A few days ago, President Obama, while delivering his short address at the National Prayer Breakfast, dropped the following bomb:
Lest we get on our high horse and think that this [i.e. the violence committed in the name of religion] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.
Ignoring that the phrase "lest we get on our high horse" is invariably used to preface a statement which is itself a sanctimonious moral condemnation, this is an opportune moment to reflect upon the reactions the President's statement have provoked in the media. In particular, I'm interested in the comments made by radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham, a Catholic, during an interview on Fox News' The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson:
Are the Spanish rulers still burning heretics? Are they still executing them? No. Civilization has advanced. The problem is, in the Inquisition, let's not forget, that was a defence against, what, at the time, Christendom and Europe thought was the 'Death Cult of Islam.' That's why the Crusades actually began. It was a defensive move to protect Europe. But, that having been said, we've evolved and, sorry, this Islamic Jihadist movement is regressing.
Let's ignore that Ingraham, while understanding that the Crusades were defensive, and not aggressive, in nature, is essentially agreeing with President Obama in his moral equivalence of the Crusades to Jihad, and wishes only to add the caveat that 'we don't do that anymore.' Ingraham herself seems cognizant of the fact that her overall approach to the issue obviates the need for providing historical or - perish the thought - moral justification for either the Crusades or the Inquisition, which is why, we may assume, she makes her remarks on their justification parenthetical to her main point: we're past that, and Islam needs to join us in the 21st century. It was an unscripted interview, and I'm happy to assume that she would be capable of making a more coherent defense if given the opportunity.
Instead, I would like to focus your attention on the last statement in her comment - the one in which she claims that the Islamic Jihadist movement represents a "regression." This statement is integral to her main point, and it is rather troubling as it is symptomatic of an underlying view of the course of history which is antithetical to the Catholic understanding of time and man's orientation in it. I wouldn't feel compelled to comment were it not for the fact that I've heard so many well-meaning and otherwise well-educated Catholics take precisely this stance in regards not only to Islam and Islamic Jihadism, but also to the Church and Western civilization as whole. This underlying view is shaped by what can be termed the Enlightenment narrative.
The Enlightenment narrative is a historical framework which pits an irrational, violent and oppressive past against a rational, peaceful and liberal future. In very broad strokes, it paints a picture of man's past which is inferior to his present in every regard and a future which surpasses the latter to an even greater degree. The underlying premise of the Enlightenment narrative, i.e. that the development and application of reason leads a more peaceful and free human society, is harmless enough. After all, which civilized person prefers armed conflict to reasoned discourse? Where the Enlightenment went sour, however, was in its assumption that reason alone was sufficient for bringing about more peaceful and free societies. And it became positively diabolical when it made human reason the foundation of all truth, when its interest in novelty and ingenuity mutated into a distrust and even hatred of everything traditional in favor of all things new. In this regard, the French Revolution and its aptly-named Reign of Terror is perhaps the greatest testimony to the failure of the ideals of the Enlightenment.
At the time of the Enlightenment and the period of revolutions which followed in its wake, the "advances" being made - in science, politics, and religion - were understood and defended as historical necessities, as the natural products of the development of human culture, as unavoidable and as unstoppable as the operation of the law of gravity. Now, having grown somewhat disenchanted with the fruits of the Enlightenment, secular thinkers are beginning to suspect that the narrative itself was perhaps the greatest driving force behind those revolutions.
While the Enlightenment narrative has largely collapsed under its own weight and is no longer seen as a fruitful framework for understanding historical events by professional historians - we are, as they say, in the "Post-Enlightenment" age - it remains very much a key component in the thought of modern man. In fact, given the central role it plays in the scientific, social, and political spheres of Western culture, one could go so far as to say that it has become the fundamental assumption - the "foundational myth" - of all modern societies. It is, more than any other factor - including religion - the common bond which unites all modern societies today: If you believe that the future is bright, or can be made bright by better education, better social conditions, and better technology, then you belong to "the modern world;" if, on the other hand, you believe that human history is to be plotted on a downward curve, that man, left to his own designs, is caught in a flat spin of self-destruction, that better education often only helps to inoculate man against true wisdom, that better social conditions often only serve to diminish his kindness and generosity, that better technology invariably produces the weapon with which he may more efficiently kill his fellow man, then you do not.
For most of her history, the Catholic Church taught the biblical narrative of the history of the world: that man began his existence in a state of physical perfection and supernatural grace, yet fell from this primordial state into one of abject sin and corruption. The march of time saw man get progressively worse, not better. Left to himself, things progressed to the point that God regretted having made man, and decided to wipe all but Noah and his family from the face of the earth, to start again with a covenantal promise of a future redemption, which has been fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ, and His Bride, the Catholic Church, the True Ark of Salvation. While she was always very attentive to the physical and mental needs of her children, and is rightly lauded for having constructed so many hospitals, orphanages, schools and universities, for having played such a vital role in the West's intellectual and scientific development, the Catholic Church was nonetheless even more attentive to their spiritual needs, for she understood that this world is ultimately headed for destruction. Yes, the earth will be brought forth anew from the ashes of the conflagration by the hand of Almighty God. However, it will not be of man's doing, but of God's alone.
Obviously, this biblical orientation put the Church at odds with the foundational assumptions of the Enlightenment narrative. This conflict frequently manifested itself in attacks on the Church herself, either in physically taking from her all that generations of piety and devotion had placed under her watchful care, blaming her for every misfortune suffered by the common man, or in excoriating her glorious history, portraying her as the enemy of all human culture. This conflict put tremendous pressure upon several successive generations of Catholics - cleric and layman alike - which came to a historic head at the beginning of the 20th century.
The period of the Second Vatican Council was a decisive time in the life of the Church, not least of all because it represented, by and large, the abandonment of the biblical narrative - that of a world slowly, and sometimes not so slowly, working its way towards ultimate destruction and divine judgment - in favor of the Enlightenment narrative - that of a world ready to launch itself into an ever brighter future, a world of intellectual freedom, of economic equity, of social justice and freedom for all. It is this fundamental shift in orientation which led the likes of Cardinal Seunens - one of the architects of the Council - to remark: "Vatican II is the French Revolution in the Church." If that is the case, it should be of no surprise that we are going through what can only be understood as our very own Reign of Terror.
And this brings us back to our original question: Does modern Islamic Jihadism represent a "regression"? Admittedly, for the Enlightenment narrative, 21st century Islam, with its stonings, beheadings and sex slave-markets, is something of a paradox. When, however, we assume the biblical narrative of history - which, as faithful Catholics, we should - the current rise in Islamic violence can in no way be seen as representing a "regression;" rather, it is a prime - one is tempted to say "perfect" - example of human progress. In the language of internet memes:
This picture, while shocking, is but one face of such unbridled human progress; another would be the horrifyingly obese American wheeling his way down the aisles of Wal-Mart in his Lil' Gopher Mobility Cart, or the European woman with cheek and lip implants which give her face the startling appearance of a bloated, hairless cat, or the South American sodomite couple prancing down the street in glittery pink thongs and thrusting their groins in the face of any child unfortunate enough to be present. These are not "regressions" to earlier, more primitive states. They are the true faces of human progress.