Much has been written, and continues to be written about the negative effects of fanaticism, especially in a religious context. The recent shootings in Paris again bring the issue to the front of our minds. How can we define fanatics?

Perhaps a good definition – at least at one level – would be an unquestioning belief in a certain worldview, held to the point of being willing to perpetrate violence in support of the cause.

But there’s nothing wrong with asking questions, provided we do so with integrity: it’s easy to stop looking as soon as we find a spot that suits us. If God is real, His truth won’t be shaken, and you can’t be either a good Christian or a good atheist until you’ve faced the big issues.

Fanatics don’t laugh. Everything is serious. But the one who knows God possesses joy, laughter and happiness that can be there even in the midst of trial. Trust in a sovereign God – and not taking ourselves that seriously – gives the emotional space to kick back and enjoy a good belly laugh, especially if the joke’s on ourselves.

Fanatics have a “us versus them” mentality. There can be fanatic atheists (several come to mind) and liberals as well as fanatic religious types; extremism is not necessarily confined to those who identify with a particular religion.

“Fanatical” and “devout” are not the same thing. You can be devoted but have a reasoned, well thought out faith that sustains the heart and makes the world a better place. Ask Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa or William Wilberforce who worked for the abolition of slavery. These people were neither fools nor fanatics.

In modern society, we face a spiritual vacuum left by a largely materialistic, valueless society. Our pluralistic world is relativistic, “tolerant” to the point that it can’t offer anything real. Some become fanatics. Others – at least those who stop long enough to think about it – realize this, and begin to search, even while others mock those who have a faith. This is as unfair as it is unwise, because it lumps all religious views together, including the twisted version that led to the shootings in Paris.

The Bible does not call us to blind faith. It asks us to to consider history and reason when we examine the claims it makes. God wants our hearts, but not before we’ve thought, and thought hard, about it; we are to “count the cost”. A reasoned faith is deeply committed to the gospel, and is both peaceable and loving. And this is key: it is a love that is a choice, a reasoned, rational choice, even in spite of the emotions that may assail us.

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