What we are in truth

In his great study of religion and its place in our world, Joseph Ratzinger, a decade or so before he became Pope Benedict XVI, wrote of our failure to understand the differences both between and within the universal human phenomenon of religions. That book, a City of God for the modern world, is Truth and Tolerance. In it he noted that we often fail to see that religions, much as we think they do or should, often lead mankind in contrary directions. Often religions which claim to march under a unified banner do not even exist in one single form. Today, for example, he observed, we see before us quite clearly various ways in which Islam can be understood and lived out in destructive forms in one reading while in another form we can perceive a certain proximity to the mystery of Christ.

It seems to me that our increasingly alarming incapacity to deal with the problem of the destructive form of Islam is rooted in this failure.

President Macron of France recently warned French Catholics of the threats they in particular are facing from what he called ‘Islamist terrorist folly’. He has had to face a barrage of criticism from Muslims like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and from Western liberals for insisting on linking those three words together.

As Charles Moore points out in a recent Spectator column, he understands why some Muslims might think their religion is misrepresented when critics pull out a few bloodthirsty Quranic texts without understanding wider scriptural and traditional contexts. “You can play this game with any ancient religion, including Christianity and Judaism, and it is unfair.” However, he adds, Muslim organisations look ridiculous — and worse — if they devote their energies after atrocities to stigmatising legitimate criticism as ‘Islamophobia’, thus trying to chill free speech. They evade the fact that the Islamist perpetrators are serious believers, shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ as they kill (and often die) for their Allah.

He took issue with the Archbishop of Canterbury tweeting about the ‘godlessness’ of the recent Nice attack. “These people are not godless: they are fanatics who misunderstand what  God teaches.” Moderate Muslims who just say ‘Nothing to do with us’ are surely compounding their problems and their continued failure to find a path through modernity.

Refusing to recognise the sad truth that the acts of the perpatrators of these crimes are religiously motivated acts is a denial of reality which helps no one – other than the criminals themselves. Western liberals are steeped in a blinding denial, primarily to themselves. The modern refusal to face the true meaning of what is confronting our civilization is of course a consequence of other denials now inherent in our culture, ones which have been endemic for more than two centuries. Ratzinger explores them masterfully in his book.

The problem at the root of our engagement with this crisis is in fact our godlessness – not the godlessness of terrorists. It is our godlessness which is rendering us helpless in the face of this monster slouching towards Bethlehem.

If we are to have any hope of finding a solution to one of the persistent conflicts of our time, the West must admit that what it is facing in militant Islamism is a religion, a destructive strand of a religion in which, as Ratzinger suggests, we can even “perceive a certain proximity to the mystery of Christ”. The ‘Islamist terrorist folly’ must be recognised as having behind it all the force and power that genuinely held religious convictions can have. That is precisely the power that the West now is bereft of in its blundering response to this existential threat to our civilization. We have polluted the foundations of our civilization with toxic slush and are now trying to defend our sacred ground in what amounts to a quagmire of moral contradictions.

Down the centuries history shows us many examples of battles lost because the defenders chose the wrong terrain on which to face their enemies. Henry V drew the army of Charles VI into a sodden meadow at Agincourt in 1415 and wiped out the flower of French chivalry. Militant Islam will do the same to any opposing belief built on the quicksand of godless relativism.

Just recently the retired Anglican bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir Ali, alluded to our folly in thinking of the Islamist attacks in Europe as attacks on a secular way of life. “The beheading of the teacher in Paris, the murders in Notre-Dame in Nice and the shootings in Vienna are presented as a struggle between radical Islamism and a particular kind of enlightened secularism born of the French Revolution. That’s the way Emmanuel Macron sees it; that’s the way most educated atheists across Europe see it. But what they forget is that Enlightenment ethics — the ideas of tolerance and fairness — have their foundation in Christianity.”

The best response to violent Islamism, he says, isn’t humanism, but the idea of a loving, merciful Christian God. Secularism simply doesn’t have the spiritual and moral resources to tackle a comprehensive social, political, economic and religious ideology like Islamism. Freedom, liberty and the brotherhood of all men, he affirms, flow from Christianity and that Faith’s insistence on a personal relationship with God, the internalising of his moral demands, the primacy of the person and of conscience in western thought.  

Militant Islamism has nothing to fear from the dead end that is secular humanism. It knows its real enemy is Christian modernity. But without a commitment to – or at least an understanding of – their Christian roots, these enlightened concepts, liberté, egalité and fraternité, become completely muddled as they now are in our woke culture. Equality, as a value, arises from enlightened Judaeo-Christian teaching that all human beings have a common origin and equal dignity because they have been made in the divine image. Along with true freedom and fraternity, these are evangelical in their origin. It does not come from the Enlightnment. The horrors of the wars about religion in the 16th and 17th centuries provoked a refinement of our understanding and practice, albeit a significantly flawed one which carried within it the seeds of more destruction. As Nazir Ali reminds us, the Christian idea of natural human dignity provided the slogan ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ for the largely Evangelical-led campaign against the slave trade and then against slavery itself. “The radical Enlightenment, on the other hand, ended in the massacres of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror.”

Militant Islam knows what it has to kill in its war on the West. It has to kill what remains of the religion which is the foundation of the civilization which used to call itself Christian. It knows that the power of the vision which imbues that civilization is its greatest enemy. It sees it like a sleeping giant but it knows it is not dead. It really has nothing to fear from the foolishness of an ideology which sees man as the centre of all things, one built on the illusion that mankind has within itself all the answers to every question which can be raised about our existence and destiny. This was the delusion of Marxism in its Communist form – an illusion which crumbled when a Christian-inspired resistence in its occupied territories eventually undermined it.

Now we have another variant of Marxist materialism at work, denying even more truths about our nature and identity than Communism ever did. This weak and fallacious ideology is now confronted by a resurgent and violent religious force. Without the strength of the religious resources by which it formerly lived and moved and had its being, the hollowed out civilization which was once annimated by Judaeo-Christian faith will be easy prey to this malignant threat.  

Nazir Ali describes our current discontents as a standoff: “the West believes its values to be the product of ‘reason’ alone rather than the result of cumulative tradition and custom. Islamists, on the other hand, hold that their beliefs and values come from divine revelation, which is immutable.”  Where do we go from here? he asks, and concludes that the West needs to recover its nerve and to acknowledge that its values are not freestanding but arise from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

What form might this recovery take? Perhaps…, no, not just perhaps. Almost surely it must mean, as Joseph Ratzinger concluded in Truth and Tolerance, living our existence as a response – as a response to what we are in truth. “This one truth of man,” he wrote, “in which the good of all and freedom are indissolubly linked to each other, is expressed most centrally in the biblical tradition in the Ten Commandments, which in many respects correspond to the great ethical traditions of other religions, besides.

“In the Ten Commandments God presents himself, depicts himself, and at the same time interprets human existence, so that its truth is made manifest, as it becomes visible in the mirror of God’s nature, because man can only rightly be understood from the viewpoint of God. Living out the Ten Commandments means living out our own resemblance to God, responding to the truth of our nature, and thus doing good. To say it again, another way: Living out the Ten Commandments means living out the divinity of man, and exactly that is freedom: the fusing of our being with the Divine Being and the resulting harmony of all with all.” (p. 254)

It is only by being armed with these truths that we can hope to speak meaningfully and fruitfully to those who oppose us with untruth – either from within our own fold or from without. It has been the way in which our civilization has been nurtured and has nurtured us for the two millennia of the Christian era, the story which Tom Holland tells us so eloquently in his book of 2019, Dominion.  This has been the way in which the Divine and the human have walked hand in hand for eons before that, leading us to the moment of Redemption. It will always be the way and despite the turbulent times, the martyrs and the martyrdom, which we may experience, we shall prevail if we remain steadfast in the truth, fortes in fide.

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