Ten Years Later, a New World
Two cultures at last look into each other’s eyes.


It seemed to many of my friends of unshakable secular self-confidence as if the world, which they took so serenely to be going automatically secular, was suddenly erupting in religious energy. Jürgen Habermas was insistent on this theme.

So, Zarathustra need not have shed tears: Worldwide, God had not died, after all — only on some suddenly stranded islands. And if God had not died, neither had the imperishable standards of truth. Natural rights (now enumerated by name in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”), far from dying, were awakening in hearts everywhere, as never before. They are awaking in Muslim hearts as well as in all other hearts. These rights belong not to one religion, nor tribe, nor region, nor secular outlook, but to every woman and man on earth.

Furthermore, this renewed phase of an ancient struggle is not primarily religious. It is not only universally human, it is preeminently political. Humans in one part of the world after another are excited by a long, long argument, about what sorts of governments and moral principles they choose to live under, by the reflective and duly constituted choice of the people themselves.

Did no one besides myself notice that in Afghanistan and Iraq, the foes of democracy did all in their power to disrupt civil society, civil governance, constitution-making, and democratic institutions? Their primary motive was clearly not religious: They bombed mosques, assassinated imams, gunned down whole temples of worshippers. Their motives were political, not religious.

And in important ways they showed themselves to be nihilists — by their method of killing others through suicide bombs strapped to certain individuals, and by their wanton destruction of truly ancient monuments of irreplaceable value, except not to their fanatical selves. These modern “revolutionaries” were the first ever to promise no improvements in human lives, or institutions, or practices. They acted out values of death and destruction. Wantonly, as nihilists who are serious do.

Thus we suddenly find ourselves in a wholly new sort of world. It is one in which a dominant world energy springs from living, vital, and growing religions — the two most dynamic of all religions today, and the only two with empirical claims to be thought of as world religions, Christianity and Islam. Suddenly visible and immense historical energies (long kept out of sight by the ideology of irreversible “secularization”) have been empowered from within by Christianity (now numbering 2 billion adherents, over 1 billion of them Catholic) and Islam (over 1 billion). Together, the members of these two religions now number about half of all human beings on earth.

And now these two energetic cultures again — and at last — look into each other’s eyes. And this, in an utterly new way. They no longer merely “face” each other, but spiritually and deeply interact with each other. They interact not exactly in a religious way but, rather, in a cultural way. As Benedict XVI has noted, the time is not yet ripe for theological dialogue — that would be far too demanding — but cultural dialogue after so many centuries is like a long, sweet drink at an oasis.

What is the meaning of so much suffering from the patently insane politics of the last 200 years, and not least in Arab and other Muslim countries? What is the meaning of so many indignities and tortures and assassinations and partisan wars? There are enormous forces of evil and suffering on the world stage. All peoples together have to cope with political evil as never before.

Above all, these two energetic cultures are slowly learning together to grasp some common truths (usually negative truths). These are truths about the immensity of human sufferings under tyrannies that rule with iron fists, through legions of ruthless secret police, electronic and Internet surveillance, and exquisitely modern scientific, as well as ancient, refinements of bodily torment. The dead bodies political murderers leave behind have been gruesomely dishonored, as a form of warfare — psychological warfare — against others. Our positive human reasons about why tyrants must be brought down may not yet be commonly the same. Yet we can all grasp the negative: We all can grasp that tyranny must be rejected, as unworthy of the dignity of human beings, and their right in self-protection and in self-worth, to choose their own form of self-government. People who have lived too long under tyranny can no longer bear its pain — and not its painful indignity, either.


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