Archive for the ‘Islam and Jihad’ Category


Christianity’s Transformative Preservation Of Paganism – Derek Jeter

July 13, 2012

As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, `Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Luke 19:37-40


A story generating a modicum of buzz in the blogosphere is the radical Islamist’s destruction of the heritage of the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, razing tombs and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque, despite growing international outcry.

The International Criminal Court has described the destruction of the city’s patrimony as a possible war crime, while Unesco’s committee on world heritage was holding a special session this week to address the pillaging of the site, one of the few cultural sites in sub-Saharan Africa that is listed by the agency. The militants claim the shrines represent an affront to their conservative interpretation of Islam.
Associated Press

The local al-Qaida rep in Mali had this response:

Reached by telephone in an undisclosed location in northern Mali, a spokesman for the Islamic faction said they don’t recognize either the United Nations or the world court. “The only tribunal we recognize is the divine court of Shariah,” said one of Ansar Dine’s spokesmen, Oumar Ould Hamaha.

“The destruction is a divine order,” he said. “It’s our Prophet who said that each time that someone builds something on top of a grave, it needs to be pulled back to the ground. We need to do this so that future generations don’t get confused, and start venerating the saints as if they are God.”

When confronted about the losses in tourism to the region:

Mr. Hamaha said he didn’t care about the impact that their actions will have on tourism. “We are against tourism. They foster debauchery,” he said.

Many atheists would be quick to point out that this is nothing new nor anything that would be confined to radical Islam as the West has had numerous incidents of sovereign and Christian attacks on cultures throughout its history. Yet the story of Christianity is less about conquest and subjugation of pagan populations as much as it is about the beneficence the orthodox, catholic Christian faith has bestowed upon human culture in its attempts to preserve what it perceives to be best within it.

I’ve been reading The Logic Of Christian Humanism, an article in the Spring 2009 issue of Communio by Peter M. Candler, Jr. which notes the following opinions:

Of course, one could cite instances where the arrival of Christianity was less hospitable to the ancient cultures, where it destroyed rather than saved, leveled rather than elevated. But I think that art historians and anthropologists would be hard pressed to deny that these were more the exception than the rule. And yet, the popular imagination tends simultaneously to hold two contradictory opinions: on the one hand, that Christianity simply co-opted pagan culture for its own purposes, in an act of unparalleled marketing savvy and opportunism; on the other, that Christianity, in a sustained act of ressentiment, obliterated every vestige of human culture which, in obedience to the first commandment, it perceived as idolatry.

We are all familiar with the story of how Christmas replaced the pagan festivals of Rome and the missionaries conquest of the Indian tribes of Mexico and Central America. Candler proffers a third way of considering Christianity’s relation to the pagan, one that takes hints from how pagan structures were consecrated as Christian religious structures:

The Venerable Bede records that Gregory, writing in 601 AD to Abbot Melitus about to depart for Britain, says that “we have been giving careful thought to the affairs of the English, and have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God.

In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God.” [Bede the Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Leo SherleyPrice and rev. R.E. Latham (London: Penguin, 1990) I, 30, 92.]

In this same spirit, the rites of consecration which developed in the seventh century and following sometimes involved “a kind of baptism of the stone structure that enclosed the living Church,” using a special mixture of water, ashes and wine known as “Gregorian water,” owing to the Pope’s alleged authorship of the “Gregorian Sacramentary.” [Cf. Migne, Patrologia Latina 77, 153E Cf. also Louis Bouyer, Rite and Man: Natural Sacredness and Christian Liturgy, trans. M. Joseph Costelloe, S J., Liturgical Studies 7 (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1963), 187-78; Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: A. & C. Black, 1945), 570-73]

Now it may be possible to detect a whiff of opportunism in Gregory’s exhortation, but, according to Josef Jungmann, “[t]here is something to be learned from the fact that in the consecration ceremony … church and altar are `baptized’ and `confirmed’ almost like human beings; they are sprinkled on all sides with holy water and are anointed with holy oil.” [Josef A. Jungmann, S J., The Mass of the Roman Rite, vol. 1, trans. Francis A. Brunner (Allen, Tx.: Christian Classics, 1986), 254.]
Peter M. Candler, Jr., The Logic Of Christian Humanism

We’re seeing in the above a more basic theological impetus for how the Church approached the pagan:

The Christians are, each one, to be living stones, each one distinct but comprising together the great building whose foundation is Christ.”] That much at least should be obvious, but this sense that an intimation of the glory of God still somehow subsists in the stones is a function of an exclusively Christian dogma, to wit, that in Jesus of Nazareth God himself assumed human flesh and redemptively consummated it.
Janet Soskice, Resurrection and the New Jerusalem

The transformation of the pagan flows from an understanding of the logic of a well conceived Christian humanism. Pope Gregory, the great 7th century monastic prelate and Church father, related this all to the mystery of the incarnation and rooted his thought in opposition to the Apollinarian heresies of his time according to which God assumed a human body but not a human mind. Instead, the theory goes, the human mind was replaced by the divine logos. That is, in the human Jesus, the divine logos acts as the rational element in place of an ordinary human mind. This contained two unacceptable factors for Gregory: It denied the full humanity of Christ; and it also denied the human nature of human beings.

Another Gregory, (of Nazianzus) summed  it up here:

If anyone has put his trust in Him as a Man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. Let them not, then, begrudge us our complete salvation, or clothe the Savior only with bones and nerves and the portraiture of humanity. For if His Manhood is without soul, even the Arians admit this, that they may attribute His Passion to the Godhead, as that which gives motion to the body is also that which suffers.
Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter (101) to Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius.

The divine Word was not changed into a human nature, nor was a human nature absorbed by the Word’ (Denzinger 219 [428]); cf. also Third Council of Constantinople: “For just as His most holy and immaculate human nature, though deified, was not destroyed (theotheisa ouk anerethe), but rather remained in its proper state and mode of being” (Denzinger 291 [556]); cf. Council of Chalcedon: “to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, change, division, or separation” (Denzinger 148 [302]).

This may be somewhat familiar stuff to those who understand the Creed and the phrases (I believe) in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, born of the father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through Him all things were made. This is the basis of Thomas’s famous maxim, that “grace does not destroy but perfects nature,” and is a reiteration of the principle Gregory of Nazianzus articulates to Cledonius above. As far as the human person is concerned, theosis is also anthroposis, deification also hominization. As Benedict XVI says, “Only Christ can humanize humanity and lead it to its `divinization. “‘ [Benedict XVI, Message to the Young People of the World on the Occasion of the 23`d World Youth Day, 2008.] And so it is that the Church embraces the pagan, sees the pagan impetus towards the divine and recognizes it in Christ. Grace does not destroy but perfects nature. It’s a lovely thought and stands in dignified opposition to the barbarism of radical Islam.


Book Recommendation: My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

October 12, 2010

My Name is Red, Bulgerian Edition Book Cover

My Name Is Red is told against the backdrop of cultural and historical Islam. It is set in Istanbul during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Murat III, 1574-95, and somewhat after into the reign of Sultan Ahmet I.  It concerns the fate of miniaturists and illuminators whose art form had reached a zenith a few hundred years or so earlier. I read novels like this a few years back. I think I was lonely for my life in Japan but unwilling to return to it and longed to be away from the world I found myself in. What better way to escape than plunging myself into another foreign world in a time far away.

Miniaturists depicted battles and coronations and illustrated the epics, poems, love fables and feats of conquest. This was all done in a very formal and proscribed manner. For example, they were not representational and did not use perspective. Hence human faces and tree leaves were treated equally as design and ornamentation rather than as likenesses.

They never dared illustrate the Koran. Light, the Koran says, belongs to Allah, nature belongs to Allah; it is for mankind to love, and to view without competing with Allah, which was to invite a descent into idolatry. Man could approach and know Allah through nature and to depict nature through art was considered to be interfering with that process. Hence design and ornamentation but never representational art.

My Name Is Red is a murder story told against this moment of cultural history. It is related through the eyes of twenty different characters, a dog, and a few objects. It begins with the corpse of Master gilder Elegant Effendi who has been killed by one of his  fellow artists:  “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well…I was happy; I know now I that I’d been happy. I made the best illuminations in Our Sultan’s workshop…” He and three other miniaturists had been secretly at work on a book (commissioned by the Sultan) using the new Frankish methods (three dimensional with perspective). This radical and blasphemous book was to have included a portrait of the Sultan himself.  

As is my habit, some reading selections here:

But the half-blind ninety two year old master caused me to sense something deeper for a moment, here, far from all the battles and turmoil: the feeling that everything was coming to an end. Immediately before the end of the world, there would also be such silence. Painting is the silence of thought and the music of sight. 

Color, Sight and Darkness
Before the art of illumination there was blackness and afterward there will also be blackness. Through our colors, paints, art and love, we remember that Allah commanded us to “See”! To know is to remember that you’ve seen. To see is to know without remembering. Thus painting is remembering the blackness. The great masters, who shared a love of painting and perceived that color and sight arose from darkness, longed to return to Allah’s blackness by means of color, Artists without memory neither remember Allah nor his blackness. All great masters, in their work, seek that profound void within color and outside time. 

Melancholy Men
Maybe you’ve understood by now that for men like myself, that is melancholy men for whom love, agony, happiness and misery are just excuses for maintaining eternal loneliness, life offers neither great joy or great sadness. I’m not saying that we can’t relate to other souls overwhelmed by these feelings, on the contrary, we sympathize with them. What we cannot fathom is the odd disquiet our souls sink into at such times. This silent turmoil dims our intellects and dampens our hearts, usurping the place reserved for the true joy and sadness we ought to experience. 

Painting What The Mind Sees
My paintings reveal what the mind, not the eye, sees. But painting as you know quite well, is a feast for the eyes. If you combine these two thoughts, my world will emerge. That is:

ALIF: Painting brings to life what the minds sees, as a feast for the eyes.

LAM: What the eye sees in the world enters the painting to the degree that it serves the mind.

MIM: Consequently, beauty is the eye discovering in our world what the mind already knows. 


1.   There are moments in all our lives when we realize, even as we experience them, that we are living  through events we will never forget, even long afterward. 

2.   Time doesn’t flow if you don’t dream. 

3.   Love is the ability to make the invisible visible and the desire always to feel the invisible in one’s midst.


Benedict’s “Islamophobia”

May 17, 2010

It is not “Islamophobic” to note the historical connection between conquest and Muslim expansion, or between contemporary jihadism and terrorism. Truth-telling is the essential prerequisite to genuine interreligious dialogue, which can only be based on the claims of reason. George Weigel continues his analysis of Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture and its response.

Alain Besancon concludes his analysis of the differences between Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other, with this trenchant observation:

Efforts to engage in “dialogue” with Muslims have been set on a mistaken course. The early Church fathers deemed the works of Virgil and Plato a preparatio evangelica — preparation for the Gospel, for the truth of Christianity. The Qur’an is neither a preparation for biblical religion nor a retroactive endorsement of it. In approaching Muslims, self-respecting Christians and others would do better to rely on what remains within Islam of natural religion — and of religious virtue — and to take into account the common humanity that Muslims share with all people everywhere.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture in September 2006 took a similar tack. At Regensburg, the Pope identified the deepest theological source of jihadist ideology — its defective concept of God — and gave the world an interreligious arid ecumenical vocabulary by which Muslims, Christians, Jews, adherents of other world religions, and nonbelievers can engage in a genuine conversation about the threat posed to the human future by jihadism: the vocabulary of rationality and irrationality.

Widely criticized at the time as an intemperate and offensive assault on Muslim sensibilities, Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture in fact led, within a month, to one of the few hopeful events of 2006: the “Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI, originally signed by thirty-eight prominent Islamic leaders from across the globe.’ In that letter, these Muslim leaders welcomed the Pope’s call for an intellectually serious encounter between Muslims and Christians; rejected the jihadists’ interpretations of “jihad” as an obligatory holy war of conquest, to be waged until Allah’s sovereignty is acknowledged by the entire world; and condemned those “who have disregarded a long and well-established tradition in favor of utopian dreams where the end justifies the means,” writing that those who had done this “have done so of their own accord and without the sanction of God, his Prophet, or the learned tradition!’ The signatories went on to invite the Pope to a serious theological dialogue on the transcendence of God, and on the relationship of God’s nature and attributes to human categories of understanding. They also suggested that, in the mainstream Islamic tradition, God cannot command the irrational — like the murder of innocents.

The “Open Letter” was hardly flawless. It distorted history at points, and it contained no mechanism for specific follow-up. Jihadist murderers, while condemned, were not condemned by name, nor did the “Open Letter” address the pathological anti-Semitism that infects too much of the Islamic world. So there is much that needs further discussion. yet it is not without interest that this statement — which despite its shortcomings was still the most forthcoming from senior Muslim leaders in living memory — followed a robust and courageous critique of the theological roots of jihadism, not the exchange of banalities and pleasantries that too often characterizes interreligious dialogue. Surely there are lessons here for the future.

The first is that the western media acquiescence to Muslim complaints about western, American, Christian, or papal “Islamophobia” should stop. It is not “Islamophobic” for the Pope, or anyone else, to pray in the presence of Muslims, to defend religious freedom, or to condemn violence perpetrated in the name of God—suggestions variously made by National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the New York Daily News during Benedict XVI’s December 2006 visit to Turkey. It would also be helpful if the western press — and particularly that part of the western press that reaches the Islamic world, like CNN and the BBC — would call things by their right names: murderers in Iraq are murderers and terrorists, not insurgents or sectarians; suicide bombers are, in fact, homicide bombers; and so forth.

The Islamic leaders’ “Open Letter” also suggests the imperative of a redefined interreligious dialogue. That dialogue would address the question of Islam’s ability to assimilate, in a critical way, the achievements of the Enlightenment — a question with which Christianity has been wrestling for centuries and which Islam must now finally engage. This was precisely the focus of interreligious dialogue Benedict XVI proposed in his Christmas 2006 address to the Roman. Curia, the central administrative apparatus of the Catholic Church. In it, the Pope made four crucial points.

  1. First, history itself has put before the Islamic world the “urgent task” of finding a way to come to grips with the intellectual and institutional achievements of the Enlightenment: the Muslim world can no longer live as if the Enlightenment, in both its achievements and its flaws, bad not happened.
  2. Second, this necessary Islamic encounter with Enlightenment thought and the institutions of governance that grew out of Enlightenment political theory requires separating the wheat from the chaff: the skepticism and relativism that characterize one stream of Enlightenment thought need not (and indeed should not) be accepted; yet one can (and must) make distinctions and accept the ideas that the Enlightenment got right — for example, religious freedom, understood as an inalienable human right to be acknowledged and protected by government — even as one rejects the ideas of which the Enlightenment made a hash (for example, the idea of God).
  3. Third, this process of coming to grips with the complex heritage and continuing momentum of the Enlightenment is an ongoing one. As the experience of the Catholic Church has demonstrated in recent decades, however, an ancient religious tradition can appropriate certain aspects of Enlightenment thought, and can come to appreciate the institutions of freedom that emerged from the Enlightenment, without compromising in a fundamental way its own core theological commitments — indeed, the experience of the Catholic Church on the question of religious freedom and the institutional separation of Church and state shows that a serious, critical engagement with Enlightenment ideas and institutions can lead a religious community to a revivification of classic theological concepts that may have lain dormant for a long period of time, and thus to a genuine development of religious understanding.
  4. Fourth, it is precisely on this ground — the ground where faith meets reason — that interreligious dialogue should be constructed.

All of which is to say that the interreligious dialogue of the future should focus on helping those Muslims willing to do so to explore the possibility of an Islamic case for religious tolerance, social pluralism, and civil society — even as Islam’s interlocutors (among Christians, Jews, and others, including non-believers) open themselves to the possibility that the Islamic critique of certain aspects of modern culture is not without merit.

Some will say that such an Islamic development of doctrine cannot happen: that the deep theological structures of Islamic self-understanding identified above make any fruitful encounter with the institutional achievements of the Enlightenment (let alone the Enlightenment’s intellectual accomplishments) so unlikely as to be virtually impossible. No one should gainsay the difficulties involved here. Yet Bernard Lewis suggests that what is often seen today — especially by European foreign ministries and the U.S. Department of State — as a natural affinity between Islamic societies and authoritarianism is in fact the product of the past two centuries.

Traditional Muslim societies, Lewis suggests, were characterized by forces that “limited the autocracy of the ruler,” including such “established orders” as “the bazaar merchants, the scribes, the guilds, the country gentry, the military establishment, the religious establishment, and so on.” The leaders of these powerful groups were not appointed by the state; they arose from within the groups themselves, and no wise ruler could afford to make major decisions without consulting them. This was not “democracy as we currently use that word,” Lewis concedes, but neither was it autocracy or even authoritarianism; it was a distinct form of “limited, responsible government.” And it was ended, first by the forced modernization imposed by state authority in the Arab Islamic world in the nineteenth century, and then by the Arab Islamic experience of the mid-twentieth century, which Lewis sketches in these trenchant terms:

In the year 1940, the government of France surrendered to the Axis and formed a collaborationist government in a place called Vichy. The French colonial empire was, for the most part, beyond the reach of the Nazis, which means that the governors of the French colonies had a free choice: to stay with Vichy or to join Charles de Gaulle, who had set up a Free French Committee in London. The overwhelming majority chose Vichy, which meant that Syria-Lebanon — a French-mandated territory in the heart of the Arab East — was now wide open to the Nazis.

The governor and his high officials in the administration in Syria-Lebanon took their orders from Vichy, which in turn took orders from Berlin. The Nazis moved in, made a tremendous propaganda effort, and were even able to move from Syria eastwards into Iraq and for a while set up a pro-Nazi, fascist regime. It was in this period that political parties were formed that were the nucleus of what later became the Baath Party. The Western Allies eventually drove the Nazis out of the Middle East and suppressed these organizations. But the war ended in 1945 and the Allies left. A few years later the Soviets moved in, established an immensely powerful presence in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and various other countries, and introduced Soviet-style political practice. The adaptation from the Nazi model to the communist model was very simple and easy, requiring only a few minor adjustments and it proceeded pretty well. That is the origin of the Baath Party and of the kind of governments that we have been confronting in the Middle East in recent years. That, as I would again repeat and emphasize, has nothing whatever to do with the traditional Arab or Islamic past.

The development of those elements of pluralism identified in Lewis’s depiction of the Islamic past into a future akin to what the West refers to as “civil society” is a project that Islamic reformers must pursue with great urgency, given the threat posed by global jihadism. It is often said that “Islam needs a Reformation” — that the world awaits an “Islamic Luther” or an “Islamic Calvin:’ This is a bit too easy; however, in terms of its close identification of the Reformation with the emergence of free societies in the West, and in its understanding of what ails politicized Islam. Rather than an Islamic Luther, Islamic reformers might better look toward the possibility of an Islamic Leo XIII: toward the possibility of a religious leader who reaches back into the deeper philosophical resources of his tradition in order to broker a critical engagement with Enlightenment political thought, and to shape his tradition’s encounter with the economic and political institutions of modernity.

Pope Leo XIII was not the father of the modern social doctrine of the Catholic Church because he fostered a rupture with tradition (pace Luther or Calvin). Rather, Leo understood that the highly politicized idea of “tradition” that prevailed in much of nineteenth-century Catholicism was not, in fact, traditional, and that the political arrangements it favored — such as the use of state power and authority to enforce the truth claims of the Church — were not the only possible conclusion to be drawn from core Catholic theological premises. Leo XIII’s retrieval of authentic Thomistic philosophy as a tool of social analysis led to a remarkable, evolutionary development of social doctrine in the Catholic Church, and eventually to the Second Vatican Council’s historic Declaration on Religious Freedom, a high-water mark in the disentanglement of the Church from state power — the disentanglement of sacerdotium from regnum. That process of retrieval and development, as distinct from rupture and revolution, is a model that can be recommended to genuine Islamic reformers today. Such an approach, emphasizing the capacity of reason to get at the truth of things, also holds out the possibility of an interreligious dialogue that is more than an exchange of either platitudes or shibboleths.

Non-Muslims can play no significant role in the intra-Islamic struggle to come to grips with Enlightenment ideas and free political institutions, for that struggle must be resolved, finally, in terms of Islamic premises. But non-Muslims can, just possibly, help shape the contours of that struggle from outside [in these ways]:

  1. They can do so by not giving most-favored-dialogue-partner status to those establishment Muslim religious authorities who still find it impossible to condemn jihadism.
  2. A Muslim religious leader who will not condemn suicide/homicide bombing, publicly and with the perpetrators condemned by name, is not a religious leader with whom reasonable people can be in serious conversation.
  3. Public condemnation of jihadism and jihadists ought to be the admission ticket required of any Islamic religious leader or scholar who seeks dialogue with western religious or intellectual institutions, and with western political and religious leaders.

And that requires prudence on the part of westerners, who may not be aware that what a prominent Islamic figure says on media being broadcast to the English-speaking world is sometimes not the same thing as what he says on al-Jazeera. It should go without saying that anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers are likewise disqualified as dialogue partners.

Non-Muslims can also help shape the terrain of the intra-Islamic struggle by working with those Muslim scholars, religious leaders, and activists who are trying to revive the tradition of reason in Islam. If Islam insists that its faith is post-Judeo-Christian, in the sense that the revelations of the one true God to the People of Israel and in Jesus Christ have been completely superseded by the revelation to Muhammad (and in that sense, only Muslims fully grasp whatever truths remain from prior revelations), then there is little ground for theological dialogue, strictly speaking. That theological dialogue may come in time — perhaps centuries of time. At the moment, however, the important thing would seem to be to concentrate on working at such common borders as exist between us: and the defense of reason against both jihadists and those postmodernists who deny the human capacity to know the truth of anything with certainty could be one such borderland meeting place, and an important one at that.

If, for example, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and agnostics (as well as Hindus, Buddhists, and adherents of other religions) could agree that there are certain moral truths “built into” the world, built into us, and built into the dynamics of human striving — moral truths that we can know, by careful reflection, to be ne — then we would have the first building blocks of a philosophical foundation on which to construct, together, free and just societies that respect religious conviction. We would have, in other words, a rational, interreligious “grammar” and vocabulary with which to engage each other on questions of what is, in fact, the meaning of freedom, justice, and other aspects of the good.

Winston Churchill, a man who did not shrink from fighting when necessary, famously said that “jaw, jaw is better than war, war:’ Unfortunately, much of what passes for “jaw, jaw” in contemporary interreligious dialogue is, in truth, “blah, blah”: in part, because of the political correctness of western dialogue partners, but, at a deeper level, because the dialogue partners have not yet developed a grammar that turns noise (or banality, which amounts to the same thing) into conversation. The development of such a grammar is not only imperative for genuine interreligious dialogue, although it surely is that it would also aid the efforts of Islamic reformers in their struggle against the jihadists who, they believe, have hijacked Islam — yet who have, in the process, made jihadism perhaps the most dynamic force in the contemporary Islamic world.


Papal Address at University of Regensburg

May 14, 2010


Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg
Tuesday, 12 September 2006
Faith, Reason and the University:Memories and Reflections

Your Eminences, Your Magnificences, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a moving experience for me to be back again in the university and to be able once again to give a lecture at this podium. I think back to those years when, after a pleasant period at the Freisinger Hochschule, I began teaching at the University of Bonn. That was in 1959, in the days of the old university made up of ordinary professors. The various chairs had neither assistants nor secretaries, but in recompense there was much direct contact with students and in particular among the professors themselves. We would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties.

Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas – something that you too, Magnificent Rector, just mentioned — the experience, in other words, of the fact that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason – this reality became a lived experience.

The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the “whole” of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God. That even in the face of such radical skepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara — by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.[Of the total number of 26 conversations (διάλεξις – Khoury translates this as “controversy”) in the dialogue (“Entretien”), T. Khoury published the 7th “controversy” with footnotes and an extensive introduction on the origin of the text, on the manuscript tradition and on the structure of the dialogue, together with brief summaries of the “controversies” not included in the edition; the Greek text is accompanied by a French translation: “Manuel II Paléologue, Entretiens avec un Musulman. 7e Controverse”, Sources Chrétiennes n. 115, Paris 1966. In the meantime, Karl Förstel published in Corpus Islamico--Christianum (Series Graeca ed. A. T. Khoury and R. Glei) an edition of the text in Greek and German with commentary: “Manuel II. Palaiologus, Dialoge mit einem Muslim”, 3 vols., Würzburg--Altenberge 1993-1996. As early as 1966, E. Trapp had published the Greek text with an introduction as vol. II of Wiener byzantinische Studien. I shall be quoting from Khoury’s edition.]

It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur’an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between — as they were called — three “Laws” or “rules of life”: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point — itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole — which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason”, I found interesting and which can serve as the starting–point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις — controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion.” According to some of the experts, this is probably one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”[ Controversy VII, 2 c: Khoury, pp. 142-143; Förstel, vol. I, VII. Dialog 1.5, pp. 240-241. In the Muslim world, this quotation has unfortunately been taken as an expression of my personal position, thus arousing understandable indignation. I hope that the reader of my text can see immediately that this sentence does not express my personal view of the Qur’an, for which I have the respect due to the holy book of a great religion. In quoting the text of the Emperor Manuel II, I intended solely to draw out the essential relationship between faith and reason. On this point I am in agreement with Manuel II, but without endorsing his polemic.]

The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.[ It was purely for the sake of this statement that I quoted the dialogue between Manuel and his Persian interlocutor. In this statement the theme of my subsequent reflections emerges.] The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self–evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the λόγος”.

This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word — a reason which is creative and capable of self–communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6–10) — this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

In point of fact, this rapprochement had been going on for some time. The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply asserts being, “I am”, already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates’ attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy.[ Regarding the widely discussed interpretation of the episode of the burning bush, I refer to my book Introduction to Christianity, London 1969, pp. 77-93 (originally published in German as Einführung in das Christentum, Munich 1968; N.B. the pages quoted refer to the entire chapter entitled “The Biblical Belief in God”). I think that my statements in that book, despite later developments in the discussion, remain valid today.]

Within the Old Testament, the process which started at the burning bush came to new maturity at the time of the Exile, when the God of Israel, an Israel now deprived of its land and worship, was proclaimed as the God of heaven and earth and described in a simple formula which echoes the words uttered at the burning bush: “I am”. This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Psalms 115).

Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature. Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria — the Septuagint — is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity.  A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature.

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which — as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated — unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language.

God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, “transcends” knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Ephesians 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul — “λογικη λατρεία”, worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Romans 12:1).

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history — it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity — a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the programme of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.

Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this programme was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal’s distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959, I tried to address the issue, and I do not intend to repeat here what I said on that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was new about this second stage of dehellenization.

Harnack’s central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message. Fundamentally, Harnack’s goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical–critical exegesis of the New Testament, as he saw it, restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific.

What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university. Behind this thinking lies the modern self–limitation of reason, classically expressed in Kant’s “Critiques”, but in the meantime further radicalized by the impact of the natural sciences. This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield decisive certainty. The weight between the two poles can, depending on the circumstances, shift from one side to the other. As strongly positivistic a thinker as J. Monod has declared himself a convinced Platonist/Cartesian.

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre–scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

I will return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology’s claim to be “scientific” would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science”, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was an initial inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not simply false, but it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.

And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is — as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector — the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.

The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self–imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide–ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based.

Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought — to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.

Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: “It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being — but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss”. The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur — this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

Regensburg revisited: the Islamic response –By George Weigel
In mid–October, 38 Muslim leaders wrote an “Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI”, in response to the pope’s September lecture at Regensburg University and the international controversy that followed. This unprecedented letter could — just could — help move history in a more benign direction.

Understanding both what the Muslim leaders said and the need for further clarification (and action) on their part, is of the utmost importance. First, consider what they said.

Unlike those portside Catholic commentators who thought that the pope had been too abstractly theological at Regensburg, the Muslim leaders “applaud” the pope’s “efforts to oppose the dominance of positivism and materialism in human life” and they welcome the pope’s call for an intellectually serious encounter between Muslims and Christians.

They also accept, without cavil, the pope’s explanation that the condemnation of Islam by the medieval Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, which Benedict referenced in his lecture, cannot be taken to reflect the pope’s own views on the faith of Muslims.

The Muslim leaders also insist that the Qur’an’s injunction against “compulsion in religion” cannot be trumped by other Islamic texts. Thus they reject contemporary jihadists’ interpretations of jihad as an obligatory holy war of conquest, to be waged against all infidels until Allah’s sovereignty is acknowledged by the entire world.

Who else but the jihadists could the 38 signatories have in mind when they write that: “If some have disregarded a long and well–established tradition in favor of utopian dreams where the end justifies the means, they have done so of their own accord and without the sanction of God, his Prophet, or the learned tradition”? In this context, the signatories “totally condemn” the murder of a nun in Somalia in reaction to the Regensburg lecture.

The signatories go on to invite the pope (and, by extension, the Church) to a serious theological dialogue on the transcendence of God and on the relationship of God’s nature and attributes to human categories of understanding.

They also suggest that, in the mainstream Islamic tradition, God cannot command the irrational (like the murder of innocents) — another crucial point in the ongoing contest with those jihadists whom Canadian commentator David Warren aptly styles as “postmodern psychopaths…trying to reconstruct the conditions of 7th–century Arabia”. There are historical questions to be engaged in debating the signatories’ assertion that the rapid spread of Islam in its first centuries was primarily “political”.

Still, it is not without significance that the Muslim leaders close their letter by appealing to “what is common in essence in our two Abrahamic traditions”, the two great commandments as proclaimed in Mark’s Gospel: love of God without reservation and love of neighbour as oneself. What, then, needs further clarification?

It would have been helpful had this letter acknowledged the psychotic anti–Semitism that infects too much of the Islamic world today; an Islam in genuine dialogue with Christianity cannot but be in dialogue with Christianity’s parent, Judaism, as well.

The Muslim leaders’ letter tends to treat contemporary jihadism as almost a peripheral phenomenon: “…some [who] have disregarded a long and well–established tradition” seems a rather anodyne description of those jihadists whose radical interpretations of the Qur’an, often reflecting the teachings of the Wahhabi sect, are the most dynamic force in the Islamic world today.

Nor does the letter address the grave problem of Shia Islamic apocalypticism, as embodied by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his evident belief that he can accelerate the coming of the messianic age by means of nuclear holocaust.

Apart from two important figures (Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, head of the al–Azhar University in Cairo, and Sheikh Yusuf al–Qardawi, an influential jurist), the 38 signatories represent the A-list of international Islamic authorities. They now face a large question of action: how willing are they to challenge, discipline, and, if needs be, dramatically marginalize the jihadists who preach and commit murder “without the sanction of God, his Prophet, or the learned tradition”?

Each day’s headlines remind us that that crucial question remains to be answered. But it is now in play, globally. The world can thank Pope Benedict XVI for that.

Another Weigel Comment:

The premier example of this (Benedict XVI’s boldness) was his Regensburg lecture of September 2006 in Germany, widely criticized at the time as offensive to Islamic sensibilities. That lecture, in fact, has shifted both the course of inter-religious dialogue and the internal dynamics of the intra-Islamic debate, precisely as I believe Benedict XVI intended it to do. It has shifted the course of the dialogue by setting in motion a process that has now led to the formation of a Catholic-Muslim forum that will meet twice a year, once in Amman, Jordan, once in Rome, and that will focus its attention on the issues that Benedict XVI has put on the agenda – namely, religious freedom as the first of human rights and a right that can be known by reason, and secondly, the imperative of separating spiritual and political authority in a justly governed state.

There have been attempts from parts of the Islamic world to deflect the conversation off of these two issues, which Benedict regards as at the very heart of inter-religious dialogue, and indeed the Islamic encounter with the modern world, and he refuses to budge. He very calmly and quietly brings the conversation back to these two points, which obviously have a great resonance here in the United States.

In terms of shifting the dialogue, I would also point to the recent initiative by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who proposes to gather in his country a new forum of dialogue among the monotheistic religions, and the Vatican’s reported negotiations, about which John might have some more to say later, with the Saudi government over the unthinkable, or the hitherto unthinkable, namely the building of a Catholic church in Saudi Arabia.

Now, those with vested interests in the status quo of inter-religious dialogue have missed virtually all of this, just as many people missed the impact of John Paul II when he went to Poland for the first time in June 1979. We all get it wrong sometimes; few have gotten it as comprehensively wrong as the editors of The New York Times in June ’79, who famously wrote on that last day of the pope’s visit: However wonderful this may have been for the people of Poland, if there is one thing certain, it is that this will have no political impact on the future of Central and Eastern Europe. Wrong, wrong, manifestly wrong.

I think we may, 20 years from now, 25 years from now, look back on the Regensburg lecture as a similar kind of moment that many missed because we were stuck in the grooves of conventional thinking about how inter-religious dialogue ought to operate and could not see the point of a direct, if respectful, challenge that reshuffled the variables and created the possibility of a new and deeper conversation. I believe the pope is going to come back at the U.N. to the themes of Regensburg, namely the relationship of faith and reason in the 21st century world, perhaps stressing at the U.N., again, the two substantive points at Regensburg – namely, that faith detached from reason is a danger, both to people of faith and to the world, and that a loss of faith in reason, a belief that we are incapable of knowing the truth of anything, is equally dangerous for the world.


Judaism, Christianity and Islam

May 11, 2010

George Weigel continues today with a reflection on the three great Faiths that emerged from the Middle East and their highly problematical relationships to each other. This is a very real reflection on the differences between us and gives a more accurate portrayal of what our present looks like. Obfuscating the past as the PC left seems to have a knack of doing, leaves us confused and unable to answer how our world came about. Read this and Jihad doesn’t seem so incomprehensible anymore.

To speak of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the “three Abrahamic faiths,” the “three religions of the Book,” or the “three monotheisms” obscures rather than illuminates. These familiar tropes ought to be retired.

There are, of course, some obvious truths here. Viewed from the perspective of Buddhism, Hinduism, or Shinto, the faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, while clearly “other,” exhibit many ‘Familial” characteristics that may seem to make them cousins of sorts. Moreover, and more important in terms of their own self-understanding, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their origins to the self-revelation of the one, true God to Abraham. What has emerged from that common point of origin is, however, decisively different — especially with regard to Islam.

In recent years, it has been frequently suggested that there is a relationship between Christianity and Islam that is analogous—some would say, virtually identical — to what Rabbi David Novak has called the “common border” between Judaism and Christianity. Islamic regard for Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Mary is often cited as an example of this alleged affinity. Yet as the eminent French scholar Alain Besançon has pointed out:

The Abraham of Genesis is not the Ibrahim of the Qur’an; Moses is not Moussa. As for Jesus, he appears, as Issa, out of place and out of time, without reference to the landscape of Israel. His mother, Mary, or Mariam, identified as the sister of Aaron, gives birth to him under a palm tree. Then Issa performs several miracles, which seem to have been drawn from the apocryphal gospels, and announces the future coming of Muhammad.

Jesus is indeed granted a position of honor in the Qur’an, but this Jesus is not the Jesus in whom Christians proclaim their faith. The Jesus/Issa of the Qur’an promulgates the same message as the earlier prophets — Adam, Abraham, Lot, and the rest. Indeed, all possess the same knowledge and proclaim the same message, which is Islam. Like the rest, Issa is sent to preach the oneness of God. He is emphatically no Trinitarian, not an “associator”; “do not say Three,” he protests. Nor is he the son of God, but a simple mortal. Nor is he a mediator between earthly men and their heavenly Father, because Islam knows not the concept of mediation. Nor, since in Islam it is unimaginable that a messenger of God can be vanquished, does he die on the cross; a double is substituted for him.

Besançon’s reference to what appear to be Qur’anic borrowings from the apocryphal gospels raises, for a twenty-first-century audience, the question posed by St. John Damascene in the eighth century: that is, whether Islam ought to be understood, in terms of the history of religions, as a heretical offshoot of Christianity that came into being when defective Christologies (i.e., theologies of the nature, person, and mission of Christ) intersected with ideas culled from pre-Islamic Arabic tribal religions and off-brand forms of Judaism, all of which were then forged into a new religious system by the genius of Muhammad. But that is an argument for another time and place. So is wrestling with St Thomas Aquinas’s thirteenth-century refusal to concede a parallelism between Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other, which was based on Thomas’s conviction that Muhammad taught great falsehoods. Suffice it to say that Islam’s deep theological structure includes themes that render the notion of “three Abrahamic faiths” ultimately misleading in understanding Islam’s faith and practice — particularly if this trope is understood in the popular imagination as a matter of three equivalent legs propping up a single monotheistic stool.

Take, for example, the question of Islamic super-sessionism: Islam’s claim that it supersedes Judaism and Christianity, both of which are finally unveiled, in the revelation to Muhammad, as false (or, at best, deeply distorted) religions. This, of course, Christianity cannot accept, for it is a cardinal tenet of Christian doctrine that God’s self-revelation culminates in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ; no further revelation can be imagined. This bedrock Christian conviction — that God’s revelation has been completed in Christ, in the sense that nothing essential for the world’s salvation will be revealed after Christ — also helps identify another defect of the “three Abrahamic faiths” trope. In a Christian understanding of salvation history, Abraham is not only the great ancestor; he also points toward the fulfillment of God’s saving purposes, which will emerge from Abraham’s stock, the People of Israel — a fulfillment Christians believe God accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Abraham and Son of David. From a Christian point of view, Abraham cannot point beyond the fulfillment of the divine promise to Abraham: which is to say, Abraham cannot point toward a post-Christian revelation to Muhammad (or anyone else, for that matter). For Christians, in other words, the word “Abrahamic” does not designate merely origin and patrimony; it includes finality and destiny — Abraham points to what God intended for humanity by choosing Abraham, and that is the gift of God’s Son through the People of Israel. (To think “Abrahamic” solely in terms of origin also poses problems for Jewish self-understanding, but exploring that would take us too far afield here.)

Despite the super-sessionist claims that some Christians have made throughout history vis-à-vis Judaism, no orthodox Christian holds that God’s self-revelation in Christ negates God’s self-revelation in the history of the People of Israel. Islam, by contrast, takes a radically super-sessionist view of both Judaism and Christianity, claiming that the final revelation to Muhammad de facto trumps, by way of supersession, any prior revelatory value (so to speak) that might be found in the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament.

Thus Islamic super-sessionism has a built-in tendency to set in motion a dynamic of conflict with Judaism and Christianity that is not “required” vis-à-vis Islam by the deep theological structure of Judaism and Christianity — although, to be sure, Christians have taken an aggressive and bloody-minded posture toward Islam on many occasions over the past fourteen hundred years, an aggressiveness that has left deep resentments in the Islamic world and a historic burden of conscience among more thoughtful Christians. Nor should it be thought that Islamic super-sessionism necessarily requires violent conflict between Islam and “the rest,” although that is a face of itself that Islam has displayed throughout its history; and in the contemporary world, that face has led to what Samuel Huntington describes as Islam’s “bloody borders.”

Still, as Bernard Lewis writes, “Since its first emergence from Arabia in the seventh century, Islam has been in almost continuous conflict with Christendom, through the original Muslim conquests and the Christian reconquests, through jihad and crusade, the Turkish advance, and the European expansion. Though Islam has fought many wars on many frontiers, it was the wars against Christendom which were the longest and most devastating, and which came to loom in Muslim awareness as the great jihad par excellance. That Islamic super-sessionism was an important theological source of this “almost continuous conflict” need not be doubted, although other factors were obviously in play.

This super-sessionism, and the conflicts it has engendered, lead Lewis and others to suggest that we need a new reading of world history. It is striking to look through a standard reference work like the Times Atlas of World History and find so little on Islam, much less on the world-historical ebb and flow of Islam-versus-the-rest. Yet, Lewis suggests, that ebb and flow, underwritten by a certain understanding of Islamic super-sessionism, is one of the primary story lines of the last millennium and a half. To take but one example: We tend to think of the rise of European colonialism and imperialism as the product of intra-European economic, political, demographic, and religious dynamics — the quest for wealth; the Great Power game; the question of what to do with younger sons in an age of primogeniture; the missionary imperative. Lewis suggests that we see European expansion as some Muslims likely saw it: as a great flanking movement in response to Islamic advances into the continent of Europe:

When Vasco de Gama arrived in Calicut he explained that he had come “in search of Christians and spices.” It was a fair summary of the motives that had sent the Portuguese to Asia, as perhaps also, with appropriate adjustments, of the jihad to which the Portuguese voyages were a long-delayed reply. The sentiment of Christian struggle was strong among the Portuguese who sailed to the East. The great voyages of discovery were seen as a religious war, a continuation of the Crusades and of the Re-conquest, and against the same enemy. In eastern waters, it was Muslim rulers — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and India — who were the chief opponents of the Portuguese, and whose domination they ended. After the Portuguese came the other maritime peoples of the West, who together established a west European ascendancy in Africa and southern Asia that lasted until the twentieth century.

Or, as Lewis asks later in his narrative, were the Barbary pirates who so exercised Thomas Jefferson independent operators out for loot, as is suggested by the term “pirates”– and most of our history books? Or are they more accurately understood, in a long view of history, as “privateers” in the ongoing jihad against Christendom, engaging in a maritime form of asymmetrical warfare against the first frigates of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps at a time when Muslim power was in retreat?

Islamic super-sessionism is one of the theological ideas that distinguishes Islam from Judaism and Christianity in an important way. It is also an idea that has had profound consequences in history. When an Ottoman Muslim historian referred to the Poles who had come to the rescue of Vienna in 1683 as “the people of hell,” he was drawing on one powerful strand of a tradition of religious thought that dated back a millennium — even as he foreshadowed Osama bin Laden.

Islam is further distinguished by its understanding of the nature of its sacred text, the Qur’an, an understanding that further illustrates the deficiencies of the “three monotheistic religions” trope. The English-speaking world owes a great deal, culturally, to the Authorized or King James version of the Bible, whose imprint can he found as far from King James’s committee as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Yet that debt is minimal compared to the debt that Islam, and Islamic culture, owe to the Qur’an. As one Muslim translator puts it”

The Qur’an was the starting point for all the Islamic sciences: Arabic grammar was developed to serve the Qur’an, the study of Arabic phonetics was pursued in order to determine the exact pronunciation of Qur’anic words, the science of Arabic rhetoric was developed in order to describe the features of the inimitable style of the Qur’an, the art of Arabic calligraphy was cultivated through writing down the Qur’an, the Qur’an is the basis of Islamic law and theology; indeed, as the celebrated fifteenth-century scholar and author Suyuti said, “Everything is based on the Qur’an.” The entire religious life of the Muslim world is built around the text of the Qur’an.

The Qur’an is, then, one of the most influential books in the history of humanity. Yet it is Islam’s understanding of the Qur’an’s origins that further sets Islam in contrast to Judaism and Christianity. For the origin of the Qur’an, as Muslims understand it, is not analogous to the origin of the Bible, according to Judaism and Christianity. That distinction about origins leads to a different understanding of the nature of the sacred text, and thence to further differences.

One prominent Christian understanding of biblical inspiration was expressed by the bishops of the Catholic Church gathered in the Second Vatican Council In these terms: “The divinely revealed real­ities, which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To compose the sa­cred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.”

That Christian theological understanding of “inspiration” — which would not be foreign to Judaism — provides for the possibility of the interpretation of sacred texts, and indeed for the development of doctrine in light of an evolving understanding of the full meaning of Scripture. The Qur’an, by contrast, is understood by Muslims to be dictated, word for word and syllable for syllable, so that there is no question of “exegesis,” as Jews and Christians would use the term; nor is there any pos­sibility of a post-scriptural development of doctrine. The priority in Islam is on jurisprudence, the debate of experts in Islamic law on the applicability of texts to circumstances (for example, in the issuing of a fatwa).

The Bible is a moral teacher that calls faithful Jews and Christians to use their reason in under­standing the meaning and import of its moral teach­ing, including the commandments; Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, many of the prophets, and Jesus himself wrestle with the meaning of God’s purposes and commands in the Old and New Testaments. Islam’s holy book, by contrast, is described by an influential Egyptian Islamic activist in these terms: “The Qur’an for mankind is like a manual for a machine.” Reverence for the Qur’an has produced some of the most beautiful calligraphy the world has ever seen. The Islamic understanding of the Qur’an as dictated does not, however, lend itself easily to other kinds of beauty: the beauty of spiritual and moral wrestling with the meaning of sacred text, and the beauty of insight that comes from that wrestling.

Alain Besançon takes us even further into the heart of the matter when he draws yet another important theological distinction between Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other:

Although Muslims like to enumerate the 99 names of God, missing from the list, but central to the Jewish and even more so to the Christian concept of God, is “Father” — i.e., a personal God capable of a reciprocal and loving relationship with men. The one God of the Qur’an, the God who demands submission, is a distant God; to call him “Father” would be an anthropomorphic sacrilege. The Muslim God is utterly impassive; to ascribe loving feeling to Him would be suspect If God is not “Father,” then it is difficult to imagine the human person as having been made “in the image of God.” And that, in turn, puts great strain on any idea of an intimacy between faith and reason. In Judaism and Christianity, men and women are bound to God in many ways, including speech and argument. To take the primal example: in Genesis, God “speaks” forth his creation; Adam’s speech, by which he names the animals, gives the primordial man his first hint of his distinctive status in creation and of his distinctive relationship to the creator. In Islam, by contrast, participation in the Creator’s creative work is not a characteristic of the human-divine relationship, which is defined by submission to the majesty of God, who neither begets nor is begotten (as the inscriptions inside the magnificent Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem remind the visitor or pilgrim). According to Islam, the Jewish and Christian understanding of God limits God’s omnipotence.

Thus, from a theological point of view, Islam is “other” in relationship to Christianity and Judaism in a way that Christianity and Judaism cannot be to one another. These theological differences help explain the dramatically different stance that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam take toward conversions from their communities. Jews mourn the conversion of a Jew to Christianity, as Christians mourn the conversion of one of their number to Judaism. But this is mourning within the family, as it were: the Jewish convert to Christianity is understood to have prematurely Identified the Messiah for whose coming both Jews and Christians long; the Christian convert to Judaism is thought to have misunderstood the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in Jesus Christ The Muslim convert to Judaism or Christianity is, by contrast, liable at least in principle to death.

The late Pope John Paul II, whom much of the world recognized as an apostle of genuine interreligious dialogue, recognized this difference. In one of his most personal statements, the international bestseller Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul (so often contrasted since April 2005 with his “hardline” successor) expressed his admiration for “the religiosity of Muslims” and his admiration for their “fidelity to prayer:’ As he put it, “The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all!” But prior to this, John Paul II had cut to the core theological issue:

Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Qur’an, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament ment through His Son, In Islam, all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.

Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Qur’an, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.

Islamic theological anthropology — Islam’s theologically driven concept of the human person — yields, in turn, a view of the just society that seems to be different from that of Judaism and Christianity. Islamic theological anthropology is one root of what Efraim Karsh has termed “the fusion of religious and temporal authority” in Islam, a fusion that is not peripheral to Islamic self-understanding. That fusion has, in. turn, led to what Karsh calls “Islam’s millenarian imperial experience” — and, one might add, the millenarian political expectations of some Muslims today; Islamic theological anthropology also helps explain Islam’s traditional division of the human world into the “House of Islam,” the “God-hallowed realm” that embodies God’s purposes on earth, and the “House of War,” which is composed of all those who have not yet submitted to Allah and his Prophet From there, it is but a short step to the Muslim conviction that, as Bernard Lewis writes, “The Islamic state [is] the only truly legitimate power on earth and the Islamic community the sole repository of truth and enlightenment, surrounded on all sides by an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief.”

That theological anthropology, and the fusion of religious and temporal authority to which it leads, is also one of the roots of Islam’s difficulties in creating the cultural conditions for the possibility of social pluralism, which sociologist Peter Berger defines as “the coexistence in civic peace of different racial, ethnic, and religious groups, with social interaction between them” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine genuine pluralism – “creeds intelligibly in conflict,” as John Courtney Murray describes it, or the engagement of differences within the bond of civility, to cite Richard John Neuhaus’s formula — in a classic Islamic conception of the just society. For in the just society as classic Islam envisions it, even the “peoples of the Book,” those Jews and Christians who are putatively the other two legs on the monotheistic stool, are second-class citizens: dhimmis, whose social, economic, and political circumstances eventually deteriorate to the point where conversion becomes a means of survival.

Islam’s concept of the just society was also deeply influenced by its foundational historical experience. As Bernard Lewis puts it, “The Founder of Islam was his own Constantine, and founded his own state and empire. He did not therefore create — or need to create — a church. The dichotomy of regnum and sacerdotium, so crucial in the history of Western Christendom, had no equivalent in Islam.” In the English-speaking world, we often think of Magna Carta — the enforcement of limitations on autocratic royal power by the nobility of England — as the starting point for what would evolve into western liberties. Yet a strong case can be made that the more decisive moment took place in 1076, 139 years before King John conceded to the English barons. For when Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the emperor Henry IV and set in motion a process that confirmed the independence of the Catholic Church from the power of the state in the ordering of the Church’s internal affairs, he set firmly in the cultural subsoil of the West a distinction between political and priestly power. Why was that “dichotomy” of regnum and sacerdotium, political power and spiritual authority, so crucial in the history of the West? Because, by putting limits on political power, it created conditions for the possibility of the social pluralism of the medieval world, which in turn shaped the public terrain from which democracy eventually grew.

It goes — or should go — without saying that Islam has, over the centuries, given meaning and purpose to hundreds of millions of lives that have been nobly and decently lived. Islam has given the world architectural and decorative beauty, magnificent poetry, a lived experience of racial comity that puts a lot of the rest of the world to shame, important philosophers, a profound mystical tradition, and much, much more. Yet it is also true that, throughout the world today, Islam is in the midst of what Alain Besançon aptly describes as “a long-delayed, wrenching, and still far from accomplished encounter with modernity.” That struggle with modernity created, as we shall see in a moment, a struggle within Islam, an intra-Islamic civil war. When that struggle spilled out from the House of Islam, it became one of the defining dynamics of the history of our time — and eventually left a great gash in the ground in lower Manhattan.

The Islamic encounter with modernity has been so wrenching — and so volatile — because it intensified, even as it reflected, certain problems built deep into the theological structure of Islam from the beginning. That, in turn, led to patterns of confrontation that seem, at the moment, qualitatively different from the strained relationship between Christianity and modernity in the early phase of their encounter. In fact, and despite the conflicts of the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution in Europe, Christianity’s convictions about the rationality built into the world by the world’s creator were one Important source of “modernity,” if by that term we mean the scientific method, historical-critical study of ancient texts, and government by the arts of persuasion, to take but three examples. Are there, in Islam’s theological self-understanding, themes analogous to Christianity’s theologically driven convictions about the rationality of the world, themes that could, over time, make Islam’s encounter with modernity fruitful for both Islam and for the modem world? The answer to that question will play a large role in shaping the course of the human future. Whether Islam can evolve into a religion capable of providing religious warrants for genuine pluralism is — to take the most immediately urgent issue — one of the great questions on which the future of the twenty-first century will turn.

That question engages both Islam’s distinctive history and questions of theological anthropology deeply embedded in the structure of Islamic self-understanding. Those questions further underscore the disutility of the idea of the “three Abrahamic faiths” — a notion invented by twentieth-century intellectuals, not an idea with any deep roots in Islamic (or Christian, or Jewish) thought.


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