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Ten years after 9/11 we Christians have regained our self-confidence

Under the leadership of Pope Benedict we have slowly regained our footing

By on Friday, 2 September 2011

Pope Benedict XVI visits Ground Zero in New York in 2008 (CNS photo/Ettore Ferrari, Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI visits Ground Zero in New York in 2008 (CNS photo/Ettore Ferrari, Reuters)

Soon it is going to be the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the television stations seem to be gearing up for programmes that will take us back to that terrible event. I am working on an article for the print edition of the paper about the day of the attacks, and in the course of my researches, and partly out of curiosity, I reminded myself of what I thought at the time. The following paragraphs are what I wrote for the Daily Telegraph, and originally appeared on 10th November 2011, part of a long series of reflections on the events of 9/11.

According to many Muslims, the Christian West is decadent, perhaps irredeemably so. Could they be right? Islam has a purity and energy that Christianity seems to have lost. Even if we win the war in Afghanistan, will we have lost another war – the war of ideas?

God is great; there is no God but God, and Mohammed is His prophet … These words are the essence of Islam. One can say nothing about God except that He is God; His greatness cannot be put into words.

This transcendental quality is the reason for Islam’s extraordinary success: it is austere and simple, religion in its purest form. By contrast, Christianity seems cluttered and its meaning obscure, its once powerful symbols wrapped up in ritual and hidden away. The starkness and terror of the Cross have been forgotten.

The influential Rome daily, La Repubblica, reports that in Italy there are some 70,000 converts to Islam. This is an astonishing statistic. Since September 11, there has been an increase in interest in Islam, a boost in sales of books on Islam. Why is this happening?

Undoubtedly, the attacks on America cast a shadow over the Islamic world, but perhaps there is, after all, no such thing as bad publicity. We know that Osama bin Laden is not the true face of Islam; we have been told so repeatedly. And yet there is something in him that gives us pause. Here is a man with a cause for which educated people are ready to die.
There is something, too, about the persona of bin Laden, so austere, so dedicated, so controlled: the tone in his videos is not fanatical but logical, his face tranquil, his self-belief invincible. His biblical costume and his retreat to his mountain fastness point to a world beyond our own, a different set of priorities. All of which forces us to confront an uncomfortable question. What do we really believe in?

It is difficult to say. While Islam’s proclamation is simplicity itself, the Christian message is obscured by theology impenetrable to most people.

Sadly, there are elements of decadence in Christian culture, and particularly in Roman Catholicism. In 2001, the Church is still operating baroque comfort stations that made sense in 1601, but have little relevance now.

The Vatican Council attempted a stripping of the altars, and a discovery of the unadorned and frightening mystery that lies at the heart of the faith, but this has not been entirely successful: while we know that the old order has passed away, we haven’t embraced the new. Latin has gone, only to be replaced by Vatican-speak and social-worker platitudes.
Yet, underneath it all, a powerful message is struggling to get out. The Christian proclamation is not that God is great (though He is), but rather that God is good and that His Law is love. This sense of goodness is the foundation of all we hold dear; even atheists can assent to it.

The problem is that Christians suffer from a fatal lack of confidence, and that this is a sign of a wider malaise. Although we have values, we find them difficult to articulate. While George Bush can say: “May God continue to bless America” (ironically, al-Qa’eda has chosen as its target the most religious and least decadent country in the West), hardly any British politician could do so without risking ridicule.

In other words, we in sophisticated, cosmopolitan Europe find it difficult to talk in plain terms about right and wrong; we are embarrassed to do so. And that will make it difficult to see the present conflict through to a conclusion. This war, like every war, cannot be fought just with bombs and bullets. We have plenty of those – it is ideas and firm beliefs that we lack.

It is rather odd being confronted with one’s thoughts from 10 years back, but there is nothing in what I said then that strikes me as quite wrong now. We have not won the war in Afghanistan, and the military solutions there and in Iraq merely show that military solutions on their own are not enough.

As for the self-confidence of Christians, I am now inclined to be more optimistic. We live in the age of Benedict XVI, and I think that under his leadership, firm but gentle, we are regaining our footing, though that will be a slow process. But we are on the right path. In short, I don’t think we are decadent, and I think that there is much worth defending in our culture, though it would be good if our political leaders had even a little bit of the Pope’s courage and firmness of purpose.

Incidentally, this article was copied by quite a few papers round the world, and translated into Turkish. I wonder what on earth a Muslim audience made of it.

  • Oconnordamien

    “originally appeared on 10th November 2011″. sorry to point out a typo, but was that  was 2001?

  • JonnyB

    “…but rather that God is good and that His Law is love. This sense of
    goodness is the foundation of all we hold dear; even atheists can assent
    to it.”
    Very well said.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that there has been a growth in Catholic self-confidence. I am particularly impressed by the self confidence of the priests in Austria  with their call to disobedience….  

  • Oconnordamien

     “God is good and that his law is love”, so do atheists assent to this?

    Is a god who commits genocide in the flood good? Or kills the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah?
    What about cruel and unusual punishments? Say tearing apart 42 children with bears for mocking Elisha’s bald head, or a another group, new to Samaria, torn apart with lions, their only crime being never having heard god’s laws. I could cite many, many more examples chapter and verse.

    I think it’s safe to say atheists who’ve read scripture do not assent to god being good or that his law is love.

    In the context of this article though.
    Do most atheists find the life and teachings of the christian Jesus a far better guide to life than those of the Mohommed of islam. I’m pretty sure the answer to that would be a resounding Yes.

  • Parasum

    ## Not wanting to be callous or anything, but, why should a terrorist attack, however destructive and deadly, affect the self-confidence of Christians ? And what is all this about *self*-confidence anyway ? Isn’t our confidence meant to be in *God*, and only in Him ? Why should the confidence we have in God be in the slightest affected by the disasters reported in the news ? If confidence in God depended on our being unmoved and untroubled by bad news, we would very quickly have no confidence in God at all.  “Put not your trust in princes” – not even in Popes or other Christians, but only in God: the Apostles put their confidence in Him; no wonder they were so fruitful. If we trust in any human power – politics, the US, the Church, Popes, ourselves – we are done for.

    “This transcendental quality is the reason for Islam’s extraordinary
    success: it is austere and simple, religion in its purest form. By
    contrast, Christianity seems cluttered and its meaning obscure, its once
    powerful symbols wrapped up in ritual and hidden away. The starkness
    and terror of the Cross have been forgotten.”

    ## Priests can do something about this, by preaching Christ Crucified. The question is, what is to be done about the way in which the Christian Faith has been muffled ? The only certainty is that today’s restorationist movements like the Emergent Church, & the complainers against “Churchianity”, will become full of clutter in their turn.

    “The Vatican Council attempted a stripping of the altars, and a discovery
    of the unadorned and frightening mystery that lies at the heart of the
    faith, but this has not been entirely successful: while we know that the
    old order has passed away, we haven’t embraced the new. ”

    Maybe the Council Fathers forgot that getting rid of stuff to show more clearly the nature of the Faith can look indistinguishable from getting rid of stuff because one no longer believes in it. Maybe the Church is in the same position as Britain was for a long time, after the loss of the Empire & before finding a new identity.

  • Oconnordamien

    “The starkness and terror of the Cross have been forgotten.”
    A rather disturbing thought for a priest to write in the modern era. 

    As to islam being austere and simple. 
    It is austere because it’s roots were in conquering austere areas with few riches or resources. The truth of that can easily be seen by the difference between what are now oil rich areas and other islamic nations. Is Dubai or Saudi austere?

    As to simple, some might judge the koran to be so, but that is ignoring both haddith and sunna. The halal hadith are numbered in their thousands, the haram in their hundreds of thousands. There is also three levels inbetween. This is a sliding scale from halal (correct) to haram(false or manufactured). Taken in total the number is thought to exceed 250,000 hadiths.

    Simple, I think not.

  • Parasum

    “Is a god who commits genocide in the flood good? Or kills the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah?
    What about cruel and unusual punishments? Say tearing apart 42 children with bears for mocking Elisha’s bald head, or a another group, new to Samaria, torn apart with lions, their only crime being never having heard god’s laws. I could cite many, many more examples chapter and verse.”

    These are examples of mistakes Fundamentalists also make. And they are complicated mistakes, because people read the texts, and object to what they say, not from the pre-Christian POV of the authors, but from a Christian POV. This is like complaining of the Flood story in Babylonian mythology  because it is not compatible with the teaching of Jesus – why should it be ? It’s a pre-Christian  text, just like the Old Testament books, which cannot be judged by Christian standards either. To judge them by Christian standards is unreasonable for atheists to do, because the basis for judging the OT by Christian standards is the Christian idea of the unity of the Bible; and what gives it this unity is Christ. The OT was not written by or Christians, and should not be expected to agree with the teaching of Jesus. The ability to read the OT intelligently has been hampered by the idea that the OT is timeless & eternal & changeless truth valid for all times and peoples – but this completely ignores the fact that it is a completely human set of books, just like any others, & can & should be studied like others. That shows how completely human it is, & in no way affects belief that it is also divine.

    Another mistake is to treat a god – including the God of the OT – as a human being. Humans commit genocide; gods do not. Humans, being human, have to use human terms in speaking of gods; no others are available. The problem for modern atheists, and for many Fundamentalists too, is that they overlook, and take no account of, something that the Israelites & other ancient peoples belonging to that world took for granted: that though gods were very man-like in many ways, they were also very different indeed from man. This difference, or otherness, is part of what is being got at when gods are called “holy”. They do not act alongside humans, as humans, because they are not human; though they often act on their behalf. Humans have to act within the world – gods can act from “beyond” it. They act on a much vaster scale than humans can. So if someone dies, that is *like* murder, because a god has acted, and the death is the result.

    From this POV, the god Apollo “murders” many of the Greeks who are besieging Troy, when he sends a plague upon them. But no reader of the Iliad Book 1 (in which this occurs) calls Apollo a murderer; that is said only by readers of the Old Testament. No-one calls the god Poseidon a murderer for sending a storm which drowns the crew of Odysseus; nor are Artemis, Zeus, Aphrodite or other gods accused of murder for ending human life. If people still worshipped them, maybe that would happen; but in the West – & such questions reflect typically Western difficulties with the OT – the only god from the ancient  Mediterranean world who has been worshipped unbrokenly for the last 2,000 years is the god who is the main character in the OT, of whom Jesus in, as Christians believe, the true likeness. So the OT god’s actions are looked at as though no other god were described in a similar way to him; but many of them are. There is no reason why gods, Sumerian or Babylonian or Israelite, should not be thought to have sent floods: especially as the Biblical Flood story is almost certainly an Israelite version of a Babylonian story based on an ancient (abt. 2100 BC ?) Sumerian myth.

    If a flood happens, what is so likely to be the reason of it as an angry god ? Gods were convincing explanatory devices, & the OT reflects this attitude. Why are children killed by bears ? If misfortune is caused by wrongdoing, their misfortune must be caused by wrongdoing, so they must have done wrong; and insulting a well-known prophet (which Elisha seems to have been) would fit the bill. What did they do wrong ? Maybe they insulted him by drawing attention to his appearance. When ? The time after the disappearance of Elijah, perhaps. OT stories often look as if they are straightforward narratives, from start to finish; but they are frequently composed in reverse, from effect, to cause. This is probably how the bears in the Elisha story are to be explained.

    As for divine goodness – that is not an issue in the Flood story or the Sodom story: the goodness of Israel’s god is important in parts of Exodus, but not for the authors of Gen.6-9 or Gen.19. Gen.19 is an Israelite variant on a well-known motif, in which divine visitors enter a town, meet with hospitality from just one or two people, destroy the wicked town for its impiety, and save their hosts. It’s a very interesting chapter, because it is very closely related to the Flood-story, to Judges 19, and is a companion piece to both Gen.18, &. in a very different way to Gen.6.1-4.

    “What about cruel and unusual punishments?”  What about them ? Electrocution is pretty cruel – and it was not the DP in the US until 1890.  To blame the Israelites of 3,000 years for being less than Christian in their punishments makes no sense; the use of so horrible a punishment by supposedly civilised people so recently makes a great deal less, because the US was supposedly Christian in 1890.

    There’s no point in reading the Bible, if one has little idea of how to understand it.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    I fail to see the connection between the World Trade Centre crashes and the (lack of) confidence of Christians, although I’ll agree that Pope Benedict XVI has ushered in a new sense of resolve among Catholics, at least. However, this has more to do with the raft of anti-Christian legislation of the last 2 decades, and probably also a whole lot to do with the fact that many Christians-in-name only have become outright atheists, and that those who have remained or converted are more firm in their beliefs than Christians of 30 years ago.

    Also, I’m not sure this “clash of civilisations” of the supposedly Christian West and the Islamic Middle East serves anyone other than propaganda agents. The West is not Christian and the reason why militants target Western countries has little if anything to do with their religion.

    Anyone taking a step back from a non-religious viewpoint would not have a terribly hard time understanding why those events took place. That those involved happened to be Muslims might be relevant – insofar as we can claim that Islam gave them the strength to fight back at what they saw as great injustice – but it’s hardly central. Even bin Laden himself played down the religious aspects of his actions (apart from reminding his followers that they could be rewarded in the afterlife) and always used political arguments.

    In closing, let me point out that the Western powers managed to win the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – of that there can be little debate. By any conventional definition, the war was won long ago, and we should not be fooled by the fact that the polical classes re-defined the notion of ‘victory’ so that they could continue spending more taxpayer’s money to feed their war industries, nor should we forget that this re-definition has taken a very real human toll on the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan (which seems to be forgotten all too often).

    What the Western powers have not managed to win through bombs is kill off the anti-colonisation movement.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Yes, that is a  typo, well spotted! It oiught to have been 2001.

  • peregrinus

    A wonderful post, Parasum.  Thank you for this.   

  • Oconnordamien

    Sorry to be pedantic, it could have been ’02 or 03 so I thought I should ask.

    That being said, I would very interested in hearing if and how your thoughts have changed on the subject over the following ten years. In a way we’ve all been forced to have an opinion on the subject.

  • Oconnordamien

    To an atheist the bible is a work of fiction so your points about it’s compilation, authorship or editorship isn’t what my comment referred to. The fact that other fictional gods were nasty isn’t really here nor there.

    I was addressing the point that atheists think the biblical god was good as the author asserted. I made it clear in my last point that although that may be incorrect the underlying idea beneath is most likely true.

    As to your last sentence you may as well have said,

    “There’s no point in reading the Bible, if one doesn’t come to the same understanding as me”

  • Anonymous

    What happened then, however grievous, is not that big a deal – London went through much worse during the Blitz. As for Dresden or Nagasaki or indeed Baghdad in 2003, the events in New York are nothing in comparison to what they suffered. Sorry, but they aren’t. If those four cities could get over what they suffered – so can, & should, New York. Events in September 2001 don’t change Christianity one jot – why should they ? It was a catastrophic mess then – and it still is; only the details of the messiness have changed. If the Di-mania of 1997 did not last – & to say it was intense is a understatement – why should the shock of the bombing in 2001 ?