This New Epoch: Creative or Destructive?
Will this new meeting of great cultures be creative, or destructive?
During the long Cold War that dominated most of the decades of my life, I often asked myself who would win. I used to quip that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I judged that rights and dignity would triumph. Then, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I feared that the West, even though our cause was right, did not have the stomach or the clear-sightedness to win.
And on Sundays, I prayed.
Yet, it ended well.
Moreover, in every moment of greatest crisis, the secular powers of the West appealed to peoples of faith and the Christian churches to come to their rescue. Even Stalin did, during his darkest hours in World War II. So did Churchill and Roosevelt (even his wife, the potent Eleanor to whom so many secular liberals looked as a heroine, and pretended not to notice when she revealed herself to be a devout Protestant Christian).
So did De Gasperi, Don Luigi Sturzo, and the early Fanfani — and De Gaulle, and the heroes of Christian Democracy in Germany and the Christian Democratic Union in Bavaria.
People in the West, especially the intellectuals, have down through modern history mocked the Church, and the culture of Christianity itself. Yet, secularists borrow all the best ideas they have, not from Plato and Aristotle and the greatest of the Roman pagan sages, but from the revelation of Jesus Christ. For instance, the ideals of personal liberty, fraternity, and equality.
These are not pagan ideals, or secular ideals, as Jürgen Habermas out of admirable honesty insists. Rather, they have been refracted through a complex history by the amazing brilliance of Jesus the Teacher of Human Dignity. The human being, no matter how humble, is made in the image of God, right in the core of her or his being, and infinitely loved by God. At the heart of things is human weakness and even cruelty and evil — but also mercy, and the knowledge that our Creator wants to be known as our Father, and bids us to be attentive, kind, and generous to the poor and the weakest, above all. So taught not the pagans, but Jesus.
Jesus as no one else set out the Measure of Man, both in our weakness and in our high destiny.
What is especially novel about our present moment, then, is that in the new and vigorous dialogue between Christians and Muslims taking place all around us, especially in religious circles — does anyone else notice? — the imams and ayatollahs, and sages of Islam today, push forward precisely those aspects of Islam that are closest to the joys of Christianity: That is, they insist that Islam is a religion of peace, that at the heart of Islam lies compassion, and that Islam is a great, maybe the greatest, teacher of human humility — for so great is Allah, that even to suggest any comparison (image) of humans with Allah is blasphemous. Below Allah, all are as nothing.
Not to invoke contrasts between theological holdings — the propitious hour for that is not yet arrived — it does seem at this moment that the intellectual discussion tilts toward presenting Islam in a light easily grasped by Christians. That suggests something about the present status of the intellectual argument. But that argument is far from being fully engaged.
Far more important is the practical agenda of this decade, a worldwide inquiry into the intellectual underpinnings of human dignity, and of the human right to choose a form of government that reflects that human dignity. In this practical task, significant numbers of Arab intellectuals and activists seem to be joining the universal Party of Liberty. More has been published about the ideals of liberty and dignity in the Arab world since 2003, some Arab writers have asserted, than in the previous several generations combined.