Tuesday, February 07, 2006

It's not a "Clash of Civilizations"

but it is a clash of cultures.

Robert Fisk is right: there are few Christians left in Europe (I attended a conference conducted by an ordained Presbyterian minister who worked as a business consultant and did business in Europe. He confided to the group, all pastors and church laypeople, that he suppressed his ministerial status in Europe, because it would "get in the way" of his business standing with his European clients). And the fact that Muslims "live their faith" while most of us in the West do not (and the ones who do we tend to call either "religious," as in monks and nuns, or "fundamentalists") is no small part of this current (and apparently spreading) problem.

But there is another issue at work here, one underneath the others, and it goes back to the "liberal virus" and Voltaire, and post-Enlightenment Europe. That issue is the importance of the individual.

European Romanticism (which was especially embraced in America: think Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson) espoused the value of the individual, at a time when industrialization threatened to wipe out the concept of "humanity" altogether, and replace it with the "cog" in the "machinery" of the then-rising factory. The individual über alles, the individual defiant of even the gods, even of Fate, the Byronic hero, became the figure of Romanticism (Thoreau's year at Walden Pond and Whitman's "Song of Myself" are pale echoes of Byron's exploits, but issue from the same impetus.).

We don't think in terms of groups and communities in the West, as we once did. Chaucer picked out individuals for his Canterbury Tales, but they represented social groups, and the medieval European mind thought easily in metaphors and visual imagery, so that individuals could represent the group, or the group be represented in the individual. But in Fiske's example, a lone man sets fire to a Parisian theater for showing "The Last Temptation of Christ," and when small groups of Christians mount a protest in this country, the first line of assault is on the inability of the group members to "think for themselves," and the attack on many fundamentalists Christian groups, even from mainline churches like the UCC, is that the members of such groups "want to be told what to think and believe."

And yet we spend a great deal of energy, in seminary and other ecclesiological circles, talking about the "community" of believers.

So we don't riot, and we don't protest, and we don't react en masse to the publication of cartoons. Unless, of course, the cartoons portray Jews with huge, hook noses and carrying satchels spilling with money; or African Americans with cartoonishly large lips, bulging white eyes, and corkscrew curls of hair. So in part it's a cultural issue; but in part it's a question of what is held sacred, and what isn't, and why. We have fought our own fights against insult and injury; we have our own set of sensitivities.

But even then, we don't react as some Muslims (it is worthwhile to consider there are well over a billion Muslims on the planet, and only a few thousand world-wide in the streets) have reacted in this ssituation. And that brings us back to the concept of community, and of the outrage of the community. If Muslims react differently (and the difference is in no small part peculiar to the local culture; Muslims in New Zealand marched peacably to protest publication of the cartoons there) than Christians and non-Muslims, perhaps it is in part because, as Fisk says, they "...live their religion. We do not. They have kept their faith through innumerable historical vicissitudes. We have lost our faith ever since Matthew Arnold wrote about the sea's 'long, withdrawing roar'." (The evidence that the withdrawal is not quite so simple as that is another issue for another time.) And their religion teaches them that they are children of God; not individuals with a private commitment to faith, or just a doctrine.

Maybe that is what scares Sam Harris. Although certainly the Enlightenment seeks to make us over in a new image, and to fit us all in under yet another understanding of what it means to be human, of what is essentially human. And now there is some evidence that the whole controversy sprang out of simple human orneriness (as we say in Texas):

A number of rightwing European newspapers believed the Danish were caving in and decided to republish the images to show they would not be cowered. "It is the core of our culture that the most sacred things can be subjected to criticism, laughter and satire," Roger Köppel, editor of Germany's Die Welt newspaper, told the Observer. "If we stop using our right to freedom of expression within our legal boundaries then we start to develop an appeasement mentality." Die Welt put the image of the Muhammad with the fizzing turban bomb on its front page. Papers in France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland followed suit.
As I was saying, Europeans have a long history of mocking authority figures, even religious ones. But is this really a defense of reason? Or of power? Because the quoted explanation really boils down to: "Oh, yeah? You and what army?" pretty rapidly.

And so we have the situation today. Which really only proves that it's not only George Bush and Americans who can be belligerent idiots. Ironically, that may be a one of the few universal human traits on display in this situation.

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