At the heart of global conflict lie some basic, unyielding logical impossibilities, and this is the deepest reason the conflict is destined to continue for decades, probably centuries to come. These logical impossibilities, moreover, concern issues of ultimate importance, which inevitably generate passionate interest on all sides. Consider these examples.
Either God exists, or He does not.
Either God has revealed objective moral truth that we are obligated to follow, or He has not.
Only one of each of these two logically incompatible statements can be true, but one of each pair must be true. But what is even more vital to grasp is the enormity of what hangs on which of these logically incompatible statements is true, and which is not.
Indeed, these logically incompatible claim represent the first great divide in global conflict, and it is a divide between all of us who believe God exists, whether Jews, Christians, Muslims, or other theists, and all of those who believe God does not exist. The existence of God is the most far reaching truth claim of all, as it bears on the origin and purpose of the entire world, not to mention the meaning of our individual lives. It is moreover, directly relevant to the second claim about moral truth, since most theists believe the nature and will of God define what is morally right and wrong and provide morality with a secure objective basis. Whether or not God exists also determines what levels of happiness it is possible to achieve, whether there is life after death and we may rationally hope for the perfect satisfaction and fulfillment that eludes us in this life.
Pascal clearly saw what was at stake, and he wrote with existential urgency about the difference it makes whether God exists and there is life after death.
The immortality of the soul is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter. All our actions and thoughts must follow such different paths according to whether there is hope of eternal blessings or not, that the only possible way of acting with sense and judgment is to decide our course in light of this point, which ought to be our ultimate objective.
With all this at stake, it is hardly surprising that there is intense conflict between the two sides of this fundamental divide, from believers as well as non-believers. It is often noted that the “new atheist” movement of recent years has about it an evangelistic fervor that matches, and sometimes exceeds, that of most religious zealots. Why? They have a lot invested in their atheism, and the prospect that they might be wrong is deeply unsettling for them, just as it is for believers.
Many of the cultural conflicts, not only in America, but throughout the world, hinge not only on the issue of whether God exists, but also whether or not He has revealed objective moral truth that we are obligated to follow. Again, either way it goes, many people are wrong about something that is very important, and in which they are deeply and emotionally invested. That is why the moral and religious convictions of the owners of a modest little pizza shop in Indiana, or a county clerk in Kentucky can be flashpoints of national controversy.
The same sort of unyielding logical impossibilities are at the heart of the larger global conflict. Start with this fact. The central belief of Christian faith is that Jesus is Lord, that he is the very Son of God, and God’s highest, definitive revelation. What gave rise to such a remarkable doctrine? Well, to put it simply, the whole life of Jesus, including his remarkable claims about himself, and the miracles he is reported to have done. But the ultimate reason is the extraordinary claim that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, a claim that is rooted in impressive historical evidence.
Now the resurrection is the big explosion that gave shape to the core doctrines that are distinctive to Christianity. The belief that Jesus was raised from the dead grounds the claim that his death on the cross was not simply an act of martyrdom or a tragedy, but rather, that he died to atone for our sins. The belief that he was raised shows he was not a mere mortal, but rather divine, and this led to the belief that he is the very incarnate Son of God. And the belief that He is divine, but distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit, led to the doctrine of Trinity.
In short, who Jesus is, and whether or not He was raised from the dead has enormous implications for what is true about God. Now consider these logical alternatives and how they divide believers in the great theistic religions.
Either Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, or he did not.
Either Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, or he was not.
Either Jesus is the Son of God, or He is not.
Either Jesus is God’s final definitive revelation, or He is not.
Either God exists eternally in Three Persons, or He does not.
In each of these cases, one of these mutually exclusive alternatives is true, but both cannot be. Christians, of course, affirm the first of these alternatives in each case, whereas Jews and Muslims affirm the second alternative. (Indeed, Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the cross at all).
Here is the implication with inestimable consequences regardless of which of these statements are true and which are false: hundreds of millions of people are wrong about the most important issues of all. In short, hundreds of millions of people are wrong about God. And given all that is stake in that most fundamental of all issues, it is not surprising that the global conflicts are engaged with such intense passion.
It is because logical impossibilities are utterly unyielding, and so much is at stake for all parties in all of these disputes that there can be no easy resolution of these conflicts. And given what is at stake, it is altogether understandable that all sides will go to great lengths to defend and promote the truth claims they take to be vitally important.
Now here is a question posed by these logical impossibilities that has enormous practical consequences. Which chasm is greater: the differences that separate moderate Muslims from radical Muslims, or the differences that separate Christians from moderate Muslims? Moderate Muslims themselves need to answer this question, but the answer worth debating is that the differences between moderate and radical Muslims are relatively minor compared to the differences that divide Christians from moderate Muslims.
While it is often claimed that radical Muslims are only a tiny minority, there is evidence that a significant minority of Muslims support radical Islam, even if they do not altogether identify with it. An article in Daily Beast, for instance, concluded that about 12% of Muslims worldwide support terrorism, which amounts to 133 million people. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/10/how-to-measure-what-muslims-really-believe.html). Other polls have suggested that an even larger number sympathize with these views to some degree even if they would not explicitly agree with them.
A large part of the explanation for this, I suggest, may be related to the question I raised above. Moderate Muslims arguably have far more in common in terms of their fundamental religious convictions with radical Muslims than they do with Christians. Consequently, adjusting their theology to accommodate the radical view of jihad is trivial compared to accommodating the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, and all that that involves.
And here it is important to recognize that Islam is in a sense anti-Christian in its very nature in a way that other world religions are not. This is because it was founded centuries after Christianity, and its very emergence was premised on explicit rejection of core Christian doctrines in favor of a different account of the nature and will of God and the way of salvation.
It is equally important to be clear what Islam is rejecting in its affirmation of an alternative faith. The Christian faith is indelibly marked by a distinctively beautiful account of a God whose essential nature is holy love. The nature of God as love is intriguingly revealed in the Trinity, as an eternal dance of joyous, mutual loving and giving among the Three Persons. And that love was communicated to us in definitive fashion in the incarnation and death of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. It is that very love that Christians are called to re-create in their love for one another. Jesus summed it up as follows: “As the Father loved me, so have I loved you….Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:9. 12).
Christians believe that among the dying words of the Son of God were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Whereas Muslims deny that Jesus died on the cross, Christians discern in the death of Christ on the cross the heart that moves Almighty Power. It is an inescapable reality that either Muslims or Christians are profoundly and tragically wrong in their beliefs about God’s definitive revelation.
And that is the hard rock that is firmly lodged at the heart of global conflict.