Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Give Them Enough Pope

[posted by Callimachus]

In my dissipated youth I had a friend who collected Catholic theology jokes. I was able to add only a few minor gems to his Smithsonian of sacrilege, but one of them was a story Hume told of a new non-European convert to Christianity.

He had been taught all the dogmas of the faith and accepted baptism and been given his first sacrament. The next day, the priest approached Benedict, for this was his new name, and grilled him again in the basics, to see if they had stuck.

Priest: How many gods are there?

Benedict: None.

Priest: How now? None!

Benedict: Yes. You told me there only was one god. And yesterday I eat him.

I don't have to go out very far into blogland to know I'll meet many "Benedicts" of the joke writing about Benedict the pope and his speech last week. Not one in a thousand who are commenting on it actually read the furshlugginer speech or attempted more than a superficial understanding of it. They are content to let the "New York Times" tell them what the Pope said and meant. Big mistake.

On the Muslim side, comments on the thread of the al Jazeera article are enlightening, and depressing. Here are photos and a description of a protest outside a Catholic church in Britain.

The delicious paradox of "We will kill you for saying we are violent" has been noted. I also see people who demand respect for their religion reacting by disrespecting others' faiths. It makes me wonder whether the respect they seek is the respect of a peer for a peer or that of a subordinate for a master.

The Pope is raising an interesting question here: Whether reason ought to have a part in religion. Shortly after the "offensive" passage he sets the dialogue in the context of his big question:

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 practice idolatry.

He eventually will reverse the terms of the question and assert emphatically that religion has a role in reason.

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 verifiable, 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.

Of course to introduce this idea he picks Manuel II Paleologus -- a Byzantine emperor, "shaped by Greek philosophy" -- and not a Catholic theologian. If he had wanted to make an official slam against Islam he easily could have picked a relevant quote from something within the dogma of the Church. Everyone seems to have overlooked this detail. The Pope quoting a "non-Catholic" Greek in a university speech is about as dogmatic as would be his quoting Louis Armstrong.

Meanwhile many bloggers will confuse the historical realities of Christianity and Islam, as human constructions, with their natures as revealed religions. As a skeptic of both, damned by both, perhaps I can be of some help.

* * *

So, even if it wasn't the Pope's point, what about this "spreading religion by the sword" business? Are both faiths equally guilty of it, as some would say?

Christians found an empire in place and captured control of it. From that perch they could take their time making the change. At times they employed the same state violence against the polytheists that the Roman state had employed against the Christians a few generations earlier.

But they also had the luxury of letting the influence of power, combined with priestly persuasion, sincere conversions, and the persuasive influence of miracle stories, do their work on the people. Any individual conversion of a Roman citizen to Christianity is likely to have had many aspects. But awareness of the social and material benefits of joining the dominant religion certainly played a role in many of them.

The fall of the Empire which soon followed the conversion brought on a new crisis, but the Christians generally were able to bring in the new barbarian warlords by making Christianity part of the package deal of Roman-ity, along with law, order, competent bureaucracy, technological efficiency, and writing.

Again, once you had the bosses in the faith, the people inevitably would follow. The same pattern prevailed when the Church expanded out of its Roman Empire geographical base into Northern Europe. Bring in the kings and queens by the power-and-wealth lure of dynastic marriages, then once you have your foot in the door, and the power of the government behind you, work on the people.

In many cases they exploited a systemic weakness in the resistance of polytheism to monotheistic virus: By allowing the pagans to accept the new god at first as one among many, as they had been accustomed to embracing new gods before, the Christians got a foot in the temple, where they soon expelled all the "idols."

The priests of the old faith could be an impediment, as could the women who held high roles as healers and teachers and workers of magic. And they often paid for it with their lives. In some cases, as in Ireland, much of the priestly class made such a smooth transition to the same role in the new faith it was not entirely clear who had converted whom. But a people that clung to its polytheism (often for nationalistic reasons), such as the Saxons or the Lithuanians, might be subject to large-scale violence -- the sword of the metaphor.

Islam came up in a different world, from a lowlier origin. Arabs were the outsiders, the equivalent of the Goths who overran Rome. There was no Rome for them, but a fragmented, overlay of ancient civilization. In bringing their control over these technologically superior but generally decadent lands, the Muslims from the desert fought bloody military campaigns. Religious rigor helped them avoid the typical fate of a conqueror of a larger, older civilization, of being absorbed into it. Often the Muslims imposed harsh terms on the defeated, and polytheists always risked the sword.

But Muslim leaders also often made generous use of the concepts like "People of the Book" that allowed them to leave other faiths intact, if subordinate. In fact, whereas adherence to accepted forms of Christianity was the sole path to power and influence in the European kingdoms, high-ranking officials in Muslim nations often were Christians or Jews. It always is worth remembering that, until the 20th century, a monotheistic religious minority was more likely to flourish under Muslim rule than under European Christian.

Having drawn the faiths here as similarly as possible, stark differences yet remain. To me, the most stark is in the instruction of the founders of the two religions. Jesus apparently never issued battlefield orders or made violence and warfare central to his message. On the surface reading of the Quran -- the only kind I am qualified to give it -- Muhammad did. On the one hand, I can understand this in the context of the time and place he lived. But now Islam is stuck with it. Like Christianity is stuck with some of the thornier quotes of Paul about women. Faiths cannot be amended, like political constitutions.

* * *

Characteristically, in the joke I told at the start of this post, Hume made "Benedict" originally "Mustafa," a Turkish Muslim. The joke makes better sense if Benedict had been a polytheist first, not a Muslim, who certainly would have had a purer sense of "one god" than a Catholic.

But to Hume and his audience, Islam was the "other" religion most available to them (Judaism was encumbered, for the purpose, by its presumed role as the root of Christianity). Europeans knew the Turks, the Saracens, as neighbors and they understood a little of their beliefs.

Thus Hume, in his "Natural History of Religion," frequently criticized Islam when he really meant to criticize Christianity. The follies of the faithful he attacked were ones central to Christianity, yet he pointed them out as fallacies of Muhammad, in whose doctrine they often formed a minor or negligible aspect. This Islamic straw man was Hume's politic approach to the topic in a time when a direct attack on Christian fundamentals could have robbed him of his audience.

Perhaps Benedict, the pope, was acting in the same spirit.

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