Beware of a Religion without Irony

What does Islam’s modern public face have in common with Christianity’s modern public face? No, not the fact that both UBL and GWB are spoiled, ne’er-do-well sons of politically powerful millionaires. It has more to do with an inability to grasp two conflicting ideas at once, a common problem for four-year-old children. God is master of the world, they say, and God is perfect, therefore the world must be perfect. To the extent the world is not perfect, it must be corrected, violently if necessary; a big tantrum is not out of the question.

Left unchecked, this attitude blossoms into rebellious adolescent rage at the many injustices and inequities of the real world. No one is more dogmatically moralistic than children, who rant about unfairness every time they don’t get their way, and rationalize about perfect justice every time they do.

As for apostates, it remains as dangerous today as it was in the time of the prophet publicly to renounce the Muslim faith. Even if you cannot be compelled to adopt the faith, you can certainly be compelled to retain it. And the anger with which public Muslims greet any attempt to challenge, to ridicule or to marginalize their faith is every bit as ferocious as that which animated the murderer of Theo Van Gogh. Ordinary Christians, who suffer a daily diet of ridicule and skepticism, cannot help feeling that Muslims protest too much, and that the wounds, which they ostentatiously display to the world, are largely self-inflicted. (Roger Scruton, WSJ editorial page, Sunday, August 20, 2006)

What to do? God has already instituted a perfect system to teach us how to live in this world. When we are bruised, we stop and consider why it happened. Did it happen because of unseen dangers, foolhardiness, or courage? Courage can only be conjectured if the threats are known and we act in defiance of them, in pursuit of a greater purpose. If the threats are not known, or the purpose is trivial, courage is missing. But this logic contains an essential irony: immediate and personal security is sacrificed for greater liberty, the liberty of being more than we seem and hoping for the truth of that to become evident later.

Whenever I consider this matter I am struck by a singular fact about the Christian religion, a fact noticed by Kierkegaard and Hegel but rarely commented upon today, which is that it is informed by a spirit of irony. Irony means accepting “the other,” as someone other than you. It was irony that led Christ to declare that his “kingdom is not of this world,” not to be achieved through politics. Such irony is a long way from the humorless incantations of the Koran. (Scruton)

Kierkegaard wrote that “one may claim that no authentic human life is possible without irony” (The Concept of Irony, “Irony as a mastered moment”). Personally, I consider this to be self-evidently true.

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