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9/11 spawns religious arrogance



Published: Sun, September 10, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Five years after 9/11, arrogant religious certitude remains widespread and ruinous.

That certitude (indentured to ideological fanaticism) drove the 2001 terrorists to hijack airplanes for suicidal purposes. They also killed nearly 3,000 other people, including my own nephew.

That certitude earlier had turned Afghanistan into a terrorist training camp.

And that certitude contributes to the turmoil in the Middle East and in other flammable places around the globe.

This know-it-all-ism doesn't always lead to violence, though it's a mystery why not. It does, however, almost inevitably lead to social disharmony, to prejudice, to a sense that some people are more worthy in the eyes of God than others. Much of this could be avoided if some religious leaders did not teach, promote and defend this kind of divisive certitude.

What does its garden variety look like? It's ugly. An example is an e-mail I received in response to a column I wrote recently about helpful biblical scholars who are debunking the destructive old idea that Christianity has superseded Judaism, making it null and void.

The writer, after denigrating Judaism and Islam, declared that "the only viable religion is Christianity. There are no grays here only black and white. Ecumenicalism is the refugee (sic) of fools or intellectual cowards."

This is the kind of religious hate that has led to Ku Klux Klansmen who hide behind Christianity, to al-Qaeda terrorists who hide behind Islam, to abortion clinic bombers, attackers of gay men in public parks and to us-against-them attitudes that devalue our common humanity.

You can hear this kind of arrogant certitude coming from many radio and TV preachers who know exactly how the world will end and from representatives of the misshapen version of Islam that countenances suicide bombers. But you also hear it from people whose theological education ended in third-grade Sunday school.

Arrogant religious certitude

And none of this is new. History is full of arrogant religious certitude. A small example:

In his wonderful book, "From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present," Jacques Barzun writes this about 16th-century French essayist Michel Eyquen de Montaigne:

"(He) lived in an age full of people who knew that they, and they alone, had the truth, direct from God -- and these truth-bearers all disagreed. Reflecting on a far wider set of facts and with greater self-knowledge, Montaigne was at pains to make the point that Cromwell later phrased so superbly: 'By the bowels of Christ, bethink ye that ye may be mistaken."'

But, you see, that's the point. Arrogant religious certitude allows no room for the possibility of being mistaken. Rather, it stomps all over the virtue of humility, failing to recognize that the human capacity to ingest, digest and metabolize divine truth is limited.

So True Believers call each other names, assume they are saved and others damned, build walls to protect themselves from foreign truths, laugh at the pitiful infidels and stand with their pitchforks ready to ride into battle against them. In the process, they pit groups of people against each other in ways that wound the world.

This is the 9/11 lesson we seem not to have learned. And yet it may be the most important lesson of all.

Renouncing arrogant religious certitude does not mean giving up our faith, our beliefs, our convictions. Not at all.

Rather, it means acknowledging that those convictions may not exhaust divine realities. It means leaving ourselves open to the idea that we have more to learn, more to understand. It means acknowledging, as the Apostle Paul did in one of his letters to the fledging church at Corinth, that now we see through a glass, darkly. It means, finally, adopting an attitude of humility.

And what we owe to the 9/11 victims is a deep sense of repentant humility, remembering that humility need not be humiliating.

Bill Tammeus is a retired columnist for The Kansas City Star. Distributed by McClaTAMMEUS tchy-Tribune Information Services.




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