When you hear the term “Jihad” what do you think? Most of the time it conjures up negative thoughts, such as about terrorism. Most people only heard this term after 9-11. But the original meaning within Islam is very different, and far more broad than the misuse in the case of terrorism. The same concept, of the struggle, exist within Christianity, Judaism, and many of the eastern religions. Atheist experience struggling, although they will not a offer an unifying theory for suffering, except for the inadequacies of evolution.
I will briefly mention the non-Christian views because my knowledge of them is limited. Feel free to correct me if I get them wrong.
The Buddha first came to his meditation after seeing suffering or human struggling. He had a vision of the answer of the struggle against suffering and this where there is a disconnect between desire and accomplishment. He proposed ways to avoid this suffering by having right desires (over simplified).
The best explanation I found is a quote by Michaela Brown, the winner of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization Inc‘s annual oratory award, in her paper titled “What makes Judaism unique and why is it important to me?”
Struggle!! The Jewish community has faced its fair share of struggle over the millennia. Ultimately, we embrace struggle. As Abraham struggled with G-d over the fate of Sodom; as Jacob wrestled with angels; as Moses lost patience with a stiff-necked People; struggle is what has molded and evolved our faith for thousands of years.
Instead of casting away these challenges, we are taught to welcome ambiguity and take risks – to appreciate the uncertainty in life – and come to terms with it, just as our ancestors did.
Within Islam, Jihad is the struggle that humans have on this earth. Historically, and from what the prophet Mohammed dictated, it means the following:
- A believer’s internal struggle to live out the Muslim faith as well as possible
- The struggle to build a good Muslim society
- Holy war: the struggle to defend Islam, with force if necessary against those who want to destroy it.
It was the latter cause that the terrorist used to justify their actions on 9-11.
I have been thinking about this concept for some time. Part of it is related to my own struggle and part of it to movies and books I’ve experienced in the past year. While I may talk about my own struggles as a jumping off point, the real crux of this article is about the human struggle, generically.
I’ve had two people say to me something like, “Mike, you get to talk about your struggles. A lot of us struggle in silence.” Certainly, I’m not here today to again talk about my struggles. Yes, I do share things openly. I talk about things I feel, frustration, elation, sadness, and pain. It is partially who I am, but also, I made a consciences decision about 25 years ago to talk honestly. But I certainly know that I’m not alone and that is really why I’m talking about this now, the global issue of the struggle.
The key Christian Bible verse about the struggle is the following:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12
Simply, within the Christian framework, the universe was created perfectly, then a great fall came and disrupted part of it. It is that disruption, that brokenness that causes us to have to struggle.
When I was 18 years old, I went from being a causal Baptist (going to church if that’s where pretty girl was, but not taking it seriously) to a card carrying evangelical. I remember in those days having a poster on my bedroom wall that was similar to one I posted below. It was exciting to an 18 year old to think I was in the middle of this crazy war between demons, angels, and all kinds of evil powers. It was like Lord of the Rings, but in real life.
Over time, when you start with such a premise, before long you become very superstitious. Every day is like an scene from the movie, The Exorcist, where you are in hand to hand combat (so your mind thinks) with these demons. So, if you trip and fall on the ice, it was because a demon did it to hurt you. . . wait a minute, maybe it was God doing it to teach you something? Anyway, pay your money and take your choice.
About 20 years ago, after I spent a decade studying history of philosophy, the history of the church and theology, I came to a very strong conclusion that the church made a big mistake by adopting a dualistic view (dual = two, two very different sides to reality, the spiritual and the physical), when it came to metaphysics. As I’ve mentioned before, in that view, there’s the material (aka physical) and the spiritual. The material is insignificant, maybe even nasty, and the spiritual is all that matters. The “spiritual” in that case, is always “supernatural” or above nature, because nature is bad. When I went back and studied the Bible honestly, I found a very different perspective.
This dualistic of thinking really distorts the way you see the world. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain that here, but it was the adoption of a secular, Greek philosophy rather than sticking to the simple Christian view of the universe, that it was created by God and that both the visible and invisible are good. The Bible, when you look at the original languages, divides things between the visible and invisible, not the natural and supernatural. Those later terms came more from Plato than the Bible.
The word for “Spiritual” in this verse in the original Greek is πνευματικὰ (Greek meaning, that which is unseen such as air vs the material, visible things). So, rather than the interpretation that I had as a high school evangelical, and the same view that most evangelicals have, this passage is not about “supernatural” powers, but invisible powers.
I will pause and take a side bar to defend what I am saying because when I’ve tired to have these discussions in person, virtually everyone misinterprets what I’m saying. They accuse me of not giving God the power to be supernatural. No, that’s what I’m saying. Unlike most evangelicals, I believe in a universe that is highly complex, over 13 billion years old and more than 13 billion light years wide. With that, I still believe that God created all of that. They believe in a Bronze-age God that created a earth-centric universe that is 5,000 years old and not very big. So who has the bigger God?
My point is about being accurate and having fidelity to the original scriptures. I think God is offended (if that is possible) that we see this material universe as dirty or nasty and therefore everything has to be “supernatural” to have merit. Didn’t God created this world? I know it is more sexy to believe like I, the high schooler, believed where their were supernatural powers everywhere and everything of significance was about this supernatural world.
I will also defend against the misinterpretation that God is known in my view. . . and rather boring. While they (often meaning evangelicals) believe that God is mystical.
I will give a simple answer to this, where I am tempted to write a book about it. If your study physics, astrophysics, including relativity, and string theory, which I do as a hobby, even the atheist comes away in awe of something that is beyond words. We live in a mystical universe, where we know a small fraction of what’s really there. So, therefore, my God is mystical beyond comprehension. But I will not resort to simple phycological tricks to make the case to myself that God is supernatural and mystical. I did that when I was with a group in collage that pretended to have all kinds of bizarre experiences, none of which were true. When we stop living in reality, believing that God caused the clouds to form the shape of a cross just as a message to me (or to Constantine), then God because a trivial magician. It is very narcistic, where I’m the center of God’s universe. I’ve always said that the more we live within true reality, the better of a chance we have in finding God. The more we live detached from reality, we find a God created in our wishful image.
But I digress. Now, with it established (from my perspective) that this verse is talking about the invisible rather than the “supernatural” I will continue with this thought.
So, this verse (Ephesians 6:12) is saying that if those Christians think that the struggle is in the seen, disease, persecutions by the Roman state, economic failure, hunger, and etc., they are mistaken. The most brutal struggle is in the unseen.
I will use myself as a brief example. My physical struggle against cancer for the past two years has been brutal. I have suffered more than I thought the human body could bear without death. I have longed for death as an escape. Yet, with that said, the most brutal part of my struggle is in the unseen. Not that some demon is trying to take over my body and make my head spin around, but that I would not give up, emotionally. That I would still believe that God loves me (not a big problem for me). That I would not succumb to depression even to the point of taking my own life. That I would not see myself as worthless now that my career is over (big struggle for me). This is the battlefield, the place of the real struggle.
Getting away from me, I want to focus on you. Most of us have our own struggles, some life-long. In closing, and as an act of homework, I want to give a list of books and movies that explore different facets of this human struggle. These are NOT self-help books, but just take your via your imagination into the these worlds.
Depression: Melancholia (movie), The Bell Jar (novel), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (novel and movie).
Schizophrenia: A Beautiful Mind (book and movie).
Obsessive-compulsive: As Good As it Gets (novel and movie).
Anxiety: Five Signs of Disturbance (novel).
Alcoholism: Days of Wine and Roses (movie).
War: Beneath a Scarlet Sky (novel), Unbroken (novel based on true events), What Is the What (novel).
Obesity: She’s Come Undone (novel, but also addresses many other struggles such as rape), Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (novel).
Poverty: Behind the Beautiful Forevers (novel).
Racism / Social Justice: Kindred (novel), The Man in My Basement (novel and one of my favorites).