Ten years after Sept. 11, 2001, the world has a different face, a wholly new (well, fairly ancient) set of problems, and above all, a new promise. The Soviet Union seems to have slid into historical darkness mostly unmourned. The Arab nations are in great and maybe hopeful turmoil — “the Arab Spring,” many call it. Ten years from now, its fruit may be marvelous to behold. Or it may prove to have been a false spring.
Even sharp critics must observe, though, that such a hopeful emergence of spring in the Middle East is what President Bush foresaw when in Afghanistan and Iraq, to enormous criticism, he started movements toward self-rule, renewed civil societies, new freedoms of communication with the outside world, democracy, and “natural rights.” But the harsh test of reality — the long-term success of these springtimes — has not yet been fully met. To give freedom a chance was my main hope in supporting President Bush — a chance, but not a guarantee.
The New Front Line of Intellectual Life in our Time
As I see things, the Catholic Church and with it the West during the past 150 years has endured the worst that atheistic totalitarian power could throw against it. Tens of millions were brutally punished, exiled, tortured, and kept for long, hungry years in thousands of concentration camps and gulags, millions of them most foully and horribly murdered. Thousands of churches were burned down, bulldozed, turned to purposefully defiling uses. Monks and nuns by the hundreds of thousands were driven into backbreaking exile and death, their millennial monasteries and convents turned into academies for the training of torturers and interrogators and goons.
The great struggle of the epoch since Marx and Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini has slid into the past.
Yet on Sept. 11, 2001, an even more ancient epochal struggle was reawakened, a struggle 1,500 years old. In 632, at the birth of Islam, all the basin of the Mediterranean Sea, from Jerusalem north to Ephesus and Constantinople, and south and east from Alexandria to Hippo and Toledo and up to the borders of France, was the glory of Christianity. That rim of faith also formed the proof that the Church of Jesus was so quickly planted in “the whole known world” that it was properly called “Catholic.”
Moreover, before the time of Constantine (and even for long thereafter), it had been implanted there without armies, but mostly among the poor (and the intellectuals), implanted peacefully by its witness to the caritas of God, and its intelligent arguments against the pagan classics. In 600 short years, Christianity rimmed the Mediterranean with small churches, cathedrals, monasteries, learning, and liturgy.
In 100 amazing years, the armies of Islam had advanced in both directions around the Mediterranean to Poitiers in France in the west, and into the borders of present-day Turkey.
Thus it came about that the earth thereafter bore on its bosom two extraordinarily populous (and inter-ethnic) religions whose mission was worldwide. The beginnings of their interaction were stained in blood, and hundreds of years of warfare stained them further. Then in a spasm of great battles — at Malta in 1565, Lepanto in 1571, and Vienna in 1681 (on September 11) — a military standoff was reached.
Let us leave to one side the long, intervening history, except to say that the West became woefully ignorant of Islamic cultures, tensions, sufferings. And into the Arabic language are translated fewer books of other languages than into almost any other language on earth. For 500 years, Islam largely turned inward. Cultural separation between the West, Christian and secular, and the nations of Arabia (and Asian Muslim nations) ensued.
Then with a thunderclap of shock and horror, four American planes were cleverly turned into immensely destructive bombs, made up of their own aviation fuel. One by one, they were seized, guided, and cruelly exploded bright orange into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, and the Pentagon, with one still winging toward some other unknown target in Washington, D.C. (On that fourth plane, the Americans began to fight back, and forced it spinning down into the merciless ground, in humble Shanksville, Pa., not far from the most sacred of all American battlefields, Gettysburg, where Lincoln delivered the greatest of all political addresses since Pericles.)
Thus it happened that suddenly on September 11 of 2001, on a day that already lives in infamy, curtains closed, as it were, on the struggle against atheist totalitarianism. And a far more ancient struggle — but this time on quite different terms — opened up.
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.
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.
A Personal Witness
When I was pursuing graduate studies in Rome (can it be?) 55 years ago, on my very first outing from Rome I set foot in Orvieto. Oh, how my heart was captured by Orvieto, and still is. My younger brother, the priest martyred by Muslims in 1964 in Dacca (then East Pakistan), also loved Orvieto well, and my wife, Karen, painted a portrait of him standing in front of the black-and-white cathedral there.
It was in Orvieto (1261–65) that the young Master Thomas Aquinas turned his attention to the new doctrinal threat to Christianity, emanating from the new philosophers of the Muslim world.
At the time Frederick II was building a university in the south of Italy to support the work of such Islamic philosophers. It was through their early Arabic translations of Aristotle that these Arab greats were presenting Aristotle to the West, when the long-missing Greek texts were still largely unavailable, even unknown.
A student can still find a highly readable record of this intellectual encounter between Aquinas and Islam in his Summa Contra Gentiles, especially in book III, on Providence, and the contingency and freedom of this world. And on two contrasting views of the relation between God and man, God and human liberty, God and the contingency of the created world — the Muslim, and the Christian.
For the Muslims, Aquinas noted, all belonged to God, to his initiative and action, and nothing belonged to man. Even our insights and judgments were said to be God’s insights and judgments, which humans merely receive. But if this is so, Aquinas mused, why do I have to study so hard to acquire them? All initiative and freedom on the part of humans, Aquinas argued, seemed slighted, and in a way that told against another fundamental tenet of Islam.
That tenet is that after death there is for each human either Paradise or damnation, based on the choices and actions of humans on earth. They choose. The Judge ratifies their choice with reward or punishment. This tenet implies an immense role for human liberty and responsibility.
And what implications has that profound, axial tenet for a philosophy of man, a philosophy of liberty? And a philosophy of politics?
And yet this whole two-century-long Muslim, Christian, and Jewish dialogue (see Maimonides, too) was conducted civilly, with remarkable philosophic courtesy and mutual respect. Learning took place on both sides. In particular, Aquinas learned several key distinctions about God from his study of the Arabic philosophers.
Nowhere was Western freedom so deeply and powerfully defended until that time as in this encounter of Aquinas with Islamic philosophy in the mid-1200s. It is one of the reasons, I suppose, that Lord Acton called Aquinas “the first Whig.” The first intellectual defender of the human person, and his liberties and proper responsibilities.
Yet it was the civil context of that intellectual conversation with his Muslim interlocutors that most enchanted my younger brother and me. Indeed, Rich continued on to his ordination to the priesthood, even when after many long years of study it became clear to me and my spiritual directors that God called me elsewhere than the priesthood.
Out of our early enchantment with Aquinas and the Muslims (we studied in the same university), my brother felt the call to dedicate his life to Christian-Muslim civility and rapprochement. That is why he accepted the decision of his superiors in religion to go to Dacca, to study Arabic at Dacca University, and to begin his own teaching in Notre Dame College there, where many in Bangladesh’s elite today received early studies. My brother is still venerated there, as “Father Richard.”
One evening just a few years back, in Santa Maria Trastevere, there was a candle-lighting ceremony, at the behest of Pope John Paul II (whose secretary informed me that the pope had said Mass for my brother on his visit to Bangladesh), in which superiors of missionary congregations in Rome stepped forward one by one to read the names of the missionary martyrs from their communities during the 20th century, the century of more Christian martyrs, by far, than any previous century.
Without forewarning from anybody, I heard the name of my own brother read out in the darkness, as one more candle was lit on one of the little “trees of candle flames” in that loveliest ancient basilica, beneath the flickering dome of its glorious frescoes.
I like to think that “Father Richard” will one day be honored in the official lists of the Blesseds and the Martyrs of the Church, as a living example of the longing to lay down his life — not in the way he foresaw — for Muslim-Christian communion in suffering.
He was no simulacrum of piety, my kid brother, he was just an ordinary guy — with a sometimes impious sense of humor, and a realism that seemed to flow directly from the candor of the Gospels.
Fidelity to him, as well as to Christ, explains why I think the cause that Father Richard died for was, presciently, the one most vital to the life of the Church, and our civilization, in our time.
— Michael Novak’s latest books are All Nature Is a Sacramental Fire and, with William E. Simon Jr., Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation. His website is www.michaelnovak.net.