Two Frenchmen, brothers, apparently with training & inspiration from the Yemen branch of the terrorist network Al Qaeda, murder a group of Paris cartoonists & journalists, for the crime of publishing satirical images denigrating the Prophet.
Obviously the shock waves produce varying responses, of many kinds, on many levels.
A phrase occurred to me today in this regard : "moral freedom". The phrase comes from an early essay by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, titled "Peter Chaadaev". This curious short prose work reminds me of some writings of Whitman. In describing Chaadaev, the 19th-century Russian thinker, Mandelstam seems on the one hand to sketch a version of his own iconoclastic mind & personality, and on the other, to offer a nationalistic icon of the spirit of Russia, situating itself dialectically (as St. Petersburg was perennially called upon to do) between the prestige of Western Europe, and the vast inchoate future of the Russian soul. Chaadaev is presented as both that rare Russian emigre who returns to the motherland, with a message of intellectual rigor and cultural order - as a "Westernized" Russian, in other words - and as a representative of Russian moral freedom - the "diamond" of a perfected individual soul (in contrast to the enfeebled West, sunk beneath the weight of its own unquestioned tradition).
This Chaadaev is a fish out of water, a free spirit, an exile's exile : his rectitude is inward, spiritual, personal. His moral freedom seems to stem (via Mandelstam's interpretation) from Orthodox Christianity, with its relative devaluation of "objective history" in favor of inward spiritual unity, perfection, "divinization".
What does all this have to do with Charlie Hebdo? With events in Paris?
"Moral freedom." The phrase rings. Mandelstam says Chaadaev was obsessed with unity : the basic unity of intellectual vocation & moral value. This was the source of his charisma, his personal integrity. But where did he discover this unity?
I'm not a Russian scholar. My guess is, Chaadaev was drawing from the well of traditional Orthodox values. & what strikes me about Orthodox Christianity is its visionary focus on the unity and divine origin of the whole creation. Life, with all its suffering & injustice, is beautiful & good because God made it so. The Acmeist poetic movement, founded by Gumilev, Akhmatova, & Mandelstam, was grounded in this ordinary Orthodox sensibility. Gumilev called it "chasteness" : an idea not very different from Whitman's notion of cosmic goodness. Each individual thing in nature is inherently valid & beautiful because it has its source in the supernatural Artist. With this spiritual grounding Chaadaev (& Mandelstam) could represent a version of "moral freedom" : the dignity of humankind (& Russia) without the overpowering weight of Western grandeur & authority. As Mandelstam wrote :
Let the names of imperial cities
caress the ears with brief meaning.
It's not Rome the city that lives on,
it's man's place in the universe.
But again : where am I going with this? What has any of this to do with Charlie Hebdo?
My point is this. So the phrase "moral freedom" - from Mandelstam's Chaadaev - came to mind as I pondered the events in Paris. Why? Because both Chaadaev & Mandelstam underline the central, sine qua non place of freedom in any architectonics of civilization. For them, moral freedom is the primal divine gift.
& what then exactly is "moral freedom"? It is the recognition that the whole benign cosmic order is balanced on a "givenness" or original context of moral choice. The universe is designed for Man to choose goodness & righteousness : it is rooted in free will. The path to Paradise and "divinization" is open to those who accept this free offer.
But if this is the case, then where are the powers of tyranny, force, compulsion, fear? Where are the gods of domination? Where are the thought police? They have no place to stand. They are vanquished. They have been defeated by a supernatural power Who authorizes moral freedom : by the law that you must choose the path of righteousness yourself.
I tried to explain this in my letter to the editor published in the NY Times on Monday. This is a basic theological tradition shared, actually, by both Orthodox East and Catholic/Protestant West. You cannot impose spiritual values by force. Why? Because God ordained Nature for moral freedom : we are free creatures, as God is free : we are made in God's image.
The fanatics of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State want to punish others for disobeying the commands of their God. In the process they commit murder and other outrages against God's own creatures, & against divine Law. It may be that they are driven by political pressures and deep grievances : but my point is that their ideology, which provides them with propaganda and "moral" justification, represents the worship of a false god, an idolatry. If God is neither hateful nor murderous, but instead calls on persons to redeem themselves through love of neighbor, then the propaganda of fundamentalism has no basis in reality. They need to be saved from their own delusions. There needs to be a new conversation about the nature of God.