Monday, July 11, 2005

The Culture of Eternal Glory

In many of the recent discussions of terrorism and suicide-bombings, talking heads, pundits and politicians have made a good deal of the "culture of death". Militant Islam, in particular, has been identified as a culture of death or sometimes even a death cult.

While this nomenclature might have some rhetorical force, it is both misleading and ultimately misguided in an understanding of what it is exactly that motivates people to sacrifice themselves in actions that take large numbers of other lives to forward what they take to be divinely mandated goals. Of course there have been genuine death cults and cultures of death. One thinks of the Thugee and their often murderous worship of Kali--while not exactly as Steven Spielberg portrayed them in the Temple of Doom, it isn't too far-fetched to characterize them as a cult of death--or the human sacrifices of the Aztecs.

Suicide bombers are a different kind of beast, though. They aren't infatuated with death, they don't worship it, they don't even respect it all that much. Indeed that is the problem. They aren't a cult of death, they are a cult of a particular kind of life beyond death. Theirs is an eschatological motivation. Because they don't take death to be final or even that important--there is, after all, a virgin-filled Paradise awaiting them (unless textual criticism is right in saying it's merely grape-filled)--they have a diminished respect for their own mortality and for the mortality of those who fall in their plans.

In this way, they have more in common ideologically with millennialists and those Christians who take the entire Gospel to be somehow a footnote to the book of Revelation. Witness the great popularity among evangelicals and even some Catholics--although it goes against the considered teachings of Catholicism--of the Left Behind series of books. It is this concern with the great battle to come and the eternal glory awaiting those who take the right side, whether it be against those who oppose Islam, against the Antichrist, against those who forestall the rebuilding of the Temple or against those who do not give Rama his proper worship, that motivates murders in the name of religious extremism and that unites in mindset so many of today's fundamentalists, who might better be termed eschatologists.

This term has the rhetorical punch of resembling "scatological" and, moreover, correctly identifies their motivation in an overweening concern with last things, with final battles and with eternal glory as opposed to earthly co-existence and life. This is the very sort of religion that is most dangerous to world peace and to any vision of a secular society. But it isn't a death cult; it would be better if it had a little more respect for the finality of the grave.