Material Guy, a commenter on Fjordman’s latest post at Dhimmi Watch, posted an interesting aphorism:
As a rabbi who had extensively studied Islam once told me:
The highest value in Judaism: life
The highest value in Christianity: love
The highest value in Islam: unity
There have been destructive mass movements in both Judaism and Christianity, but it is in Islam that the abdication of self is total.
Like all aphorisms, its weakness lies in generalities. But, like all good aphorisms, its summations are a jumping-off point for further thought.
What does it mean for Judaism to have as its “ultimate concern” (as Paul Tillich might have said) the value of life above all else? How does that work out in the routinization of life lived day-by-day, moment-by-moment? More importantly, to what extent is life as Judaism’s first value driven by the ageless desire of others to vilify, shun, and ultimately exterminate the Jews? Does the one thing forever denied them — secure liberty — ensure that they must, at whatever cost, survive?
And the saddest question: when does it descend from a vital life to mere survival?
To expand a bit on the quote from Material Guy, here is something one of my theology professors said in a homily (I don’t know whether it was his original idea or not, but I never forgot it):
“To be fully Christian is to know that
- love is possible,
- evil is reversible, and
- we can live liberated from our past.”
What conclusions can be drawn from a life lived on those terms? It moves beyond life as the summum bonum to love as the kindling of life itself. It is a constant beginning over, starting anew, in spite of the burden of experience which whispers that it is otherwise.
It says: there are worse things than dying.
– – – – – – – – – –
And then we ask what kind of love is possible, and how is permitted to be expressed? That is why Christians world-wide are bickering and splintering over the basics: “What does ‘love’ permit?” We all know the Greek divisions of love into eros, philia, and agape. Christians claim for themselves the last of those, though the very claim itself is hubris — and a scandal to any observer outside their fold who has experienced parental or familial love which sacrifices beyond reason for another.
Blessed are those who love one another past the limits of their own existence — the quotidian heroics of the passing stranger always bring us to a halt. We hear the story and have to tell others, “did you hear about the man who jumped on the tracks to save…?” It provokes the unspoken question: what would I be able to do in such a situation? What are the limits of love expressed in courage?
And then there is the saving grace of Islam: unity. Surrender, submission, the eradication of the self for the sake of the group. Again, one can ponder the harsh desert environment in which such a theology might arise. And the unity is elusive, with one sect of Islam turning away contemptuously from another — as we witnessed up close in Saddam Hussein’s execution.
At one point in our world’s culture, this attempt at unity, however tenuous, would have served well the purposes of survival. But as Islam has sadly experienced (I cannot say it has “learned” since the experience is repeated ad infinitum) unity is a two-edged sword: to unite means to cut out others, to live in a world of scarcity in which there is not enough life or love to allow for the experience of abundance from which a sense of liberty flows. Sometimes it does seem that Islam has adopted Darwin’s notion of the survival of the fittest as its basis for dealing with the outside world — and with one another.
“Submission” — like “love” or “life”— is one of those many-splendored and infinitely splintered ideas. None of them can encompass the full reality of the light and dark sides of their lived experience. All three words roll so easily off the tongue … as though we knew what they really mean.
But we don’t, “really.” Our endless hatreds, our long memory for slights, our refusal to see beyond our fearful narcissism — we prove every day how difficult it is to cut the puppet strings that the tyrannical three year old inside all of us has twined around our motives and our actions.
You think you don’t live in Plato’s Cave?