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Fighting Terrorism With Transcendence

What would induce a person to join the ranks of ISIS? More than you might think, Ross Douthat argues over at the New York Times: in a world that offers us temporal rather than eternal promises, the Islamic State is reminding young people that they have souls: as the New York Review of Books piece that Douthat quotes points out,

France’s Center for the Prevention of Sectarian Drift Related to Islam (CPDSI) estimates that 90 percent of French citizens who have radical Islamist beliefs have French grandparents and 80 percent come from non-religious families. In fact, most Europeans who are drawn into jihad are “born again” into radical religion by their social peers. … ISIS is a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that many of them will never live to enjoy …

This is something the West has a hard time understanding, says Douthat. In our largely materially and rationally focused society, we don’t understand why young people would join a group of beheading extremists. Yet in underestimating the force of ISIS’s message, we undermine our own ability to fight them:

The deep reality here (a reality not unlike the one that’s playing itself out on certain college campuses right now) is that many human beings, especially perhaps young human beings, still crave a transcendent purpose, even in a society that tells them they don’t really need one to live a comfortable, fulfilling life. And more than that, many people experience both a kind of liberation and a kind of joy in submission to these purposes, even — as is the case with ISIS — when that submission involves accepting forms of violence and cruelty that rightly shock the conscience of the world.

… “Nothing costs enough here,” Huxley’s Savage complains about the brave new world. If ISIS costs, a certain meaning-starved cohort in our world thinks, maybe that just means it’s real. That cohort is still mercifully small, and unless radical Islam acquires a lot more intellectual cachet it’s likely to remain so. But if the West’s official alternative to ISIS is the full Belgium (basically good food + bureaucracy + euthanasia), if Western society seems like it’s closed most of the paths that human beings have traditionally followed to find transcendence, if Western culture loses the ability to even imagine the joy that comes with full commitment, and not just the remissive joy of sloughing commitments off — well, then we’re going to be supplying at least some recruits to groups like ISIS for a very long to come.

“Nothing costs enough here.” It’s true of Western society in many ways—especially in the realm of the spiritual and philosophical. This is something Rod Dreher has pointed out in his columns about “moralistic therapeutic deism“: while ISIS has given people a story of transcendence, Western churches have settled for “rationalism and do-goodery.” We’ve cheapened our Gospel by cutting out the supernatural and the difficult—by making it primarily about this life, and about pleasing people, rather than refocusing on the eternal and on God.

While the fears and doubts expressed by many American Christians over the Syrian refugee crisis are understandable, I think they are often symptomatic of this refocusing on the temporal and rational, rather than the eternal and spiritual. On Friday, I argued for The Week that Christians should be encouraging the U.S. government to admit refugees. This argument could have focused on presenting a rational, data-driven discussion of the costs and benefits: whether refugees will pose a risk to national security, whether we have the means to both screen and house them properly, etc. And there are some excellent resources on this subject, giving intelligent arguments for why the risks are much lower than most Americans think.

But instead, I tried to focus primarily on biblical and ethical arguments for Christians to consider—primarily because of the argument Dreher and Douthat are making. We religious people in the West are far too quick to secularize our conversations, focusing on the material and not the spiritual. We focus on the societal, political, and personal implications: on the worries of this life. And in so doing, we sell our religion cheap. We cut the heart out of it, and only strengthen the Islamic State’s cause. We show that we are not as devout as they—that we offer no equal (or superior) path of devotion to follow. We offer only the comforts of this world, and in the process, cut off the lost and alone from both the temporal and supernatural comforts they are craving.

In his Lenten message in February, Pope Francis warned listeners to be wary of “globalized indifference.” He said,

The love of God breaks through that fatal withdrawal into ourselves which is indifference. The Church offers us this love of God by her teaching and especially by her witness. But we can only bear witness to what we ourselves have experienced. Christians are those who let God clothe them with goodness and mercy, with Christ, so as to become, like Christ, servants of God and others. This is clearly seen in the liturgy of Holy Thursday, with its rite of the washing of feet. Peter did not want Jesus to wash his feet, but he came to realize that Jesus does not wish to be just an example of how we should wash one another’s feet. Only those who have first allowed Jesus to wash their own feet can then offer this service to others.

Some may think that a deep focus on the transcendent would deaden our hearts and deafen our ears to the sufferings of this world. But as Pope Francis pointed out, it’s the exact opposite: a person transformed by the supernatural is uniquely able to serve those who live in this world. As C.S. Lewis once said, throughout history “the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.”

This is the joy that can fight “the joy of ISIS”—it’s one that offers healing, comfort, and peace, rather than a gospel of stealing, killing, and destroying. But in order for the searching to find it, someone must preach it.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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