Friday, 2 May 2008

The Evil That Men Do: 1

Christianity teaches two overwhelming truths…that there is a God, of whom men are capable, and that there is a corruption in nature which makes them unworthy. It is of equal importance to men to know each of these points: and it is equally dangerous for men to know God without knowing his own wretchedness as knowing only one of these points leads either to the arrogance of philosophers, who have known God, but not their own wretchedness, or the despair of the atheists, who know their own wretchedness without knowing their Redeemer…

Against Indifference, p155, Pascal’s Reflections

The massacre of children and teachers at the school in Beslan by Chechan separatists in 2004, the triple attack from the air on the United States on September 11, 2001, the bombings in Bali, Madrid and, on July 7, 2005, on London’s underground and bus system, remind us that supposedly God-fearing men are wholly capable of ungodly wickedness.

The idea of the God-fearing committing ungodly acts seems a contradictory proposition, except to those who believe that religion is a curse. In fact there is no contradiction in Pascal’s proposition about the corruption in nature that persuades men they can know God without knowing their own wretchedness. It is one thing to justify mass murder in the name of God; but only a deluded lunatic would justify 9/11 according to the mind of God.

The utterances of the 9/11 terrorists, as re-enacted in the television documentary A Hamburg Cell make perfect if appalling sense. Here were well-educated young men who been convinced that the mind of God commanded them to slaughter as many Jews and Americans as possible. Such an act requires a longing for death and an abiding contempt for life. Intellectually, this is an untenable position if, as a devout man, one believes that life is a gift from God. Contempt for life to the truly Godly is a sin akin to blasphemy, like spitting in the face of God.

Throughout history men have tried to hate life as a philosophical condition for bringing themselves closer to a state of rapture in which they hope to perceive the mind of God.

The idea is that this life is not the whole story, that behind or in front of this world, there is another reality. This world is merely a cave of shadows, silhouettes on firelit walls. This path of hatred is taken by men and women who cannot confront the causes of their deepest fears. They embrace denial and solitude as a way of negating the risk of loneliness should human love prove transitory or illusory.

But to embrace one’s wretchedness without the possibility of redemption, as Pascal suggested, is to put one’s self into a false position, a position of error in which judgements are made from a permanently flawed point of view. Monks embrace asceticism cheerfully. Those who give up worldly things must do so willingly, in good heart and good conscience, otherwise their sacrifice will be vitiated by hatred.

In the Christian tradition the willingness to accept death and martyrdom has always meant laying down one’s life for the love of God or to save another. Martyrdom has never meant taking the lives of men, women and children in a school gymnasium, bus, underground train, hotel or office building.

The true martyr surrenders his life not out of hatred. At the point of death Christ asked God to forgive those who had betrayed, humiliated, scourged and crucified him. The religious terrorist, the ugodly God-fearer, dies in the blood of others: his choice is their fait accompli. And for what? No man knows the measure of the universe, therefore no man knows the mind of God.

Only the intelligent ones would think of presenting murder as martyrdom and cowardice as heroism. Ordinary people without the dubious benefits of higher education tend to have more humility. For all the heartache and heartbreak that life entails they embrace it with a relish that more fastidious natures find common or vulgar.

George Orwell observed in his wartime essay The Lion and the Unicorn that the most notable feature about the English intelligentsia was its severance from the common culture of the country. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.

Great Goodness and great wickedness are alike in one respect: they both require imagination. The Final Solution, as devised in January 1942, and the Islamic bombings of 2001 and 2005 are examples of both wickedness and imagination.

The Nazis believed they would be doing the world a favour by ridding it of ugliness, cupidity and biological error. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the logical outcome of this idea. The Islamic terrorists in the United States and Britain imagined they were doing the will of Allah by murdering Jews and Americans. The only discernible difference between the Nazi and Islamic outlooks is that political power is not a reality for Jihadists.

In his book The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, Dr Bernard Lewis says:-
If one may speak of a clergy in a limited sociological sense in the Islamic world, there is no sense at all in which one can speak of a laity. The very notion of something that is separate or even separable from religious authority is totally alien to Islamic thought and practice.


Annihilating Israel and destroying the Great Satan, the United States, are very big ideas requiring enormous amounts of detailed planning and logistical calculation. Destroying the World Trade Centre was breath-taking in conception but wicked nonetheless. The loss of life was not in itself wicked: more people have been obliterated by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, let alone by acts of warfare or terror. What made the 9/11 attacks wicked was the presumption by the perpetrators that they were carrying out the will of God.

Therefore we should not be surprised when the God-fearing carry out godless atrocities. Their awareness of their own wretchedness has been entirely varnished over by their conviction that everyone not like them is wretched, ungodly and therefore unfit to live. The flaw in nature identified by Pascal comes down to a lack of imaginative sympathy for the human condition, the flaw that Shakespeare has the old maddened King recognise in Act Three of King Lear. It is the inability to imaginatively connect with others that makes men hate themselves, and removes the final obstacle to indiscriminate murder.

Denial of the self in hatred is not the answer: a willingness to embrace the self that yearns to know and love itself through its creator may be.

1 comment:

DP111 said...

Excellent post. Much food for thought.