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2007 09 10
Defusing God’s Warriors: The Nature of Truth
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Does anyone watch CNN any more? Some days it looks like they got young Anderson Cooper running the show. Hosting interminable stretches of it, anyhow. Might possibly work out fine. Such a great head of air. And American audiences might relate. Not intimately like they relate to Homer Simpson -– nobody redeems American ignorance like huggable, indestructible Homer. But, provided sufficient boyish charm and childish innocence -– maybe like with Bart.

And how about that “God’s Warriors” miniseries? Wasn’t that worth watching? Wasn’t it hilarious?

Toronto Sun’s Michael Coren watched it. Didn’t much like it, though. Didn’t like it so much -– he got fuming incendiary at CNN.

Comparing Christiane Amanpour’s CNN miniseries to a suicide attempt, Coren wrote that,
.. CNN ran three shows on religious fundamentalism, making the appallingly relativistic and fatuous argument that the Christian, Jewish and Islamic varieties were not only similar but equally hazardous.
Well.. yeah. Sure. CNN programming can get fatuous, alright. But why get upset? Why expect meaningful significance when viewing footage of Anderson Cooper exclaiming how strong the wind blows? Or when Lou Dobbs declares undocumented workers are waging war on Americans -– regardless how such workers stand, fall and risk their lives for the American dream? Or when Wolf Blitzer comes at us live as smoke grenades from the over-stimulation room -– quivering to make news even when there’s nothing to report? Because, like Wolf told Bill Clinton, he’s a newsman and that’s his job -– making news?

So why get upset at Christiane Amanpour? She’s just doing her job. Accidental tour-guiding us to fundamentalist footage. And look -– see? There’s some Christian fundamentalism here. Alright –- keep very still. There! That was Islamic fundamentalism. And if we all just look behind this rock -– quietly! There! Yes! Jewish fundamentalism.

Of course Christiane neglected telling how the time to worry about Christian fundamentalism was hundreds years back. When Christian soldiers really got crusading the heathens. Or how the time to worry about Jewish fundamentalism was thousands years back. When their tribes spilled from the dessert and got genociding anything that moved if it worshipped false idols. Whereas the time to worry about Islamic fundamentalism is now more than ever. Particularly when in potential conjunction with weapons of mass destruction -– as reported repeatedly.

Right? We don’t lose much sleep over Christian or Jewish fundamentalism any more. We did for a while. Kept waking in the wee hours. Wondering if the militant Christian or Jewish fundamentalist terrorists were coming to make pastries of our blood. But when militant fundamentalist terrorists did arrive, when we woke to explosive pounding, there weren’t any Christian or Jewish fundamentalists to be found. None. Nowhere. Oh, we looked. We searched. After the dust settled, we searched high, searched low, searched sideways. Behind stones. Behind trees, bushes, shrubs and flowerbeds.

“Hey there, stone,“ we’d ask, “are there militant Christian or Jewish fundamentalists hiding behind you?”

And the stones –- trees, bushes, shrubs and flowerbeds –- invariably replied, “Nah. Haven’t seen any those lately. Not the past hundreds years. Thousands, even.”

Not one militant Christian or Jewish fundamentalist to be found when terrorist dust settled. What we found, invariably, was militant Islamic fundamentalists. Islamists. Invariably. Got real used to finding those whenever dust settled. We’re getting so familiar how they tick -– pretty often now we find them even before they blow up.

Sure there’s Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. Absolutely. Might be there’s a couple Jehovah’s Witnesses in the flowerbed this very instant. But Christiane Amanpour can’t confuse us. Those are not the variety found when terrorist dust settles. And in event of singular exception, when Christian or Jewish fundamentalists do grow sufficiently militant to assassinate or spontaneously blow up –- we don’t run the streets celebrating. We don’t celebrate, admire or venerate anyone remaining in Christian or Jewish fundamentalist ignorance. We manage tolerating their ignorant, fundamentalist religious freedoms -– just so long as not militant. Not a shade longer. For militant means not just ignorant –- but criminal. Nevermind combining militant criminality with incurably intolerant fundamentalist ignorance -– that’s both criminally insane and insanely criminal. So. We manage tolerating fundamentalist ignorance -– barely. But anything getting militant hereabouts goes direct to jail, does not pass go -– and totally does not collect $200. And we do much better without fundamentalism in the first place, thanks so much. That’s why we not only separate church from state –- we even have second thoughts public funding prayer in schools.

Christiane Amanpour can’t confuse us. Because we’re getting militant Islamic fundamentalism -– the meaning of it -– in the (relatively) tolerant West. Not (only) since 9/11. That’s a myth. That we’ve become Islam-phobic since 9/11. In the tolerant West we don’t mistake all Muslims for militant fundamentalists. We know far better. But since 9/12 through 9/whenever –- that’s different. We’ve seen the collective 9/12 dancing in the Middle-Eastern Muslim street. Seen it on T.V. Seen it on Al-Jazeera and CNN. The 9/12 collective rejoicing. We tried laughing it off –- i.e., with (non)Muhammad cartoons. Tried laughing it off as we would Christian or Jewish fundamentalism. Tried laughing it off as we would any ignorance. But that Islamic fundamentalism is too militant. Too criminal insane. It rules the ignorance of Islamic fundamentalism as it has not ruled Christianity for hundreds of years -– or Judaism for thousands.

No way can Christiane Amanpour confuse us. Not when we kept falling asleep during her breathless narrating Christian and Jewish fundamentalism. But militant Islamic fundamentalism? Hell. We can’t get nowhere near sleeping without it falling down the stairs. Blowing up the house right along with the stairs. Militant Islamic fundamentalism blows up and keeps right on ticking. Like some crazed vaporizer bunny. Blows up nightly, blows up daily. Keeps on ticking. No way will it go gently into no sweetly slumbering good night. Not on our lives, it won’t.

There’s no laughing militant Islamic fundamentalism off. Not while it keeps us up nights – and blows us up most days. No laughing it off in Chechnya, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iraq or Lebanon. Not in Asia, Africa, Europe or America. No laughing off how it worships death, how it suicide-murders innocents as eagerly in the West as the mid-East or the North or the South.

But what’s the point Michael Coren getting all upset at Christiane Amanpour -– or anyone at CNN? They’re just doing their jobs making news. Just show business as usual. Reporting things that move. Like wind. Undocumented workers. Fundamentalists. Whatever. Reporting the meaning and significance of movements –- like, why things move –- is so not part of Christiane’s job description. Not at CNN.

Christiane did a great job. Just indiscriminately pointing out fundamentalism. It is indeed a huge problem. She did a superlative job –- simply as a mainstream conversation starter. So that now, six years after 9/11, we can finally begin really talking about it. Right out in the open mainstream. So that more thoughtful individuals can start reasoning why Islamic fundamentalism is such a huge problem –- whereas both Christian and Jewish fundamentalism are not.

That’s the issue. Why on the Islamic shore, as Columbia University’s Mark Lilla puts it, “.. political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority..” -- while on non-Islamic shores they aren’t. That’s the issue, the difference our understanding of which Lilla declares “.. the most urgent intellectual and political task of the present time.” And the way Lilla declares this -– right out in the open mainstream rather than all covert in some merely academic journal –- owes plenty to Christiane Amanpour. To her tearing into and through the mainstream indiscriminately as an icebreaker.

So here we are. Right out in the open mainstream. Owing plenty to them that broke the ice. Like Rosie O’Donnell, proclaiming Christian fundamentalism equally dangerous to Islamic fundamentalism. Yet far more so to Christiane Amanpour’s “appallingly relativistic and fatuous argument” that Islamic, Christian and Jewish fundamentalism are all equally dangerous. Michael Coren ought to be grateful rather than furious. But now that we’re here, right out in the open mainstream, it’s time to figure out what makes Christiane so spectacularly wrong. We’d better make some headway following Mark Lilla in figuring out this “most urgent intellectual and political task”.

So what happened? How come Islam musters endless Islamist armies, each militant fundamentalist soldier of which is so bolstered by divine authority that they are eager to die if only it means bringing God’s truth to those of us infidels they kill? How come we in the (relatively) tolerant West scarcely manage raising even sporadic few divinely authorized militant fundamentalists –- and that whenever we do, we hunt those down as if criminally insane and insanely criminal both?

Mark Lilla says what happened -– accounting for Western democracy and, arguably, also for Canadian tolerance and multiculture such as in Toronto -– was the “Great Separation”. And that we can blame it all on Hobbes:
This liberal-democratic order is the only one we in the West recognize as legitimate today, and we owe it primarily to Hobbes. In order to escape the destructive passions of messianic faith, political theology centered on God was replaced by political philosophy centered on man. This was the Great Separation.
This might very well be right. Lilla’s “Great Separation” may account for the cultural shift in the moral and political character of the West. But even so -– how could the mantle of divine authority have become such a rag, to be discarded so out of hand, if we continued even to suspect God was watching us? From no matter how great a distance? No. Something far more fundamental, more culturally tectonic must have occurred to account how we’ve discarded divine authority. How we’ve thrown off that divine mantle once indispensable to ruling as if it became a rag of ignorance and impotence.

Something far more culturally tectonic did happen. God turned up dead one day. The eighth biblical day, perhaps -– when we killed God. That’s what turned the mantle of divine authority to rags.

How did we wind up killing God? Unintentionally. All the while our materialist Enlightenment prophets -– Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Darwin –- were demonstrating everywhere God was not found, the nature of truth was shifting beneath us. Took about one thousand years for truth to turn entirely and categorically from ontological idealism to epistemological materialism.

Prior to shifting, truth and authority were divinely revealed and granted. The actuality of God was incontrovertibly definitive for St. Anselm. God was the greatest possible. Therefore, God couldn’t just be an idea. God had to be real. For if God were just an idea then God would not have been the greatest possible. Which, of course, God was –- the greatest possible. But, hundreds of years later, after Copernicus and other materialist prophets kept demonstrating how fully reliable God wasn’t, there was a tide of doubting God’s greatness. Descartes sought to stem the doubting. Tried to demonstrate how there was some God given truth -– given directly to human minds –- we could be certain of. But Descartes failed. Among many others, Hobbes maintained only science reliable in providing -– only evidently provisional -– knowledge. More strongly, La Mettrie pretty much ridiculed Descartes. Claimed that lacking evidence could mean nothing but ignorance. And then, after Darwin made such monkeys of us, doubting God’s greatness flooded the West. Today, in the West, truth has turned entirely -– from certain as God given to -– provisional. Since we now know that anything’s possible, we reject that purportedly greatest. Anything’s possible –- so there can always be greater. Hence God, the greatest possible, can’t be real. There can be no greatest when there can always be some greater. Therefore, as the greatest possible, God can only be an idea. And a rather silly one at that.

That’s what killed God in the West. The way the nature of truth shifted between back then, in St. Anselm’s day, and now. A stark and categorical difference the practical significance of which is easily illustrated by before-and-after thought experiment.

Imagine, for instance, that there’s a bible passage pronouncing all swans white. And imagine any true, devout believer, familiar with that bible passage, living sometime in middle-ages. Imagine, finally, that some fellow arrives carrying a large black bird -– loudly declaring he’s found himself a black swan.

What to do? As a true, devout believer, one surely tries to help. For the fellow’s own good. For sake of his immortal soul. One calls his attention to the bible passage pronouncing swans white. One encourages him to realize his error -– that the black bird he holds can’t be a swan. Right? Swans are white. But, madman that he is, the fellow starts to laugh. What can it mean? Is he possessed? Is he rebelling against God’s word? Is he a heretic? No telling. Must call on the village priest. Still, the fellow will not admit his error. His pride is such that, rather than recant, he vomits his sacrilege high and low. The priest has no option but to call on higher authority –- like the local inquisitor.

Fast forward a few hundred years. It becomes conceivable -– for some –- that swans are not necessarily white. The heretic becomes a naturalist. The devout believer begins having some difficulties remaining true.

Fast forward to the present. The heretic has become a scientist. The devout believer is now regarded as an ignorant fundamentalist. Western society permits and respects religious freedom to such ignorance only so long as it does not (re)turn militant.

That’s what happened. That’s what accounts for the difference. And that’s why still, six years post-9/11, instead of joining forces to deal with climate change, with icecaps melting as we breathe, humanity is clashing cultures like there’s no tomorrow. There can be no tomorrow until we emerge from our bloody past.

[Peter Fruchter teaches in the Division of Humanities at York University. He writes about the nature of truth (and truths of nature). North America is his third continent. Culture and Multiculture is an ongoing series.]

[World Trade Centre image by Dave Myers and used via Creative Commons.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 09/10 at 11:33 AM

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