Renewed spiritual vision needed to defeat extremists

In our shock at ISIS/ISIL’s brutality, we can easily miss the spiritual challenges that this group presents to the West.

ISIS/ISIL is a spiritual movement, one that embraces intolerance and violence but one that dares to ask what God is doing in current human history. If ISIS/ISIL gives the wrong answer to that question, this group is at least asking the question.

In asking what God is doing in human history, groups such as al-Qaida and ISIS/ISIL present a marked contrast to contemporary Western culture, which is experiencing what might be called a “post-historical” mentality.

For many Western countries, history as we knew it ended with the conclusion of the Cold War. After decades of nuclear confrontation between communism and capitalism, the placid and prosperous 1990s felt like “life after history,” with the last line of the story being “and everyone in the West lives happily ever after.”

Evidence of this post-historical mentality can be found in how young people in the United States, when asked to define the “American dream,” identify that dream in a personal and private way — a well-paying job, happy family, roomy house and plenty of “fun stuff.”

The American dream, as presently conceived, includes nothing about healing the racism or homelessness in our nation, much less the brokenness of our world. Also alarming is the fact that Western youth admit that this private vision is accompanied by an alarmingly high level of boredom.

It seems logical that 9/11 and the subsequent 15 years of battling terrorism should have shattered our complacency and boredom, our sense that history is over. But these developments have done little to affect the amount of sports we watch on TV, the level of confidence we have in an ever upward stock market, or our obsession with posting the “micro-events” (“I just brushed my teeth” or “It looks like rain — can’t find my umbrella.”) of our bored lives on Twitter or Facebook.

Events in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and many other countries do little more than annoy us, not unlike noisy children in a theater. Why can’t the world, we wonder, sit back with us and enjoy the show, a show that will always feature the West in the leading role?

ISIS/ISIL mocks this bored, relaxed state of the West, even as the group feeds off this boredom in its recruiting. ISIS/ISIL promises recruits that they can be part of changing history, and ISIS/ISIL can point to the changing map of the Middle East as evidence of their boast.

Where in the West are youth promised the chance to change history on an almost daily basis? ISIS/ISIL’s sense of historical engagement explains why the faces of their recruits might be transfixed with rage, but those faces never look bored.

While the West and allies in the Middle East are deciding how best to attack ISIS/ISIL with the world’s most modern weaponry, ISIS/ISIL is attracting as many as a thousand new recruits a month, with more and more coming from Western countries.

Without a competing vision of changing history, the West can offer only a host of temporary distractions (sports, cellphones, lotteries and video games) from the pervasive underlying condition of boredom. What Pope Benedict wrote about Europe can also apply to the United States: “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future.”

ISIS/ISIL will continue to affect the West, not in some superficial way, but in a shaking-of-the-foundations way. Clearly, the boredom and emptiness of Western consumerism will not be able to defeat ISIS/ISIL or diminish its recruiting success. ISIS/ISIL offers a distorted but potent spiritual vision, one that can be defeated only by a spiritual vision grounded in compassion and justice.

Many religious leaders believe that a new spiritual awareness has for some time been on the horizon for the West. Perhaps, ISIS/ISIL is the catalyst for this change. If so, we will not be left with any doubts when such a change begins to occur. We will see the difference on the faces of our youth.

David Carlson is a professor of philosophy and religion at Franklin College and the author of “Peace Be with You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World” available in bookstores or on