GIVE THEM ENOUGH POPE

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.


--You behold in me, Stephen said with grim displeasure, a horrible example of free thought.
Even if it wasn't the Pope's point, what about "spreading religion by the sword?" Are both faiths equally guilty of it, as some say?

Religions inevitably sweep up the realities of their time and place of origin, and can't ever be purged of them. Whether they spring from human genius, madman intensity, or the stroke of a god, they spout like geysers in the sand in some unlikely place. But the salt and taste of that sand always is in whatever streams flow from the source.

Christianity seems to me to be unalterably the religion of a brilliant subject people on the fringe of a powerful empire. Jesus happened to live in a time when Roman might so dominated the world that only suicidal fanatics would oppose it in open warfare. There were such insurgents among the Israelites of his day, and my secular historical view says that his modification of Judaism survived, and theirs didn't, because he turned from violent struggle, as from the outer world. That is why Christianity has had its wonderful pacifist quality, its spiritualism. Nietzsche famously sneered at it as a religion fit for slaves. I have no idea what he entirely meant by that. But it is partly true, in that it is a religion crafted for people who do not typically wield might in the world.

Which, perversely, has been the crisis and challenge of Christianity since the 5th century, when it did become Rome. And with much difficulty and gore it has evolved into a set of sects that strives to balance the power of Caesar and the humility of Christ (with the irksomeness of Martha thrown in for good measure), more often than not to the benefit of itself and humanity. As a non-believer, I'd rather live among Christians than some other religions I might name. People who decry Americans' piety ought to stop and think what we'd be like without it.

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. 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.

Philip Carl Salzman, a Canadian professor of anthropology, has a book on it, titled "Culture and Conflict in the Middle East." Like him, I see Muhammad as a political genius and social reformer whose work in uniting and civilizing the Arabian people was almost miraculous. I'm not sure my conclusions about it are the same as Salzman's, but he knows more about it than I do:

Just as [Muhammad] had provided a constitution of rules under which the people of Medina could live together, so he provided a constitution for all Arabs, but this one had the imprimatur not just of Muhammad, but of God. Submission -- Islam -- to God and His rules, spelled out in the Koran, bound Arabian tribesmen into the community of believers, the umma.

... Muhammad was able to frame an inclusive structure within which the tribes had a common, God-given identity as Muslims. But unification was only possible by creating a tribalized enemy against which Muslims could make common cause. This Muhammad did by opposing Muslims against infidels; and the dar al-Islam, the land of Islam and peace, against the dar al-harb, the land of infidels and conflict. Through the precepts of Islam, traditional Bedouin raiding was sanctified as an act of religious duty.

[That, of course, is an infidel's view. To treat religion as an outgrowth of human realities is not necessarily to deny the divinity at the root of it, or the reaching into the light. But it strips religions of their pretence to be the exact thing ordained.]

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.

"Islam was born in an extremely harsh and violent environment and received a very hostile and aggressively violent reaction from the tribes of seventh century Arabia. The first Muslims had to fight for survival until Islam prevailed throughout Arabia by the time of the death of the Prophet. The preexisting norms of intertribal relations were heavily, if not completely, dependent on the use or threat of violent force by the claimant of any right, even the right to exist." [Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im] As a result, even though the Shari'a introduced controls on violence and tribalism that were progressive for that time and place, the Quran repeatedly enjoins Muslims to support each other, disassociate themselves from non-Muslims, and fight unbelievers "and slay them wherever you catch them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem" [9:5] unless they submit to Islam.

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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© September 19, 2006 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"