We’ve learned a lot since September 11, and the most unexpected lesson of all is that a lot of what we knew to be revealed truth turns out to be not necessarily so.
We were confidently told that history was at an end, that with the Communists defeated once and for all and with the worst of the planet’s bad guys on the run, nothing was left in the way of the good times that were going to be had by all.
Not only that, reason was finally enthroned, and heartfelt religious faith was a quaint relic of the past, something that was OK for the uneducated and easy to command, but not anything the educated classes should take seriously. Bill Clinton had the right idea: carry the biggest Bible you can find when the photographers are around, shout loud and pray long when preaching from black pulpits, but pay only lip service (so to speak) to the verities of actual faith.
Then came September 11, and despite the soothing assurances applied by politicians with strategic agendas, we were overnight at war with a 12th-century version of an alien religion. Suddenly the most educated classes are the most ignorant in our midst, not only having to learn the language of religious faith but desperate to understand what the words mean. The educated classes are back at Bletchley Park, trying to break the code.
Indeed, Islam seems as much an enigma as the German codes broken by Bletchley Park’s code breakers in the darkest early days of World War II. President Bush prefers to see Islam as a force as benign as Methodism, or says he does. The chattering classes, on the other hand, rarely understand any authentic religious faith; many, having grown up in secular households and been educated in schools where faith is frowned on, laughed at or ridiculed as a disease, like pellagra, imagine faith to be no more than a garment, like a beard or a burqa, to be slipped on and taken off (or shaved off) to suit the occasion.
This misunderstanding of faith, argues the Rev. David McLaurin, a Roman Catholic priest in Rome, writing in London’s Daily Telegraph, is a dagger at the throat of the West.
The transcendental quality of religious belief and fervor, he argues, “is the reason for Islam’s extraordinary success: it is austere and simple, religion in its purest form. By contrast, Christianity seems cluttered and its meaning obscure, its once powerful symbols wrapped up in ritual and hidden away. The starkness and terror of the Cross have been forgotten
“While Islam’s proclamation is simplicity itself, the Christian message is obscured by theology impenetrable to most people.
“Sadly, there are elements of decadence in Christian culture [as many Muslims argue], and particularly in Roman Catholicism. In 2001 the [Catholic] Church is still operating baroque comfort stations that made sense in 1601, but have little relevance now yet a powerful message is struggling to get out. The Christian proclamation is not that God is great (though He is), but rather that God is good and that His law is love. This sense of goodness is the foundation of all we hold dear; even atheists can assent to it.”
Christians, he argues, suffer a lack of confidence in the Good News they are charged by their faith to spread but in their malaise are bashful of articulating. This is a malaise that goes even deeper in Europe: George W., like Democratic and Republican presidents before him, offers a prayer at the conclusion of his speeches that God will continue to bless America. Tony Blair, though a believing Christian, would never think to do this, and some European heads of state would be accused of offering a comedy routine if they attempted it.
This lack of belief, or paralysis of language in those who may believe, makes it difficult even to think in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, and this in turn makes the West vulnerable to the will and determination of those who do hold passionate belief. If, as George W. Bush and Tony Blair tell us, this war will last years and maybe decades, ignorance of what we say we believe is what will do us in. Presidents long before George W. Bush understood the consequences of behavior born of faux faith. “I tremble when I think that God is just,” Jefferson said of slavery, no doubt fearful of doing anything about it. This, his defenders say, is what Bill Clinton, a man of inexhaustible bad faith, was trying to say last week at Georgetown. This was probably the point Jerry Falwell, in a particularly clumsy and breathtakingly ill-timed way, was trying to make.
Nobody likes a scold. The prophets of the Old Testament Joshua, Micah, Jeremiah and the others were no more popular in their day than they would be in our own. But like the ancient Israelites, we shut our ears at our peril.