Friday, February 03, 2006

What is it with the Cartoons?

In answer to some readers' questions, I'm writing a follow-up to my earlier post on the cartoons about Muhammad being published in Europe. I don't want to have any illusions about the motives of the Europeans who are publishing these cartoons. While I can, coincidentally, agree with the principles about freedom of the press being used, my congruence with their beliefs mostly ends at that point. I don't equate "religious fundamentalism" with the simple act of taking one's faith seriously and damn that simple act as subversive of the common good. That is the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and it has largely become the chosen patrimony of the West, particularly in Europe. These newspapers, and the people who enjoy what they're publishing, largely harbor same hatred of religion that banished Christianity from the European Constitution. They hate Islam for the same reasons they hate Christianity and my sympathy for their position is, for that reason, temporary and restrained.

There are other motives for enjoying or furthering this controversy. There are people who are lucky enough to have recognized Islam as a dangerous, man-made religion, and yet foolish enough to think that we can save ourselves from it by a process of violent extermination. Of these, some actually believe we should exterminate Islam through actual, physical, warfare. Others believe that this warfare should be conducted by intellectual/ideological means, by using the tools of Western secularism to "erase" Islam from society. For such people, these attacks on Muslim sensibilities are just what the doctor ordered: It's time to teach Muslims a lesson about how foolish and ridiculous their beliefs are, and to show pro-Western solidarity by publicly holding them in contempt. These folks, if they are Christians, are suicidally misguided. Islam cannot be mocked, as it is now being mocked, without striking at the heart of the Christian message

And, speaking solely for myself, but I suspect for many more Christians, there is some cathartic element of schadenfreude in all this. Western culture has been mocking and humiliating Christianity for over 200 years. If European Muslims are upset about the cartoons, wait until Western governments start extorting their taxes to pay for the production of "Piss Muhammad." If there isn't a newspaper in Europe that won't mock the Prophet, there isn't a film studio in the West that hasn't mocked Christ. We get told, over and over again, that we're responsible for this because, if we had the faith of Muslims, we would have stood up to all that. There's something that wants to say, "See? Do you now understand what we're living with?"

So much for unworthy motives to support the European press. As to worthy motives, I suggest that this controversy is happening because Jesus Christ gave the world a radical vision of human goodness. It is not enough to create a society in which such controversies are forbidden. It is not enough to scourge Islam from the minds and hearts of men:
When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.
-- Matthew 12:43-45 (KJV)
A negative definition of freedom is not enough. It is not enough to be free from an addiction. It is not enough to refrain from harm. A man, or a society, which limits itself to these goals will become a clean-swept house. Sub specie aeternitatis, making laws dictating what people must mock or revere isn't worth a penny.

I believe that Jesus Christ doesn't just want men to abandon falsehood; He wants men to abandon falsehood for the truth. He doesn't just want men to forsake addiction, lust, Communism, and Islam, He wants men to forsake them for something better. Here, St. Paul says, is the Unknown God to whom you should pay your allegiance, not because He is stronger among the gods, not because He has a more effective five-year plan, but because He is the summit and perfection of all that is truly good; He is what you have, when at your best, been trying to find all these years. We don't want a world in which Islam has been scourged out of existence. We want a world in which a billion Muslims quietly walk away from what they realize has been a myth. That is the lasting victory Christ wants, and it's why cultures who have been influenced by Christianity value -- however distortedly, however forgetfully -- the freedom of human thought.

The reason Islam succeeds is the same reason all other man-made faiths succeed: They resemble, in some way, Christianity. This is why you'll find Christians being so easily seduced by man-made faiths, blurring the lines between Nazism, Communism, and all the others until the worldly imposture becomes subjectively indistinguishable from the heavenly fact. Christians are doing it today with Islam, using all the old stupidities and heresies which have served in the past -- appeasement, syncretism, etc. [1] Nobody can help that, or put a stop to it. These Christians are also victims to a myth, and we also want them to walk away from it voluntarily.
It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man's response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will. This doctrine is contained in the word of God and it was constantly proclaimed by the Fathers of the Church. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act. Man, redeemed by Christ the Savior and through Christ Jesus called to be God's adopted son, cannot give his adherence to God revealing Himself unless, under the drawing of the Father, he offers to God the reasonable and free submission of faith. It is therefore completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded. In consequence, the principle of religious freedom makes no small contribution to the creation of an environment in which men can without hindrance be invited to the Christian faith, embrace it of their own free will, and profess it effectively in their whole manner of life.
-- Dignitatis Humanae, # 10 (1965)[2]
The screams uttering from Islam are not just protestations of pious hearts, although they are partly that. They are also screams of terror at the prospect of a world in which it's an open question whether Muhammad is the Prophet, and that Islam is a reiteration of the same story that produced Baal, Zeus, Communism, and American Messianism.

I detest the vulgarity of those cartoons, not least because I know that within the brave talk about freedom is a hidden loathing of truth that has eaten so deeply into the minds of Western men that they have come to detest the prospect of a world in which it is possible to think that any religion is good. I detest the vulgarity of Islamic responses that involve talk of laws, police, and gunfire, not least because I know that within the self-righteous demands for respect is a hidden loathing of human dignity that runs just as deep. The ignorant armies are taking one more step toward their darkling plain. The only hope of escape is a world where men may speak as they like, because that's a world where Christ is free to stand on the Temple's steps and talk with pharisees. We don't have to enjoy that world, but we should all want to live in it, for our own safety's sake.

Update: Mark Shea weighs in.

[1] See Bat Ye Or, "Dhimmitude and Marcionism." Commentary, No. 91. The PDF version of the article is available here.

[2]The entire document is available here.

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