Those Who Take Their Theology Seriously Continued

by The New Republic Staff | September 15, 2006

by Jacob T. Levy

Sandy drew our attention to John Nehaus' reflections on whether Mormonism is a form of Christianity or not. Insofar as that's a discussion within and between two theological traditions that center on the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, I lack either a stake in the discussion or, in some sense, the right knowledge base with which to comment on it. I can tell you something about the intellectual history of the Nicene Creed and what it meant to the development of Christianity; but what do I know about whether subscribing to it is a necessary mark of being a "true" Christian? But I confess to often having some sympathy for non-ecumenicists and those who draw distinctions. I don't expect Catholics to take their theology any less seriously than Mormons take theirs; and one theology excludes the other. It seems to me that if religion is meaningful it's serious business; if one is committed to divine truths then one is committed to the falsehood of rival claims. By my human standards "No man comes unto the father but through Me" is a terrible way to run a universe; but if there is a God I have no reason to think that His rules will conform to my contingent, twenty-first-century Western liberal human standards. And so I don't expect religious believers to softpedal the exclusionary implications of their beliefs. I don't think Unitarian Universalism is somehow a better religion than Catholicism or Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism just because its god seems to be so nice and inclusive; indeed, my sympathies for the aesthetic and moral-psychological experience of religious belief tends to run the other way. This is a bit like the stance of many American lapsed Catholcic or many Israeli secular Jews, I incline to say, "I don't believe in God, but the God in whom I don't believe is a serious one!" But I don't quite mean that. Rather, I want to say that if there is a point to religion and theology, then that point is undermined by the reluctance to draw distinctions and take them seriously. And so: Pope Benedict XVI and Islam. Now Benedict is a drawer of distinctions par excellence, and the views I expressed above have always left me a bit sympathetic to him despite the protestations of some fine and theologically serious Jesuit-educated friends of mine. For a religious leader to want a smaller, purer church rather than a larger one that gets watered down so as to not effectively constrain its believers seems to me, well, like what religious leaders ought to want. That as may be, surely religious believers are in the business of drawing distinctions with, and denying the truth of, other religions. When Benedict said, in a lecture on the relationship between faith and reason,

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (M√ľnster) 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. It was probably 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 the responses of the learned Persian. 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 of the three Laws: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an. In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself - 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 ["controversy"] edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: There is no compulsion in religion. It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threaten. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without decending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: "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." The emperor 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 is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably 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. 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 Hazn 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 practise idolatry.
He did not endorse Paleologus' statement. And the lecture as a whole is not about violence, the subject of the second paragraph quoted, but rather about the dispute in the last paragraph quoted: the relationship between reason and man's understanding of God.* When he quoted Paleologus, it was only after noting one of the key countervailing sources in Islamic thought. So there is something absurd about the outrage being stoked--more absurd, I think, than the outrage over the Danish editorial cartoons. That those paragraphs make Benedict someone who "is going down in history in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini" is hardly to be credited. No matter how politically serious the responses from the Muslim world, there is something morally unserious about many of them--a demand to unsay what was not said, an expectation to be immunce from criticism, and (again) an insistence that non-Muslims act with the same reverence toward Mohammed that is religiously demanded of Muslims themselves. Still if those paragraphs had been spoken by, say, President Bush (hard as it is to imagine him reading fourteenth-century theological dialogues!) I'd say: this was impolitic and stupid and ought to be apologized for; the world can't afford for the leaders of western states to venture anywhere near the line of criticizing Mohammed, linking Islam's religious content (as opposed to the political manifestations of Islamism) with violence, or characterizing Islam as such as evil. No "Operation Infinite Justice," no offhand references to crusades, no "evil and inhuman," no "our god is bigger than their god" talk--none of it. Western political leaders now have an obligation born of prudence to go far, far beyond what's required as a matter of civility. But, surely, the same is not true of a religious leader. I don't expect Catholics to take their theology less seriously than Muslims do; I certainly don't expect the Pope to take his theology anything less than wholly seriously. And what is a Catholic, committed to the truth of Catholicism, to think of Mohammed's additions to and transformations of the Christian bible? What is a theologically serious Catholic to think about "what Mohammed brought that was new"? At a minimum he or she will think it false--and, because false, evil in distracting religious believers from an all-important truth. And, since Mohammed's additions were not limited to a different understanding of Jesus and Mary but also included different understandings of conduct on earth, of government and laws and codes of behavior, the theologically-serious believing Catholic can be expected to think that the additions are morally bad for persons on earth, independent of the falsehood of the claims about God. And, since Christians (and Jews) are theologically committed to seeing Mohammed as a false prophet, they're hardly likely to feel themselves obliged to offer him the same respect and reverence as those for whom Mohammed's status as a prophet is central to their declaration of faith do. Neither do I expect Muslim clerics to take their theology less than seriously, or to pay those who stand in the apostolic succession the same respect that believing Catholics do! And I would find it very odd, a category mistake, for the Pope to insist on apologies from every Muslim cleric who describes Christianity or Catholicism as false, evil, or likely to lead humans into sin. '"The Pope of the Vatican joins in the Zionist-American alliance against Islam," said the leading Moroccan daily Attajdid, the main Islamist newspaper in the kingdom.' Isn't this backward? It should be (must be!) controversial to think that Israel or America is "against" Islam as such; it should not be controversial to think that the Pope is. If the governments of the US and Israel were "against Islam," then it would be the case that they should stop being so--it would be the case that they'd mistaken their obligations for those of a Pope or rabbi. But that a Pope is "against Islam" is no more to be apologized for than that he is "against Judaism"--and, while it's very important and desirable that the Church has renounced the doctrine of eternal collective guilt of "the Jews" for Jesus' death, Catholicism is certainly committed to the view that Judaism gets things theologically wrong. ("Incomplete" is the euphemism, but the Christian view of the transformative importance of the incarnation, death, and resurrection makes that an inadequate word.) In the post-Reformation west we've come to the view that religious argument ought to be conducted with words, not swords. But that is very different from supposing that the words in which religious argument is conducted ought to be nice touchy-feely ones--much less from supposing that religious argument ought not to take place at all. We ought to expect governments--the American government and the Israeli government, but also the Turkish government and the Pakistani government--to stay out of religious argument proper. But we ought to expect a religious leader to be willing (pace Frost on liberals) to take his or her own side in that argument. *(And therefore, in religious substance, the speech is a much more serious attack on various kinds of Protestantism, including the President's, than it is on Islam; the status of reason and philosophy in Islam is complicated and contested, whereas in the personal-revelation brands of Protestantism it's pretty much dismissed.)

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