I take no position on whether burning the Koran is a good or bad thing. Frankly, I am with Voltaire on the topic of organized religion: "Encrasez l'infame' he said of Christianity, "crush the infamous thing." Why not gather up all the holy books and have a bonfire? Burn Bibles, Korans and toss in a few holy men, too. These fools commandeer our deepest hopes and sometimes lead us headlong to destruction.
But burning Bibles won't quench the fire within. We all seek meaning in one way or another. Whatever the genetic legacy we share with our near relations on the evolutionary tree, we are, perhaps, best defined by our pursuit of meaning. Forget opposable thumbs, what defines us is how we reckon the meaning of time, confront the fact of death, and reconcile our desire for significance in the cold face of a world that seems simply to unfold, crushing all it confronts.
Today is the ninth anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorists spouting Islamic hate. Their hatred wasn't a necessary fruit of Islam. Lord knows we've plenty of Christian zealots who'd return the violence on Islamic people, if only they could muster the means and courage. We hate what we fear; and in a word of strangers there is plenty to fear. Wars and rumors of war are a constant; dreams of perpetual peace are sweet sounding conceits. We seek meaning because we cannot help but to hope; born, as we are to die, we struggle against the inevitable by means of myth, metaphor, doctrine and, finally, orthodoxy. But the sad truth remains that there are no winners in the end. It is appointed unto all men once to die.
We are stuck with religion and religious aspirations. We end up with vapid rhetoric of mumbling politicians trying to strike the right pose, but sounding like gushing teenagers preparing for a first date. Listen to Barack Obama trying to sound like a Christian. Listen to the grand rhetorician:
"And I will do everything that I can as long as I am president of the United States, to remind the American people that we are one nation, under God, And we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation. And, you know, as somebody who, you know, relies heavily on my Christian faith in my job, I understand, you know, the passions that religious faith can raise." Praise nothing and pass the tomato sauce.
These lines are the stunning confession of a man without beliefs of any real or abiding sort. His sad refrain of "you knows" sound identical to the sad lack of confidence of a young person punctuating their speech with sonar-like asides designed to assure himself that a listener he cannot really reach is still there. It was as if the president were to declare: "I am, you know, like, the president of the United States, you know what I'm saying?" When a man who rose to national prominence salts his speech with this sort of rhetorical gibberish, you know he's in trouble. Call him a political Christian, the bastard cousin of social the much maligned social Christian.
Pollsters reflect that plenty of Americans think Obama is a Moslem. The president wants us to think he is a Christian. My sense is that he is neither. Many of us belong to no community of faith, and wish nothing more than to stand on the sidelines of the dramatic struggle between conflicting, and mutually exclusive, world views. But it is the very nature of zealotry to concede that there is no sideline. We are all in all the time. What we are not for we are against. There is a mindset that requires commitments to things unseen.
One version of the American creed is we a nation of pluralists all committed to some overarching search for the good that is so denatured as to be meaningless. Your God and my God are different and yet somehow the same, we say. This is weak gruel for souls seeking nourishment in the dark nights of despair.
American exceptionalism dies hard. Today is a reminder of that. Just why we think we were granted immunity from the struggles that rend the rest of the world is a conceit I cannot fathom. We are not a city on a hill setting standards for the world. We were an affluent nation with room to spare; what we could not assimilate, we spread around the broad canvas of North America. The borders are closing in on us now. There is little room left to hide. Our discordant dreams collide and clash. And still we hope.
I was half disappointed that Korans weren't burned at the Dove World Outreach Church in Florida today. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because the passions the flames would have reflected seem somehow more real that, like, you know, the mealy mouthed rhetoric of, you know, a president who, you know, doesn't really know what he believes or why.