Another young man has been arrested for allowing Muslim extremism to enthrall his grasp on reality. conspiring to bomb the White House because of the government’s attacks on Islamist extremists. Christopher Lee Cornell looks like another typical American young man who for has stymied his personal angst and alienation by affiliating with Muslim extremism. News reports are often reporting similar stories of young men…and women even…who are trying to join Isis or other Muslim extremist groups. Alienation and anger appears to describe most of them.
But just because of anger and alienation, why would anyone have to glom onto any idea as “crazy” as violent extremism and bring upon themselves and others so much pain? It is as if they sell their soul to gain something they believe in fully, with all of their heart and life, even to the point they are willing to die and to kill others. Their desperation takes “belief” or “faith” to a level that is beyond the pale. This development in ours and other cultures illustrates the appeal and the danger of ideas. Investing inordinately in any idea, or set of ideas, often brings the temptation of taking these ideas too seriously, very much related to taking oneself too seriously. When one does this, he/she has become an “ideologue” which Eric Hoffer described decades ago, “The True Believer.”
But this illustrates the specious nature of all ideas. Yes, we look at this young man and other extremists and shake our head and call them “nuts.” But even our middle-class, educated, and “christian” ideas merit scrutiny occasionally. For an “idea” is not the “thing-in-itself” ,but is so often taken to be. When this happens, we have failed to follow the Buddhist wisdom, “The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon.”
Of course, I am not exempt from risking this peril. In this venue I trot our “ideas” myself, ideas reflecting a belief system and personal identity which I take very seriously. I myself am full of ideas and certainly have made an investment in them. But now I am old enough that I see very clearly these are only “ideas” and therefore merit caution lest I take them “too” seriously. And if I should do so, it will because my ego is influencing to overestimate by wisdom. You will know that I have done this when you discover that there is a Pay Pal button on this page with a request for donations! Or, when you discover that I have somehow found out your mailing address and are suddenly harassing you with this “stuff” in your mailbox. Or when you somehow hear that I’ve been arrested for “seet preaching” this stuff on my neighborhood streets, perhaps with the additional charge of “public indecency!”
One has become an ideologue when he/she takes “pet ideas” and puts so much energy in them that perspective is lost, failing to realize that these ideas are important to him/her but will not necessarily be important to other people. When that happens, these ideas….many of which might even contain “noble truths”…can become a hammer that is used to bludgeon other people and convert them to our way of viewing the world. The root issue of an ideologue is profound alienation, so profound that there is an inordinate need to proselytize and get others to believe the same way so to alleviate our existential loneliness Ideas, though an intrinsic part of what makes us human, often become a weapon with which we brutalize other people, often under the guise of some “ultimate truth.” The classic ideologue has in mind making others join his “tribe,” with the ultimate goal of conquering the whole world. This mind-set in my youth was often expressed with the call to “win the world to Jesus” which I now realize was merely a heart-felt desire to make the world “just like me.” And that desperation cannot be blamed on Jesus, or even the Christian tradition. It must be laid at the foot of our “human-ness” as the human need for affiliation, if unchecked, can lead to extremism.
Loneliness is painful. And subscribing to the prevailing ideas of our culture is important in our youth and helps us achieve an identity and take comfort in belonging to our tribe. But at some point we have to grow up and be willing to look at our ideas…even the one’s we deem beyond question…and begin to seek affiliation with some “thing” which if followed can lead us in the direction of being more inclusive in our approach to life.
(An afterthought: Just moments ago, I came across this wisdom from Stephen Hawking in a post on Face Book: the greatest danger to knowledge is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.)