What has gone wrong? There can be no doubt but that something has gone very badly wrong when the very basis of mankind’s self-understanding has come to a pass where the vision of life and good living itself has been perverted beyond recognition. How did we get to the point where the termination of life, both by oneself and by another is considered a moral option? How did we reach a point where in the chaos and confusion emanating from the meltdown of our financial system, everyone talks about regulation and regulation agencies but no one talks about a moral sense of right or wrong or of the springs from which such a sense emanates. How did we come to lose our sense of the meaning of human love to the extent that it is now the pretext for the wholesale abuse of human sexuality?
Some years ago – not too many – in the aftermath of the emergence of Islamic rage against the West, the historian Bernard Lewis asked the same question about the collapse of Islamic civilization. He did so in a book which was simply titled, What Went Wrong?
I attended Mass one morning recently in a Dublin parish church. The parish priest concelebrated while a priest whom I had not seen before was the main celebrant and he preached a short homily. That homily gave me at least part of an answer to the question, what has gone wrong for us?
Bernard Lewis, 85 years of age, is professor emeritus at Princeton University and for many is thedoyen of Middle East studies in the West. How, his question asks, did the preeminence that the Islamic world once enjoyed and the civilization it had created collapse?
Lewis’s argument is that the success of Muhammad in establishing not merely the Muslim religion, but also an empire dominated by that faith, served to create a society that is totalitarian by its very nature, bound by rules and strictures that make it too static to adapt and compete with a West where Christianity, in contrast, does not demand control over the political and economic spheres. The very foundations of these respective faiths for him hold the key to the histories of both civilizations – to date.
Could it be that the true crisis of the West today is that it may now be about to abandon the very reason for its triumph – its Judaeo-Christian heart, in favour of an amalgam of so-called “politically correct” principles founded on…nothing.
Lewis argues as follows: The absence of a native secularism in Islam, and the widespread Muslim rejection of an imported secularism inspired by Christian example, may be attributed to certain profound differences of belief and experience in the two cultures. The first, and in many ways the most profound difference, from which all others follow, can be seen in the contrasting foundation myths–and I use this expression without intending any disrespect–of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
The children of Israel fled from bondage, and wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before they were permitted to enter the Promised Land. Their leader Moses had only a glimpse, and was not himself permitted to enter. Jesus was humiliated and crucified, and his followers suffered persecution and martyrdom for centuries, before they were finally able to win over the ruler, and to adapt the state, its language, and its institutions to their purpose.
Muhammad achieved victory and triumph in his own lifetime. He conquered his promised land, and created his own state, of which he himself was supreme sovereign. As such, he promulgated laws, dispensed justice, levied taxes, raised armies, made war, and made peace. In a word, he ruled, and the story of his decisions and actions as ruler is sanctified in Muslim scripture and amplified in Muslim tradition.
On the contrary, Lewis goes on to explain, Judaism and Christianity had the concept of the secular state forced upon them by circumstance from their very beginnings. Where Christian theologians like St. Augustine developed complex theories to explain and justify the secular state, Muslim thinkers never even had to face the dilemma.
Judaism and Christianity, in that view developed spiritually and lived spiritually in alien worlds before they came to terms with those worlds. They knew what true freedom was. They knew the place of law and regulation but also knew what their foundation was. On the other hand, lacking any sense of the secular and the eternal play between the City of God and the City of the World within which lives our sense and enjoyment of human freedom on a day-to-day basis, the Islamic world became crippled and dangerously resentful of its triumphant rival.
But if that rival now abandons the principles of the faith – and in particular if the ministers of that faith begin to abandon the authentic teachings which, in its Scriptures and traditions, have sustained it for millennia – and which have given it its very essence, then the future is very uncertain indeed.
And this is where my epiphany in a Dublin parish church comes in again. After that Mass I went to talk of my concerns to the homilist – but the bird had flown. What had he said that was so worrying? It was more what he did not say that was the problem.
His homily referred to a film in the context of the gospel of the day (Matthew 9. 1-8). The film recounted the story of a young man who announced to his family and friends that he was gay. His mother was distraught and left the event at which this announcement took place, apparently rejecting her son in the process. The preacher made no further comment on this other than simply to pose the question to himself and his congregation: “How do I react when people tell me things I don’t particularly want to hear”.
It was no earth-shattering heterodoxy. But that phenomenon of late 20th century heterodoxy of which it is a symptom might ultimately put in the shadows the breach in Christendom effected by the 95 theses nailed on the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517. The moral implication was clear to all. There was no moral issue whatsoever about the choice and actions of the gay son. The moral deviance was on the mother’s side, in failing to deal adequately with nothing more serious than something that she did not want to hear – like a choice of political party she might have disapproved of, a choice of a wife deemed unsuitable, or ever a rejection of her very good dinner. There was no recognition that what the mother might have been dealing with was the realisation that her son had made a choice which she knew to be immoral according to the norms of natural law, the teaching of the authentic Judaeo-Christian faiths and the law of God.
If our secular world continues on its rudderless way, guided only by groundless and flawed politically correct principles, and if the ministers of the Judaeo-Christian religions abandon their duty to hold up before their faithful followers the authentic shared principles of those religions, then the freedom we have enjoyed coming from the very heart of those religions will perish and we will end up with totalitarian systems fighting it out among themselves – to the death or deadlock.