07 February 2006

Living with Doubt, Losing without It

The contrarian Spengler at the Asia Times weighs in on the Cartoon Offensive.
The global relationship among literacy rates, secularization and population growth makes clear that the fragility of Muslim traditional society is not a Muslim problem as such. But the Muslim world is far more vulnerable than the numbers suggest, for two reasons. The first reason is chronological, and the second is theological.

It is not a good thing to come late to the table of globalization. China and its neighbors have emerged from the maelstrom of revolution and the violent loss of tens of millions of lives to become actors on the world economic stage. Of China's 1.3 billion people, 400 million are integrated into the world division of labor, and millions more are becoming urbanized, literate and productive by the year. India remains behind China but has good prospects for success. Against these formidable competitors, few countries in Western Asia, Africa or Latin America can hope to prevail. In a world that has little need of subsistence farmers and even less need of university graduates with degrees in Islamic philosophy, most of the Muslim world can expect small mercy from the market.

The theological problem I have discussed in other locations, most recently in reporting the pope's seminar at Castelgandolfo. Christianity and Judaism have adapted to doubt, the bacillus of modern thought, by inviting doubt to serve as the handmaiden of faith. No better formulation of this can be found than in Benedict XVI's classic Introduction to Christianity. The object of revelation, the believer, becomes a participant in revelation, in dialogue with the Revealer. This great innovation has not prevented the death of traditional, autonomic Christian belief, but it has left an enduring core of Christian faith in the West well inoculated against skepticism. As the pope explained, the eternal, unchanging character of the Koran that the Archangel Gabriel dictated verbatim to Mohammed admits of no doubt. Muslim belief is not dialogue, but submission. It is as defenseless before the bacillus of skepticism as the American aboriginals were before the smallpox virus.

That is why Muslims cannot respond to Western jibes at the person of their Prophet except as they did to the Jyllens-Posten cartoons. I do not sympathize with scoffers but, like Benedict, I see doubt as an adversary to be won over, rather than as an enemy to be extirpated. I would not have drawn nor published these cartoons, but when the lines are drawn, I stand with Western freedom against traditional authority. I write these lines over a Carlsberg and shall drink no other lager until the boycott of Danish product ends.
Okay, I have many doubts about Spengler's broad brush. Plenty of Muslims nowadays are full of doubt, and perhaps even more full of justifiable fear--from all sides. But societies that brook no doubt and no dissent are destined for the dustbin of history.

I swim in doubt--I drown in doubt--and have done so for as long as I can remember. My closest brother, who was baptized at the same time I was in the dunking pool of the First Baptist Church in Winchester, Virginia, says we laughed on the way home from church in the rear-facing third seat of our family's Nash Rambler station wagon. I don't really remember. I just vaguely remember being shy about being down front and having to read our testimony before the congregation. But I remember all too well the last Sunday school class I attended several years later at my last mission meeting at Amagi Sanso before returning to the States to face college, the draft, or whatever else awaited a newly 18-year-old male citizen of the U.S. in 1967.

A new missionary, half a generation younger than our parents, was our Sunday School teacher that year. Some of us MKs were borderline delinquent, infected with both doubt and rebelliousness, and perhaps our missionary parents thought Uncle Jim's testimony might connect with us. He had been a delinquent himself until he found the Lord, as he testified in some detail. Not entirely boring detail. Postconversion joy was far less interesting. But how do you know that God even exists, some of us asked. The experience he described was foreign to some of us. Well, it says so right here, he answered, and read the Bible to us to prove the existence of its imputed author ("as told to" quite a string of ghostwriters). But haven't you ever doubted the scriptures, some of us asked. Never! Not since I found the Lord, he assured us. Well, that didn't connect too well.

That night I asked my Dad if he had ever had doubts about his beliefs. He had been raised a Quaker, but joined the Baptist church in his youth (dunked in a mill pond near his country church). Of course I've had doubts, he said. But Uncle Jim says he had never doubted the scriptures since his conversion! Well, Dad hesitantly replied, anyone who says he's never had any doubts about his beliefs is either a fool or a liar. What a relief it was to hear that! I can't convey how much I appreciated his honesty that night. And still do. He doesn't shy away from unpleasant truths. I think Uncle Jim eventually came to the same realization. His own kids later turned out no less delinquent and disoriented as teenagers than the older MKs he failed to connect with that night.

A generation later, it was my daughter's turn to go through confirmation class at a UCC church in Honolulu--a church imbued with doubt about most elements of the Christian tradition. Even so, I rarely attended. And even though I was welcome to partake of communion there, I couldn't bring myself to do so. I didn't feel part of the community of belief, even though my wife and daughter were regular members of that community of believers (or at least seekers).

One of the confirmation class activities was to interview your parents (or guardians, etc.) about their religious beliefs. I had to confess that I find it hard to believe in a Supreme Being. Even so, I have too many doubts to be an outright atheist. And one of the major sociological goals of the confirmation class (in fact, most of the goals seemed to be more sociological than theological) was to to prepare Christians for an age in which they constitute a minority in global society, in which (as the pastor once put it) "the church is not the chapel of the state." That is a most worthy goal, in my estimation. One that militant evangelicals of all religions would do well to adopt.

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