September 12, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, September 12, 2016, I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Terrorism and the reality of evil: 9/11 and the American mind
Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of the terror attacks known simply in America now as 9/11. I say in America, however, the numbers 9/11 now are nearly universal in terms of global awareness of the reality of terrorism in the modern world. But that reality came chillingly, suddenly, surprisingly out of the skies as terrorists involved, we later found out, with the group known as Al Qaeda, largely unknown to the American public, although known to American military intelligence sources at the time, hijacked four large American airliners and flew three of them into strategic American buildings, one each into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and one of course into the Pentagon. The other, it is now believed, was overcome by passengers on the plane, it eventually crashed in rural Pennsylvania. It was headed, we found, out for the White House, at least that is what is believed.
The unfolding events of 9/11/2001 changed the American worldview. It changed the way Americans looked at the larger world around us. September 11, 2001 began with sparkling clear skies. It was a beautiful day. It turned out it was an incredibly opportune day for the kind of terroristic intentionality that was undertaken by those terrorists who were involved in Al Qaeda, who hijacked those planes and so wantonly took American lives.Show Full Transcript
The attacks were clearly symbolic. The World Trade Center twin towers represented the economic and cultural strength of the United States; the Pentagon reflected its military strength; the White House then as now not only represented the residence of the President of the United States and his family, but it is also as one single building the most iconic symbol of the United States of America. As I said, we learned a great deal about the world on September 11, 2001. It was a lesson, we should note, that has been learned by successive generations, but not recently in the United States, at least not in the form of what we now know as the threat of terror.
The United States during the 20th century had faced several huge enemies and had been involved in two cataclysmic world wars. But those were the actions of state actors. When we came to the war on terror, we found ourselves confronting a very different kind of adversary. The United States also learned that there was an animating worldview and purpose behind this specific form of terrorism, and that was the launching of jihad, or a holy war, undertaken by those who declared themselves to be not only the enemies of the United States, but the agents of Islam. Many in the United States were unaware of the fact that millions in the Muslim world understand the world to be divided between two different spheres, and that is the world of Islam, that world that is brought under submission to the Sharia Law of the Koranic Code, and the world of war, that is the remainder of the world which according to Islamic dogma is a world of struggle and of warfare until it eventually yields and comes under koranic rule.
As we look at the 15th anniversary, USA Today going into the weekend had a very interesting angle on the story and that’s this, as USA Today’s front-page story stated,
“Students in this year’s high school freshman class were not yet born on Sept. 11, 2001.”
The story cites Chris Causey, a middle school educator in Robertson County, Tennessee who said simply,
“To them, it’s history, just like Pearl Harbor.”
That led me to a moment of personal reflection. I was born in the year 1959. That means that my birth year was actually closer to the cataclysm of World War II than today’s freshman class is to the attacks of September 11, 2001. That chronological interest of generational dimensions is really important. It serves to underline the fact that our own understanding of history is deeply determined by our own space and time, our own chronological fixing, and when it comes to today’s freshman class, those 14-year-olds who just entered the ninth grade in American high schools, they were not even born when the terror attacks took place. Stated differently, they have never known a world other than the world after September 11, 2001. They do not know and cannot possibly remember a world in which it was possible for Americans to go through their everyday life without even noticing a major report, much less a headline on terrorism.
Also writing in USA Today, former New Jersey Governor Thomas H. Kean and former Indiana Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, the chair and co-chair, respectively, of the 9/11 Commission established by the federal government, put it in perspective when they write,
“Globally, terrorism has also intensified. According to the Global Terrorism Index, terrorist activity reached its highest recorded level [that is of course, thus far] in 2014, the last year with available data, with 32,685 terrorist-caused deaths. In 2001, that figure barely exceeded 5,000.”
We should also note, very hauntingly, that almost 3,000 of those deaths occurred on September 11, 2001, in New York and in Washington, and those deaths included not only those who were trapped within the twin towers of the World Trade Center and also who were involved in the Pentagon in activity at the time of the attack, but those we later identified as first responders, firemen, policemen, and EMS personnel among others, who risked their lives and in all too many cases lost their lives on that fateful historic day.
The former governor and the former Congressman actually wrote the article to make clear that America’s current threat level in terms of terrorism is significantly higher than it was even in 2001. And of course we now know that the Islamic terror threat has been transformed beyond what we knew as Al Qaeda to what is now known as ISIS or ISIL or, more properly, the Islamic State.
What makes the Islamic State so much more dangerous is twofold. In the first place, its threats and attacks upon people around the world, both non-Muslims and Muslims, is even more radical than that of Al Qaeda. And secondly, of course, the Islamic State has established what it declares to be a caliphate, not merely an organized union of Islamic terrorists, not only cells that are determined and placed country by country, but beyond that, an actual claim to be a state and the reestablishment of the Islamic caliphate or rule.
In a major analysis essay published over the weekend at the Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov points out that the Islamic State continues as a very potent force, even as the caliphate itself is shrinking. He writes,
“Islamic State now seems likely to fall as swiftly as it rose. In the past two years, the group has gone to war with everyone from al Qaeda to Iran’s Shiite theocracy to the U.S. and Russia. It has launched attacks in the West and elsewhere—or, at any rate, claimed credit for them—with rising frequency, even as it has suffered a series of battlefield defeats and surrendered one city after another.”
He then states that geographically speaking,
“It is easy to think that Islamic State is still on the march. It isn’t,” he says.
As a matter of fact, it is losing territory. But even as we would celebrate that particular victory, Trofimov reminds us that there is much ground still to be gained. And furthermore, the Islamic State is likely to morph into even more dangerous forms of terrorism when it has to abandon, at least it is expected being a geographical state, and will instead focus its energies elsewhere, and that means primarily in the West by terror attacks. It is also the case that the Islamic State is merely a representation of the larger threat of Islamic terrorism. In 2001, Americans had to rethink much of what they understood about reality and the larger world, not only in terms of the geopolitical threat of terrorism, but of the reality of evil. In the last decades of the 20th century, many in the West, especially among the elites and intellectuals, had begun to subvert the very idea of moral objectivity and the reality of evil. Instead human misbehavior and sin, even in its most heinous forms, were redefined as basically socioeconomic problems or sociological issues or problems of economics and politics and education. There was every attempt to psychologize the problem rather than to deal with the reality of human evil. There were even those in the academy who were making it utterly impossible to use the word evil, except in an ironic way.
The worldview that was known as postmodernism had made vast inroads in American academic life, also in the rest of the West, and furthermore, it had filtered through popular culture and entertainment at the very level of the mass public in the West. But in the aftermath of the vision of September 11, 2001, the smoking ruins and the falling towers of the World Trade Center and, of course, the unforgettable images of those planes filled with passengers being deliberately flown into those towers and into the Pentagon—all of that required a very simple moral verdict. And that was a single word that had become unpopular but was at that moment absolutely indispensable. And that word is evil.
One of the tests of any worldview is its ability to name evil for what it is, to recognize and affirm its presence and reality, and to put it into a larger understanding of a reality of good and evil, of the reality of human nature and behavior, of the reality of what human beings clearly throughout history from Genesis 3 onward have been willing to do to one another. And nothing psychological, psychiatric, economic or sociological was adequate to explain what took place on September 11, 2001. The only adequate word was a moral word, and that moral word requires a moral universe in which there is something other than sentiment that is expressed when we speak of that which is good and that which is evil. The face of evil showed itself so clearly from those clear skies on September 11, 2001 and Americans at least had to face the fact that evil was a reality and not just a social construction. And the reality of that evil continues even into the present.
A terror cell of Islamic women in Paris: The threat of terrorism expands and still shocks
In the same weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal published in the United States on Saturday, Matthew Dalton and Noemie Bisserbe reported,
“Islamic State militants in Syria directed a group of women who gathered materials for a car bomb left near Notre Dame Cathedral, French prosecutors said Friday, highlighting the group’s apparent ability to command homegrown terror cells from afar.”
The story is once again quite chilling. Here we have a group of French Islamic women who were intending to set off a bomb near that nation’s iconic structure, that is the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Furthermore, when confronted by police, two of the women stabbed officers. As the reporters explained,
“After loitering for a moment, Sarah H. broke away from the group, charging an undercover police car, Mr. Molins said. Wielding a kitchen knife, she reached through the driver’s side window and stabbed the plainclothes officer at the wheel in the shoulder.”
One of the signs of the times and the test of our moral reflexes, that is also a test of our worldview, is how we explain this kind of headline. Here 15 years after the 9/11 attacks in the United States and freshly upon terror attacks from Brussels and Paris and elsewhere, we have a story of three women who were so motivated by their attempt at terrorism that they willingly placed a bomb, or at least the materials intended to function as a bomb, near Notre Dame Cathedral, and two of them stabbed with knives. When we look at this, of course, there are numerous questions that come to our mind. What could animate people to take such horrifying actions against their fellow humanity? What could lead three women that are now known to have been radicalized by terroristic cells coming from Islam, what could’ve motivated them to become—here’s the word that is now en vogue—so radicalized?
The reality is there is something within human nature that is fundamentally broken, something that can only be explained by a moral vocabulary. But that means it can only be explained by a theological vocabulary, because the very essence and reality of moral judgment, the very affirmation of the distinction between right and wrong and the understanding that these point to objective and not merely emotional realities, it points to the fact that there has to be someone who established this moral universe, there has to be someone who determines what is right and what is wrong, and of course the biblical worldview begins that story with the very first words of Scripture,
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Lacking a theistic worldview, it becomes nearly impossible to come up with any adequate moral vocabulary. Lacking a worldview of theism and the Christian worldview in particular, every single moral sentiment somehow has to emerge merely as a statement of sentiment itself rather than moral reality. And when it comes to the nature of Islamic terrorism, those in the largely secular or secularizing West, especially amongst the even more secular elites, have to face the fact that we face a theological adversary, something that Western elites have considered virtually impossible, not just improbable, at the end of the 20th century and in the beginning of the 21st. But theology is all too present in the headlines, as was made clear not only as we look back to the 15th anniversary of the terror attacks of 9/11/2001, but when we look for instance at this headline story coming from Paris just last week. It is more of the same. It is the same evil and there is more of it.
The secular worldview is absolutely unable to give an account of this or to explain it, much less to explain ourselves. And yet we shall note that the Western elites continue to be adamantly committed to that secularism. And even as that worldview fundamentally fails to explain the world around us or even the world we face in the mirror, they’re still trying and they are still religiously committed to that secularism.
Inter-planetary Panspermia? A scientist argues for his own "improved" idea of Intelligent Design
And speaking of a moral reality pointing to a divine establisher of that morality, we also note a very interesting story that appeared in the Ideas section of Sunday’s edition of the Boston Globe. The author is Jacob Haqq-Misra, identified as a research scientist at the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science. Here’s the headline for you,
“A better theory of intelligent design.”
“The public perception of intelligent design is that it is a scientifically specious, religiously motivated idea that seeks to explain away the notion of Darwinian evolution through magical thinking. Some incarnations of intelligent design can fairly be described as such.”
Well, by that opening paragraph we know exactly what we’re going to be facing, or at least we know half of what we’re going to be facing. We’re going to be facing a snide dismissal of not only the idea of creation, but even the idea that the universe was intelligently designed or at least the fact that there was some kind of divine intelligent designer. You’ll notice the language that Haqq-Misra writes, he says that it is a,
“Religiously motivated idea that seeks to explain away the notion of Darwinian evolution”—remember those words—“through magical thinking.”
Here’s the dismissal of Christian biblical theism as merely magical thinking. Now keep that in mind as I said from that opening set of words we can understand half of the argument, we can anticipate where it’s going. It is a condescending dismissal of Intelligent Design and any claim of divine creation. And yet the headline of the article was,
“A better theory of intelligent design.”
What could that better theory be? Again, Haqq-Misra says of the biblical worldview and even the idea of intelligent design that it’s magical thinking. But then he goes on to explain that he has his own view of intelligent design and according to him, it’s scientifically credible, unlike Intelligent Design as we know it.
Now Christians looking at Intelligent Design have to understand that it functions mostly as an intellectual tool. Intelligent Design is most helpful as it destroys the entire Darwinian superstructure, the claim that there is no design in the first place. The very essence of the understanding of Darwinian evolution, currently the mainstream understanding of evolution, is that there is no design in the cosmos. What happened happened through a process that didn’t have to happen this way. There is no particular design, at least not in terms of an intentionality of a designer. But Haqq-Misra thinks that it might be that the universe, the cosmos, was intelligently designed. But that raises the question, then by whom? And he has an answer.
Now remember the significance of this is that this essay was published in the Boston Globe, one of the nation’s most respected and influential newspapers. This was not published in just some kind of website somewhere, it was in the Ideas section of the opinion section of the Boston Globe on Sunday. What does Jacob Haqq-Misra believe is a better understanding of Intelligent Design? Well, it is a form of what is known as panspermia. That is a pseudoscientific word that insinuates that somehow life as we know it on this planet is the result of an intelligent intentionality by an intelligence in the cosmos—not a supernatural intelligence, but an alien intelligence from some other solar system or from some other planet. Haqq-Misr describes the contrast between these two understandings of Intelligent Design in these words,
“Design proponents often have in mind a creator God that made the universe itself and all of life, although they disagree on how this happened.”
But then he says,
“Modern science does offer a tenable theory of intelligent design, one that does not resort to religion or pseudoscience.”
Now just pause for a moment. Remember, he says this isn’t pseudoscience. But listen to what he writes,
“When considering that humans were not far off from the technological ability to transport Earth-based life to other planets, astronomer Carl Sagan and his contemporaries hypothesized that extraterrestrial intelligent beings, if they exist, might try to do the same thing.”
Haqq-Misr then writes,
“From this speculation was born the concept that extraterrestrial intelligent designers are responsible for life on Earth.”
Now one of the things Christians need to understand is that once you’ve denied the biblical worldview, you have to come up with some way to explain the cosmos. As a matter of fact, the question that was perplexing even to the ancients, why is there something rather than nothing, is one of the most primal of all human questions. And now we have a research scientist writing in the Boston Globe who says that it just might be that life on this planet was intelligently designed, but not by a creator God, that idea, he says, is absolutely untenable—remember his words, “magical thinking.” Instead he says it just might be that aliens might exist and it just might be that those aliens who might exist might have intelligently designed planet earth in terms of the intelligent life we know, especially as human beings. He cites the late geneticist Francis Crick in saying that,
“His attraction to this brand of intelligent design is based on a more general idea in astrobiology known as panspermia, which investigates the possibility that microbial life could be inadvertently transferred among planets through collisions with asteroids and meteoroids.”
In excited pros later he writes,
“Interplanetary panspermia is a viable hypothesis. If signs of life are someday discovered on Mars, one of the first scientific questions will be to determine whether it actually originated on Earth and migrated by panspermia. Interstellar panspermia — undirected transfer of life between planets orbiting different stars — is wildly improbable, though.”
Well, wildly improbable is certainly an understatement. He says that it’s improbable that it could’ve happened between solar systems, that’s interstellar, but he says it might have happened between planets. Of course there are a lot of what if’s here, they pile up magnificently. You’ve got the what if alien life exists, what if there is life found on Mars, these are huge what if’s, but nonetheless he is arguing that this is a scientifically credible theory. What it shows us as Christians more than anything else is the desperation of those who reject the biblical worldview to try to explain why life exists, why the cosmos exist more fundamentally, but in particular, why is there life? Why is there biological life? Why is there intelligent life?
Haqq-Misra dismisses any form of theological Intelligent Design as intellectually incredible, he uses that term “magical thinking,” and he claims that his own theory is scientifically credible. But then he writes, and I quote,
“The premise of directed panspermia of course requires the existence of intelligence life on other planets.”
Well, of course it does. Then at the end of that paragraph he writes,
“We’ve yet to identify such planets, but our observational data set grows as space telescopes continue to advance.”
Talk about magical thinking. For Christians, this simply reminds us that it’s the Christian biblical worldview when it comes to creation or it’s some other form of an understanding of how intelligent life in the entire cosmos came to be. And in this case, published in the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe is an argument that dismisses the Christian understanding of Intelligent Design, indeed, the biblical account of creation, and simply replaces it with the hypothesis of interplanetary panspermia. Now that is a form of truly magical thinking. It’s also a sign of intellectual desperation.