November 25, 2015

Is That All There Is?

An intriguing, and well written article in The Australian today by Carl Ungerer, head of the leadership, crisis and conflict management program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in Switzerland, contained this genuine question:

Why do tertiary-educated children of second-generation migrants who aspire to middle-class success seek salvation not in a mortgage but in a suicide vest?

The article has many insights about the seemingly endless cycle of Islamist violence, including the observation that for holding such a seventh century worldview, Islamic terrorists are tech savvy and know how to exploit the fruit of western modernity, including our technologies and our political systems.

But it’s that query above that struck me most. And it’s a query that, in what it doesn’t query, raises its own queries.  Get that?  In other words, why would something think for a moment that a mortgage (and the western economic lifestyle the word “mortgage” is code language for) would be considered a better salvation than what a suicide vest offers?

Ungerer finds it incomprehensible that someone, having seen the good life on offer in the West, having indeed had a taste of it, would turn their back on it for something not even lesser, but the polar opposite.  The good life swapped for the bad death.

Yet, even in the midst of my revulsion at the prospect of that, the striking truth is that Ungerer cannot comprehend a view of life where what can be seen isn’t enough.

You come here to the West and you can have it all, he seems to be saying.  Your parents do what all first generation migrants do; work themselves to the bone to get you over the hump, get you into a good education, resulting in a good job, and hey presto, you’re up and running – another Western success story.

At least that is how the narrative went for generations of migrants from Old Europe to the New World. That was the contract, not so much spoken out, but breathed out by the West and breathed in, germs and all, by the newcomers.  It was and has been infectious. Until now.

So what went wrong? Perhaps it’s as simple as what Charles Taylor describes in his defining work, A Secular Age. There he describes how the secular framework – the immanent frame of the post-Christian West -, has rejected transcendence and anything from outside the material world.

The resulting “disenchanted world”, devoid of meaning outside of itself, leaves us echoing the words of Peggy Lee in the 60s hit song “Is That All There Is?”

Ungerer is unable, in his question, to grasp the emptiness that Peggy Lee articulates, that make her ask when life fails to ignite the way she’d hoped   it would:

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

He fails to realise that these terrorists are not seeking salvation IN a suicide vest, but THROUGH a suicide vest.  In a secular age where this IS all there is, dancing, boozing and having a ball is enough to anaesthetise the, at first, gentle trickle of disappointment that eventually builds to a raging torrent.

But if it’s not all there is, if there is something transcendent, if indeed the world is enchanted, then those things – dancing, boozing, having a ball and, yes, having a mortgage – just aren’t enough. They just can’t be salvation, indeed they won’t be!  They promise it, or at least the narrative built around it by the advertising juggernaut, promises it, but it fails to deliver.

When it failed to deliver for Peggy Lee she got disappointed.  When it failed to deliver for these young men and women, they got angry. Very angry.

They very fact that so many jihadists were boozing, balling, womanising, night club junkies in the very lead up to their despicable actions, simply proves the point. They sucked out the marrow and were still hungry. Is that all there is?

And then someone comes along with a transcendent framework, albeit a very sick one; a framework that points beyond immanence to transcendence, and the effect is literally incandescent.

I hate what is happening to our world at the moment, and we are in convulsions because of it.  But like it or not, it’s certainly flushing us out.  It’s forcing us to ask the question; Why, if the good life is so good, is it not good enough?  Maybe more of us in the West might ask, Is That All There Is?  and seek salvation neither in a mortgage, nor a suicide vest, but actually in a Saviour.







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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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