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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Does al Qaeda Have Faith?

I admit it: I have a man-crush on former British prime minister Tony Blair.  That's right; I said it.  It's not that I agree with everything he's ever said or done; it's just that . . . well, this blog post isn't supposed to be about how dreamy Tony Blair is (and he is).  It's about a comment he made in his first lecture in a course on faith and globalization that he co-taught at Yale in 2008 with systematic theologian Miroslav Volf.
"So what I sometimes say to people about globalization and about politics today is that, you know, distinctions between Left and Right matter, but actually as important as anything else today is the distinction between what I would call 'open' versus 'closed.'  Because globalization is an opening-up process, the question is, is your attitude to that, 'Yes, that's good; now how do we make it work?', or your attitude to that is, 'That's bad; that's taking away something of my identity, something of what defines me, and I want to stop it'?  Now religion in those circumstances therefore and religious faith, that can be a means either of saying, 'Well, let us open up to one another and reach out across our different faiths, respecting our own faith and identity but being prepared to reach out to the faith and identity of others,' or it can be a means of saying, 'This is how I'm going to define myself and in distinction to you, because your coming into the space that I'm inhabiting is actually threatening my religious belief and my faith.' "
So many things to reflect on here (and in the whole lecture with Volf's outstanding introduction, which you can watch below), but I'm going to try to limit myself.

It has almost become a commonplace that 9/11 was emblematic of the intersection of faith and the centuries-long yet lately accelerating process called globalization, in which what used to be many local, isolated societies are getting jammed together and the world itself seems to be shrinking.  I believe that Blair means to imply that al Qaeda exhibits a "closed" faith-stance in the face of this jamming-together, particularly with respect to Jews getting jammed into Palestinians and Americans jamming in through the Jews (and in another way through the Saudis, and more lately the Iraqis and the Afghans), and therefore 9/11 is at one level the response of certain faithful to their faith being threatened by the too-close-for-comfort proximity of alien neighbors.

To which I respond, "How much faith is in their faith?"

On the one hand, the 9/11 attackers clearly had faith.  They had faith that killing the people they killed that day, killing themselves in the process, was both objectively righteous and personally rewarding in the afterlife.  They proved that faith by their actions.  On the other hand, I believe, the very defensiveness of their ideology and their utterly desperate, suicidal actions revealed a lack of faith.  At a deep level, they lacked faith that their side was right or that right (as they understood it) would prevail, that evil (as they understood it) would crumble, that a righteous Creator-God would judge justly and order things for good.  Their extreme, chronic anxiety, in which all options are limited to "kill indiscriminately" or "lose everything of permanent value" (i.e., identity) shows that they lack faith in a God who has the whole world in his hands.  They have to do the job for him.

Can we Christians not learn a lesson from this?  Think about a time that some symbol of Christian cultural heritage in America is threatened or removed—a public display of the Ten Commandments for example—because of the pressures of globalization (diverse identities and interests, in this case religions, being forced together to share a small common space, in this case our civic institutions).  What drives Christians' responses?  One of the responses that reflects what Blair called "open" is, "This country is becoming more religiously diverse so that we Christians can win many more unbelievers by proclaiming the truth rather than making false converts through mere social pressure."  A "closed" response is, "Those ungodly, secular liberals are taking our Christian nation away from us and giving it to all those other religions."

Which of these two responses (and of course there are others—these are simplistic options) is derived from faith?  In two senses they are both faith-responses: (1) they have to do with religion, and therefore (2) they reflect beliefs about ultimate reality.  But in an authentically Christian sense only the former is the response of faith.  The "open" response is a response of hope based on the belief that God is at work in this situation.  We are on his side and therefore can't lose; the whole game is rigged by him for his kingdom and glory no matter what his enemies might do, and we get to participate in it.  The "closed" response is a response of fear that silently assumes that God has lost his ability to preserve his territory (our nation, obviously), and so we have to grit our teeth and fight for it for him.  Which response exhibits more faith in the God described in the Bible?

I'm not suggesting that true faith means that we shrug and never engage in spiritual battle against evil that sometimes spills into the public square.  What I'm saying is that how we battle and where we battle (for example, for the heart of an American Muslim via friendly dialogue or for a piece of architecture via legal action) frequently comes as a result of our faith or lack thereof.  Shrill battle-cries—whether "Allahu akbar" or picketing before the Supreme Court building—might actually exhibit more doubt in a sovereign God than faith in him.

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