The Long View: Ecumenical Jihad

Ecumenical Jihad is another book I read because of John. I like Peter Kreeft's work, but I find him a little odd. I think John did too. Which isn't to say his ideas aren't interesting. John recommends reading this book along with Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. I'm willing to guess the readership for the two books doesn't overlap much. More's the pity, since you can learn a lot more from the two together.

There are a couple of lines in this review that strike me 18 years later. John, like me, has an eye for Providence. One of the more reasonable versions of American Exceptionalism notes that America has done far better than any judicious independent observer would have predicted [except maybe Tocqueville]. History seems to show many instances where things have turned out better than anyone intended. You should not be surprised by this.

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An interesting feature of Kreeft's Holy War is that he does not purport to be able to say how it will be won, or even what victory would look like. God is full of surprises, he reminds us, and we are likely to be astonished by the solution God actually devises. Though he does not mention the analogy himself, the whole thing sounds rather like the strategy devised at Rivendell for Tolkien's War of the Ring. By any reasonable criteria, defense against the Shadow was hopeless and an offense would have been insane. In the event, however, victory depended on not being reasonable.

...

He is plainly in love with Thomism and, like many people in love with a theory, he genuinely cannot see why other people do not accept it.

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Throughout fourteen centuries of Muslim-Christian conflict, both sides have repeatedly noted the commonalities between the two faiths and sometimes hoped for a commonality of interests. Never yet have these hopes been realized beyond the sort of temporary military alliances of which Samuel Huntington might approve. Kreeft more than once cites a poll finding that only 5% of Muslims today understand Jihad in a military sense. I don't quite see how you could poll the members of a religion that extends from Bosnia to Malaysia. Whatever that number represents, however, I strongly suspect that the percentage of Muslims who believe that Jihad absolutely excludes a military sense is zero.


Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War
by Peter Kreeft
Ignatius Press, 1996
172 Pages, $10.95
ISBN: 0-89870-579-7

The Really Good War

This book belongs on the same reading list as Samuel Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations." Huntington's thesis is much discussed these days. According to him, whereas the global politics of the past few centuries was about conflicts between nations within western civilization, the global politics of the twenty-first century will be about conflicts among civilizations. The primary contenders will, perhaps, be China, Islam and the West. He further alleges that the moral and political principles that the West, and particularly the United States, spend so much effort promoting in the world as universal goods are in reality culture-specific customs. Freedom of speech, from this point of view, is as parochial a practice as eating with forks, and so is only imperfectly exportable. He advises that we cease trying to promote a pseudo-universal ethic and concentrate on realistic issues of trade and military balance.

Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, thinks otherwise. According to him, the real division in the world today is between those who accept some form of natural law and those who do not. While people on either side of this divide can be found in every society, today overwhelming the opponents of natural law are to be found in the West, particularly in the United States (and even, one suspects, in no small part in the neighborhood of Boston). His analysis is explicitly eschatological. What we are seeing, he says, is the tangible incarnation of the City of God and of the City of the World as described by Saint Augustine. While he carefully distances himself from the proposition that the Battle of Armageddon is necessarily imminent, he does suggest a three-stage model of Christian history in which the first millennium was one of unity, the second is one of division, and the third will be one of unity restored. Such a schema is, of course, more than a little suggestive of Joachim of Fiore's three-stage model of history, as is Kreeft's expectation of a dramatic transition between the second and third eras. According to Kreeft, what we should not only expect but prepare for is a universal conflict in which the allied forces of light within every nation do battle with the forces of darkness, who are increasingly in league.

What we have here is a diversity of opinion. The short answer to Huntington might be that his cultural relativism is as Western as Occam's Razor (in fact, I strongly suspect it is a lineal descendent of Occam's Razor). The short answer to Kreeft might be that he was overly impressed with the success the Vatican achieved in alliance with conservative Muslim states at the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population. (On that occasion, readers will recall, this alliance succeed in defeating some of the more obviously pathological proposals of the American and West European delegations regarding the definition of the family and the status of abortion rights under international law.) Short answers are rarely complete answers, however, and in fact there is something to be said for both theses. Here I will attempt to provide a long answer to Peter Kreeft.

"Ecumenical Jihad" is not a call for a shooting war. Rather, the author calls for an alliance of Protestants and Catholics, Jews and Muslims, even ethical pagans and agnostics, to conduct the Culture War on a more equal footing against a (not altogether figuratively) demoniacal Western cultural elite. The book is dedicated to Chuck Colson, Michael Medved and Richard John Neuhaus, who have already made something of a name for themselves as culture warriors. (Colson and Neuhaus are the principals in the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" initiative.) The groups Kreeft has particularly in mind are, not unexpectedly, Protestant Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and theologically conservative Roman Catholics of the sort who do not believe themselves to be more Catholic than the pope.

The author's list of evils to be combated is familiar: abortion and its logical corollary euthanasia, laws that discriminate against traditional family structures, an educational establishment that has fallen into the hands of malign ideologues, brutalizing films and music, and a constitutional policy of forced secularization of all public institutions. The measures that Kreeft has in mind, at least for the present, include equally familiar things like political action, community organizing and the cultivation of virtuous domestic life. Despite the control by the City of the World over the media and the courts, it is still possible to seek the reform of society through normal electoral processes, aided sometimes by boycotts and civil disobedience.

An interesting feature of Kreeft's Holy War is that he does not purport to be able to say how it will be won, or even what victory would look like. God is full of surprises, he reminds us, and we are likely to be astonished by the solution God actually devises. Though he does not mention the analogy himself, the whole thing sounds rather like the strategy devised at Rivendell for Tolkien's War of the Ring. By any reasonable criteria, defense against the Shadow was hopeless and an offense would have been insane. In the event, however, victory depended on not being reasonable.

Reasonability aside, I cannot say that I find Kreeft's idea of an intercultural alliance of theists and other well-disposed persons altogether promising. Kreeft is a convert to Roman Catholicism from Calvinism. He is plainly in love with Thomism and, like many people in love with a theory, he genuinely cannot see why other people do not accept it. What he is essentially proposing, if I understand him rightly, is a Thomistic "big tent" in which theological conflicts will be suspended in the interests of civil peace for the duration of the emergency (which at one point he calls "the Age of Antichrist"). I suspect that what we are dealing with here is another case of "beyondism." Beyondists of a sort are often found on the pro-abortion side of the abortion debate, arguing that we should move "beyond" today's current squabbles by accepting the holding in Roe v. Wade but being very solemn about it. Kreeft, rather more ingenuously, is proposing a kind of ecumenical beyondism in which all parties tacitly agree to the centrality of Catholicism, but with the understanding that they do not have to pay Peter's Pence this year. Unless they want to, of course.

In addition to problems with the theory of the alliance, some people might find his definition of its key participants to have certain drawbacks. First of all, getting evangelicals to do anything as a group is like herding cats. As Protestants, they have a natural predilection to be "against the government" in ecclesiastical matters. Second, although the Orthodox wing of American Judaism is perhaps the most self-confident part of the whole community, still it is a surprisingly small part. (Kreeft may not be using "Orthodox" in the narrow sense of the word, however. Certainly it would be a mistake to conflate Reform Judaism with liberal Christianity.) As for the Roman Catholic Church in America, Kreeft himself has a very lively sense of the degree to which the administrative apparatus has been taken over by duplicitous cultural liberals who occupy themselves sabotaging what they regard as the reactionary episcopate, all the while waiting for their chance to remake the Church in the image of the 1960s. Kreeft says of Catholic liturgists that they as "as poisonous as lizards and lawyers." Even if you accept that liturgists can ultimately be saved, it is hard to see what help there is in such people.

This brings us to his project of militant universal ecumenism. In its support, the author spends a lot of time in this book relating conversations with dead foreigners. Thus, he pretends he spoke to Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed and Moses during an out-of-body experience he had while storm-surfing in the aftermath of Hurricane Felix. (You see what extreme sports will do to you?) He meets these worthies in Purgatory, where they explain in turn how their teachings either did not conflict with Christianity or, where they did, were not flawed beyond the inevitable incompleteness of private revelations.

These portrayals perhaps leave something to be desired. To pick one minor nit, Confucius did not live during the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.), but the during preceding Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.). (It seems me that if Kreeft has a problem with the Enlightenment, then he probably would have a problem with people like Confucius, who lived in a time of pre-deluge "enlightenment" similar to Plato's Hellas and 18th century Europe). In any event, the most interesting meeting, particularly in light of the title of the book, is the encounter with Mohammed. During it, we are given to understand that the Koran is indeed a record of divine revelation, but not part of the canon of revelation and so of course not inerrant.

Kreeft seems to be yet another student of history startled by the discovery that Islam is a Christian heresy more than it is anything else. (There is, in fact, an argument to be made that Islam is a "Reformation" of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, though one that went rather farther than the Reformation of the Latin West.) Additionally, Kreeft seems to have had many sympathetic conversations with pious Muslim students who were properly aghast at the moral state of contemporary America. They express outrage at the disrespect Christians allow to be visited on Christian symbols, since Jesus is after all a Muslim prophet. Kreeft believes that Christian cooperation with Muslims both in America and internationally could expand this sympathy into reconciliation.

The problem is that this is not a new idea. Throughout fourteen centuries of Muslim-Christian conflict, both sides have repeatedly noted the commonalities between the two faiths and sometimes hoped for a commonality of interests. Never yet have these hopes been realized beyond the sort of temporary military alliances of which Samuel Huntington might approve. Kreeft more than once cites a poll finding that only 5% of Muslims today understand Jihad in a military sense. I don't quite see how you could poll the members of a religion that extends from Bosnia to Malaysia. Whatever that number represents, however, I strongly suspect that the percentage of Muslims who believe that Jihad absolutely excludes a military sense is zero.

The other dialogue of the dead is in a chapter entitled "Is There Such a Thing As 'Mere Christianity'?: A Trialogue with C.S. Lewis, Martin Luther and Thomas Aquinas." It appeared as an article in "The New Oxford Review" some time back, and it is much more fun than the interviews in Purgatory. The setting is Lewis's study as he is finishing "Mere Christianity." Luther and Aquinas appear to Lewis to exhort him not to create a new denomination of "mere-ism" with his book, but at the same time to emphasize that Catholics and Protestants have the same religion, even though they have different theologies. Again, though Kreeft tries to do Luther justice, it is my impression that Aquinas gets the better of most of the arguments. The piece may or may not facilitate Evangelical-Catholic cooperation, but it is a wonderful piece of apologetics.

So what is left of Kreeft's Jihad? The Confucians are in East Asia, pre-occupied with the manufacture of compact disks. The Muslims in the Middle East are smuggling uranium for use in a most unmetaphorical Jihad against Jerusalem and Paris and Washington. Even in America, the Southern Baptists mutter darkly into the foam of their non-alcoholic sodas about the Gunpowder Plot and the wiles of the Scarlet Woman. Is the situation therefore hopeless? Will the City of the World triumph amid the divisions of all who still oppose it?

I would not bet on it. Though I quarrel with his practical proposals, Kreeft's central insight is essentially correct. God will not permit the world to damn itself, and He will save it in part through the actions of many sorts of people who do not now know they are on the same side. For instance, the day is not far distant, I suspect, when science will again be the friend of faith, and the powers of evil will be forced to resort wholly to rhetoric and obscurantism. As for the enemies of the City of God, we should remember that they are motivated for the most part not by radical evils but by corrupted virtues. As the fall of communism must remind us, hearts can change in the twinkling of an eye. Finally, though this is a dark consolation, in a disordered world the war between the two cities is can never remain completely metaphorical for long. Should another world crisis arise, much folly and nonsense would be cast aside as the West again cultivates the natural virtues necessary for its survival.

The insight which Kreeft shares with C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and St. Augustine, that we may know the goal of history without knowing how we will get there, must be repeated in every age. The immediate future may be just as dreadful as we foresee. The ending of the story, however, will be far more wonderful than we could have imagined.

This article first appeared in the April 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine.

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Empire

John mananged to review at least three books by the same title: Empire. This one is famous, it is the book everyone is citing, conciously or not, when they call something "imperialistic". They are also using that word incorrectly, but memes are notoriously bad grammarians.

Empire

by Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri

Harvard University Press, 2000

478 Pages, $18.95

ISBN: 0-674-00671-2

 

You think that globalization is just a device for smothering revolutionary potential, do you? The authors of Empire argue otherwise. One of them, Michael Hardt, is an associate professor in the Literature Program at Duke University. The other, Antonio Negri, has taught political science at the Universities of Paris and Padua. Currently, he is so ineffably progressive that he is actually being held in Rome's Rebibbia prison for the radical violence of decades past. 

Empire analyzes the current world situation, reformulates contemporary Leftist theory to accommodate it, and tentatively points the way toward the overthrow of post-historic capitalism. The work is relentlessly postmodern; it connects with classical Marxism chiefly to explain why it is no longer relevant. The authors' thesis is that would-be revolutionaries are mistaken if they oppose globalization as such. Globalization really is the end of history, and there is no going back. However, the form that the globalized world is assuming, which the authors call the Empire, is a corruption of the post-historic world. The task of revolutionaries is to find where the Empire is vulnerable.

The problem is that, to use one of the authors' metaphors, the Empire is Saint Augustine's City of God. As you might imagine, it's a tough nut to crack. Like the Roman Empire, it seems to its subjects to be permanent, eternal, and necessary. It has no outside, at least in principle, and internally it distinguishes neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free. It does not rest on conquest, but on consensus. The Empire is the post-historical incarnation of eternal justice. The Empire does not merely happen to exist, like a historically contingent state does; rather, the Empire must exist, at least as an ideal. It closes the gap that opened in the Renaissance between the ethical and the juridical. Its wars are just wars, police actions against opponents who can marshal no principled claims against it. No civil or military stresses remain that might threaten it; the Empire is always in a crisis, so its acts are emergency measures that trump the ordinary law of the sovereignties and corporations that comprise it.

The authors point out that the Empire is not really a state. It does indeed have state-like organs, such as the UN, the IMF, and the WTO. For that matter, it even has a tripartite anatomy. At the top of the top third is the United States, or at any rate its military and cultural power. Immediately below are the G7 countries, or rather their command of the world's money. In the middle third are the governments and corporations that carry out the routine functions of governance. In the bottom third are the NGOs, churches and other organs of civil society. These latter represent the People of the Empire, just as the middle tier represents its aristocracy and the top third the royal power. (The authors are very impressed by the description of the late Roman Republic given by Polybius in the second century B.C.)

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The biggest single problem with this book is that the authors never clearly explain what they are trying to do. They speak of revealing "the City of Man" under the corruption of the Empire, but we hear nothing about that City's constitution. They say this City of Man will in fact see the end of the human, in the sense of an anthropology that places man above nature. They hope to pursue a wholly immanent ethics, something along the lines of Foucault's "care of the Self."  They say that what they seek is a "re-total" rather than a "re-public." This language is not helpful.

The authors have had some kind words about the recent great demonstrations against the institutions of globalization, though they continue to point out the futility of opposing globalization itself. Those demonstrations were marked by contempt for free speech, public safety and human life. Quite likely, in those cosmopolitan riots, we saw what the City of Man really looks like. We can't say we were not warned.