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.


Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with most of what you said, but I have a question: if "they have more in common ideologically with millennialists and those Christians " then why the difference between them? Why do we not see millenialist and "Revalations"-type Christians blowing themselves up in buses and trains? Is it because there is no truely fundamentalist Christian Regime to support it (yet...)? No cause worthy enough?
I always liked to think that Islam, being the youngest religion, is also the least mature one. Christianity went through the Inquisition but moved on. Judaism never really wanted to convert anyone, just be left alone to practice.
But if they are similar as you describe, then fundamentalist Christianity has the potentail to loop back around and become savage in the name of the next life?

Tyler Hower said...

I agree that that part of the "fundamentalist" or "millenialist" Christian community that is willing to blow things up is neither as large or as mainstream as the same part of Islam. But there is such a group nonetheless, and it shows its face in the person of those like Eric Rudolph and Timothy McVeigh who find the rationale for their bombings in their own fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. And it shows a somewhat softer side in the angry and hateful rhetoric of those like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who pray publicly for the death of Supreme Court Justices or blame gays, feminists and liberals for terrorist attacks and hurricanes. I think that Christianity definitely has the seeds for a savage uprising still dwelling within its midst. I agree with Gil, though, that maturity and history have a lot to do with the relative size of the violent communities, although I tend to think that it's having experienced the Enlightenment and its secularizing influences that mediates the violent tendencies in any religion as experienced and practiced in the "West".

Anonymous said...

I agree, and wonder when enlightenment will happen for them.
It was decentralization of the religion that enabled cracks in its power (Martin Luther bringing God to the people and thus stripping the the Catholic Church of that prerogative), but Islam is completely decentralized with no one major influential stream and the more moderate ones still seem to be deafeningly silent. It seems to have gone in the opposite direction and grown more extreme.
I guess, like you said, it;s a matter of culture.