I just started reading a book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible which my brother in law bought for me for Christmas.  I had put it on the bottom of the pile and finally made my way down to it just now. In it, I found this quote from an article by Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary:

The great conflict in the twenty-first century may not be between the West and terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The underlying battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernists: between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe blind allegiance and identity to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is no more than preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious dogma, and those who rely primarily on science, reason, and logic. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism itself is not the only danger we face.

Let’s take that apart. The first time I read it, I wondered what religion Reich was talking about.  I suppose there are people who fit under the net he’s thrown, but there can’t be many because each time he starts a “between those .. and those” he makes the net smaller.  Anyway.

First, terrorism is in fact a belief among those sorts of Muslims depicted so eloquently in Geert Wilders’ movie Fitna (link below).  But that’s not really my point.  It’s just a “fer instance” illustrating Reich’s blindness to elementary facts.

Reich first wants to distinguish between “those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe blind allegiance and identity to a higher authority.”  I wonder if it would be okay with Reich if our allegiance were not “blind,” but my guess is he doesn’t think there is any such thing as “open-eyed allegiance.”  But if you take the word “blind” out of this “dichotomy” of Reich’s, it’s not really a dichotomy at all.  It is not at all contradictory to believe that individuals are of primary importance and that human beings should ally themselves with God.  But even more to the point, Christianity and Judaism taught the world the primacy of the individual.  Judaism through its laws and rituals taught that the God cares about the individual Jew, about his actions, his motivations, his treatment of those around him, and that God made available to each individual Jew atonement for wrongful behavior through Temple sacrifice (and even that was — if I recall right — available based on one’s economic circumstances.  Fittingly, the rich man had to offer a large expensive sacrifice; the poor widow only a bird she could buy for a few pennies.  (I suspect that that economic hierarchy of sacrifice tells us something much deeper than what I’m offering here, but I don’t have time to think about it.))

Similarly, Christianity teaches that each individual is so important that the creator of the universe became human and offered Himself in each individual’s place to make eternal life available.  What could be more “primary” than that?  (There are multiple theories about how atonement “works,” but I don’t need to address that to make this point.)  Indeed, one of the principal complaints about Western civilization is its emphasis on the individual as opposed to, say, the village that you need to raise a child.  What the hell is Reich talking about?  What religion is Reich talking about that has no place for the “primacy of the individual”?

Next, Reich distinguishes between “those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is no more than preparation for an existence beyond life.” Gee, I wonder if there are any religious people who think this life is important and do things to make it better like giving money to help the poor, working in food kitchens, striving to aid the sick and helpless, protesting against oppression … (ahem, fighting a war to free people under the thumb of a madman), nah, probably not.  Okay, I’m being silly.  The key to Reich’s rhetoric here is the phrase “no more than.”  If you substitute the phrase “also,” there is again, no dichotomy here.  There can and most certainly are religious people who give priority to life in this world and also believe this life is preparation for an afterlife.  There is no dissonance there whatsoever.

Not only is there no dissonance, but in fact Judaism taught the world about the importance of taking care of the poor, doing justice without prejudice or favoritism, providing for those in need, etc.  I could give chapter and verse but I don’t care to.

In fact, one of the things that sometimes bothers me about some Christian groups is that they focus almost exclusively on the primacy of “this life” and seem to forget why we do these things.  At the website for the
Los Angeles Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for instance, you’ll find information about programs for rebuilding neighborhoods, providing security, helping the poor, emphasizing education and other programs aimed at, dum dum dum, improving “life in this world” for many many people.  This is great stuff, all very important and to be supported by Christians and Jews everywhere.

But, I have to ask, where is Jesus?

Now, maybe I misunderstand what the Conference is.  Maybe it’s a coalition of churches that uses the website to coordinate their programs and the “Jesusy” stuff is handled locally.  If so, I apologize for using the Conference as an example.  My point is not to “call them out.”  Their work is admirable.  My point is that sometimes those of us who care about both this life and the next one can focus so much on this one we forget about that one.  In any event, the Conference certainly belies Reich’s claim that it’s “either/or.”

Finally, Reich discerns a difference between “between those who believe truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious dogma, and those who rely primarily on science, reason, and logic.”  Again, I wonder if there are any religious people who believe scripture and dogma (which, despite the frightening name, means only “a system of principles or tenets”) reveals truth and also rely on science, reason and logic.  Nah, can’t be.  Certainly, we all know that science sprang forth fully formed from the mind of an atheist in the 1500’s 1800’s and that, other than one or two secret heretics, there were never any Christians who had anything to do with science.  So there’s that.

And reason and logic?  I mean come on.  Tertullian, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, The Cappadocian Fathers, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard, John Scotus, William of Ockham, Grotius, Decartes, Pascal, Martin Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, Jacobus Arminius, Zwingli, John Locke, John Adams. John Randolph, Karl Barth, Joseph Butler, G. K. Chesterton, Etienne Gilson, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, C. S. Lewis, Pope John Paul II, Josef Pieper, Alvin Plantinga.  Pheh.  What a bunch of maroons.

Okay, sorry.  Point is, terrorism is real; Reich’s worrisome “enemy” is imaginary.  Indeed, Reich does not even seem to be aware that all of the “good” sides of his imaginary dichotomy spring from the well of religion.  It would be most unfortunate if a significant number of the “elite” and political class believed his claptrap.

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