Reviews > Culture

Syncretism and secularism

Culture | Nihilism has become irrelevant, but what will come next?

Issue: "Bush: 'We will not fail'," Oct. 20, 2001

"Everything has changed." That refrain has become as common in the post-9/11 world as "God bless America."

America's culture-makers-many of whom live in New York City-are deeply shaken. The intellectual movements, artistic styles, and entertainment fads now seem obsolete.

True, left-wing academics like Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag treat American values with a disdain second only, perhaps, to Osama bin Laden. But in insisting that the terrorist attacks were justified because of America's imperialism, its support of Israel, and oppression of the developing world, the post-Marxists on university campuses are making fools of themselves, to the point that it is evident even to college students.

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As Andrew Sullivan, senior editor of The New Republic, points out, the leftists are putting themselves in the uncomfortable position of supporting an ideology that brutally subjugates women (to the point of flogging them for walking by themselves in public), executes homosexuals, and outlaws nearly every human freedom. People who have made their careers by condemning America for being anti-woman, homophobic, and oppressive are now defending a regime that really is all of these things. And anyone who compares New York City to Afghanistan has to admit that America is a free country, after all, that it has ideals worth defending.

Hollywood, with a guilty conscience, is toning down its violence. The art world is calling for an end to irony and nihilism.

So what changes can we expect on the cultural scene? If irony, cynicism, and nihilism have become irrelevant, what next?

Possibly we may see a new appreciation for America's heritage. Patriotism is back, big time. Churches are full. The terrorists hate America's freedom and they hate Christianity. This is reason enough to stop taking them for granted and to build on them once again.

But there are other possibilities. An excess of freedom, warned Plato, is often followed by an excess of tyranny. Could the culture go from the extreme of anything goes to the other extreme of social oppression?

Liberals are crowing that the era of distrust of government is over. There are calls for national ID cards and the suspension of constitutional rights. Many in the timorous public seem willing to give up freedom for security-just as the great Christian cultural critic Francis Schaeffer warned about decades ago.

Perhaps more dangerous in the post-postmodernist era is what may happen to religion. Suddenly the cultural hostility to faith went up in smoke, when Americans faced real pain and real spiritual need. This was a good sign. And yet, in the well-intentioned "interfaith prayer services," a more disturbing note was sounded. Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus were all worshipping together, praying, it was said, "to the same God."

The Bible strictly forbids syncretistic worship, the mingling of biblical and pagan religions, a violation of the First Commandment. When the Israelites brought idols of Baal into the Temple, presumably because they thought they and the Canaanites worshipped "the same god," the real God was not pleased.

Such multi-faith worship may be the beginning of the much-anticipated "one-world religion," which, though filled with pious emotionalism and religiosity, will be far different from Christianity.

Another theological possibility is a militant secularism. Salman Rushdie, the novelist who has been under an Islamic death sentence, wrote a column for The Washington Post in which he takes to task the anti-American left but also urges the exaltation of everything the Islamic "fundamentalists" are against.

"The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings," Mr. Rushdie writes. "Such people are against, to offer just a brief list, freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex."

It is easy, he says, to be against terrorism. "But what are we for? What will we risk our lives to defend? Can we unanimously concur that all the items in the above list-yes, even the short skirts and dancing-are worth dying for?"

Just as the Romans were unwilling to die for their orgies in the face of the barbarian onslaught, Americans, though open to many things on that list, are probably unwilling to die for such things as evolution, homosexuality, and short skirts.

The point, though, is that, in some circles, people are already lumping conservative Christians together with the Muslim terrorists as "fundamentalists," as the enemy who deserves to be stamped out.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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