I had a great conversation yesterday with a wonderful local pastor here in Orange County. As we were getting to know each other, we started talking about the current cultural climate. He asked me what I thought about the future of our country and I honestly just had to respond, “I don’t think it’s going to be good. I just have no idea what is holding this whole thing together.” And, I really do feel that way. I mean, honestly, what on earth is holding this culture together?
I see nothing immanent that might bind us– no worldly, yet lofty goal left to rally around and conquer. In fact I tend to believe that much of the noise about climate change is exactly this, a psycho-sociological attempt to fabricate a noble endeavor, one toward which we can exert our existential energies, a “nihilism-avoidance” mechanism, so to speak. Nor do I see any semi-transcendent story or objective (e.g. a national mythos, or even the exploration of space) around which to unite such a disparate community of the faithless. As all past cultural narratives have now been successfully deconstructed, and physical space has been shown to be essentially void, everything that could count as culturally generative, and sustaining, is immediately indicted by its own criteria; the mere chaotic conception of the post-modern mind in which we reside. Things are propped up, only to be torn down.
It was only later, after about an hour-long conversation with this pastor (this was not all we talked about, by any means), that I nevertheless recalled yesterday’s date, 9/11. A day that, as I reflected later, would mean something in history, if history only seemed to have meaning.
September 11th 2019 – remembering a historical tragedy in the age after the end of history
Francis Fukuyama’s famous article “The End of History?” came in the soon to be aftermath of the collapse of Russian Communism. It did seem, then, that the entire world would resolve itself to free market democracy, ending the political ideological battles of the previous two hundred years. Liberalism would be the inevitable, Hegelian-like end state of the quasi-human project, as both fascism and communism had reared their ugly heads, and been subsequently decapitated, one in the fire of war, the other put on ice through economic collapse. But now classical liberalism has also lost its hegemony to a new empire, one that the former pope, Benedict XVI, rightly labelled “the dictatorship of relativism.” Reflecting on an event like 9/11 under this current dictatorship however, is neither comforting, nor clear.
My 9/11 Story
18 years ago there was an incredibly well coordinated, religiously motivated attack on major American political and commercial centers. At that time I was living in Munich, Germany, doing nothing of great importance (perhaps typical of a “Gen-Xer” like me, reared on Grunge music and movies with titles like “Reality Bites”). My parents were also living there as my father was having a sabbatical semester at the Technical University in Munich (he obviously not a Gen-Xer). He called my apartment that afternoon, and I quickly rushed over to their place to watch the horror of 9/11 unfold. We were far away from home, and only sporadic calls to friends and family members to inquire of their personal safety were able to satisfy our attempts to put together the significance of such an event. But, out of this tragedy, there was some glimmer of hope. Something that, while existentially upsetting, appeared definitive, solid.
The day after 9/11 we went down to the Odeonsplatz where a huge pro-America rally was transpiring. Thousands of Germans and other Europeans standing side-by-side with ex-pats and tourists were waving American Flags and chanting pro-USA slogans; a genuine sign of solidarity with the once enemy, now beloved ally. It was as if people, Europeans nonetheless, were once again awakened to the reality of an objective good and evil, and even willing to take a side in the fight. It seemed as if the proposition “These attacks were evil” was true. And, it seemed like we could say so.
My father, however, prescient as ever, looked at me and said something I have yet to forget to this day. He remarked,”all of these folks cheering for us today, wait until we actually do something against whoever did these attacks…then they will all be demonstrating against us.” Truer words could not have been spoken, and the very objects of good and evil that seemed so clear one day, were quickly obscured in the weeks and months to come. Little did I know then that I would wind up playing my own role in that very obscure picture of worldview conflict, and moral ambiguity. But that story is for another time.
“But Let Your Word ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and ‘No’ be ‘No.’ Anything More Than This…
All this to say that when I say I don’t know what holds our country together anymore, I say this for two reasons: First, because in this post-modern, quasi-scientistic, post-liberal, and highly distracted technocratic society we inhabit, the degree of cultural fragmentation has, I think, attained an irreparable level. Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again, regardless of who the king’s men are, and in part because Star Wars has now definitively demonstrated that men cannot put much of anything good back together, let alone create anything we might consider good to begin with.
Alas, if we are not yet at explicit nihilism, we are like Nietzsche witnessing the flogging of that poor carriage horse in Turin, on the brink of total, mental breakdown at the sight of the pointless cruelty we ourselves have generated, yet cannot stomach. There truly is no grand narrative left to bind us, in spite of the hopes of many that Trump symbolized some kind of return to a Herbergian golden age of “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” Americanism (and yes, I will vote for him again, simply because he will be the most morally justifiable choice for any Christian dedicated to both the Church’s history, and the Bible’s metaphysics). Thus, I don’t think the West is returning to any golden age, I think total collapse is inevitable. Like Israel’s king Josiah, a feint hope of reformation and return has caught wind, but, for those who know this story, they also know that Josiah’s reforms really were too little, too late. Any worldly hope there is lies elsewhere, among the former colonies perhaps, where God seems to have relocated headquarters, and the Church in its spiritual vitality is being actively attacked.
Second, because I see concrete instances that demonstrate this inevitability to me in the fact that “news sources” like the New York Times cannot even say what caused the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon on that day 18 years ago. A day that also affected me and my own, as I would wind up in Afghanistan some eleven years later. To say that “planes took aim” is not just political correctness, it is a logical fallacy and disinformation; common phenomena in a post-truth world. Such “reporting” not only fails to educate a younger generation as to why such things actually occur, like the wickedness of human natures, but suggests a nonsense world exists, one where simply leaving out the bit that matters most, i.e. the cause of evil, is supposed to construct a different reality, one we supposedly will live in more comfortably, because we can change at will.
In this post-modern fantasy, “planes take aim” regardless of who is actually in them. The consequence of such thought however, if one can call it that, being the rendering of a generation clueless as to how to confront evil in its own time. Clueless to even recognize it, let alone confront it! After all, if it was really just planes taking aim, one must wonder why the US did not declare war against Boeing, storming Everett, Washington with elite Special Forces units, rather than invading Northeastern Afghanistan to attack Taliban strongholds. I’m sure that would have saved many American lives after all. It’s possible Boeing employees and CEOs might have even surrendered without much of a fight?
There is little excuse for such vice in journalism, as if the analysis has not been done, and things are somehow still intellectually or politically obscure. We’ve fought al-Qaida, and AQIZ, and the Taliban, and JAM (that’s Jaish al Mahdi), and ISIS, and all the shadowy networks that support these larger militant groups for more than two decades now. Unfortunately, what this non-journalistic act on the part of the NYT signifies, is the total incapacity of a post-modern culture to awaken, and once again rise up, and call “evil, evil” and “good, good.” Let me make it plain as day then, for the fact of the matter was that on September 12th, 2001 George Bush and Tony Blair represented “good” and Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar “evil.” Simplistic, fine, but true nonetheless. Anything else cometh of the evil one.
By and large I think there are things that are truly evil. Why? Because I believe in the God Who is there, made manifest in the incarnation of the Son, Jesus, and Who shows me what Goodness is. At the same time I tend to hold a high standard for when to use the word “evil.” For example, I don’t think wage inequality, if there is any, is evil. I do think killing babies in the womb is. I don’t think not having a minimum wage over 15$/hour is evil. I do think sex trafficking is. I don’t think the fact that most people have to pay for their college education is evil, I do think that shutting down open discourse on college campuses gets pretty close. To call something “evil” should be a weighty matter. Same with the word “wicked,” unless, I suppose, you’re from Boston.
Yet in a culture where everyone who disagrees with you is immediately labeled an ideological step-child of Adolf Eichmann (I’m mixing it up a bit for those who don’t read history), well, the word “evil” has simply lost its semantic content. In a time when planes and other inanimate objects (guns) are considered the sole efficient causes of tragedy, yet elderly Catholic women praying rosaries in front of abortion mills are called evil Nazis, we truly seem to have gone beyond good and evil. We are in the Twilight of more than just the gods, as we pay the consequences of creating worlds apart from God. Behold the work of human heads…and despair!
Finally, then, on my understanding of evil, which is the right one, I’ll say only this: I don’t think that Muslims are especially evil, I fought side-by-side with too many to think otherwise. Although, in all honesty, some of them were pretty rotten characters, but, then again so are we all; at the personal level sin just balances everything out. But, I do think that Islamic Jihadism and groups and movements that seeks to destroy Christians and Jews, and Homosexuals and Atheists, based on, what in all honesty is the more accurate reading of the Koran, are evil. They are part of the powers and principalities against which we fight (see Ephesians 6:10-12), whether we do so in the body, or in the spirit.
However, in a culture that has lost any objective sense of the meaning of “good” and “evil,” I admit I genuinely am left to wonder, what really is holding it all together? And without knowing the answer to this, while we may always remember 9.11, whether we ever understand its meaning will be something either left forever in the dark, or worse, manipulated for the sake of obscuring the light.