The Immigrant Mind: Immigration and Identity (Part Three)

Luma Simms | June 8, 2017

In parts one and two we discussed the metaphysical undergirding of identity and attempted to understand a little about selfhood. Those discussions gave us the foundation from which we can now scale up to the national level. We cannot understand national identity without selfhood, because the very dimensions that make up the self – when taken collectively – make up a nation, and from there a civilization.

National Identity

On April 1, 2005, the day before St. Pope John Paul II died, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger gave a lecture in Italian at the convent of Saint Scholastica in Subiaco, Italy. The topic was Europe’s Crisis of Culture. It was significant not only because it addressed the roots of Europe’s identity crisis, but because it clarified Europe’s Muslim assimilation problem, and thereby the civilizational clash between European nations and their Muslim population.

According to Ratzinger, the heart of the problem can be seen in this logical sequence: The Enlightenment and secularism matured organically in Christian Europe; Europe denied its Christian heritage espousing a universal secular culture; this universal secular culture broke down national identity and imposed an identity which was “determined exclusively by the Enlightenment culture,” a culture with internal contradictions, and an “ill-defined or undefined concept of freedom.” Most significantly, this culture excludes God from the public conscience.

Contrary to secular thinking, banishing God from the public square does not create a more tolerant world; it absolutizes “a pattern of thought and of life that are radically opposed … to the other historical cultures of humanity.” People of other religions “do not feel threatened by our Christian moral foundations, but by the cynicism of a secularized culture that denies its own foundation,” Ratzinger said. He clarified, “It is not the mention of God that offends those who belong to other religions, but rather the attempt to build the human community absolutely without God.”

Ratzinger asked and answered the question of whether secularism – a product of the Enlightenment – is a universally valid philosophy. He showed that it is not; one cannot implant in Muslim terrain a philosophy that had matured in a different soil and then severed, “depriving itself of the regenerating forces from which it sprang.” Enlightenment culture is based on Enlightenment philosophies, which “are characterized by the fact that they are positivist and, therefore, anti-metaphysical.” (Emphasis mine)

In the last two installments, we showed that the metaphysical undergirds human identity. So then what happens when you have a Western secular anti-metaphysical culture hosting a large mass of immigrants who come from a culture in which the metaphysical is the very foundation of understanding human nature and the universe? A clash – a massive civilizational clash.

Ratzinger said,

The real opposition that characterizes today’s world is not that between various religious cultures, but that between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on one hand, and from the great religious cultures on the other. If there were to be a clash of cultures, it would not be because of a clash of the great religions which have always struggled against one another, but which, in the end, have also always known how to live with one another but it will be because of the clash between this radical emancipation of man and the great historical cultures.

In other words, it is a clash between the secular West and the world that has not capitulated to an anti-metaphysical worldview. 

This is the root of assimilation problems in the West, and we are soon coming to that discussion.

I have said before that nationality is a good, that people groups need a land of their own, and that the road to healing requires a return to the nation-state and to a sober national identity. Often the response is, “We don’t want to end up like Nazi Germany.” We can no longer afford to halt discussions of the good of nation-states by putting forth the false dichotomy of Global citizenship vs. Nazism. There are unique national characters – crystallized wisdom – that is the product of centuries (or millennia) of lived-out history. These characters are worth preserving and rallying around, in Europe and elsewhere. Positing a universal secular culture is not only a European problem, it is ours as well here in America. And it is at the root of our assimilation problems.

Philosopher Sir Roger Scruton set up an unnecessary conflict between religion and national identity in a Wall Street Journal essay, “The Case for Nations.” He wrote, “In the world as it is today, the principal threat to national identity remains religion, and in particular Islam, which offers to its most ardent subscribers a complete way of life, based on submission to the will of God.” I belong to a religion that subscribes a way of life and asks me to humble myself before God – Catholic Christianity. Yet I am no threat to national identity; I have here and elsewhere advocated for it.

A nation’s identity is built from the same elements that build personal identity. The building blocks of national identity include: The history of a people, their land – the real dirt underneath their feet, the land’s location on the earth and its boundaries, their religious habits, culinary practices and cuisine, cultural traditions, intellectual life and art culture, the people’s industry, the land’s natural resources, and the relationships of the people of the land to each other and to the institutions which make up that society. A nation’s governing institutions comprise yet another building block of national identity. A nation is all these things. And in the variety of nations across our world there is beauty.

No, religion does not stand in opposition to national identity; it is one of its building blocks.

The threat to national identity is not religion – it is an anti-metaphysical universal secular globalizing culture. This is what erases particular nations, eradicates personal and cultural differences, and excises God from the public conscience.

Later in his essay, Scruton wrote,

The “clash of civilizations,” which – according to the late political scientist Samuel Huntington – is the successor to the Cold War, is, in my view, no such thing. It is a conflict between two forms of membership: the national, which tolerates difference, and the religious, which does not.

Here again I disagree. The “clash of civilizations” is the better paradigm for our times. It is the clash I mentioned above between the secular West and the world, which has not capitulated to an anti-metaphysical worldview. Where we get muddled is in our understanding of secularism and religion. Classical secularism, which grew organically out of the Christian world, espoused the ideas that religion cannot be imposed; people had rights and they should be treated equally; power should be separated (see Matthew Franck’s Recovering a More Complex Story of the Christian West). In classical secularism there was a legitimate place for religion. Contemporary secularism, devoid of the metaphysical, denies even the legitimacy of religion. This confusion is how we end up with extremes: people who claim that all secularization is unstable and progresses toward the absurd, and people who claim that all religion is evil and leads to war.

It is true that religious people adhere to a metaphysical framework. But not all respond to anti-metaphysical culture with violence. Throughout most of the world, Hindus and Buddhists don’t strap on bombs and kill people in a cafe. Middle Eastern Christians are not turning into terrorists from the stress of assimilation into Western cultures. The clash, for us immigrants, is war in the soul; the clash is the identity crisis.

In a later installment I will return to the way Islam is responding to the anti-metaphysical universal globalizing culture.

Globalization and Clash of Civilizations

We know that people traveled from country to country throughout history. Trade routes were created. Businessmen went to far-off lands, bought and sold, and brought back to their homelands the goods, habits, and even the idols and religions of other people. But borders did not cease to exist. Even the Ottoman Empire opened itself up to trade, but it never stopped being a Muslim Empire with its habits and rules.

The crossing of goods, ideas, and religions across national and civilizational boundaries are not neutral events – they can be for good or for ill. People from every tribe and nation across the earth understood this. This is why sometimes the exchanges of goods and ideas did indeed cause havoc. No matter if on the surface a war or conflict looked to be caused by religious differences, greed for land and treasure, or lust for power; fundamentally, these clashes are always based on identity – people fighting to assert who they are and who they are not.

The clashes of civilizations are always a people making a stand for who they are as a people.

Change is never neutral, and people throughout history have been fearful of change, knowing that some changes come as assaults on the spheres that make up their identity. And this is why although some claim that globalization has improved the world economically, it did not come without a price. A price which no old-fashioned trade route ever extracted from a people – the complete breakdown of national barriers.

In the next installment we will turn our discussion to immigration and immigrants specifically.