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2007 09 01
The Principle of Tolerance (Culture & Multiculture, Part 10)

There’s nothing more dangerous than ignoring culture. Nothing fatal as ignorance when it comes to cultural principles. For cultural principles are made equally of ideology and of ideals. And while ideals shape the world -– ideology will surely destroy it.

Mentioning any clash of civilizations produces vehement denial. Fair enough. Wherefore art these civilizations? Whereabouts is even bare civility remaining? Thus and however, though -– nobody can deny how cultures are clashing. No one tries denying cultures clash like there’s no tomorrow.

What tomorrow? The long cold-war years are over. Done, those days of superpowers balancing, cavorting on the cutting edge of mutually assured destruction. Perhaps coming to grips with climate change isn’t hopeless -– should we only work together in good time. But what hope of working together? What hope while the conjunction of militant fundamentalism with weapons of mass destruction approaches? The spectre of our twenty-first century looms too vast. Threatening, as it does, to shroud us not only in greenhouse gasses -– but also in unholy smoke of mushroom clouds.

In “The Politics of God” (New York Times Magazine, August 19, 2007) -- an essay adapted from his forthcoming book -– Columbia University’s Mark Lilla declares understanding political theology “[T]he most urgent intellectual and political task of the present time.” And he’s right. Whatever called, we absolutely can’t afford persisting in ignorance when it comes to political theology -– perhaps better known as militant fundamentalism.

Lilla is quite right, as well, to point out how categorically our ignorance persists:
.. we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form -– as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more. We live, so to speak, on the other shore. When we observe those on the opposite bank, we are puzzled, since we have only a distant memory of what it was like to think as they do. We all face the same questions of political existence, yet their way of answering them has become alien to us. On one shore, political institutions are conceived in terms of divine authority and spiritual redemption; on the other they are not. And that, as Robert Frost might have put it, makes all the difference.
Indeed. But what to do? How even to begin emerging from our ignorance concerning cultural principles entailing militant fundamentalism? Lilla proposes we get in touch with our own fundamentalist roots:
Even the most stable and successful democracies, with the most high-minded and civilized believers, have proved vulnerable to political messianism and its theological justification. If we can understand how that was possible in the advanced West, if we can hear political theology speaking in a more recognizable tongue, represented by people in familiar dress with familiar names, perhaps then we can remind ourselves how the world looks from its perspective. This would be a small step toward measuring the challenge we face and deciding how to respond.
Is that so? Could we do that? Take that one “small step” to reminding ourselves? To get in touch with our own fundamentalist roots? No. Not likely. Not by however many small steps.

Lilla completely underestimates how distant our memory “of what it was like to think as they do” has stretched. How distant? Stretched past all breaking points. Inconceivably distant. We have crossed a great and categorical divide from our fundamentalist roots. There’s no small stepping back across.

Our division from fundamentalist roots is categorical. With but few exceptions compassing those we deem criminally insane -– i.e., David Koresh -– almost none of us remain able in the West to conceive as militant fundamentalists do. We can’t help regarding exploding murder-suicides, for instance, as we would enemy combatants prepared to make the supreme sacrifice. As if willing to die for their cause. And, while simultaneously realizing it isn’t so, we still can’t begin conceiving how fundamentally such murder-suicides are not sacrificing. How not willing -– but eager they are to die for their cause. How eager they are to die if it means bringing God’s truth crashing and crushing us infidels. We can’t begin conceiving it -– how great God is for the truly faithful of militant fundamentalism.

Lilla doesn’t appear to deny our division from fundamentalism. He does question the divide, however. How and when did it come to be so great? How categorical is it, anyhow? As Lilla put it, “The history of political theology in the West is an instructive story, and it did not end with the birth of modern science, or the Enlightenment, or the American and French Revolutions, or any other definitive historical moment.”

Quite right. It didn’t happen overnight. Our division from fundamentalism spanned hundreds of years and involved everything Lilla mentions. More, even. But none of that means we can’t figure out what happened. Our trouble recognizing and identifying what happened is due only how thoroughly and intimately we take it all for granted -– not how long it took.

What happened? We killed God dead -– that’s what. So that now, as we’ve heard long since -– God is dead. How did it happen? When? Once we began following the great materialist prophets of our Enlightenment. Copernicus. Galileo. Newton. And the greatest of our prophets -– Darwin.

Copernicus and Galileo showed us how lights didn’t move in the sky around us by God’s hand. Newton showed us how nothing in the mechanics of the world was getting moved by God’s hand. And when Darwin made such total monkeys out of us -– that was the last spike. Went right through God’s coffin and killed God dead. Because Darwin showed us how nothing in our ancestry and own bodies had been moved by God’s hand.

That’s how it happened. Us killing God. By wresting his creator hand right out of creation. Our great Enlightenment prophets showed us everywhere God wasn’t. Not in the stars, not in the mechanics of the world -– not even in our own bodies. Such that, when all God’s workings had been unsaid and undone, biblical thumping invoking God given truths came to mean ignorance more so than divine authority.

That’s what happened. Thumping bibles hasn’t lost all authority -– we haven’t come entirely that far. But almost none of us can help regarding thumping bibles as ignorant. Most of us regard them thumping as clowns. Which contradicts and demolishes our inclination or ability to credit their divine authority. Hence, we’ve laughed Christian fundamentalism right off. Laughed it out of state and out of court. It hasn’t even much prayer left in public schools. And while many of us bring in the clowns or go visiting them when feeling nostalgic -– we just can’t conceive how to be ruled by them any longer. Not by such clowns.

Once we killed God, the very nature of truth changed on us in the (relatively) tolerant West. We just haven’t got that old time revelation to fall back on any more. God’s own truth is empty and shut to us. Consequently, we’ve got nothing but solid evidence to rely on. Trouble is, evidence can never be solid like God’s truth used to be. Evidence is all descriptive and provisional. Nothing certain about it. Nothing definitive like God’s truth used to be. Damned evidence keeps arriving on daily basis. Never lets up. And no matter how confident we might feel -– we keep getting proven wrong eventually.

Killing God has made us provisional, uncertain and post-modern about truth. It has traumatized us and made us (relatively) tolerant. It has also made us intolerable to militant fundamentalism -– to the truly faithful. Who, by (their great) God’s own truth, know that they are right. Right to bring God’s truth to us. The more spectacularly the better. For their redemption, their eternal reward and for our own good, even. But even so -– we can’t conceivably respond in kind. How could we ever go out crusading to save heathen souls or die the martyrs’ death again -– knowing we might be completely in the wrong?

What if we could, though? Just hypothetically -– what if we could follow Lilla’s suggestion and get in touch with our fundamentalist roots again? What if we became certain of God’s truth once more? If we managed conceiving how truly great God is, if we found that absolute faith -– individually and especially collectively -– once more? If so then God help us all. For then we shall have re-crossed the categorical divide backwards and rejoined the truly faithful. And all helping ourselves from the spectre of this twenty-first century will have utterly passed us by.

There’s another avenue open to our understanding. Rather than getting in touch with our fundamentalist roots, let’s explore, discover and learn to better appreciate cultural principles distinguishing us as Canadians -– and Torontonians. For anything good and positive we might contribute stems from Canadian moderation, democracy -– and from the best of multiculture as in Toronto.

Let’s better appreciate the source, origin, meaning and significance of the principle informing our moderation, democracy and multiculture. Let’s better appreciate the principle of tolerance. For in so doing we enhance our identity as Canadians and Torontonians -– and more generally emerge from ignorance concerning cultural principles. Concerning all cultural principles -– including those entailing militant fundamentalism. Because what’s made our ignorance so fatal hasn’t been losing touch with our fundamentalism. It’s been how we’ve dismissed both the ideals shaping and ideologies destroying the world. How we’ve dismissed all principles. What’s been so fatal to our understanding and future has been how deeply the relatively tolerant West has fallen into materialism.

That’s our trouble. Materialist monism contradicts appreciating any principle -– regardless whether that principle informs other cultures or the meaning of our own tolerance.

[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.]

['Heaven or hell' image by karmablue and used via Creative Commons.]
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 09/01 at 10:02 AM

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