Thursday, July 5, 2007

Maybe I Get It

Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach has spoken to educated people in the West about modern times. Writing in 1867, Arnold has long seemed to have the gift of poetic prophesy.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Has any other poem, for more than a century, better encapsulated our society's moving away from the religious verities of our forebears and towards secularism? Arnold's verse has seemed as much a summing up for us as prophesy for him. Inherent to Arnold's choice of metaphor, however, is something upon which none of my teachers, not even in English graduate school, commented.

Even as the tide goes out, it comes back in.

And so, well before the end of the first decade in this new century, we see one of the major themes for this century: a rekindling of religious faith worldwide. One of the past century's assumptions, that with education and globalism people everywhere would become increasingly secular, has been proved false. Nowhere is this movement more obvious than in Islam. Whereas Islam used to be more a cultural than a religous force in parts of the Muslim world, today that world is changing. In both social subsets, like university students in Cairo, and in nations, like Turkey and Indonesia, people are more attentive to the dictates of their faith. Of course, the same forces are at work in Christianity. The growth of evangelical Protestantism in the U.S. and in Central America, the correspondent emergence of charismatic Catholicism, the legacy of Pope John Paul II, the rebirth of the Orthodox church in the states of the former Soviet Union, and the competition for converts between Christianity and Islam in Africa are shaping our world. Of course, there are parallels in Judaism, for which one need look no further than the growth of the Orthodox Bronx in New York.

But for all the rebirths in Christianity, it is the Muslim faith that will shape the world to come. Islam is the world's fastest growing religion, the world's fastest growing population. Within forty years, a majority of earth's people will be Muslim. Therefore, Islam--not Judaeo-Christian values, not the western Enlightenment, not American democracy--will mark some of the ways in which our grandchildren and great-grandchildren live. Future world cultures will be colored by Islam, in the way American popular music and movies and games infuse everything everywhere today.

Some of you, dear readers, don't want to read this. Some of you resist. You are alarmed. But I say to you: don't be. Despite the growing numbers of Islamic terrorists, despite the myriad ways in which various Muslim societies are growing darker--and indeed every day there is more disquieting news--good things are happening in Islam. You have to search online to find the good news. But the good news is there, and in its own quiet way, growing. I have pointed you towards some of that news in my Jordan blog, to some of the people, women in particular, who are risking their lives to find a way to practice their faith in the modern world.

There is an ongoing debate among Middle East scholars about a Reformation for Islam. Would it be good for Islam to have a realignment like the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther? Or is that a neo-colonialist imperative? It seems to me that such a debate is academic, for the Reformation has already begun. As Leila Ahmed said to the young Muslim women at the IWF Conference, "like me, you have been educated in the West. But unlike me, you are not staying in the West. You are taking what you have learned home with you; you are re-interpreting the Quran and sharia; you are going further than I ever dreamed." The paradox is that by re-thinking what it means to live life as a good Muslim, these women are strengthening the whole world of their religion.

So the "great war for civilisation" that Fisk and others envision is not really between Islam and the West, or between Islam and Judaism/Christianity. It is a war within Islam itself. Mostly, at the beginning of this century, we see the dark forces at work. To put it in neutral language, we see the push-back. When reading about suicide bombers and hate speech and honor killings, I don't usually respond so, I must confess. Indeed I often think of Martin Luther's great hymn of the Reformation. "And so our Ancient Foe, doth seek to work us woe/His craft and power are great/And armed with cruel hate, on Earth is not his Equal." As a Christian, of course, I believe that evil will not triumph, in the end.

In Jordan, I had a breakfast conversation that I've thought much about since. Amy and I, both of us from the San Francisco Bay area, were talking about religious tolerance among Californians. A good thing, we both agreed. Amy went on to say how great it is that many Californians are into Buddhism. I demurred, tentatively. And in the end, I demur even more. For in the West, even among conservative Christian and Jewish congregations, we now have "pick and choose" religion. It's a Build-A-Bear enterprise: from the elements of various faiths, choose what appeals to you and build your own religion--dare I say it, build your own God. For after all, none of the Buddhism-appreciative Californians Amy and I know are shaving their heads, picking up their staves and begging bowls and heading out into the world to search for divinity, in the true Buddhist way. In our time, we have come to the end of the journey on which the Reformation and the subsequent European Enlightenment have set us. Individual consciousness, human rights for the individual, the imperative that an individual should interpret Scripture as he or she sees fit--we have sought and found these good things, and they have carried us as far as they can. From the overweening sense of personal entitlement, from rationalizations of bad behavior, from the moral relativism that permeates western cultures, we can see that we have reached some kind of an end.

Islam--whether from necessity, as the world's most influential religion, or from divine purpose, as I believe--will take us on down the road. When my new Jordanian friend said that Islam is a perfect expression of human rights for women, I nodded politely, but I rolled my inner eye. Now I think I'm beginning to get it. Islam is not a religion built from the bottom up, as much of Christianity is today, from the bits and pieces of doctrine and revelation an individual finds congenial. Islam is a--maybe the--top-down faith. Worship God, in the spirit of the Quranic revelations; acknowledge God, and everything else follows. For a Muslim, submission to God, through the ritual of daily prayers, infuses everything. This is why so many Muslim women attest that Islam is good to women. God is good and all-powerful; His immanence gives meaning to my world. In the well-lived Muslim life, this is complete truth. In everyday matters, of course, people often fail to live their faith. How twenty-first century Islam reconciles this dichotomy will determine much.

This is the end of my Jordan blog. I'll continue to write about Islam now and then. But it's on to the 2008 presidential race. Islam is the future--likely well past my lifetime--but for now American democracy is still a force to be reckoned with. So Junehill, Owl, and Green Dog will return to our political roots.

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