January 09, 2002
Middle East diplomacy could use Enlightenment
By John Eyrrick
The events of Sept. 11 have engendered a sense of helplessness in all of us. Some people respond to this helplessness by drawing parallels to World War II and reaffirming their faith in the invincibility of America. Those who favor diplomacy as a response feel equally helpless. No matter how you look at it, fighting terrorism by any means seems like a no-win situation. I want to offer a paradigm shift in diplomacy that, in my view, is worth a try.
Cultural history is complex and most Americans like to refer to their inherited Judeo-Christian values. It would probably come as a surprise to many Americans that much of our cultural heritage stems not from Judaism or Christianity, but from the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. Not enlightenment with a small "e," but the movement that towered over the late 17th century and all of the 18th with a large "E."
Notable Enlightenment thinkers were Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu in France, Lessing and Kant in Germany, Locke in England and Franklin and Paine in America. The Enlightenment was based on the notion that everyone was capable of reason and that people everywhere could reason their way out of every difficulty. The U.S. Constitution is a typical Enlightenment document – brilliant, well thought out and humane.
Ideas like pluralism, tolerance and the abolition of privilege are all Enlightenment ideas, not to mention the concepts of citizenship, civility and fairness itself. All of these go into our notion of what "Western civilization" is. It is important to note that in our country and others, these ideas historically did not stem from Christianity or Judaism. They could have, but they didn't.
In fact, the churches were in no hurry to embrace Enlightenment ideas and, in many cases, actively opposed them. Churches in Europe and America that did embrace Enlightenment ideas found themselves caught for the next 200 years in an internal conflict between reason and fundamentalism. It is no wonder that in America, at least, people threw up their hands and said, in effect: Let's separate church and state. Let's have a state grounded in the Enlightenment and churches free to choose between Enlightenment thinking (main-stream churches) and Christian fundamentalism.
Some individuals accommodated both the Enlightenment and religious fundamentalism. Judeo-Christianity would have provided a theoretical framework for many Enlightenment ideas. But for the most part this did not happen.
Yet in the Islamic world of today, many of these Enlightenment ideals, including democracy itself, are rejected as "Christian" because they come out of the West which, in Islam's eyes, is "Christian." Yes, the West is largely Christian, but Western Europeans and Americans are also heirs of the Enlightenment and therefore put a lot of faith in reason.
We are finding out that reason is anything but universal. Like any other methodology, it is conditioned by time and place. We Americans don't understand why people in other parts of the world are not more "reasonable." Why are they such "fanatics"? The answer is that their culture never went through the Enlightenment. It is not that they missed out on Judeo-Christianity, but that they missed out on the Enlightenment! But this doesn't mean that they can't be reasonable, particularly if they don't have to be "Judeo-Christian" to be reasonable.
I would suggest, therefore, that the cornerstone of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East be shifted to the extent that we admit our Enlightenment roots and not insist that our cultural roots are entirely Judeo-Christian. If people in the Middle East could be invited to share in some Enlightenment ideals such as pluralism, tolerance, citizenship, democracy and civility, they might be more inclined to accept them than if these same values are presented as Judeo-Christian ideals, which, historically, they are not.
My proposed paradigm shift would also remove much of the discomfort many Americans feel in proclaiming "Judeo-Christian" values, which, strictly speaking, are neither. Let's not be ashamed to admit that many of our values have come from the Enlightenment, a movement historically independent of religion. This just might make these ideas more palatable to Muslims who don't like to be lectured on "Judeo-Christian" values.
Rather than fight fundamentalism with fundamentalism, we could seek to reason together with people in the Middle East, leaving religion aside altogether.
The Rev. Dr. John Eyrrick lives in Montgomery.
Copyright 2002 Orange County Publications, a division of Ottaway Newspapers Inc., all rights reserved.
John Eyrrick died in 2004.