Michael Novak on the Hunger for Liberty (Part 2)

A Clash of Civilizations?

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WASHINGTON, D.C., MAY 12, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the demand for balloting in other Islamic countries, seem to support the idea of what Michael Novak calls a universal hunger for liberty.

Novak is author of «The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable» (Basic Books). He holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

He shared with ZENIT why the clash of civilizations — and the conflict among the followers of Christianity, Judaism and Islam — is not inevitable.

Part 1 of this three-part interview appeared Thursday.

Q: What is the «clash of civilizations» and why is it not inevitable?

Novak: The clash of civilizations arises from bitter conflict, exploding in sudden violence as it did in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. This clash was at first defined in terms of such contrary views as the meaning of truth, freedom and even God that there seemed to remain no common ground. Some could see only a long struggle to the death of one civilization or another.

To speak all too simply, by contrast, my hypothesis was that even in Muslim civilization, for which the terrorists of September 11 presumed, falsely, to speak, there was a religion of reward and punishment after death.

As Thomas Aquinas and Moses Maimonides long ago pointed out during the golden age of Jewish, Christian and Muslim dialogue of several centuries ago, such a religion was bound to hold deep within it a theory of freedom, even if its philosophers and theologians had not yet made much of that theory, or grasped its full implications, or drawn out all its possibilities. Without freedom, reward and punishment after death make no sense.

In short, there is plenty to discuss — about truth, liberty and God — among Christians, Muslims and Jews today and in the centuries to come. And such a conversation can most profitably go forward under certain agreed upon rules appropriate to inquiries in the light of truth, liberty, and our poor and inadequate and yet inwardly demanding ideas about God.

When I was writing «Universal Hunger for Liberty» in 2002 and 2003, such a dialogue seemed nowhere in sight.

But in the express desire for liberty manifested in the elections of Afghanistan and Iraq — and the still newer demand for them in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran and other Islamic cultures in the months since then — the topic of freedom is very much on the universal agenda.

It is so, not only in the political sense concerning democracy, but also in the cultural and human sense — what human virtues, insights and practices are essential to it?

We have begun to move in the direction of Caritapolis one painful and small step at a time, under the force of necessity. The alternative is indescribably bleak, and also unnecessary, wasteful and fraught with immense suffering for all.

Q: You seem to suppose that Islam is open to liberty. But the very word «Islam» means to submit. What makes you believe that Muslim cultures can foster liberty, given this tension between authority and liberty?

Novak: The great American poet T.S. Eliot wrote that the most beautiful line in human poetry occurs toward the end of «The Divine Comedy,» where Dante writes in early Italian a line that we translate succinctly into English this way: «In His will, our peace.»

In Christian and Jewish thought, too, there are tensions between God’s authority and human liberty, as there are between truth and liberty. These difficulties force us to deepen our own thinking and linguistic capacities, our ability to make distinctions and even our creativity in imagining solutions to seemingly insoluble puzzles.

It should be noted, too, that contemporary relativists, who face no difficulties in regard to the authority of God, in whom they have no belief, nonetheless face immense difficulties of their own. Why do they value liberty, instead of coercion? How do they find anything to be evil, without merely stating an arbitrary preference, with which others are free to disagree?

Their systematic relativism appears to turn decision-making, in the end, over to the most thuggish among them. If truth is of no relevance, the only source for resolving disagreements seems to be naked power.

In the universal dialogue among civilizations in the future, by contrast, under the regulative ideal of truth, I believe each of us will teach some lessons to others, and learn from them as well.

About the great questions of how to conceive of and speak rationally about liberty, truth and God, there is much for all of us to learn. And there is great merit in each of us plumbing as deeply into our own traditions as we can, in order to bring old and revered and still fecund treasures into the universal patrimony.

[Friday: Europe’s lost desire for liberty]

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