Thursday, July 05, 2007

From the Amsterdam Conference

I'm reporting from the Colloquium on Violence and Religion conference in Amsterdam, where I'm happy to be seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I was asked by the organizers of the conference to serve on the panel discussing the keynote address. The panel also included Dr. Abdulkarim Soroush, an Iranian Muslim, a visiting professor at the Free University of Amsterdam; Dr. Markha Valente, an American trained professor of history now also teaching at the Free University in Amsterdam; and Dr. Monjib Maati, a Muslim professor of history at the Université de Rabat in Morocco.

Prior to my formal remarks, I made brief reference to the keynote address by Ian Buruma, author of Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, and to the response to the address by my old friend Wolfgang Palaver, a professor of Catholic Social Thought at Innsbruck University. I simply expressed my general agreement with what they had to say – not complete agreement to be sure, but I was in substantial agreement with them. To which I added something extemporaneous to this effect, anticipating the need for it:

Let it be said that in what follows the historical sins of Western culture – known in great detail by every 12-year-old in the West – are hereby acknowledged and, to the extent that I can be contrite for someone else’s errors, I hereby apologize.
I daily remind myself of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13, that love does not gloat over the wrong-doing of others but delights in the truth, but the truth can be uncomfortable, and we are here today to search for it.
My Formal Remarks:
Believe me, it is not easy it is to say what I’m about to say, for I know it will be misunderstood. If I was confident that someone else might say it, I would happily to leave it to them to say. But I’m not confident of that, so I’m going to ask your indulgence as I put on my very best Jeremiah impersonation.

At the heart of the European crisis, as I see it, is a loss of faith – Europe’s loss of its Christian faith and then, as a predictable consequence, Europe’s loss of faith in itself. It is fundamentally a Christian problem, but today of course it has both a Muslim and a Jewish component.

THE CHRISTIAN COMPONENT:

One of the West’s greatest shortcomings is its aversion to accurately assessing its own cultural uniqueness and especially the religious sources of that uniqueness. The key to the kind of pluralistic and politically secular polity that the West rightly cherishes is the parallel cultural coexistence of a religious tradition whose faithful are taught to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s and to recognize the dignity of the person and his or her right to follow the voice of conscience.

The last time Europe lost faith in itself this profoundly was in the aftermath of World War I, and in a heartbeat the primitive gods were back, tricked out on that occasion in ideological disguises. Whatever these gods will look like next time, the European loss of self-confidence and Europe’s confusion over its historic identity will provide the occasion for their return. At issue, it’s important to remember, is the spiritual condition of the West itself: whether or to what extent it has lost its soul and in the process lost its way in history and is no longer willing to pass on its cultural inheritance to the next generation.

Nothing exemplifies Europe’s lack of faith in itself more than its reluctance to reproduce. As Mark Steyn put it: the future belongs to those who show up for it. A great number of European Muslims are going to show up, but they will be joined by only a relatively small number of European Christians and Jews and by a statistically insignificant number of European secularists. The future belongs to the fertile. Europe – radical jihadists worldwide now have reason to believe – will fall into their hands by mid-century. For many of the most radical, however, that seems too long to have to wait.

Which brings us to THE MUSLIM COMPONENT

Henri de Lubac pitied those who learned their catechism against something, and the worst way to revive the Christian spirit in the West is to do so in order to counter non-Christian influences, whatever they might be. That said, however, there is in fact a Muslim component to the present crisis, and it is rooted in a few uncomfortable but undeniable realities:

#1. Mohammad: The founder of Islam, whatever his other virtues, was a conquering warrior who spread his religious beliefs by the sword. One doesn’t have to be an expert in mimetic theory to recognize the salience of this or its contemporary relevance.

#2. Since Mohammad’s modus operandi was inscribed in the Qur’an and made normative in the sharia, the second uncomfortable but undeniable reality is that obligatory acts of violence enjoy the highest possible Islamic sanction, and are regarded by Muslims of the strict observance as unalterable and immune to more benign construals.

I am genuinely honored to share the dais with Islamic scholars who have tried to foster a more irenic understanding of Islam, and who have, no doubt, paid a personal and professional price for doing so. Unfortunately, those courageous few – they are both very courageous and very few – who have publicly and unequivocally resisted the jihadist revival have had their voices drowned out by the radicals, who cite Qur’anic authorizations the moderates appear unable to effectively refute. In any case, it is now clear that such reform efforts are better appreciated by Westerners – desperate for signs of Islamic moderation – than they are by the sea of radical Islamicists who now dominate the discourse in the Muslim world.

#3. Religious Tolerance: The first freedom is religious freedom.

How many instances are there of societies with a Muslim majority or an Islamic regime where anything remotely resembling Western religious freedom exists? As mosques sprout up like Starbucks in the West, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and native animists are being denied basic religious freedoms and/or physically intimidated and persecuted in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Algeria, Yemen, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Sudan, Iran, Indonesia and so on. In an Islamic society, can a Muslim cease being a Muslim without endangering his life? Can a Hindu or a Mormon try to convert a Muslim without endangering his?

Finally . . . THE JEWISH COMPONENT:

It was fashionable not long ago to sagely observe that the Palestinians are the Jews of our time. The truth, of course, is that the Jews are the Jews of our time. Now as ever, the Jews are the canary in the European mineshaft, and to repeat the cliché that their predicament is reducible to “the politics of the Middle-East” is a species of the 1930s slander about Jews in the international banking system, and it is shameful.

In Europe today, Jews are once again having to be cautious and to avoid certain areas out of very legitimate fears for their safety, while imams both inside and outside Europe spew forms of anti-Semitism that would make the Nazis blush. No dialogue that ignores these matters deserves the name.

St. Peter admonished Christians to be prepared to give nonbelievers the reason for their hope, and he did so no doubt because there seemed precious little empirical evidence for it. My own hope is of that same sort. I actually am hopeful, but I can’t let on if I am to play the gloomy Jeremiah role all the way to the end. Nothing less that sober biblical hope will do. It’s the best kind anyway. There is reason to hope, wrote the historian John Lukacs, “that the New Dark Ages may not last hundreds of years; and there is reason to believe that their darkness will not be uniform.”
In the question and answer period, I was able to clarify a number of points, but I also found an opportunity to add something that was part of my formal remarks, but which was inadvertently ommited in the text I took with me to the auditorium:
The history of this century and beyond will be very largely determined by whether the West finds a way to reclaim and reaffirm its spiritual inheritance and thereby reenergize a culture that fosters the genuine flourishing of its people and to which others – whatever their race, creed, ethnicity, or background – will want to transfer their national allegiance, culturally assimilate, and contribute their part.

4 comments:

Athos said...

Bracing and tonic, Gil. Thank you for your honest and consistent witness.

Aramis said...

Dear Gil,

Very powerful in a most appropriate setting at COV'R in Amsterdam!

With that said...and not to side track from Jeremiah, (so I am lifting this comment out of the COV'R setting and into an ERI setting), your reference: "Henri de Lubac pitied those who learned their catechism against something, and the worst way to revive the Christian spirit in the West is to do so in order to counter non-Christian influences, whatever they might be..." where did he say this and more important to me, in your words, what did de Lubac mean by this? This concept as you wrote it out here sounds very much Girardian.

jbraceboy said...

Spectacularly prescient comments. Were it not for my faith I would believe we are domed to be over-run by the zealots.

Guy said...

I think there are additional components to this that complicate things.

Firstly, small but powerful groups in the West are actively trying to subvert the Christian basis for our culture.

Secondly, and I know this will sound curious, but I believe the Evangelical movement has a lot to do with this. Christianity in the East is strong but heavily persecuted. Evangelical Christians in the West have lost their interest in the future and are just waiting around to be "raptured".

The Founding Fathers, while certainly Christian, had a a very forward looking view and would frequently write about what the country would look like 100 or even 200 years later. I don't believe that future looking viewpoint exists in Western Christianity, but it must be brought back for any of this to work out.