The Tangled Web of the History of Daesh, and the Sovereignty of God

3 days after the Friday the 13th Paris Attacks and the commentaries keep rolling in.

If nothing else, they confirm Leo Tolstoy’s dismissal of the arrogance of historians and commentators who claim to have knowledge of the past and think they understand the causes of present day events.

“Both Tolstoy and Maistre think of what occurs as a thick, opaque, inextricably complex web of events, objects, characteristics, connected and divided by literally innumerable unidentifiable links – and gaps and sudden discontinuities too, visible and invisible. It is a view of reality which makes all clear logical and scientific constructions – the well-defined, symmetrical patterns of human reason – seem smooth, thin, empty, “abstract” and totally ineffective as means either of description or of analysis of anything that lives, or has ever lived.” (Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and The Fox)

Starbucks, Citylink Mall, Singapore

To expand on the list given earlier, these have been trotted out as the cause(s) of the rise of ISIS/ISIL/the Islamic State/Daesh and/or the resulting atrocities (though even that link shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion) – in no particular order:

crepe with whipped cream and fresh strawberriesThere is nothing like the inability to untangle the strands that led to any one event, the lack of knowledge and processing power to comprehend the nature and nurture that made one individual the way he/she is at this present moment, to understand that we are far from being in control of our world.

There are two possible responses to this helplessness: (1) existentialism and despair; or (2) contending with the God who controls all things.

The absolute sovereignty of the LORD
You can’t really be a god worth worshipping unless you are (i) really in control of every single thing that happens in the world; (ii) eternal so you can control even time. And this is what the LORD claims – he is in-charge of the sway of international affairs as he is of the rhythms of the day and the hirsuteness of an individual:

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven” (Daniel 4:34-35a)

the Most High rules the kingdom of men and give it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men (Daniel 4:17, 25c, 32b)

The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will. (Proverbs 21:1)

he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45)

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:29-30)

The LORD’s sovereignty over evil

And just so we can be sure no one made up this God, being sovereign also means he has control over evil; there isn’t even a hint of any duality of good and evil that would make him less than completely sovereign:

Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it? (Amos 3:6)

I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things (Isaiah 45:7)

But…the present evil…?

The more pressing question is: why the present good? Because evil is to be expected in a fallen world where men’s hearts are evil all the time.

But if God is in control, how can evil happen and he still be a good God?

An old question and one answered succinctly in the Book of Job:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

“Shall a fault-finder contend with the Almighty?
    He who argues with God, let him answer it.” (see Job 38-42!)

The Sovereign God is not obligated to explain his divine decisions to anyone. Job (and with him, all humankind) is put in his place. We have neither the ability nor the right to understand everything because we are not God. But what we do know from the Bible gives us sufficient cause to rely wholly on him as a good and trustworthy God.

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The Modern Fear of Boredom. The End of History. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia) -> Bangkok (Thailand) -> Butterworth (Malaysia)

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaNo more seats left on the Bangkok – Butterworth train, said the man at the ticket counter at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Railway Station.
What about tomorrow?
Not for tomorrow, or the day after, or the rest of the week, or the next week, said he matter-of-factly.

It looked as if I wouldn’t make it back to Singapore in time to meet a friend before he flew back to London. AirAsia wasn’t an option since my passport had less than 6 months’ validity.

I checked out of Lub D hostel anyway (tip: Siam Square one is more accessible than its Silom sister) and returned to the station with my pack, planning to get any train anywhere. On a hunch, asked a different counter if there was a ticket to Butterworth.
Oh yes, do you want it for today? Which seat do you want?
I threw my baht down and did not ask why.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaGrabbed some Thai snacks from a provision shop in the station. Just after the train chugged out the station, a lady came around with menus – there wasn’t a restaurant car we could go to but she said she would bring the food to our seats. The English menu was shorter than the Thai one and there was a slight difference in price. And unlike the culinary desert of the Trans-mongolian train journey, there was also the option of getting something from the itinerant vendors who seemed at liberty to ply their wares, hopping on at one station and off at the next:
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia

After a magnificent sunset that looked like paints of red and orange and yellow and purple splashed across the evening sky, the train attendant came around to convert the seats into sleeping berths, complete with pillow, bedclothes, and curtains for privacy and to block out the light:
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
Sunset. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, Malaysia
The carriage was pleasantly clean and would have been perfect, had a screeching toddler not kept the whole carriage up all night.

The second most common question asked about this trip was:”Aren’t you afraid of being bored along the way?”

But exactly is this “boredom” of which they speak? And why is this boredom so dangerous or nasty that it is assumed that any sensible person would avoid it at all costs?

Train attendant converting seats into berths. Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaMartin Heidegger considered this existential fear of boredom and consequent craving for novelty and stimulation, a sickness of the modern age. Joseph Brodsky agreed:

Basically, there is nothing wrong with turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leapfrogging jobs, spouses, and surroundings, provided that you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. this predicament, after all, has been sufficiently glamorised onscreen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

By rejecting God, humans found their lives to be merely fleeting moments in infinite time, and completely meaningless, and if there is no meaning, then nothing is worth doing. And a life of boredom is all there is.

A major cause of this boredom, says Andrew Potter in his chapter The Authenticity Hoax: The End of History, is that elucidated in Francis Fukuyama’s essay, The End of History?: the universal, homogeneous state of human civilization sharing liberal democratic ideologies and free-market driven consumer cultures:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognise its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilisation that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

And by getting “history started once again”, he meant a return to (i) totalitarianism in the form of communism or fascism, or (ii) the ethnic nationalism that liberal cosmopolitans imagine has been lost.
Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter sees signs of the first already in the rise of totalitarian theme parks in former Soviet states and the shocking nostalgia for the past – the mass murders and torture and unjust imprisonments and repression of communism and fascism are ignored and replaced with a sepia-toned time when things were more real, more authentic.

And the second has been seen all over the world as countries close their borders to immigrants and nativism is on the rise, and anti-immigration policies are regularly laid-out as voter bait. Radical Islam and Islamic fundamentalism as espoused by groups like the al-Qaeda (and I guess now the ISIS), says Potter, is essentially an authenticity movement devoted to the rejection of American consumer capitalism. In what Benjamin Barber terms “jihad vs. McWorld“, “religious and nationalist identity-movements [rebel] against cosmopolitanism, mass media, and consumerism”.”In the mind of Osama bin Laden, Qutb’s rejection of Western rationalism became a hypertrophied revulsion for “America”, which was jihadi shorthand for every aspect of the modern world, from politics (individualism, democracy, secularism) to business (globalisation, trade, commerce) to pleasure (consumerism, alcohol, sex).”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaBut while little distinguishes several Western authenticity movements from Islamic fundamentalists in their diagnosis of the problem with the world, their solutions are quite different. The latter petition, rally people to their causes, harass, or just go off-grid; the former want to takeover the world and return us to cavemen – because, Potter says, “the creation and sustenance of an authentic Muslim community…requires a great deal of conformity of thought, of worship, of dress, and of habit” and so is impossible to “settle into peaceful co-existence with modernity”.

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaPotter’s conclusion, then, is that first we need to recognise that “the confused and self-defeating search for something called authenticity, is itself nothing more than a hoax”.

In The Authenticity Hoax: Progress, The Very Idea, Potter suggests:

  • “coming to terms with modernity involves embracing liberal democracy and the market economy as positive goods. That means no just conceding that they are necessary evils, but that they are institutions of political and economic organization that have their own value structure, their own moral foundations, which represents a positive step away from what they replaced.”
  • “…perhaps it is time to rehabilitate the very idea of progress: not the blind conviction that things are getting better all the time, but the simple faith that even when humans encounter obstacles, we’ll figure things out, through the exercise of reason, ingenuity, and goodwill. Faith in progress is nothing more, and nothing less, than faith in humankind…”
  • “Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the trick to doing philosophy is knowing when to stop asking the questions that lead us awry. When it comes to the modern search for authenticity, the irony is that the only way to find what we’re really after might be to stop looking.”

Train from Bangkok, Thailand, to Butterworth, MalaysiaI’m afraid I would have to disagree with Potter’s suggestions. He has mistakenly thrown the baby out with the bathwater by:

  • assuming all religions to be alike and not bothering to examine the truth claims of each. If the biblical claims are indeed true, then it is no wonder that, as he so astutely observes, humanity’s search for authenticity must necessarily fail. Because of Jesus claims to be the only person who can reveal what God is truly like, because he is the only person who has ever seen God (John 1), then any other attempt to understand what we were made for and what would be good to do with our lives must fall flat on its face;
  • assuming that human motive and intellect are essentially good (but what is “good”?) and worth having faith in; and
  • assuming that we should just shut up now since we’ve tied ourselves up in knots, rather than realising that he hasn’t found any solution to the problem because he has ab initio rejected the only solution – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created and have their being (John 1).

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapor