The deeper meaning of the Auster-Spencer dispute

Regarding the discussion on Robert Spencer, Kristor writes:

This is I must say an edifying spectacle. I feel like a fly on the wall of the lobby outside the meeting room at Nicaea, AD 325.

LA replies:

What is the analogy between something as relatively trivial as the Spencer/Auster dispute and something as big as the Arian/Orthodox dispute?

Or are you analogizing not the substance of the confrontation, but its bitterness?

Or are you just making a joke, saying, “Boy, this Spencer-Auster argument is a real knock-down drag-out, like Arius and Athanasius”?

Kristor replies:

You want to be careful about asking such questions. I meant to be jocular in comparing the Auster/Spencer brawl to the Arian controversy. But perhaps I was on to something. The dispute at Nicaea was deeply personal, deeply bitter. And talk about ad hominem: Nicholas slugged Arius—imagine two bishops decked out in their episcopal vestments, going at it hammer and tongs—and people died in street fights between the two factions (not during the Nicaean councils themselves, as I recall, but in Alexandria, etc). All this over a point of doctrine that to a pagan of the day would have seemed trivial, even absurd.

OK, then, just think about it. You and Spencer are having this bitter, personal dispute, of which the substantive issue is a matter of policy toward Islam. You are insisting on following the logic where it leads, and he just can’t see it, just can’t see that he has not done this (I should say here that I have never really spent time on Jihad Watch, and am not well informed about his arguments). I have the impression from his writings you have quoted that he is genuinely bewildered by your critique. Perhaps this is why he seems to feel it is so unfair, so calumnious, so dishonest, and so ad hominem. You in turn seem bewildered at his inability to see the yawning hole in his own polemic, which is so obvious to you that you can’t help thinking his blindness is willful.

So here’s the analogy I would draw between the Auster/Spencer and Athanasius/Arius dustups. Arius was a highly educated, philosophical thinker, by all accounts a charming gentleman of great good will, who could not take the intellectual leap from the pre-Christian, pre-Incarnational Weltanschauung of his day into the utterly radical notion that Jesus is God. He could not see, as Athanasius so clearly saw, that without the Incarnation, Christianity is nothing; is nothing more than the school of some rabbi like Hillel or John Baptist. Arius was stuck in pagan categories of thought. He could not see, as Athanasius and Nicholas did, that the fact that Jesus is God changes everything. Or maybe he could see it, and could not justify such a sea change. If the Incarnation changes everything—our physics, our metaphysics, our anthropology, everything—then, Arius might have said, it can’t be right. I’m reminded of Planck, forced by his experimental results and his logic to the radically upsetting conclusion that reality is fundamentally discontinuous. Planck accepted the idea, and published it; but it depressed him horribly for months; his whole worldview came crashing down.

Spencer has looked back at European history and seen a pattern that has not been consciously known in the West since Pirenne in the 30’s was rocking the boat for academic medievalists. Spencer has seen that jihad is the fundamental bone of contention in world history. These are brilliant insights, and important. But, like Arius, Spencer seems not to have been able to see that the ideas he has so ably—and courageously—expounded entail a great leap to a whole new way of thinking about how we must behave. He has not seen that if he is correct about Islam, then like it or not we are at war with more than a billion people; a war to the death. He has not taken the deeply shocking leap from a world essentially at peace to a world essentially at war.

Spencer is not alone in this. Most Americans are avoiding the idea with all their might; that’s why such obfuscations as “Islamofascism” are so useful and popular. No one wants to recognize the fact that we are at war. I sure don’t. It is not a happy thought. If we are at peace, we can afford to be liberal with Muslims. But if we are in a war to the death, we simply cannot. If we are at war, then Muslims are simply our enemies, as the Nazis were our enemies, and the Japanese. If we are at war, then our policies must be shaped, not to support our enemies, not to welcome them, but to destroy them. In that case, all sorts of policies that would have seemed outrageous in time of peace become mere common sense; as Japanese internment during WWII was mere common sense; as Austerian separation is now mere common sense.

And here is where we arrive at the point of seeing that there really is something just as consequential to the Spencer/Auster debate as there was to the Nicene dispute. Adjusting to the idea that we are at war is difficult for anyone. But for a dyed in the wool liberal—i.e., for a normal modern American like Spencer, or me—the confrontation with Islam is much more difficult even than that. For if Spencer’s world-historical analysis is correct, our conflict with Islam is far deeper than our war with, say, Hitler. Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin, Mao: all these we could treat as morbid defects of civilization. It could have made some sense to say that Germany was “hijacked” by Nazism. It even makes sense to say that Russia was “hijacked” by Marxism. Once we defeated our enemies in those lands, once we destroyed the champions of those evil perversions of civilization, normal civilization could and did re-assert itself. Bonapartism was not essential to the French, as it turned out, nor was Marxism essential to the Russians. The Germans are getting on just fine without Nazism.

But Islam has not been “hijacked” by jihad. Jihad is essential to Muslims. They define themselves as utterly Other to us. And since the Muslim Other—unlike, say, the Inuit or Samoan Other—is inimical to our essential civilization, it forces an abandonment of Western liberality. We cannot afford to be liberal to Islam, or to Muslim nations, as we are liberal to Inuits, or as we were liberal to the Germans after WWII. The only long-run alternatives open to the West in respect to Islam are to convert Muslims to some apostasy or other, or to destroy them. Indeed, these are the very terms in which Mohammed framed Islam’s long-run alternatives with respect to us. Thus they give us no option: they force us to the realization that one way or another, sooner or later, either Islam will be eliminated from history, or we will. It is a war of civilizations, and the only way it will ever end is if one of them dies. And this fact of ineluctable and fundamental Muslim enmity with everything we are is fatal to the liberal axiom that everyone is essentially the same. It is, that is to say, fatal to the entire liberal paradigm, in just the same way that the Incarnation was fatal to the entire pagan paradigm, and that quantum mechanics was fatal to the entire Newtonian paradigm.

So, for Spencer, or any other modern Westerner, the prima facie trivial step from “Islam is at war with us,” to “We must make war on Islam,” is a mortal blow to what they have thought of as essential to the West, to themselves, and precious: liberalism. No wonder they are so loath to recognize that the step is even there. No wonder they are so outraged about Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc. No wonder they are more willing to dress their police dogs in booties, than to admit to the existence of an enemy.

A final twist, and an even deeper connection back to Arius’ predicament. In order for the liberal to admit that liberalism is mistaken, in order to admit that some people and some ideas are evil, he must admit that there is an objective morality, and that nominalism is false. And if nominalism is false, so that truths are objective, the questions that then force themselves upon him are, “Where are these objective truths, and what is the mode of their objective existence?” The only satisfactory answer is somehow monotheist. So the abandonment of liberalism, when carried to its logical conclusion, just is the abandonment of paganism. For the liberal, that conversion to monotheism must greatly raise his stakes in his own actions; must make his sinfulness a really serious matter, a great personal danger, and force him to consider a different, more virtuous, and more difficult way of life. (Give up promiscuity and start attending Mass? How much fun is that?) For the West generally, apostasy from liberalism would raise the question whether our tanks should bear, not inverted V’s, but white shields blazoned with red crosses.

LA replies:

This is brilliant. A great statement, and absolutely correct. You are explicating the true bloody crossroads of our cultural moment: to survive the Islam threat, we must give up our highest belief, which is the rule of liberalism.

- end of initial entry -

Brandon F. writes:

While Kristor’s understanding of the Athanasius/Arius dispute is very good and very Orthodox (with a capital O), I believe he is doing nothing more than playing the sycophant at your cue.

LA replies:


What a complex and philosophical way to be a sycophant!

Brandon replies:

A brilliant sycophant no less.

LA writes:

How many times have I said about Daniel Pipes, that my criticisms of him were not primarily about him, but about what Kristor might call the “Arius”-like dilemma in which the whole modern Western world is stuck and which Pipes epitomizes, namely that he cannot allow himself to see the full truth about Islam, because then, from the liberal point of view, there would be no hope?

In “The Search for Moderate Islam,” Part One, second page, I wrote:

… All that is left is the imperative (“it must adapt”) that Islam become moderate in the future. But why must it adapt? Here, finally, Pipes gets down to the motivational core of his position:

[I]f one sees Islam as irredeemably evil, what comes next? This approach turns all Muslims—even moderates fleeing the horrors of militant Islam—into eternal enemies. And it leaves one with zero policy options. My approach has the benefit of offering a realistic policy to deal with a major global problem.

In other words, we are obligated to believe that Islam can change, because disbelief in that possibility would lead to unacceptable results. Pipes is no longer basing his promotion of moderate Islam on any claim of factual or historical truth. He is basing it on hope and fear—the hope that Islam may someday become something inconceivably better than that which it has always been, and the fear of the intolerable things that would happen if we abandoned that hope.

LA writes:

Brussels Journal has a lengthy quote from Kristor’s essay.

Alan Roebuck writes:

I congratulate Kristor on his excellent essay. It articulates expertly one of the fundamental dilemmas of the ruling liberal order.

One minor typo: When it says

For if Spencer’s world-historical analysis is correct, our conflict with Islam is far deeper than our war with, say, Hitler. Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin, Mao:..

That Spencer should be Auster.

On the issue to which Brandon F. alluded: What one man calls “sycophancy,” another calls “intelligent conversation.”

LA replies:

I don’t think that it is a typo. I think Kristor’s point is that Spencer does see the depth of the Islam problem, but then shies away from the terrible practical consquences of that insight.

* * *

VFR reader Ilion Troas (translation: Troy Troy), sent me a link to a discussion forum where he had posted Kristor’s essay. I asked him what his take on it was, and here is his answer.

Ilion Troas wrote (July 13):

My particular discussion of it has been very minimal—I think Kristor’s analysis is helpful in understanding how just about all modern humans are reacting to and dealing with the current phase of Islam’s inherent and permanent warfare with the rest of humanity.

While Kristor is concentrating on “liberals” (i.e. “conservatives”), his analysis seems to apply also to leftists and atheists. This is why I emphasized his final paragraph—for the same applies to them too: in order to admit that there really are ideas and persons which and who are objectively evil, the leftist and/or atheist logically must first admit that there really exists objective truth (leftists and atheists frequently deny this) and there really exists objective morality (ditto), and that we finite human beings really can know truth and really can know the content of morality. And, if one admits that, then one is well on his way to admitting “theism.” And, if one admits “theism,” then one is well on his way to admitting the Biblical understanding of God.

Some people in modern culture would rather die … and take their entire civilization, people and all, with them … than admit that there really is a God, and that we really can know something about him.

Christ said: “Do not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell.”

Many moderns seem instead to believe: “Do not fear those who can hack the neck, but cannot touch the person/spirit/soul. Rather fear and hate him who is able to offer Life to both body and soul.”

As for further discussion … that is, discussion by others on that board in reference to the post I made … I can promise you that it will almost entirely consist of “You’re an idiot!” and “Yes! He’s an idiot.” The persons who predominate on that board are mostly (though, not entirely) evangelical atheists and variants of socialists/leftists.

LA replies:

You write:

in order to admit that there really are ideas and persons which and who are objectively evil, the leftist and/or atheist logically must first admit that there really exists objective truth (leftists and atheists frequently deny this) and there really exists objective morality (ditto), and that we finite human really can know truth and really can know the content of morality. And, if one admits that, then one is well on his way to admitting “theism.” And, if one admits “theism,” then one is well on his way to admitting the Biblical understanding of God.

This is great. It reminds me of something I encountered decades ago that first got me thinking along the same lines. I think it was something Solzhenitsyn said in the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, which I read when it was published in paperback around 1974. Solzhenitsyn, as best I remember, said something like this: The reason people don’t believe in evil is that they don’t believe in the good, and the reason they don’t believe in the good is that they don’t believe in God.

Ilion Troas is reversing that destructive causal chain. He’s saying that if liberals began to believe in evil, that would make them start to believe in the good, and if they started to believe in the good, that would make them start believing in God. Therefore, hating and fearing belief in God over all things, they refuse to believe in the existence of evil. And so they refuse to believe in the real danger of Islam.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 10, 2008 08:30 PM | Send

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