“We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” So says President Obama. Graeme Wood disagrees. In the February issue of The Atlantic, he argues that Islamic State is not a death cult that distorts Islam. Rather, it is “very Islamic.” In fact, ISIS gets something right that few Westerners recognize.
The first rule of war is Know Thy Enemy. Granted, ISIS “has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe,” writes Wood. “But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” It is very Islamic.
So what is ISIS fighting? In a word, modernity. What’s modernity? In four words, it is suspicion of institutional authority. Modernity makes the autonomous individual the boss. I do what I want to do, when I want to do it. Period. It’s a 16th century development that upended institutions with the individual as the source and basis of all authority.
ISIS recognizes this. Its leaders know autonomy comes from the Greek auto (self) and nomos (law). Autonomous individuals are a law unto themselves. This is the prevailing paradigm in the West. Modernity turns its back on the past, wrote Daniel Bell, trespassing religion and moving “the center of authority from the sacred to the profane,” to the individual.1 C. S. Lewis saw the same thing. “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality.”2 Since the sixteenth century, Westerners have flipped that, seeking to shape society around self.
Colin Gunton sees the sixteenth century as a turning point, the age of Descartes and the Enlightenment. “Descartes and his successors have destroyed social and universal order.”3 The autonomous individual cannot be told what to do. This is, says Bell, the single theme of modernity. “The rejection of a revealed order or natural order, and the substitution of the individual—the ego, the self—as the lodestar of consciousness. The ego/self takes the throne as the center of the moral universe, making itself the arbiter of all decisions. There are no doubts about the moral authority of the self; that is simply taken as a given. The only question is what constitutes fulfillment of the self.”
Out of modernity came nonsensical ideas like positivism (dividing the world between facts and values), pushing faith to a privatized experience. Turning inward, faith became narcissistic—self-absorbed. Therapy replaced theology. Believers looked for “safe” gods and “safe” places to worship. ISIS sees this and repudiates it. So did Robert Bellah.
Robert Bellah was a sociologist who recognized that the autonomous individual “lies at the very core of American culture.” In his seminal book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Bellah notes how unfettered individualism rules the American church. He called it expressive individualism. It’s heard in such statements as: “This is my personal relationship with Jesus,” “I need to be authentic,” and “I want my church to be a safe place and meet my needs.” Expressive individualism is consistent with Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s conclusion that a “moralistic, therapeutic deism” has triumphed over historical creedal faith and practice in the American church.
ISIS sees all this. They get this part of the story correct. Any way you slice and dice it, modernity has created faith communities where the autonomous self rules the roost. How else do we explain anemic giving levels while claiming to adhere to the Bible? How else do we explain anemic church attendance when the Bible is quite clear about sharing in the sacraments? The best explanation is that Western Christians do what they want to do, when they want to do it. Period.
“I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “In reality, Christianity is primarily the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but also the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted at in all the religions at their best. What was vaguely seen in them all comes into focus in Christianity.”4 Every faith system gets at least part of the story correct. ISIS, while abhorrent and ruthless, at least understands how modernity has turned religion into an individualized preference. Christians can agree with them on that point.
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1 Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978), p. 158.
2 Clive Staples Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, Macmillan, 1947).
3 Colin Gunton, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 14.
4 C.S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 54.