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The Rise of ISIS and the Deficit of Meaning

From Cynthia: “Having read this post on Lynn’s Oriental Orthodox Order mailing list, I was deeply moved and thought it important to share it more widely, so I invited Lynn to be a guest blogger.”

Recently I read this astute observation: “We in the West live in a world where there is a surplus of goods and a deficit of meaning.” This struck me not only as entirely true but something that gets to a root cause for the rise of ISIS. In the last few weeks since the tragedies in Paris (also, of course, in Beirut, Mali and Nigeria), we have heard that many of the perpetrators of these horrendous acts are European-born young people–raised in the West. It is true that a good number of the fighters in the armies of ISIS are disaffected youth from the Middle East, but a large number are also youth from the West who are flocking to the siren call to take up arms for the Islamic Caliphate. Why?

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Creation of Alison Hine

One important reason is identified in the statement cited above. Human beings, perhaps above all else, are seekers of meaning. We hate being bored. We are deeply satisfied when we feel that our lives, our work and our activities are making a “meaningful” difference in the world. When we have a purpose in life, the days seem short and time goes by swiftly. When all purpose has evaporated and we feel a loss of meaning, they seem long and we easily lapse into despair.

It is a fact that western civilization for the last three or four hundred years has embraced a philosophy which says the universe has come into existence by pure chance, runs according to mindless mechanical laws, and is devoid of any ultimate meaning or purpose. This viewpoint has deeply affected our culture, and though we may have gained technological prowess because of our scientific methods, we have lost belief in an ultimate purpose guiding our lives or the universe. Consequently we live in a world filled with things, gadgets, technologies of all kinds, but also filled with people who sadly feel that there is little meaning in their lives except perhaps for the entertainment that keeps them from absolute boredom.

So when an organization like ISIS with its atavistic and medieval vision of an Islamic Golden Age (and a lost Caliphate) comes along promising an apocalyptic revolution of world-renewal, it catalyzes young and bored minds. What ISIS offers is an idealized (but delusional) world that proclaims meaning–a purpose and a path of action that will require the full energies and sacrifice of idealistic but bored young people. ISIS propaganda resounds with the rhetoric of honor, valor, and self-sacrifice for a higher cause. It calls young people to take “heroic action to save the world” from a decadent West. This call to action fills the vacuum with a “larger purpose” that a civilization devoid of meaning in the West has lost.

So the question is, can military action ever seriously diminish the ideology of “meaning” that ISIS offers and which the West cannot seem to counter? There appears to be no military solution for this. Another question also arises, do we in the West have any counter-balancing message that can address not only ISIS, but the loss of meaning that so deeply affects our culture?

The truth is that, for many reasons, we in the West will never be able to adequately change ISIS’ extreme ideological views based upon its apocalyptic interpretations of Islam and the Qur’an (which are not unlike their parallels in Christianity). First, because it is not Christianity’s role to address Islamic fundamentalism (in the same way that Muslims cannot change the minds of Christian fundamentalists). Second, only Muslims are qualified to challenge and change Islamic extremism from within.

At this point the voices of positive change are slowly arising within the Islamic world (though this has largely been ignored by our news coverage). There is much in the Islamic revelation, tradition, and its history that can be brought to bear against the extremist doctrines of ISIS. There is a rich body of teaching, practice, and meaning in Islam (largely held within the treasuries of its spirituality–Sufism) that is available to it and which can once again become a positive force when the time is ripe. If it is strengthened (and also supported by those of us who love it), it could rise up as it did in Islam’s past to wield a transformative force. This powerful and beautiful treasury has the capacity to change hearts and minds in the Islamic world–and even suppress the misguided energies of the Islamic State–if its voice becomes strong enough. Hope is rising that it will. Only time will tell, but time may be on the side of the extremists rather than on those with level heads and wise hearts. We must lend our considerable energies to this work, and we are.

In the meantime, we need to think about our own world in the West, and what we are telling ourselves and what kind of civilization we are building. Is ours a world only filled with more and more violent entertainment, consumer goods, and refined technologies? Can we not offer something other than the barrage of breathless announcements about the latest gadgets that will make us feel less bored if we will purchase them? Is there nothing but an ever-increasing quantity of goods and more outrageous expressions of entertainment to fill the void of meaning? Is this the most we can offer our youth? If it is, then we have already lost the battle for the minds and hearts of many of our own young people (and perhaps the world) to ISIS. We must think deeply about this meaning deficit and its cure.

Like Islam, we too possess an immense treasury of spiritual wisdom and sapiential beauty. But these have often been hidden away by fearful institutions who use their authority for suppression. This treasury has also become buried by the increasing static of meaningless religious entertainment that garbs itself as contemporary spirituality. Nothing in our present mentality (or conventional state of consciousness) can use these treasures effectively unless there is a transformation in our common spiritual understanding and awareness. The power of this treasury can only be wielded by those who are awake and have power enough to take effective action on behalf of all humanity (and perhaps more importantly, on behalf of local communities).

At this juncture we do not have the luxury to wait for some other “Messiah” to save us. We ourselves must become the voice of “Messianic Consciousness” itself speaking through us. This is what Yeshua (as an Anointed One) originally promised and was looking for. Practically this means that ordinary individuals must boldly speak the wisdom they know. They must raise their voices to call alternative communities into formation different from the conventional institutions of religious and cultural life. They must speak a new and powerful narrative that redefines the ways we see ourselves and the world around us–what Charles Eisenstein has called, “the Story of Interbeing” (See his The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible).

Just now our current media-driven frenzies have no place for such a story. But as the crisis deepens, new and powerful voices will begin to address the “meaning deficit” through words of wisdom. Such proclamations can lift the eyes of humanity to horizons higher than the norms. We have already heard such voices in our modern world. They already exist and have made a huge difference. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King are powerful examples. And there are others, less well known, but just as effective–and you may be one of them. It is not impossible to expect such an arising with the same power, vision and beauty to emerge in full force through ordinary people in our world today. We must not look to another but to ourselves to become its channel. What we need now are a growing number of individuals (a critical mass) whose inner strength and alignment is such that they can see and hear the sapiential alternatives that are being spoken both from above and from within our own depths. What we await in inner silence is for the igniting of a collective fire that shall both burn and light the world.

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