A wet blanket before Christmas


A wet blanket before Christmas

The bells are tolling for Christianity as the West rejects an imagined divine from millennia before the Enlightenment, writes BERTUS VAN NIEKERK.

  • 15 December 2023
  • Free Speech
  • 7 min to read
  • article 9 of 20
  • Bertus van Niekerk

RIGHT-WINGERS are spreading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s article, Why I am now a Christian, like wildfire. Those who realise they risk being ridiculed at the very least for gullibility when they mention the thoroughly discredited names of Jordan Petersen or Joe Rogan seem to have found a fresh cheerleader for conservative virtues based in Christianity.

Ali grew up in Nairobi in a form of cultural Islamism, without strong persuasions, almost a passive follower of the guidelines that featured in her upbringing. Then, as a teenager she experienced the power of the dialectical dualism when she was confronted with the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Soon she would view the world through a prism of good and evil: halal and haram. Everything under the sun was to be categorised in mutually exclusive categories based on a moral code extracted from a specific ancient text. Consequences for not being able to recognise thoughts or viewpoints that clashed with the fiery message of the religious manuscript were passionately imbued. A fear of hell was instilled. It became second nature to evaluate what would please — and particularly what would anger — the metaphysical subject of the relevant religion. Jihad, or holy war against infidels, featured in broad brush strokes in the mindset she increasingly found herself drawn towards.

As a young adult, she read the article Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, published almost a century ago. It instantly resonated with her, and it seems she felt instant relief from having to hate Jews, in particular. Embracing atheism allowed her to forego doctrines such as the ideal of being a “martyr for the sake of Allah”. She discovered joy in partaking in “worldly pleasures” prohibited by ethics based in the Muslim faith. She crossed the divide from activist to apostate. She had fun.

But still she felt uneasy about letting go of the fear instilled by her set of guidelines. Until she discovered Christianity. The rest of her article exposes her binary approach to politics, economics, culture and social issues. She found solace in a matrix new to her reference. For her, Christianity is now the haven western civilisation yearns for.

Evil for Ali is now embodied in the “authoritarianism and expansionism in the forms of the Chinese Communist Party and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the rise of global Islamism and the viral spread of woke ideology, which is eating into the moral fibre of the next generation”.

The template she inherited from being tutored by the Muslim Brotherhood was hidden under a thin veneer of experimenting with liberalism, albeit stripped of propaganda. She populated the void left when she renounced Islam with her deeply founded yearning to cast judgement on every subject she encountered. Whereas reading Russell two decades earlier allowed her to “reject the existence of hell and the danger of everlasting punishment”, she now morphs into a referee blowing the whistle on what she experiences as threats to Western tenets she sets out to defend.

Ali paints a gloomy tableau: the West is running out of money and is being failed by its “secular tools” — the military, diplomacy, the economy — and even by its compromises: bribery, appeasement and surveillance. She realises that atheism is “too weak and divisive a doctrine to fortify us against our menacing foes”. She calls atheism a “negative vacuum” as she sets out on a quest for meaning and purpose based in spirituality. En route, she knocks meditation and mindfulness (and probably many other instruments civilisation as we know it inherited from 20th-century scientific considerations). Probably to be replaced by telepathic communication with a mythical figure, albeit not the one she grew up fearing.

Enter the legacy of the Judeo-Christian faith as saviour. “That legacy consists of an elaborate set of ideas and institutions designed to safeguard human life, freedom and dignity — from the nation state and the rule of law to the institutions of science, health and learning.” She rekindles the safe zone familiar to her, the “power of the unifying story” that she first experienced with the Muslim Brotherhood. Then fills it with other stale content.

Now, if you agree with most of Ali's train of thought, you are probably becoming increasingly irritated with me. Or you’re wondering what I’m getting myself all worked up about. It’s called progress. The past two centuries have seen the demise of long-standing traditions and practices, some of which are endorsed in the Bible. There are clear prescriptions in the Bible on how to colonise a neighbouring country, one of the practices Ali does not condone. Also, instructions on the proper treatment of your slaves. In biblical times, women and children were relegated to the periphery of the household, to say the least. Feudalism was the norm and subjects’ lives were commodities in the hand of their superiors. The lack of resemblance between ancient structure in society and what Ali considers the legacy that could guide the West towards the middle of this century is palpable.

Sadly, broader Christianity lost much of its influence around the globe by being tardy in accepting that women’s and children’s rights, racial discrimination and prejudice against sex or gender are defined by a growing crowd not willing to entertain the passé inheritance from a world dominated by Christian thought. Ancient patriarchal notions are out. In this country, Christianity still grapples with issues long since accepted by broader society. Ali loosely uses the term “woke" to indicate advocacy towards change where injustices are displayed. Indeed, the next time you hear somebody use the term, try to gauge their sentiment in favour of hegemony.

December 10 was Human Rights Day. A day we hold in remembrance  the advances made on traditional values the West inherited from dispensations where lords and kings used the clergy to subjugate countries for their benefit. The public had no recourse to law, fair treatment or opportunity. Christianity, with notable exceptions, finds itself on a slippery slope trying to convince clamouring masses that less is more. The people will have what’s due, thanks. And conscionable debate should unmask fearmongering conservative swings in sentiment that fan the ghosts of the past to life again, whether in Washington, Jerusalem, Gaza or Amsterdam. To wake the drowsy is now as important as ever.

A confession, if you’ll humour me. I was trained in classical studies in theology at the University of Pretoria in the lead-up to the first democratic elections. Much of the material we worked through in lectures still resembled the rigor mortis of an era we are desperately trying to keep within its coffin. But there were critical voices from within the seminars, too — (mostly) the work of European theologians who were aware of the despair characterising the third world. Moltmann, Pannenberg.

In ethics, we read works by Holocaust survivors and those influenced by atrocities that were rife in the middle of the century. Bonhoeffer. Barth. Most of us read some philosophy and a brave minority even the Frankfurt School. Frankl, Horkheimer, Habermas, Fromm, Marcuse. This background had me fantasise for a decade and a half that there could be voices of reason within Christianity that could weather away some of the institutionalised injustices that conviction cherishes for personal gain.

Hold. Enough already. History paints quite a different picture. Aquinas, as possibly the first notable apologetic, stood on loose planks, and he knew it. Ali, as a more recent exponent, has neither the outlook nor the depth of exposure to Christianity to subdue the bells that toll for a world order not moulded in substantial privileges for the intercessors of the imagined divine based in the Levant millennia before the Enlightenment.

“The problem with people who have no vices is that generally, you can be pretty sure they're going to have some pretty annoying virtues."

— Elizabeth Taylor

*Bertus van Niekerk is a trained theologian with almost two decades’ background in trying to tie conservatism down in a church enamoured with a bygone era. He is a winemaker in Somerset West.

♦ VWB ♦

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