
And, in our deepest core, we all long to be known in this way, to be loved and to love. Love is what makes us thrive as babies, and that never changes for the rest of life. If we know we are loved and that we can love and be accepted in turn, we can endure the most tremendous and terrible things–even death. As Jesus said, “No one has greater love than to lay down his/her life for a friend/a loved one.”
When it comes to the crunch, love can even overcome the instinct for survival. You do not need to choose to feel the instinct for survival. It is like the need for food and water and the desire for sex. But love is chosen—at least at the level of application. The choice of love will bring a mother to starve herself in order to give food to her child. It will inspire someone to plunge into danger to save another even when death may well be the consequence. It will even allow someone to choose to refrain from the fiery desire for sex out of esteem for the well-being of the other for whom one has the desire.
The Postmodern, Postchristian West has a crippled view of zealotry and fanaticism. Because of their identification, especially by our controlling social and cultural paradigm of Progressive Elitism, with the scandals and wrongs of religious excess and ‘superstition,’ we do not know how to truly harness the immense power of the innate need for faith. Therefore we channel it to frivolities like sports teams and performers, heaping recognition and adulation upon them. These are ‘within the bounds,’ just as the Romans gave the mobs ‘bread and circuses’ to keep them docile. A few other causes are permissible within the pale: climate change activism, gender equality and choice, for example. Even certain brands of ‘spirituality’ (but let us not call it ‘religion’!) may qualify. On the whole, however, Christianity and, at least sometimes, Judaism cannot be tolerated except as ‘private and personal.’
In our next discussion, we will examine The Second Way, the road of zeal and fanaticism, in more depth.