Why We Can't Live in John Lennon's World

Why We Can't Live in John Lennon's World
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In the immediate wake of the recent slaughter in Paris, John Lennon's "Imagine"  seemed to speak for many.

I love John Lennon. But "Imagine" is a secular kumbaya, not a worldview for adults serious about healing.

And yet, adults in diplomatic, military, economic, and intelligence institutions seem joined in a similar wrong-headedness, evinced in efforts to trace the etiology of what Pope Francis has called, "World War III." That is, the refusal to identify ISIS as an Islamic movement of any kind.

When ISIS and Islam are spoken in the same breath, it's invariably to remind us that the sole shred of connection is the former's "hijack" of the latter. President Obama, who quickly eclipsed his predecessor in the readiness to make just such declarations, captured the present unclarity while speaking at the recent G20 in Turkey. "We can retake territory, and as long as we leave our troops there, we can hold it, but that doesn't solve the underlying problem of eliminating the dynamics that are producing these kinds of violent extremist groups."

The first part of this statement is true enough; the second practically mocks with its lack of specificity. Here, the devil's not in the details, but in their absence.

The West is daunted by the "underlying problem" because it has its own underlying problem -- virtually opposite -- that makes for a dangerous symmetry, namely, an antipathy to religion generally, and the Judeo/Christian tradition in particular.

Through decades of academic hegemony, it has produced generations inured to those traditions without, the very liberalism flexed to reject them, would be unthinkable.

Such ironies abound, and with scant notice. There's a reason for this too: The authority of religion has been tossed in favor of an orientation inclined, not nearly as much to science, as ideology. And it goes a long way toward explaining the details lacking in the "soft solutions" so far proposed.

Predictions from the same quarter, that humanity would soon escape the playpen of religion, have proved dead wrong. Lest things get deadlier still, the miasma between the ears of Western culture must clear. To that end, some of the key elements in play should be re-examined, rather than assumed.

For starters, it would help to acknowledge the universal nature of religion itself -- and that it comes in secular varieties. By the same token, it should be admitted that theistic religion becomes its own form of atheism in direct proportion to the space it cedes to ideology.

A second point is of the three Abrahamic traditions, Judaism and Christianity share an anthropology, rooted squarely in the biblical confession that every person enters the world in the Image and Likeness of the Creator. That Islam doesn't is significant, with implications so important, they're difficult to overstate. Instead, they're barely noticed.

Some would make the case that ISIS is really a political movement that uses Islamic language to advance its agenda. As a fact, this one offers no light if it fails to acknowledge Islam itself as intrinsically political.

Theocratic forays have certainly been made in the name of Christ, but not even what came to be known as, Christendom, could properly be called, Christianity, let alone, the Church.

Moreover, related attempts to fuse ethnicity and church were identified as ideological, and institutionally defined as the heresy of phyletism.

In contrast, Al Azhar, the oldest (10th century) and most prestigious school of Islamic (Sunni) jurisprudence, recently repeated its judgement that ISIS cannot be considered heretical. As Egyptian scholar Samir Khalil Samir puts it, "In the Koran there are two different choices, the aggressive and the peaceful, and both are acceptable. There is a need for an authority, unanimously acknowledged by Muslims that could say, 'only this verse is valid.' But this does not, and probably never will, happen."

For better and worse, adherents of faith traditions tend not to live the precepts of their scriptures maximally. If Christians and Muslims did, they would change the world -- but, not into the same world.

We don't have to time-travel to glimpse societies organized according to Islamic principles. At this moment, no less than 11 countries have sharia as their law of the land. Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia are among them.

As President Obama is keen to emphasize, the United States is not a Christian nation. And those who seem unable to resist drawing, in most cases spurious, moral equivalencies, would do well to recall that here, a person may swear an oath by placing a hand on the Bible, as when pledging to uphold the Constitution. In Saudi Arabia, the Koran is the constitution, and the moral blade that severs the hand of its trespasser.

Honest dialogue is indispensable for the understanding needed to move beyond fear and violence. But we will never understand what we choose not to see.

John Lennon said dreaming of a world with no religion was easy, if only we would try. And if that detail-dodging devil starts dancing every time we do, well...imagine that.

Tim Kelleher is the new media editor for First Things.

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