Monday, August 01, 2005

Ecumenical Jihad?

There was yesterday an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (Sunday, July 31, 2005) in which the writer did what I would describe as the "Prudery Polka." The article is about books for young people, and draws attention to a novel that is built around teenage oral sex parties. What we got was the I'm-not-easily-shocked-or-particularly-prudish routine that we tend to hear when the ethically laissez-faire elite have yet to digest and come to terms with something that revolts them.

I guess that I am going to do something a little bit similar as I get into this piece today. I don't want you to think that anything I say is meant to be a support or endorsement of terrorism or terrorist activities. Indescriminate destruction of ordinary human beings is never justifiable, and however angry or disgruntled one might be about anything, violence is very seldom the answer to that problem.

And this brings me to another piece in the Sunday New York Times, a well-written and well-researched article attempting to get to the roots of terrorism in the British Muslim community. Amy Waldman, the author, spent a lot of time combing the back streets of the Yorkshire city of Leeds from which three of the four July 7 bombers came. She tracks the generational changes in attitude from those who came to Britain forty years ago and who believe it to be as one said, "the greatest country in the world," and their chldren and children's children who dismiss the older generation and the mainstream mosques as "timid."

Ms. Waldman suggests that behind the rise of aggression in British Islam is a deep-down identity crisis for they don't know whether they are Muslim, British, or both. "Going religious" seems to be the way they describe beginning to take their faith seriously, and when they do so they find themselves being radicalized not in the staid mosques but in fringe Islamic centers and bookshops that has popped up over the last decade or so. In these settings the sins of the Crusades are brought into play, and they are coaxed along by visual materials that, for example, "superimpose a cross dripping with blood over Iraq and Afghanistan."

Yet there is something else, and this is what I have been aiming toward, and that is the struggle they have to live as Muslims in the West with its lack of values, profusion of scantily clad women, endless television programming that is corrosive in every way. As Waldman states, "The transformation (of these returnees to Islam) has had positive elements: the men live healthier and more constructive lives than many of their peers here, Asian or white, who have fallen prey to drugs, alcohol or petty crime."

There is something about this young Muslim quest with which I find myself deeply sympathetic because there is little doubt that they are right in diagnosing our culture as decadent beyond words. When a novelist commenting on teenage books tries to swallow her revulsion at the success of a book that focuses upon horribly promiscuous behavior among adolescents, then we have a pretty clear example of the sexual nihilism of our culture. Add to that the demolition of values and the juggernaut of materialism that has ridden over us in the last forty years, and it is not difficult to see why the alienated are turning to what are, in effect, self-destructive behaviors.

The irony is that these young Islamic extremists in their protest against the world in which they live (and on behalf of world Islam), are merely turning to a different kind of self-destruction than their contemporaries of all races raised on the streets of cities like Leeds, Chicago, or Sydney, as members of an angry underclass. Rather than falling into an unthinking alliance with the culture as their peers have, their response is to lash out and try to destroy it.

The truth is that mainstream Christians, Jews, and Muslims have a great deal upon which they can make common cause, living as we do amidst the decay of the West. This was a point that Peter Kreeft was making a decade ago in his book Ecumenical Jihad, and subtitled, Ecumenism and the Culture War.

In his introduction Kreeft (A Roman Catholic originally from a Reformed background), writes, "One of the main points of this book is that we need to change our current categories and our current alignments. We need to realize, first, that we are at war and, second, that the sides have changed radically: many of our former enemies (for example, Muslims) are now our friends, and some of our former friends (for example, humanists) are now our enemies" (Page 9).

The first chapter of Kreeft's book is a stellar pen portrait by a witty and highly intelligent philosopher of the damage done by everything from the sexual revolution ("the most destructive revolution in history"), to the deconstructionist thinking that persuades us that "'Truth' is only a hypocritical mask on the face of Power" (Page 20). The reality is, he says, that those of us who adhere to the absolutes given by the absolute God are allies on the battlefield that is now before us. "We are living in that split second between the disappearance of God and the disappearance of His image in the human mirror. The image is the life of our souls, our consciences. That is what our present'culture war' is about" (Page 20).

We live at a time of unprecedented moral and cultural confusion, and some of what motivates young Islamic extremists motivates me. Again, that is not to justify their response, but it does help me understand them. When I committed my life to Jesus Christ nearly 46 years ago, one of the initial fruits in my life was a sense of moral exasperation with myself and the world in which I was living. My conscience had been heightened, and while it prodded and shaped my choices and lifestyle, it also made me take a good look at what was going on in the world around me -- and much that I saw seemed alien to my understanding of the desire of the Creator God who had redeemed me.

That understanding of God has, I hope, strengthened and matured over the years. I wish I could say that I have always followed the promptings of my own conscience, but alas I have not. But for the grace of Jesus Christ I would be a lost cause. However, as the years have passed I have a deepening sense of dis-ease at the world in which we live, our selfishness, our consumerism, our inability to control our bodily appetites and compulsive behaviors that run riot. I see a culture that has abandoned a constructive worldview in favor of something that is going nowhere fast, and whose dangers are hidden by psychologizing and intellectual subtleties.

Within this context I look at the churches and see that they have compromised with this culture, much as the medieval Catholic church was compromised by the culture in which it functioned in the 15th and 16th Centuries. It took a renewing work of the Holy Spirit to begin making new, and that is what it is going to take again in our own time. I am not just railing against the obvious shortcomings of the Episcopal Church, but of the failures and blindspots of the whole Christian community.

In the churches sexually-related offenses are often the presenting problem; as Kreeft puts it, Modernism has broken the link between God and our gonads! However, this is merely the presenting issue of a far deeper and darker woe. We have, it seems, abandoned those things that make us the salt, the light, the leaven, in the world in which we live. Clearly, there is not only the need to call upon the Holy Spirit for his renewing work, but also for an intentionality on our part -- in our personal lives, in our thinking, and in our church lives, to restore the essence of who we are and what God intends us to be.

"The Enemy's battle-strategy has been the oldest and most obvious in military science: divide and conquor. Insofar as he has been able to foment civil wars and divide God's people, he has been able to weaken them. And he has fomented wars not only between churches but also within them" (Page 14), writes Kreeft. Clearly, the time has come to move beyond this and make common cause with those who are eager to be agents of transformation in a society that is being flushed down the toilet.

Again and again after July 7th, Tony Blair, the Queen, and George W. Bush, among others, asserted that we will not allow terrorists to destroy our way of life. But the truth is, while law, order, and peace on our streets and trains is of paramount importance, how much of our present way of life is worth defending? We value our freedoms, but has the point been reached where freedom has become license, which is itself then self-destroying? Could it be that the lineups we saw in Britain of bishops, moderators of churches, presidents of mosques, and so forth, be the starting point from which common cause on a whole variety of issues can be found?

That our culture is under attack from forces that have been raised in our culture should give us cause for thought as we move forward into an uncertain future. The challenge is enormous, and we avoid to confront it, and to confront it with all the allies we can get, at our own peril.

1 comment:

who, me? said...

Rare truth. This is exactly the liberty-cherishing orthodox Christian's dilemma considering these things. The readiness of the cultural voices to savage, e.g., the Robertson and Falwell clumsy efforts to discuss it are an example of how the "revolutions" have also dragged gross ruts through the subtle capacities of our public social thinking.

I defend the right of a yound woman to wear a bikini at pool parties at her home, though I think it is a terrible idea and coarsens her soul and those around her. I do not defend the right of a Western woman to wear a bikini in the realms of other cultures where it is a known scandal and affront. Simple kindness and patience have been lacking in our relationship with our global brothers. And I do not indict President Bush.