The ISIL fundamentalist extremists who terrorized Paris, San Bernardino, Beirut, and elsewhere in the name of God believe in an eternal reward for sacrificing themselves for a holy cause. Though it may seem strange to many of us in the West, they share two beliefs widely held by others who are not terrorists:
- God (Allah, in Arabic) is a being — the Supreme Being, but ‘a being’ nonetheless.
- Death is not the end of mortal life; we are destined for immortality – Heaven or Hell, eternal states of bliss or punishment.
It’s not just the jihadists who deny our mortality, our perishable nature within the order of Nature.
In Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry, philosopher of religion Willem Zuurdeeg wrote:
“Threatened by nonbeing, by chaos, and meaninglessness, man looks for a foothold in the Imperishable.”
The “soldiers of the caliphate” are young. Paradoxically, as hideous, grotesque, and deranged as their thinking is, their massacres are performed in the name of an ideal. They are idealists claiming “a foothold in the Imperishable”.
Seeking to rid the world of evil, they succumb to evil. In the name of heaven and the Imperishable, they create hell on earth.
But what if God is not a being? What if, as Paul Tillich argued, God does not “exist” as a thing or person exists, but instead is Being-Itself or the Ground of Being or the God above god?
What if we are mortal? What if death is the end, not a doorway to heavenly reward or eternal punishment? What if no St. Peter stands at the pearly gates to separate sheep and goats? What if no vestal virgins are waiting? What if life and death are what they seem?
John Lennon’s “Imagine” strikes a chord in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Mali. Imagine there’s no religion. But imagining won’t erase the problem of religion or the anxiety endemic to the human condition. We are suckers for certainty desiring the end of complexity and ambiguity.
“Finitude,” wrote Paul Tillich, “means having no definite place; it means having to lose every place finally, and with it, to lose being itself.” [Systematic Theology, Vol. I., p. 195, University of Chicago Press]
The appeal of fundamentalist certainty, whatever its form, is the promise of a secure foothold, place in immortality – a purpose bigger than life itself, the escape from ambiguity.
When faith is ill-conceived as acting to end the ambiguities represented by the enemies of God, instead of as coping with life’s inherent ambiguities, we create what we seeks to escape. We create a foothold in what will not hold.
What if to be human is not to escape mortality, but to embrace it thankfully and to live courageously within the boundaries of time, of mortal flesh filled with the Eternal in the midst of time?
“Being holy . . . does not mean being perfect but being whole; it does not mean being exceptionally religious or being religious at all; it means being liberated from religiosity and religious pietism of any sort; it does not mean being morally better, it means being exemplary; it does not mean being godly, but rather being truly human.” ― William Stringfellow, A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings.
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 9, 2016