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Uproar over video offers a warning about what happens when fundamentalism wins

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Gordon Stewart
Gordon C. Stewart: Every Christian pastor has a responsibility regarding the video that is causing unrest abroad.
Submitted photo

The Rev. Gordon Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska and a source in the Public Insight Network for MPR News. 

As a boy I would spend hours lost in the magnificence of the tide pools that dotted the coast of Rockport, Mass.  Wading in the tide pools is still my favorite thing to do. I did it again last month with my grandchildren at Coquille Point on the Oregon coast.

The tide pools are filled with fresh seawater. They are the temporary homes that give shelter to the starfish, crabs, periwinkles and sea anemones that are left there for a few hours at low tide.

Perhaps religion is like a tide pool, a small pool of ocean water that points us to the vast mystery of the ocean on which its life depends. The tide pools hold a few drops of a vast sea. They are filled with the ocean, but they are not the ocean itself. Their health depends on the eternal rolling of the tides to refresh them.

Wading in a tide pool, it's easy to lose track of time.

But there are other tide pools, far back from the water's edge, created by the unusually high waves of a storm. Unreachable by the normal daily tides that would refresh them, they are cut off from the ocean that gave them life. They are without oxygen, yellow, and covered by green-yellow slime. Their original beauty has left them to the flies.

Perhaps the human soul is like a tide pool. 

Watching the news these days I feel the way the great preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick did when he asked from his pulpit at the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, "Shall the fundamentalists win?" 

Elsewhere he wrote: "Since when has the Pacific Ocean been poured into a pint cup, that the God of this vast universe should be fully comprehended in human words?" 

"One tea-cup," said Fosdick, "will reveal the quality of the whole ocean. Yet it will not reveal all the truth about the ocean. 

"When one considers the reach of the sea over the rim of the world; thinks of the depths that no eye can pierce ... one dare not try to put these into a tea-cup. So God sweeps out beyond the reach of human symbols. At once so true and so inadequate are all our words .... "

As a Christian pastor, I can only take responsibility from within the tide pool of my faith tradition.  Muslim imams, like Minneapolis Imam Makram El-Amin, are doing the same in theirs.  A news story in the Star Tribune quoted him as saying, "We will stand in unity against these attacks and the appalling killing of the diplomat who was there on a peaceful mission." Every Christian pastor is called to do the same in the wake of the viral film that poisoned the ocean from a yellow tide pool in the United States.

When any religious tradition mistakes its pool for the ocean itself, when it denies the existence of neighboring tide pools along the edges of Eternity, fundamentalism wins. Things turn yellow and nasty. Only the daily refreshment of the tides can keep the tide pools fresh. Otherwise we watch the news, asking Fosdick's old question, and hope and pray that fundamentalism and fanaticism will not win.