Friday, September 10, 2021
It's Friday, September 10, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
20 Years After 9/11: Wake Up, We Live in a Dangerous World — Lessons from 9/11, Lesson One
It was a Tuesday, a spectacularly clear Tuesday morning, Tuesday, September 11, 2001 when the United States of America came face to face with the fact that the world had changed in just a matter of an instant, or in the case of 9/11, as it became known, in the unfolding events of just a few hours in New York City, and in Washington D.C., and also in rural Pennsylvania. And all of it took place over against a worldview in which so many people believed that nothing like this could possibly happen or happen here. 9/11, as it is known, is now etched in the American memory and rightfully so forever. We're talking about a day in which 2,977 Americans basically went to work or got onto airplanes expecting to a normal day.
It was a beautiful day for flying, but there were four jetliners that were hijacked by Al-Qaeda terrorists who had declared jihad against the United States of America and turning the instruments of the modern age into instruments of mass murder. Those jetliners were intentionally flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and one that we now believe was intended for the White House, was instead commandeered by very brave Americans who, nonetheless, were unable to keep the plane from crashing. In any event, all of the people on all of those planes died. And in the cases of the three that did hit buildings, and in particular, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, it caused massive death. Americans will forever live with those images that we saw live.
There was no live broadcast from Pearl Harbor in 1941, there's no live broadcast from previous American wars, or for that matter, most previous experiences of human disaster. But we had indelible memories from that day in which we saw again, and again, and again the live images and then the constantly repeated video of what took place, not only with the planes hitting the tower that seemed the most unimaginable, unbelievable, even though human eyes saw it and our minds understood that it had happened, it still defied our moral imagination that anyone would plot such a thing, much less carry out such an attack. But then you're also looking at the reality that America was not only shocked at the fact that we were attacked in this way with such deadly effect, but it was a wake-up call in order to face reality that Americans really had not thought about, seriously, at least most Americans before 9/11/2001.
As we now stand tomorrow at the 20th anniversary of that dark day in American history, we need to remind ourselves that many of these lessons have already been largely lost. And we're looking at the moral responsibility to come face to face with some of the key lessons that were learned on that day, September 11, 2001 and in the aftermath. I want to spend some time today on The Briefing looking at four inescapable lessons that were learned from the events of 9/11/2001. Number one, we learned the lesson that the world is a dangerous place. Now, there is a sense of which Christians always have to understand that. We understand that it's rooted in human sinfulness, that sin is set loose in the world, restrained only by God's providence, but evil is now having its way in so much of the world.
But yet, in the United States, in the years proceeding, September 11, 2001, Americans had begun to buy into the idea of a universal peace of an age of global reason in which peace would prevail because reasonable people operating on the basis of instrumental reason would be able to work out conflicts in such a way that work could be avoided. Now, a part of that was due to the end of the Cold War, and the breakup of the former Soviet Union, and the fact that even as you had figures such as Francis Fukuyama declaring the end of history in which the world was facing a very reasonable democratic future, the reality on the ground was already very different in much of the world. 9/11 brought those lessons home. It was the Enlightenment philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries who came up with the idea of a new human age that would be ruled by this kind of reasonable universal peace.
Immanuel Kant, in so many ways, the most important thinker of the Enlightenment, wrote a book in 1795 in which he spoke of the promise of perpetual peace. Those Enlightenment philosophers really did have so much confidence in what they saw as human nature and human reason that they saw an end to any kind of armed conflict or violence when it came to the relations between states. So, long as the states had a basically republican structure of government, that's with a little "R," so long as they were at least inclined toward democracy, so long as they were modern nation states and they were ruled by or governed by people who would operate in the age of reason, they argued that this kind of perpetual peace was possible. Now, this has been a constant temptation ever since the Enlightenment, it's been a constant temptation of the modern age. It has driven a certain progressivist instinct in American foreign policy and in the way many elites look at America and the rest of the world.
Now, for example, you could draw a line from Immanuel Kant and his promise of perpetual peace in 1795 to a president such as Woodrow Wilson in the early decades of the 20th century. You could look at his vision for the League of Nations. Or furthermore, you could go to the year 1928. Now, just remember, 1928, that's just 10 years after the end of what we now know was World War I. And we call it World War I because it was followed, in just a relatively brief amount of time in human history, by what we call World War II and even more deadly and devastating global conflagration. But nonetheless, in 1928, what was known as the Kellogg-Briand Pact was adopted, outlawing war, that's right, outlawing war. That's the way we'll put it into war, we'll simply outlaw it. That particular pact was signed first by the United States, France, and Germany on the 27th of August 1928.
Here's what we need to note. Those nations were at war with one another on a global scale just a matter of less than a generation later. But we can now look back and understand that in 1928, it evidently made sense to a lot of people that you could just outlaw war. But guess what? You can outlaw war but war will not remain outlawed. It's also interesting for us to think about in this first lesson, the lesson that the world is a dangerous place. We need to understand that things aren't always even as they appear. For instance, there have been very few declared war since the end of the Second World War in 1945. There have been very few situations in which nations have commonly decided that they would declare war against one another, declared wars. And so, you look at that and you say, "Well, we must be living at a time then of greater peace."
Well, as you look again at the reality on the ground, that is not the truth. The reality is that undeclared wars can be just as deadly and sometimes even deadlier and even more long-lasting than declared wars. The absence of declared war does not mean the absence of warfare. There are other lessons to which we will turn, but the reality that the world is a dangerous place is still something that is resisted by many people, especially in the intellectual elites. And it comes down to their understanding of human nature. If you genuinely believe that human nature is basically good, then you will see misbehavior, even on the part of a two-year-old, as an aberration rather than the norm. But if you operate from a biblical understanding of human sinfulness, well then you understand that there has been war, there will always be rumors of war, and there will be armed conflict between nations and between peoples until Jesus comes.
That doesn't mean that we do not strive to avoid such wars, it doesn't mean that we do not strive to end such wars, but the reality is, it is absolute human hubris to believe that we can outlaw war, and even to claim that if there are undeclared wars, that means there is no warfare. The vast majority of the millions of American citizens alive on September the 10th of 2001, thought that America was actually living in a time of peace. But that illusion disappeared the very next day, on September the 11th.
The Clash of Civilizations Is Real — Lessons From 9/11, Lesson Two
And that means, the second lesson comes down to this, Samuel Huntington was right. We are observing as the major dynamic in the world picture in our time a clash of civilizations, not just a clash or a conflict between nations, but a clash between civilizations. Now, the key insight of Samuel Huntington is certainly right that throughout human history, this clash or the series of clashes between civilizations has been what has predominantly shaped world history.
But he was particularly right as he pointed to the present moment, including the fact that the Cold War was over and now, a lot of the old alliances and allegiances were outdated. He said the main dynamic right now as you look at the world around us, is that there is a clash of civilizations, and in the words of at least one observer, it comes down to the West and all the rest. In a remarkably important article by Samuel Huntington entitled the Clash of Civilizations published in Foreign Affairs, Huntington said this, "World politics is entering a new phase and intellectuals have not hesitated to proliferate visions of what it will be, the end of history, the return of traditional rivalries between nation states, and the decline of the nation state from the conflicting polls of tribalism and globalism, among others. Each of these visions," he says, "catches aspects of the emerging reality. Yet they all miss a crucial, indeed a central, aspect of what global politics is likely to be in the coming years." Now, remember this was written in 1993.
The next paragraph, "It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics," he said. "The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future." It is as if Osama bin Laden had read Huntington's article because Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, and the larger movement of Jihad, in terms of worldwide Islam, is the proof positive that Huntington was right. Huntington's point was not primarily theological, we'll turn to that in our third lesson today, it was primarily civilizational and cultural.
But Huntington was pointing to something that modern Western elites really do not want to affirm, and that is, that most of what animates human beings is not political, it is pre-political. It comes down to worldview, it comes down to our most basic assumptions. And yes, as we shall see, it comes down to theology, how we look at the world. But the reality is that if you take one of those hijackers on those planes that flew into those skyscrapers in New York City and then you look at the people who were in those buildings at work when the jets hit, here's the point, they were really inhabiting one universe but two very different worldviews. At the level of culture, what drove them, animated them, what created their morality and their understanding of the world, it was remarkably different. Samuel Huntington wrote his essay and directed much of his attention with direct reference to the national security of the United States and other Western nations.
He understood what so many who were in policy making positions in governments on both sides of the Atlantic did not see, that there were these pre-political commitments, these cultural commitments that were coming on very strongly and much of the world, and much of the world simply didn't want what the West had to offer, like Immanuel Kant and the other Enlightenment philosophers who believe that people would inevitably choose peace if given the choice between peace and war. You had people in Western societies in the 20th century who made similar kinds of statements based in illusion. One of the things we now see in retrospect is that Samuel Huntington was rather prophetic in looking at the rise of a global elite who would not see themselves so much as citizens of a country but as citizens of the world. Furthermore, you had the rise of what Huntington actually named as Davos Man, the modern cosmopolitan, who is involved in international business, who begins to believe that every single cultural conflict is just another business opportunity waiting to happen.
Christians will see a great deal to appreciate in Samuel Huntington's argument about the clash of civilizations. We certainly do not see less even if we do see more. He was absolutely right to point to the fact that what is driving the great conflicts in the world today is not so much a clash of nations as it is a clash of worldviews. Just take his phrase clash of civilizations and make it clash of worldviews and I think today's Christians will understand exactly why we should have so much appreciation for Samuel Huntington's argument. But the third lesson reminds us that we have more to say and there is more we know as Christians. We understand that it's not just a clash of civilizations, we understand that inevitably, it is a clash of theologies. Those same Enlightenment philosophers who had promised an impending era of perpetual peace also promised that humanity would come of age without need for theology, or for that matter, without need for God.
That was the conceit of so many amongst the Enlightenment philosophers and intellectuals. But the reality is, as Christians know, theology not only matters, it always matters, and it matters not only to some, it matters to all even if the most important theological issue that marks someone's theological worldview is their rejection of theology. That too, as Christians understand, is an inherently theological act. But so many in the West, especially the increasingly secularized West, had absolutely no intellectual equipment whatsoever that would help them to understand when a strong theological argument actually arrived and make no mistake. That strong theological argument arrived on four modern jetliners. Now, what do I mean by a strong theological argument? I mean, Islam.
Theology Really Matters, Islam Really Matters — Lessons From 9/11, Lesson Three
Samuel Huntington and others who looked at the clash of civilizations understood that Islam was a part of the picture, but they really didn't want to press the theological point. But that's where Christians, in this third lesson, have to understand that it is our job to press the theological point. It was Christianity that created the intellectual super structure that produced Western civilization. Even as that Western civilization is increasingly secularized, it is not secularized from some kind of Muslim identity, it's secularized from an explicitly Christian identity. Meanwhile, in the very unsecularized, Muslim-dominated world, you have a very strong theology, a theology that after all goes back to the Prophet Muhammad, as he is called, and the fact that he was himself a man of war. There's no turning the other cheek when it comes to Islam, which is a religion of conquest and an honor theology. That means that any slight to that honor is to be met with force.
Now, as you're looking at this, you recognize that the word jihad, which literally means struggle in its Arabic route, it now means, for the most part, an armed struggle against the West or an armed struggle against those who'll be described as the enemies of Islam. But this fits into the larger Islamic theological picture, the larger world picture of Islam as revealed in the Quran that separates all of the terrain of planet Earth into one of two spheres, either the world of Islam or the world of war. The world of Islam is the world under Muslim domination, it's the world under Sharia law, that is Quranic law, it's the world that is explicitly Muslim, the Lima. But then, there is the world of war, the world of struggle, where the great struggle is to bring every single square inch of the territory of planet Earth and every single human being under Sharia law, under the rule of Islam and into the world system of Islam.
There's certainly more to say here but it's very interesting to note how many people, and you can hear this even in the conversation about the 20th anniversary of 9/11/2001, how many people, especially amongst the more secularized elites in the United States, want to deny that theology can matter, who want to deny that theology actually was the central motivating and animating factor amongst those who did carry out those hijackings and the larger pattern of terrorist attacks against the United States and other nations before and after 9/11? The reality is that the lessons learned right now on the ground in Afghanistan also just underline all the lessons we've discussed here, including the fact that theology matters. The Taliban in Afghanistan are decidedly not claiming a secular identity, just ask them.
The (Temporary) Collapse of Moral Relativism — Lessons from 9/11, Lesson Four
The fourth lesson is the reality of evil. The fact is that many people in the United States have begun to think that the word evil was something that we could discard, we could do away with. There were those who were amongst the moral relativists arguing that there is absolute good and there is no absolute evil, everything is simply a matter of gradation. Evil, it was often suggested, was just to extreme a word, not just the moral relativists, however, the social constructivists. And they were sometimes referred to as the postmodernists. But with increasing authority in America's academic life, and in Hollywood, and in other sectors, they argued that the use of moral language like good and evil was just outdated and that claims about what was good and claims about what was evil that basically amounted to no more than socially constructed truth claims that were simply put into place by those who could get away with it.
Those who operated from this more modernist or postmodern worldview basically denied any kind of objective right, objective wrong, objective good, objective evil. Yet, here's the point. On 9/11/2001, that kind of argument became absolutely vapid. Indeed, there was virtually no one who was willing to stand up in public and say, "You know, I don't really believe that those acts were absolutely evil." You have to put them within their intellectual context, you have to deconstruct this act and understand that it's really a part of political protests. This isn't about right and wrong, nobody could make that argument because it was so transparently about evil, the display of evil, the horrifying images of evil, the evil motivations that had driven those attacks, the evil rationales behind it, and the evil ambitions of others to carry out similar attacks.
But about this lesson, we have to yet learn another, and that is, that as much as September 11, 2001 was clarifying, that clarity often doesn't last. The American Academy, America's colleges and universities, its intellectual elites, largely went back eventually to the pattern of believing that there is no objective right, there is no objective wrong, it is all just a matter of a gradient scale. You have to understand by psychological, sociological, economic, and philosophical evaluation the fact that claims about absolute right and claims about absolute wrong are just unsustainable. But here's the point. If those arguments didn't make sense on 9/11/2001, they do not make sense today. Remember that. You might say that the question pressed upon us by this 20th anniversary is not only what lessons were learned, but for how long were any of those lessons learned.
This is a special edition of The Briefing because of tomorrow, being the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Next week, we will turn back on Friday to looking at mail from listeners. But to be honest, it just doesn't seem morally right to turn to any other issues on this particular day and in this particular edition of The Briefing. But I do want to close with this. Anytime you have an anniversary like this, it is the catalyst for rethinking, in some ways for reliving, certainly for re-remembering these events, and hopefully, understanding them rightly, truthfully, respectfully, and accurately. But there are many Americans, there are indeed thousands and thousands of Americans for whom this is not just a matter of an attack upon the United States of America, it is the anniversary of the loss of a loved one.
I close with a word of respect for and prayer for all of those families for whom this is not just the 20th anniversary of an important date in history, it is the 20th anniversary of a day of untold grief, that in some sense, seems never to end. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.