“The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy making, or money can change that reality.” — James Davison Hunter from The Death of Character
While Hunter makes an interesting observation, I do believe the one thing that he left off his list which can restore character is religion, specifically Islam. I mean this in no cheap or reductionist way. I mean a religious and spiritual practice that returns us to silence. The silence we so desperately need as individuals but also the communal silence by which we, by standing together in ranks for prayer, tune out the world and tune in to the Oneness of The Creator. This, I still believe, can achieve that elusive goal of restoring character.
I do concur with Hunter’s conclusion that “character is formed in relation to conviction and is manifest in the capacity to abide by those convictions even in, especially in, the face of temptation.” This speaks to heart of many of the struggles I witness in Muslim youth. They have hearts but have not been spiritually trained to have conviction. And by barring them from sharing in the vision of our community they have been given little opportunity to develop religious and spiritual conviction. It’s as if they know what Islam is gesturing but they do not know what it’s saying. Out of a misplaced sense of love and lack of trust — that it is God who makes a believer — we have stifled this all important aspect of Muslim development. This is akin to my statement of sucking all of the oxygen out of a room:
When religion is employed solely to critique society, versus seeking how to live a dignified life — a life worth living!, then it tends to take the oxygen out the community in the way a fire takes oxygen from a room. People are left with a choice: stay and suffocate or leave.
— Marc Manley (@manrilla) December 18, 2017
Another way to think about the challenges we face is how we’ve supplanted creeds with values. This has been concurrent with the secularization of the Muslim mind. As Hunter puts it, “Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character”. Many of us, not only youth, have been inculcated into internalizing Islam, not as a fundamental truth claim, one which places demands on us, but merely as a set of “values” which can be altered, rearranged, or even deleted, depending on what our social circumstances demand of us or what we desire (demand!) from society. Or as Bo Burlingham quoted in his book Small Giants, “mediocrity is our greatest competition”.
To better understand the dilemma of values, I quote Hunter again: “the very word ‘value’ signifies the reduction of truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable”. And therefore we must also ask ourselves: “what is conviction”? It is, as Hunter explains: “the commitment to truths made sacred”. Likewise, what is its absence. Again, Hunter: “There is nothing there (values) that one need believe, commanding and demanding its due, for ‘truth’ is but a matter of taste and temperament”. This elegantly echoes the Qur’anic verse,
كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِتَالُ وَهُوَ كُرْهٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَّكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
“Fighting (in the cause of God) is a duty laid down upon you, even though it might be unpleasant for you. However, you may hate something that’s good for you and love something that’s bad for you. God knows, and you don’t know.” — Qur’an 2: 217