April 22, 2003


Is theology irrelevant in modern life? (Peter Sellick, April 15, 2003, Online Opinion)
The loss of the theological stance leaves us truly at a loss in the world because none of the secular disciplines will help us orient our lives. The young man who peddles pornography on the Internet justifies his behaviour by saying that he just wants a nice lifestyle. This is what liberalism is, it is the pursuit of happiness sans value.

There is another downside of the loss of the theological stance and that is we lose the ability to analyse culture, both our own and others. We fail to recognise that metaphysics shapes culture because we have been told that metaphysics - how we view the world - is irrelevant.

This is where we really get nervous because we are tempted to make unfavourable comparisons between Western and other cultures and that smacks of ethnocentrism and the incitement of inter-religious hatred. We would much rather talk in the abstract about the "World's Great Religions" as if that abolishes any difference. We also are apt to say that there is, after all, only one god worshipped in many different ways.

But this high-flown language will not hide the deep rifts that exist between the religions of the world. Neither will cultural relativism smooth over the cracks or the romantic attitude that we are apt to take towards traditional cultures that makes everything seem of equal value. The argument of this essay is that we cannot afford to abandon the theological/critical stance either towards our own civilization or towards others.

At the present time the West is engaged in a war against an Islamic country. Our leaders have pressed the case that this has got nothing to do with religion and in the case of Iraq this is partly correct. However, if we fail is to understand how Islam has shaped the culture of Islamic countries then we will never see a large part of the picture. Let us take just three examples of differences between Judeo/Christianity and Islam.

1. Creation.

Islam, like Judeo/Christianity understands God as the creator of all things. The difference between them is that for Islam God cannot be contaminated by the human, God is pure, unknowable all powerful etc.

This is why Islam can accept Jesus as a prophet but cannot believe that he is the son of God. This would threaten God's purity. Such a metaphysic does not affirm the existence and importance of the world and human life that the creation stories and the incarnation do so strongly.

While both Islam and Christianity are tempted by Neoplatonism, in which the reality of the world is reduced to an emanation of the divine and the only real things are the heavenly, this is subverted in Christianity by the incarnation - God becomes a man. This is one of the reasons that the West is so ascendant in the material sciences, because its metaphysics affirms the reality of time and the world as the arena of human destiny. The world cannot be reduced in favour of heaven.

2. Law

Christian fundamentalism and Islam both agree that salvation comes by obeying the divine law. St Paul argued that our efforts to obey the law and to be justified by that are futile. He opens a new way of being that takes into account our frailty of purpose and puts revelation in its place. We see what human life is in the history of the nation of Israel - and the stories it told - and in the life and death of Jesus. We find our way via story.

So instead of slavishly obeying a text that tells us how to behave we are set free to make the journey into the human mystery. This has enormous implications for culture because it is always open to the new thing and is able to search the depths of the human heart.

3. Sin.

Both Judeo/Christianity and Islam deal with the story of Adam and Eve and the fall. However, Islam says that God forgave the human so that we did not carry the fall into the future. While Christianity affirms that there is something up with us, that there is something broken at the very basis of our lives, Islam projects the existence of evil onto Satan. The logic of this difference produces self examination and confession in the Christian tradition and the disowning of evil in the Islamic. Private admission of sin is necessary for public reformation. [...]

Metaphysics cannot be voided; it is rather the case that one displaces another. The radical Enlightenment of the 17th C with its emphasis on the objective and on freedom from all creeds, and the subsequent reorientation of life towards the pursuit of happiness, thanks to the Americans, has displaced the dreaming that was at the base of Western civilization.

For my money this is a thinner narrative of the human and produces thinner lives and thinner culture. If the West is to find itself exhausted, economically, culturally and politically, then it will be because it has grasped to its bosom an inadequate narrative of the human.

It seems that we have out-paced ourselves. We find ourselves with increasingly powerful new toys and we do not know their import for us. And so we invent things called "ethics" that purport to tell us. But ethics cannot be derived from an inadequate narrative of the human; all you get is inadequate ethics. The solution to all this? That is another story.

The one point that Mr. Sellick neglects is that America, uniquely within the West, rejects the thinner narrative and clings to the theological metaphysics. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is why America has a healthier society and greater freedom than its peers--even its closest peers like Britain and Australia. The internalization of this richer narrative appears to provide the only sound base for an enduring republic of freedom. The import of this is that unless there is a Judeo-Christian religious revival in the rest of the West, it is likely to continue to sicken and die just as surely as Islam. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 22, 2003 9:40 AM
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