We Americans are not as smart as the ancient Cretans, at least in one very important respect.
There were good reasons to ponder their example this weekend during the solemn observances of 9/11 after 10 years.

Ordinarily, the mission of Sightingsis to relate signals from current mass media to the concerns of “public religion,” and documenting our column with reference to some article or program.

This time we will not be doing so, not because documents are few but because there are so many. I didn’t need “search” keys or instruments to find a document; the 9/11 signals found me.

Many of these were loaded with “public religion” meanings, as citizens mourned, argued, expressed resolve, disguised their fears, politicized their reminiscences and mourned again.

We who comment “religiously” in the public realm were supplied online and in print with ideas for conferences, programs, talks and, yes, sermons.

Gathering thoughts about them, I found myself using three mental shelves.

The one, already mentioned, can be marked “mourning.” Thinking about the hundreds and thousands of lives of victims directly “hit” by the event naturally prompts mourning. We may not have ritualized mourning well, but we mourned.

The second shelf could be labeled “defense strategies,” on which most of my sources and I, especially I, are not equipped to make proposals. The empirical situation occasions a “pretty well done” response.

Fearful and tentative as we are and have to be, religious or not, in the face of our enemies and crazy people, we can begin responding with a nervous “we’re still here” boast.

Yes, nutty individuals have taken a few post 9/11 victims and their presence, along with the threats of malevolent and armed enemies, and they continually cause and will cause us to remain mindful, without prompting, of dangers.

Then there’s the third shelf for sorting responses, and here is where the ancient Cretans come in. I ran across them and the relevance of their obscure record a half century ago when looking up the word “syncretism” for doctoral work, and it has stayed with me ever since.

While there are competitive etymological clues, the one that wins derives from Plutarch’s Moralia, and which got a new boost from Erasmus’ Adagia of 1517-18. With Plutarch and Erasmus as back-ups, one can be bold.

Plutarch coined synkretismos, referring to the way the always contentious, divided and warring-among-themselves men of Crete responded when enemies threatened: They forgot about their squabbles and formed the “Cretan federation.”

Erasmus quoted himself in a letter, arguing that “Concord is a mighty rampart,” as those squabbling Cretans did when they needed rampart but which many Americans have not yet learned.

Back to 9/11 – did you think we left it behind? (We never may!) We may have learned from it something about how to mourn and to defend, but on “federating” like the Cretans did, we are nowhere.

Instead of uniting across the boundaries set by squabblers, citizens squabble more.

Yes, there are interfaith and ecumenical movements, but every church, synagogue and mosque I know is doing anything but finding “concord.”

Name one denomination – can you? – that is not threatened by partisanship from within.

Now ponder partisanship: Can you remember or do you know of any decade more torn apart by actions and factions among and within parties – care for tea? – than our 10 years have seen?

Cretans, Plutarch, Erasmus: Note that we are slow learners!

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.

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