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In hac lacrimarum valle (2001-2002)
December 25, 2002
Last year, I said most of what I have to say about Christmas. Nothing has changed since then. Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us every one.
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December 18, 2002
One needn't be a wall-between-church-and-state fanatic to agree that the government ought not to subsidize religious proselytization. Liberals are so firmly convinced of that truth that they object even to underwriting the humanitarian and educational endeavors of religious organizations, lest the soup ladled out to the poor be spiced with an unseemly dose of faith. One presumes that there would be howls of outrage from People for the American Way, the Washington Post and a chorus of Democratic politicians if public money were used to fund a pious, uncritical account of the life of Jesus, one that accepted every word of the Gospels as, well, gospel and lauded Christianity as a religion of peace and enlightenment.
Yet tonight the Public Broadcasting Service presents an equivalent hagiography of Mohammed, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (your tax dollars at work), and what does the Washington Post have to say about it? "Enjoyable and informative."
In a column in yesterday's New York Post ("PBS, Recruiting for Islam"), Daniel Pipes described the two-hour pseudo-documentary "Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet". Lest anyone think that Dr. Pipes has selected only bits from the show that support his thesis, the full script is available as a PDF file [121 KB]. In 61 pages of text, it presents a picture of early Islamic history that barely rises to the Sunday school level. The audience is assured early on that the narrative of Mohammed's life is based on ascertainable fact. John Voll, Professor of Islamic History at Georgetown University, states:
The life of MUHAMMAD is even in its details probably better known than any other major religious figure before modern times. His followers made careful efforts to record memories that they had of things that he had said, and things that he had done. Many of these traditions may have been made up later on, but at the core there seems to me to be little reason to doubt that there is a picture and a portrait of a living man.
In his capacity as a scholar, Professor Voll is of course aware that the earliest biography of the Prophet was compiled over a century after his death and is only partially extant in its original form. (I have discussed some of the problems of early Moslem history elsewhere.) It is conceivable that there is an accurate core beneath a hundred years' overlay of mythmaking, but more than a "little reason" to be skeptical. Any PBS documentary about Jesus would (indeed, as Dr. Pipes notes, at least one has) point to the lapse of time between Our Lord's death and the writing of the Gospels as good reason to doubt the accuracy of the traditional story of His life. But that interval is, on the most skeptical view, considerably shorter than the gap between Mohammed (d. 632) and Ibn Ishaq (c. 704-767).
The program's narrative follows the traditional sira, but with a few surprises that are not surprising if the goal is to display Islam in the best possible light. Its version of Mohammed is a rather up-to-date, humanistic figure, with scarcely a hint of narrow-minded fanaticism. As one participant in the discussion puts it,
Prophet Muhammad, he asked the question to people around him, do you love your creator? Serve your fellow man first. What does that tell you? It tells you, forget about all this intellectual, yeah, I love God and this and that. If you're gonna, you know, forget about talking the talk, walk the walk. You want to serve God, serve people. What more noble way to serve people than to risk your own life to save them.
He was also, we are told, “troubled by the problems of Meccan society”:
Within a few generations, they had gone from this kind of brutal existence in the Arabian Steppes, to becoming financiers, bankers, businessmen, merchants, with a lot of money. And this was great, of course, and people were delighted. But it was a very disturbing time because the market economy demanded, as we know only too well in the West, a strong competitive streak. People no longer felt that they had to take care of the poor and the needy. And the weaker members of Quraysh any longer. They had to make as much money at they possibly could.
* * * *
[Mohammed] was coming to warn the people of Mecca and the surrounding countryside and his own tribe of Quraysh that unless they pulled themselves together and started creating a more just and decent society, restoring the old tribal values of looking after the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed, then there was going to be a terrible catastrophe. . . . He was bringing a moral, ethical, social message to his people. That we're all in the same boat before God and we must treat each other well with compassion and justice, and equity.
* * * *
He tells them to be good to each other, and not to violate each other's rights. For men and women to treat each other humanely, for brothers and sisters to treat each other well, and for Muslims to treat each other as brothers and sisters. And perhaps most importantly, he calls an end to revenge, to blood killing, to the vendetta which has bled this culture terribly since he was born.
The Prophet who preached absolute submission to the will of Allah thus becomes primarily a social and political reformer, very much in the tradition of Christian socialism. That he was also a military chieftain is not ignored but is played down. Only a couple of his approximately 80 battles (only one of them defensive) are mentioned and none of his conquests except the occupation (largely peaceful in this account) of Mecca. The anodyne explanation for the expansion of Mohammed’s domain is --
When the other tribes of the peninsula saw the impotence of Mecca, with all its power and might against this little community, they began to switch allegiance and see that Muhammad was the coming man. Now once that happened, once the tide had been turned, after the battle of the trench, and the Muslims were no longer subject to the fear of extermination, Muhammad stopped the fighting.
It took 300 years after the death and resurrection of Christ for Christians to gain political power. Within 30 years after Mohammed’s death, Moslems had conquered most of the Middle East. That contrast between the courses of the two great religions entirely escapes the notice of PBS’s experts.
In fact, virtually all of the history of Islam after 632 A.D. is left out of sight. The audience is assured that Mohammed’s attitudes toward women were progressive by the standards of his time and that his treatment of non-Moslems was equitable. (“The QURAN continues to tell Muslims to honor the People of the Book. And to honor their religion as authentic.”) There is no glimpse of how Moslem societies treat women today nor of the dhimmitude that Moslem conquerors imposed on the Christian and Jewish communities that they overcame in battle. Would any PBS program about Christ omit all reference to the often dubious ways in which Christians have historically implemented His teachings?
There is, of course, one unfortunate incident in Moslem history that can hardly be overlooked, namely, the attacks launched against the United States by al-Qaeda in the name of Islam. Here all of the Moslem panelists are emphatic that Osama bin-Laden does not represent the true position of their faith. It is good to hear their opinion, but what about the numerous and vocal Moslem spokesmen who praise bin-Laden and castigate America as a “Great Satan”? Instead of confronting the violent, anti-Western side of Islam, the program wishes it away with a soothing explanation of the term “jihad”:
The Prophet Muhammad received a few people, militants who just arrived from one of the battles that they came back from and, they felt so important that we finished this job fighting with the enemies of Islam. And the Prophet smiled and he said let me tell you something. You finished the minor Jihad and now you have the bigger Jihad ahead of you. And they were stunned. They thought that they just finished the biggest achievement in their life by being willing to sacrifice their own life. And the Prophet explained that the biggest Jihad is struggle against your own desires and limitations.
This uplifting tale has no basis in the Koran or later Moslem tradition. The speaker has, to be blunt, invented for the benefit of a gullible audience. As Daniel Pipes details in "Jihad and the Professors", the concept of the “greater jihad” is the product not of orthodox Islam but of sufi mysticism. It is a fine concept. One might say that it is what “jihadought to mean, but it is disingenuous to pretend that it always has.
The program's statements about contemporary Islam in the United States have a similar sugar coating. One of the Moslems on the set is a fireman who responded to call to duty on 9/11, another a nurse who works with terminally ill patients. Both are admirable human beings, and their obviously heartfelt faith commands respect, but what about the al-Qaeda sleepers recently arrested in Buffalo? A serious examination of the American Moslem community would take them into account, too, not airbrush them out of the picture.
Almost comical is the claim that Islam is the country's "most diverse" religion. Christianity, with a substantial membership in every ethnic group has a far better diversity credentials. More Americans of Arab descent are Christian than Moslem, for instance, and there are almost no Moslems of British, Irish, German, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese or Hispanic stock. Among African-Americans, Christians outnumber Moslems by roughly 20 to one. Likewise false is the statement that "There are an estimated 7 million Muslims in America". All right, such estimates do exist, but they are easily shown to be phony. Scientific polling indicates that the actual number of self-identified American Moslems is under 2 million (Daniel Pipes, "How Many U.S. Muslims?"). The scarcity of mosques suggests that the religiously active segment of that population is smaller yet. The Chicago telephone directory lists eight mosques, including Black Muslim congregations. (PBS offhandedly groups Black Muslims with Islam, ignoring the fact that all Orthodox Moslem authorities regard the followers of Elijah Mohammed as outside the fold.)
I would certainly not want a publicly funded television show to denounce Mohammed as a pedophile and his followers as terrorists, but PBS has passed beyond tact to outright fraud. Mohammed is one of the most important men in history, and the facts about him are fascinating. It is pitiful that historical inquiry should be displaced by saccharine piety -- and at taxpayer expense!
Further reading: Robert Spencer, "Islam Soft and Hard"; David Klinghoffer, "The Jewish-Friendly Koran"; Collin Levey, "Mr. Allah's Neighborhood"
Update, 4/15/03: Little Green Footballs reports that the Moslem fireman who appeared on the program is an official of the terrorist-friendly Council on American-Islamic Relations and has penned a fierce anti-American diatribe for the Arab News. That somewhat sours PBS's sugar coating, doesn't it?
Letter of Comment: "Talib" (12/18/02)
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July 30, 2002
Nearly eleven months have passed since 19 fanatical Moslems slaughtered 3,500 people, mostly Christians and Jews, in the opening battle of what their leaders declared to be a general war against Western civilization. One instant prediction was that Moslems in Western countries would suffer persecution in the aftermath of the massacres. Despite isolated incidents and the paranoid claims of pro-terrorist groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, nothing like that has occurred. The attention showered on Islam has instead been overwhelmingly favorable, while the infrequent negative commentary has been denounced as virtually a hate crime. Symptomatic was the general reaction to the late Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn. Mijnheer Fortuyn rested his criticism of the Dutch Moslem community on impeccably liberal grounds: The local imams preached female subservience and hatred of homosexuals. For saying aloud those incontestable truths, he was branded a "hatemonger", "fascist" and "bigot".
I have no intention of embarking on contrarian advocacy of the view that Islam is exactly what Osama bin Laden believed it to be, a faith inherently at war with the infidels and bound by no scruples in waging that conflict. In fact, I find it easy to sympathize with two recent essays by writers who cannot be suspected of any twinge of sympathy for Islamofascism. "The Evil Isn't Islam" by Daniel Pipes and "Don't Blame Islam" by John Derbyshire make the same argument: Moslems hold a wide range of opinions and are not inherently inimical to the non-Moslem world. Neither man buys the facile "a religion of peace" formula, but they reject the idea that the al-Qaeda has to be the vanguard of the next generation of the followers of Mohammed. What is needed, they assert, is a modernized Islam. As Dr. Pipes puts it,
Five hundred years ago, Jews, Christians and Muslims agreed that owning slaves was acceptable but paying interest on money was not. After bitter, protracted debates, Jews and Christians changed their minds. Today, no Jewish or Christian body endorses slavery or has religious qualms about paying reasonable interest.
Muslims, in contrast, still think the old way. Slavery still exists in a host of majority-Muslim countries (especially Sudan and Mauritania, also Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) and it is a taboo subject. To enable pious Muslims to avoid interest, an Islamic financial industry worth an estimated $150 billion has developed.
The challenge ahead is clear: Muslims must emulate their fellow monotheists by modernizing their religion with regard to slavery, interest and much else. No more fighting jihad to impose Muslim rule. No more endorsement of suicide terrorism. No more second-class citizenship for non-Muslims.
No more death penalty for adultery or "honor" killings of women. No more death sentences for blasphemy or apostasy.
Rather than rail on about Islam's alleged "evil," it behooves everyone - Muslim and non-Muslim alike - to help modernize this civilization.
That is the ultimate message of 9/11. It is much deeper and more ambitious than Western governments presently seem to realize.
Mr. Derbyshire agrees with that goal and has some notion of how to reach it:
Instead of mocking or dismissing Islam, we should appeal to believers to look to the nobler and more generous texts in their scriptures, the texts that emphasize a common humanity. We have nothing to gain from alienating honest Muslims, any more than they have anything to gain by being enemies of the West. If we can remember the first, and persuade them of the second, there might be some prospect of cutting off significant support to the legions of glittering-eyed Koran-waving murderers the world is currently infested with, and of averting the destructive clash that we are all, slowly but surely, coming to believe inevitable.
Eirenic and reasonable as those words sound, they overlook a serious problem: What if Moslems don't agree with our eirenic and reasonable views? What if they by and large believe that Allah endorses the pre-modern world and wants his followers to be aggressive, obscurantist and intolerant?
Christians may quote mild verses from the Koran and praise the open-minded liberality of select medieval Moslem polities, but will Moslems listen to them? How much heed would we pay to a mullah's interpretation of the New Testament, especially if his knowledge of Christianity was as spotty as almost every Christian's is of the teachings of Mohammed?
We can draw hope from the fact that the Wahhabi doctrine that motivates the inner circle of al-Qaeda is a recent invention. Mohammed ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab first expounded it in 1736 and was as vigorously excoriated by Islamic orthodoxy as ever Calvin was by Rome. Plenty of Moslems probably doubt that their faith strayed from its true principles for eleven hundred years until a desert-bred fanatic rediscovered the true path.
On the other hand, that hope is undermined by the rapid spread of Wahhabism over the past 50 years and the sympathy that its political offshoots enjoy from Moslem groups that do not share its theology. A superficial look at Islam suggests that religious warfare and persecution find more than a modicum of support in its scripture and tradition, and it is evident that the "superficial" view is taken by a worrisome number of the faithful.
One difference between Islam and its monotheistic siblings is hard to overlook. Moses, the greatest Jewish prophet, led his people in a flight from slavery. The founder of Christianity was humiliatingly executed. Both the Jewish and the Christian faiths began as tiny communities that struggled to gain secure footholds in a hostile environment. Islam, by contrast, endured only a few years of repression before bursting forth on a career of conquest that took it to the ends of the known world. There is not much in Judaeo-Christian scripture or history in favor of holy war as a means of spreading God's word. That Christians (and, to a far lesser extent, Jews) have been warlike and intolerant is sadly true, but that fault can be attributed to human nature. Warfare and persecution are the natural methods of dealing with religious, political and ideological opposition. What is remarkable is not that Christians and Jews have often followed the call of nature but that they frequently have not and that the principle of tolerance has flourished almost solely in areas influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
The House of Islam is not, so far, one of those areas. Many Moslems appear to be confident that Allah will grant his warriors the same miraculous victories in the 21st Century as in the 7th. Those who disagree and hope to "emulate their fellow monotheists" face formidable adversaries, against whom they must contend with no aid but what they can draw from their own traditions.
The outcome of Islam's internal debate is highly important to the rest of the world, but we can influence it only in marginal ways. That is not a happy state of affairs, but there is no profit in comforting ourselves with illusions, particularly not with the illusion that the anti-Western aspects of Islam are anything other than a grim reality.
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July 4, 2002
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented, of whom the world was not worthy. [Hebrews 11:32-38]
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.” [Matthew 9:35-10:8]
In the sermon that I heard last Sunday, the priest noted that, following the period from the beginning of Great Lent through Pentecost, during which we commemorate Our Lord’s death, resurrection, ascension and bestowal of the Holy Spirit on His Church, that Church now returns to “normal times”. It is interesting to read the day’s Scripture lessons, quoted above, in light of that statement, and to see what the word “normal” connotes for Christians.
The Epistle reminds us of times and people that are certainly not “normal” in sense of “ordinary”. Not many of us think of ourselves as prophets or martyrs, and men who go about claiming those titles tend to be mildly demented. Almost any time that one hears someone intoning with a self-described “prophetic voice”, it is more than likely that he is mouthing New Age shibboleths and repenting other people’s sins. Contemporary Christendom produces much fervor for “causes” but little prophecy that shuts the mouths of lions, quenches raging fires or puts foreign enemies to flight. As for martyrs, their sufferings in the modern world, from Sudan to Egypt to Indonesia, are real, but Christians in the West have been spared such tests. The mild hostility of an increasingly secular government is considerably less intolerable than being burned to death, sawn in two or killed by the sword. It is a sign of the ease and safety of our lives that Christian commentators have the leisure to be outraged at incidents like last week’s Pledge of Allegiance decision. To our forebears, state neutrality would have been a wonderful gift of God.
Nonetheless, we are instructed that this peaceful place and time are not normal. And we should not be lulled into imagining that spiritual relaxation and tranquility are the proper states for a Christian. We are like soldiers on a vast battleground whose posts happen to lie in a quiet sector of the front. The cannon boom far away, and it takes a spyglass to discern the distant ranks of the enemy, but there is still a war in progress.
A soldier behind the front lines remains a soldier. He may be fortunate enough to be able to attend to his own concerns - eat a meal, read and write letters home, sing around a camp fire - but his duty is to be ready for the call to arms. If he loses his weapons, wanders away from his unit, allows his combat skills to deteriorate, he will be useless when ordered into the fray.
That is why, even in an unthreatened garrison, a soldier’s normal life is preparation for combat. Similarly, a Christian’s normal life, even in placid America, is preparation for prophecy or martyrdom.
The supreme examples of men called from ordinary lives to “normal” ones - the prophets and martyrs par excellence - are the twelve disciples of Christ, whose sending forth on their first missions is recounted in the Gospel reading. A short time before receiving the awesome charge to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons”, these men had been commonplace fishermen and civil servants, nondescript Galileans whose lives were probably just as humdrum as our own. Then God told them to go forth and perform miracles - and eventually to suffer for their faith, “destitute, persecuted, tormented, of whom the world was not worthy”.
Any of us could receive the same divine command a minute after reading these words. Such a call does not come every day or even every hundred years, but, in the life of Christ’s followers, nothing is more normal.
* * * *
Addendum: One other point about the charge to the disciples has, I think, special significance in our times. The world into which they were going was full of evils, and Our Lord thundered against the “generation of vipers”, but He did not assign to the Twelve the task of denunciation. They were to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand and to relieve the afflictions of others.
It is easier, not to mention more enjoyable, to rail against vice than to inculcate virtue, but the latter is the first duty of Christian spokesmen. When someone puts on the mantle of the prophet and issues excoriations in the name of Christ, whether of moral laxity or, on the other side, of such failings as “chauvinism” and “homophobia”, it is reasonable to ask how many sick he has cured, how many demons he has cast out and whether he has ever raised anyone from the dead. Those are the simple first steps in becoming a prophet. Comprehensive moral critiques, while seemingly easy to formulate, are the hard part. We can, of course, address moral questions on the basis of our natural reason, and we should, but we ought not to fancy that, in doing so, we are filling the role of the great prophets of yore or that our views are entitled to any more deference than they can command through the cogency of their argumentation.
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June 9, 2002
Whether Roman Catholic priests are celibate or polygamous or somewhere in between is an issue on which those of us outside the Church of Rome normally have no call to comment. The priestly sex scandals are, however, outside normalcy. If, as is frequently alleged, they are due in part to the practice of having an unmarried clergy, that fact has significance beyond the Roman fold.
Modernists, who tend not to approve of sexual restraint in any form, are, of course, the principal proponents of a causal relationship between clerical celibacy and clerical pedophilia, but the same argument has been made by traditionalists. In the course of discussing Mary Eberstadt's very comprehensive essay on the scandal, "The Elephant in the Sacristy", Catholic blogger Amy Welborn offers this demurrer:
She reflexively dismisses any critiques of mandatory celibacy as having any import, when it does on a number of levels: mandatory celibacy discouraging heterosexual men from entering the priesthood, thereby narrowing the pool of candidates, shaping the identity of the priesthood in a certain direction, which then works to discourage even more men from entering because they feel uncomfortable. Save your breathe - I know it shouldn't have this effect, but do you know what? In reality It does. Dispense with mandatory celibacy and sure, you'd have a whole set of new problems which others have exhaustively documented, but you would also have a priesthood that looked and felt very different from what it does now (diocesan, that is. Religious orders, which are, by nature celibate, are a whole other issue). [emphasis in original]
One of Miss Eberstadt's conclusions is that a subculture of active clerical homosexuals, perpetuated in a number of Catholic seminaries, encourages and facilitates the acting out of abnormal sexual desires, including desires for prepubescent and adolescent males. That thesis makes a good deal of sense. Sinning in isolation, committing acts that none of one's friends or colleagues will approve, is much harder than yielding to temptations that all of your circle regard as innocuous. Sad to say, some men are sustained in virtue by mere failure of courage. The "lavender network" (as modernist priest Andrew Greeley labels it) assures a priest who feels an appetite for boys that he is doing nothing wrong, that he should not repress his libido, that his proper course of action is to make advances rather than confess and repent.
Mrs. Welborn evidently thinks that, if more heterosexuals became priests, the lavender network would fall apart. But why would it? There is no fixed quota of priests (rather, there is a serious shortage), so an increase in heterosexuals would not entail a decrease in homosexuals. Lavender-dominated seminaries would still have enough recruits to keep their ranks filled. "Gay" priests would still have plenty of companionship and support. The only action that can break up this well-entrenched structure (assuming that Miss Eberstadt and Fr. Greeley are right about its size and power) is a sharp reduction in the number of active homosexuals in the priesthood. Unlike toxins, sins can't be diluted by adding holy water.
It is more tenable to argue the historical point that the current problem would not exist if Rome had never mandated celibacy for priests. The Orthodox Church, while certainly not free from moral corruption, can be cited as evidence that allowing the clergy to marry greatly reduces the risk that homosexual elements will ever gain the critical mass needed to form their own inner ring.
The weaknesses of this historical argument are two: First, no matter what might have happened had the Western Church never embraced celibacy, it is now too late to alter the past. Second, the Orthodox analogy is inexact. Until very recently, marriage for priests (other than monks) was not simply an option but was, for practical purposes, compulsory. There is no Orthodox tradition of celibate secular clergy, and a priest without a presbytera would still be an odd figure in many parishes. Hence, the Eastern Church's experience tells little about how genuinely optional celibacy would shape the priesthood.
There is one further consideration for Roman Catholics who think that their Church would be well-advised to give up mandatory celibacy. Whatever the abstract merits or faults of the policy, its abandonment now, in an age of license and libertinism, would be seen as a sign of impending surrender in other areas of sexual morality. As on a battlefield, once an army starts to retreat, it is difficult to halt the rearward movement. The concession that it is unreasonable to expect priests to live without sex shouldn't lead to the inference that no one can be expected to control any sexual impulse, but, in reality, it does.
Vide etiam Ephemerides, 6/9/02.
Further reading: Stanley Kurtz, "Elephant Debated"; George Neumayr, "Scornful Scribes"; Ron Russell, "Mahony's Cronies"
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May 5, 2002
Today, Orthodox Easter, is a natural time to reflect on the place of Christianity in the modern world. That place is normally assumed to be an obscure, if not obscurantist, one. For three or four hundred years, it has been a cliche that science has superseded religion and that ancient superstitions cannot satisfy the intellect of men who know that thunder comes from the clouds rather than the hand of God. Nonetheless, religion persists, even archaic-looking religions like Orthodox Christianity.
Biologist Richard Dawkins has written that the theory of evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. That is a startling admission against interest, for it implies that, at least until Darwin came along, atheism was not the rational system that its advocates pretended to espouse but, rather, a set of beliefs resting on faith as well as reason. Whether Darwin and his successors substantially altered that situation is doubtful. There is widespread agreement among scientists (unanimous at the large scale level, slightly less so at the microbiological) that evolutionary biology explains how physical forms developed from their initial simplicity to their current ramified complexity. That fact, though different from what Christians thought in the prescientific era, is not incompatible with belief in God. Most of what happens in nature is explicable as the working out of natural processes. Scientific biology no more "undermines" Christianity than does scientific meteorology.
What biology does not explain in any satisfactory way is morality. Some biologists claim to be able to account for how moral ideas originated, though their hypotheses are untestable and thus not scientific in a proper sense, but knowledge of where those ideas came from cannot be a reason for abiding by them today. Grant that the Golden Rule was an evolutionary adaptation that enabled Paleolithic humans to maximize the number of their offspring, so that Golden-Rule-carrying genes eventually outcompeted all of the alternatives. Is that a reason to live by the Golden Rule now? Very few atheists want to say no, for they do not like to confer moral legitimacy on sociopathy, but none can put forward a convincing rationale for his yes. As David Hume said, "is" does not imply "ought to be". Until atheists can refute that dictum, their unbelief system will remain a creed, resting on faith to fill a gaping logical hole and not, pace Dawkins, "intellectually fulfilling".
Christians, too, must leap by faith across incomprehensibilities. Our imagination cannot readily grasp an all powerful, all knowing, time-transcending Creator. On the other hand, a secularist imagination is equally helpless at the concept of a self-created universe. Christianity's intellectual virtue is that, once its premise is granted, the story that it tells makes sense. It enables us to understand why the universe and man were created, why man finds himself in a state of moral conflict and how that conflict can be resolved. The secularist theory, by contrast, must come up with a sequence of ad hoc hypotheses or simply abandon the attempt to deal with all of the significant questions of human existence.
Christianity can be described in ways that make it seem arbitrary and superstitious, as in Tertullian's credo quia absurdam, but it is at heart a highly rational enterprise, following the same principle of sosein ta phainomena ("integrate all of the data") that underlies the natural sciences. For that reason, rationalists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking are not its real enemies, regardless of their subjective hostility. If everyone were firmly devoted to pursuing reason wherever it leads, the task of Christian proselytizers would be an easy one, and the churches would overflow, though the flocks might be less peaceable. Unhappily, rational, systematic thought is no more popular now than it has ever been. As a result, Christian witness to the contemporary world faces two great obstacles.
The first is the waning of popular, unreflective morality, evidenced most spectacularly, but not exclusively, in the "sexual revolution". As recently as my boyhood, people took it for granted that their lives were ruled by duties - duties to their spouses, families, neighbors, country and to the qualities in themselves that enabled them to carry out those duties. When they ignored their obligations, as they frequently did, they felt guilty about failing and made such pretense as they could of being better than they really were. A man who flagrantly put himself forward as the center of the universe, justified in using others as his disposable tools, was regarded as little short of a monster.
In a space of less than forty years, that old view of how one ought to act has been discarded by a large segment of society. It is now in retreat, condemned as unworkable, oppressive and (the dispositive charge) hypocritical. The consequences for society are steadily becoming clear. For Christianity there are also consequences. Sinners no longer know that they have sinned or recognize a need for forgiveness. If any discomfort arises in their lives, they scorn the notion of being in the hands of an angry God and instead place themselves under the care of an accommodating psychiatrist.
The second, and not unrelated, adverse development is the rise of "invent it yourself" religion, faith arranged to fit the believer's subjective impression of his own needs rather than objective reality. Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel American Gods (a Hugo nominee this year, incidentally) has a good send-up of one version of this phenomenon. The character "Wednesday" is a genuine pagan god, traveling incognito, who finds himself in a theological discussion with a waitress in a San Francisco coffee shop who announces her adherence to paganism:
Wednesday looked up at their waitress. “I think I shall have another espresso, if you do not mind. And tell me, as a pagan, whom do you worship?”
“That’s right. I imagine you must have a pretty wide-open field. So to whom do you set up your household altar? To whom do you bow down? To whom do you pray at dawn and at dusk?”
Her lips described several shapes without saying anything before she said, “The female principle. It’s an empowerment thing. You know?”
“Indeed. And this female principle of yours. Does she have a name?”
“She’s the goddess within us all,” said the girl with the eyebrow ring, color rising to her cheek. “She doesn’t need a name.”
“Ah,” said Wednesday, with a wide monkey grin, “so do you have mighty bacchanals in her honor? Do you drink blood wine under the full moon while scarlet candles burn in silver candleholders? Do you step naked into the seafoam, chanting ecstatically to your nameless goddess while the waves lick at your legs, lapping your thighs like the tongues of a thousand leopards?”
“You’re making fun of me,” she said. “We don’t do any of that stuff you were saying.” She took a deep breath. Shadow [Wednesday’s human companion] suspected she was counting to ten. “Any more coffees here? Another mochaccino for you, ma’am?” Her smile was a lot like the one she had greeted them with when they had entered.
They shook their heads, and the waitress turned to greet another customer.
“There,” said Wednesday, “is one who ‘does not have the faith and will not have the fun,’ Chesterton. Pagan indeed.”
The idea of believing religious ideas because they promote one's own "empowerment", quite independently of their truth value, is a complete a rejection of thought, not rational even by Pascal's standard of "The heart has reasons that reason knows not". Instead, it is what Christianity is often accused of being, a species of wish fulfillment. Yet such is the "faith" of many modern men and women, not just neopagans and New Ageists but all of those who think that they can "create their own values". One might as well create one's own value of pi.
The next century will almost certainly be a difficult one for the Church. If present trends continue (and of course they will not continue in all respects, because they never do), we will see a society of material prosperity, moral disorder and intellectual decay. Strange and terrible gods will multiply. The faithful will feel the temptation to refashion God. As C. S. Lewis once put it, they will look not for a Father in a Heaven but for an indulgent Grandfather, who gives sweets to the children and never, ever punishes them. The name of "Christian" will become a hissing and a byword.
But have the last twenty centuries been so much easier? We rely, ultimately, on more than human means. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, read as part of the Paschal liturgy in every Orthodox Church every year,
O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou are annihilated. Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life is liberated. Christ is risen, and and the tomb is emptied of the dead; for Christ, having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those that have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.
Orthodox Paschal messages: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; Orthodox Church in America
Recommended reading: Kallistos Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church
Dates of Orthodox Easter, 1875-2124
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May 1, 2002
The area of modern science that many Christians find most unpalatable is evolutionary biology. Why that should be so is a trifle puzzling. Yes, Darwin dealt a blow to the literal reading of Genesis, but Egyptology has been equally unkind to Exodus, and we don't see campaigns to purge textbooks of Flinders Petrie. Furthermore, anti-evolutionism draws a fair degree of backing from Christians whose theology does not commit them to biblical literalism and who have no particular reason to be upset by the opinion that Adam and Eve had prehuman ancestors.
The reason for this unnecessary conflict is, I suppose, that Darwinists like Thomas Huxley and, more recently, Richard Dawkins have preached the doctrine that Evolution disproves Christianity, and a lot of Christians have found the nonscientific uses to which evolutionary theory is put so irritating that they want to believe that the theory itself is false.
Over the past few years, the anti-evolutionary cause has taken a new, more sophisticated turn with the advent of the "intelligent design" hypothesis, most accessibly presented in Michael Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box. Dr. Behe describes a number of microbiological phenomena that, in his view, can be explained only by positing that organisms were deliberately fashioned to work in a certain manner. His key argument, baldly summarized, is that the various pieces that function together to perform certain fundamental natural tasks all need to be present from the start, in fully developed form, for the task to be carried out at all. Half-evolved parts don't result in half as good a result; they are simply useless.
Dr. Behe makes a strong case (at least to a layman), and the response of the biological establishment has been so shrill as to make it look even stronger. To a large extent, refutations have relied on blind faith: What can't be explained at present will become clear in the future. We will discover what the parts were doing before they adventitiously started working together to do something else. The absence of the slightest notion of what the answers to Dr. Behe's questions may be proves all the more that the answers exist.
On the large question of whether biological devlopment results from design or chance, a Christian must, of course, side with design. How can the creation be anything other than a reflection of the will and intelligence of the Creator? But have Dr. Behe and his fellow theorists proved that evolutionary theory is bunk and that "intelligent design" should be taught in schools? Should Christians trumpet their findings in apologetics? There are some problems with those conclusions:
First, as Dr. Behe forthrightly states, though many of his followers are more ambivalent, any difficulties that evolutionary theory has in accounting for microbiological facts do not detract from the overwhelming evidence that the literal Genesis story is wrong and that all organisms, including human beings, evolved from earlier species. Telling students otherwise is to perpetrate falsehoods.
Second, intelligent design is an hypothesis whose truth has no useful implications for science. Biologists are trying to figure out how the natural world fits together and to make predictions from the observable data. Knowing that a few crucial events were not predictable from the pre-existing data does not affect their work. They are in a position like that of mathematicians, who know, thanks to Gödel's Theorem, that no mathematical system has enough axioms to prove all true statements. That knowledge has important philosophical implications, but it has not given rise to better methods of proof. Similarly, all that a biologist, qua biologist, learns from accepting intelligent design is that he may fail to find answers to the questions that he asks. If he possesses an iota of humility, he knew that already.
Third, intelligent design is not valuable as an insight into religious truth. It is evidence of the existence of a Creator, but it tells us nothing about the Creator's attributes, which are what are important to human beings. Naked intellectual belief in the reality of a deity is not particularly important or uplifting. If it were, Satan would be the most perfect of created beings, for he surely has felt God's reality more forcefully than any mortal could.
In his novel Calculating God, Robert Sawyer imagines the discovery of incontrovertible proof that the universe is indeed designed and explores the consequences of that assumption. He does not find it necessary to depict a "god" that is all like the Christian one. The fictional Creator turns out to be a material entity that has constructed the universe as nothing more than a device for reproducing itself, so that its offspring will be able to do the same after the next cycle of cosmic contraction and expansion.  Nurturing and then destroying civilizations has been a minor epiphenomenon of the process. Belief in this self-absorbed Prime Mover does not bring religious fulfillment to the story's narrator. Some readers may even think that curiosity about It leads him to act in a morally questionable fashion, abandoning his wife and son in order to travel with an interstellar expedition from which he can never hope to return.
An Intelligent Designer could as logically be that kind of God as any other, and a world convinced that the universe is an artifact could as easily be pagan or satanist as Christian. Intelligent design is a fascinating philosophical concept, but it is neither a substitute for biological inquiry nor a decisive argument for the True Faith.
It is galling that half-baked philosophes heap scorn on those who adhere to the Faith that a vast number of deeper thinkers than they have found illuminating. But we should not let gall turn to wormwood. That bumptious self-confidence invokes modern science in support of its follies does not mean that scientific findings are any less true. Attacking them will not undermine modernity but only make Christians look fanatical and obscurantist.
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April 22, 2002
The homosexual scandals shaking the American Roman Catholic Church are a disagreeable topic, particularly for a non-Catholic who does not want to appear to be reveling in the afflictions of Rome or to be making an implicit claim that his own denomination is free from sin. (Several years ago, the media gave extensive coverage to an affair between an Orthodox bishop and a teenage girl; it would not be absurd to assert that the bishop was not deposed nearly so rapidly as he should have been.)
Still, the Roman Catholic turmoil cannot be ignored. It has become a Christian problem, not merely a Catholic one. For enemies of the Faith, it is a delightful occasion to scoff at our moral pretensions and accuse us of harboring hypocrites. For Christianity's friends, it a reason to reflect on how such failings occur.
In this instance, one failing is becoming increasingly, blindingly evident: The Catholic bishops who gave second, third and fifteenth chances to known molestors were not guilty of puritanical rigorism (that should be obvious, though the Maureen Dowds and Al Hunts of the stupidgentsia would like to blame everything on celibacy) or even bureaucratic solidarity. Priests who engage in other forms of misconduct are regularly disciplined or defrocked. In the case of certain sexual offenses, however, a disconcertingly large number of bishops (though not, according to the evidence revealed to date, anywhere close to a majority of the American hierarchy) set aside absolutist views and declined to be "judgmental". They listened to the counsel of psychiatrists and viewed the offenders as well-meaning sufferers from illness rather than sinners in the hands of an angry God. In short, they approached moral questions in the way that caring, modern human beings are supposed to, without any nonsense about unalterable canons of "right" and "wrong".
Let's imagine for a moment that prelates like Cardinal Law had taken the opposite tack (as they should have done), reacting swiftly to complaints, refusing to accept excuses, moving priests who displayed over-familiarity with adolescent males to assignments out of the way of temptation, and turning proven malefactors over to the secular authorities for condign punishment. The upshot would have been a number of ex-priests behind bars, a larger number involuntarily laicized, others denied positions that they desired and for which they believed themselves well-fitted. Would we not now be hearing outcries over episcopal "homophobia" and demands that the Church treat homosexual clergy with dignity and respect? Ex-Father Shanley might have wept in a prison interview, "I made one mistake, and Cardinal Law cast me into the outer darkness. No psychiatric evaluation, no offers of help, no appreciation of all the good that I had done, no second chances. The Church obviously cares more about medieval notions of sexual purity than about the love of God. What would Jesus have done?"
Were that the situation, the secular media would echo the disgraced priest's cri de coeur. Unhappily, too many bishops anticipated it. Striving to please man rather than God, they ended up angering both.
A famous political operative, never well-known as a moralist, once startled the guests at his annual barbecue with the statement, "Conservative ethics are survival ethics." If he had invited a contingent of bishops to that gathering, perhaps the Catholic Church and its faithful would have been spared much anguish.
Further reading: Rod Dreher, "The Gay Question"; Michael Novak, "Something Good Is Coming"; Mary Eberstadt, "The Elephant in the Sacristy"
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April 11, 2002
An innocent looking female calf, thinking her innocent bovine thoughts, could, as Rod Dreher observes ("Red-Heifer Days"), be the catalyst for Middle Eastern conflagration. The product of a selective breeding program funded in Israel by Christian fundamentalists, she is an unblemished red heifer. If her breeders have their way, she will be offered up as a burnt sacrifice when she reaches three years of age, and her ashes will be used to purify the rebuilders of King Solomon's Temple.
The reconstruction of the Temple and the resumption of sacrifices, interrupted over 19 centuries ago, is the dream of a more than negligible number of Biblical literalists, both Jewish and Christian. Unfortunately, the project would require the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's holiest shrines.
It is difficult to imagine that anyone could be serious about such a mad project, but Mr. Dreher shows that many people are. He uses this reality to make the point that religion needs to be taken seriously as a political and social force in the modern world, not relegated to the private, secondary role that modern secularists prefer that it occupy. He does not continue to the next logical point in the progression. If religious ideas have a public impact, they had better be debated publicly. Otherwise, false ideas will fester and grow in strength. The default tactic of meeting them with silence or ignorant ridicule does nothing to change the minds of their fervent believers and little to dissuade potential converts. Unhappily, most of the media are utterly unprepared for the task of dealing seriously with unfamiliar, nonsecular concepts. A world view of vulgarized empiricism cannot understand, much less argue seriously with, a mentalité of faith.
As noted in Mr. Dreher's article, the Red Heifer is part of a web of millenarian ideas loosely labeled "dispensationalism", acceptance of which (most often, it is true, in highly attenuated and harmless form) is widespread among American Protestants. Owing to media blindness, it is little noticed outside its own circle. If the birth of the Red Heifer leads some fool to blow up the Dome of the Rock, "dispensationalism" will be on every tongue, of course, but, even without such dire events, the theory is quietly wreaking damage.
In an earlier posting (2/18/02), I wrote about how Melanie Phillips, a Jewish writer of indisputable acumen, had been led to the belief that Christianity is inherently antisemitic because it is allegedly founded on "replacement theology". She got that notion from either dispensationalists or others who found it useful to retail dispensationalist ideas. As I tried to point out, what dispensationalists mean by "replacement theology" is a gross distortion of traditional Christian belief, but Miss Phillips is undoubtedly not the only non-Christian to be deceived by this plausible-sounding smear. The result is both increased Jewish-Christian suspicion and distraction from the rising antisemitism of the secular Left. It is noteworthy how many voices have been proclaiming recently that antisemitism is the fault of Christian doctrine (2/9/02). The Left practices hatred of the Jews, then blames Christians for supposedly preaching it.
There are solid, utilitarian reasons then for examining the truth value of the dispensationalist hypothesis. Its essence is vaguely familiar to everyone: The Second Coming of Our Lord will be preceded by signs that are laid out in the Book of Revelation. Dispensationalists argue among themselves about the details of the signs, but the key premise is that the faithful can read the future like, or in, a book. The Red Heifer is just one part of the God-authored, apocalyptic story.
The dispensationalist premise is, however, irreconcilable with Scripture (and with Tradition too, but dispensationalists attach no value to traditions other than their own, which they fail to recognize as traditions). Our Lord emphasized that believers should live in the expectation that He might return at any moment, "like a thief in the night". This lesson comes across most plainly in the Parable of the Wise Virgins and the Foolish Virgins. None of them knows when the Bridegroom will come. The Wise Virgins remain always alert, with their lamps lit. The Foolish Virgins, I fancy, exchanged among themselves information about the portents that would mark the Bridegroom's coming. Not seeing those signs, they put out their lamps and slept, and thus they missed the Kingdom. "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in Heaven, neither the Son, but the Father."
There is, for Christians, a strong precedent against seeking to interpret important prophecies in advance of their fulfillment. The Old Testament is, we affirm, full of signs of Our Lord's First Coming. Yet few, if any, of those signs were read rightly by any contemporary of Christ. Everyone assumed that the Messiah would be a great political ruler until He revealed that His Kingdom was not of this world. No one knew the meaning of the Suffering Servant until Jesus died on the Cross. Why should we be any better at divining the true significance of Gog and Magog or the Four Horsemen or the Number of the Beast - or the Red Heifer?
As C. S. Lewis deftly summarizes Jesus' words about the Second Coming: "His teaching on the subject quite clearly consisted of three propositions. (1) That he will certainly return. (2) That we cannot possibly find out when. (3) And that therefore we must always be ready for him." ("The World's Last Night" (1952))
We naturally cannot expect the mainstream press to start opining on the Parousia (nor would we really want it to), but dispensationalism is, in the present circumstances, not a quaint error but a dangerous heresy. Christians should exert every effort to win their brethren away from such folly.
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April 3, 2002
The Islamic tradition of tolerance for all "peoples of the Book" is as far distant from contemporary reality as the rule of the Caliphs. Throughout the Moslem world, Christians are the targets of harassment, legal restrictions and outright violence, which they have endured with saintly patience. Nevertheless, Islamofascists like Yasser Arafat have an uncanny knack for gaining Christian sympathy, largely through cynical manipulation of symbols sacred to the giaours.
Thus Arafat, confined to Ramallah by the Israelis, weeps about being unable to attend the Christmas liturgy at Bethlehem. He cultivates sycophants among the clergy, most prominently the Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops of Jerusalem. His minions infiltrate Orthodox parishes in the United States (a severe headache for the Antiochian jurisdiction, which has, amazingly, found it necessary to warn priests against giving communion to Moslems). The return on that investment in pseudo-fellowship is statements like those issued today by the Vatican bureaucracy, one-sidedly denouncing Israel for taking action against Palestinian terrorists. Meanwhile the Arab regimes on which Arafat relies for sympathy and financial support restrict (or, as in Saudi Arabia, outlaw) the practice of Christianity and turn blind eyes to mob attacks on Christians' persons and property.
The drama currently being played out in the Church of the Nativity shows the manipulative process at its most brazen. An appalled, but necessarily anonymous, Vatican source, quoted by Rod Dreher in National Review Online, describes starkly what has happened:
The Palestinians shot the locks off the doors, and barged in over the protests of the clergy. They started shooting at Israelis to draw fire, so the Israelis would attack a Christian shrine. Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch [and Arafat crony -- RD], says he offered them sanctuary, which isn't true, and that they were unarmed, which is way not true! It isn't his Church anyway! It belongs to the Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Franciscans, who have exclusive Catholic rights. The Franciscans are hopping mad, but can't say anything because they have to be 'pro-Palestinian.' But now they cannot even ask them politely to leave because of the Patriarch's false, lying, asinine statement. The priest who was reported killed is alive, as you know. However, the Palestinians leaked the false report to discredit the Israelis and are now holding that same priest and some nuns hostage in the Church as human shields. Again, the Christians do not say anything, because they have to be 'pro-Palestinian.' How soon will it be before they start killing Christian clergy and the few pilgrims that are there, in order to say that the Israelis are causing the deaths of Christians?
If the Palestinians had simply wanted a place of refuge, where they would be safe from Israeli fire, they could have sheltered in the mosque across the street from the church. The Israeli Defense Forces are under orders not to attack shrines of any religion. The reason for breaking into a Christian edifice is transparent: The terrorists hope to provoke the IDF into firing on the building, wreaking destruction and perhaps killing Christian hostages. Without waiting for the first shots, Arafat claimed yesterday that an Israeli assault was already in progress.
It shouldn't take the wisdom of a serpent to discern the truth behind this charade. The Palestinian Authority has turned a holy place into a weapon of war. That desecration reveals how little real regard it has for the Christians whom it so assiduously toils to turn into dupes.
Further reading: Ariel Cohen, "The Nativity Sin"; Margot Dudkevitch, "Gunmen Stole Gold, Crucifixes, Escaped Monks Report"; Lauren Gelfond, "Church Officials Allege Bethlehem Cover-Up"; Raymond J. de Souza, "Christianity Turns the Other Cheek"
Letter of comment: Abe W. Ata (5/27/04)
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March 12, 2002
John Ashcroft stands accused of yet another outbreak of quasi-Talibanism. In a radio interview with religious columnist Cal Thomas, the Attorney-General offered this impression of the difference between Islam and Christianity: "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you." The president of the Arab-American Institute immediately demanded that Mr. Ashcroft "publicly apologize and meet with Arab and Muslim-American leaders to discuss measures he should take to make amends to the Muslim community and to all Americans." Other bien pensants chimed in. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch equated the remarks with a belief "that all Muslims practice this kind of radicalism that al Qaeda and the September 11 hijackers embrace". Americans United for Separation of Church and State said that they were part of an "ongoing pattern of religious insensitivity".
Now, the contrast drawn by the Attorney General has obvious resonance when groups with names like the "Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade" are killing innocents in suicide bombings. But are they an insult to Islam? Are they, from the Islamic point of view, even a criticism?
Let us start with the second half of the statement, "Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you." Mr. Ashcroft presumably meant to imply that that proposition is true about Christianity and false about Islam. And he is absolutely correct. The elements of Christianity that probably rank as most objectionable to Moslems are the doctrines that Jesus (i) was the "son" of God and (ii) died on the Cross. The Koran emphatically denies both. Because of the former, the standard Moslem synonym for "Christian" was, for many centuries, "polytheist". This portion of what Mr. Ashcroft said is no more insulting to Moslems than "Protestantism is a faith that does not believe in the authority of the Pope", uttered as one of a similarly contrasting pair, would be to Roman Catholics.
"Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him" sounds a bit more inflammatory but is equally innocuous. The word "requires" is perhaps overstated; so far as I know, martyrdom is never an obligation for a Moslem, but it is highly honored and has a different meaning from that to which Christians are accustomed. In the words of a leading expert,
The notion of martyrdom is common to Christianity and Islam. Indeed, the same word is used - "martyr" is from a Greek word meaning "witness", and the Arabic shahid has the same meaning. But in Sunni Islam, the shahid is one who is killed in battle; he achieves martyrdom by dying in the holy war. This is very different from the Jewish and later also Christian notion of martyrs as those who voluntarily endure torture and death rather than renounce their beliefs. [Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West, 163 (1993)]
One need only pay attention to the torrent of outcries from the Middle East today, praising martyrs in the double jihad against America and Israel, to recognize the high esteem in which contemporary Moslems - not all of them, no doubt, but a great and vocal many - hold those sons who die for God. (Vide - one example among dozens - Michael Widlanski, "Arafat's State Media Laud Jerusalem and Netanya Attacks as 'Heroic Martyrdom Operations'".)
Sensible Moslems (links to some of their statements are in File 911) do not believe that the al-Qaeda/Arafat war against the West is in any way holy or that those who blow up women and children have died as shahid in righteous battle, but they do not thereby reject their religion's concept of the high honor attained by true martyrdom. To return to the Roman Catholic analogy, orthodox Catholics do not support murdering abortion providers, but they nevertheless believe that abortion is a grave evil. It would not be "insensitive" to say, "Roman Catholicism is a religion that regards abortion as murder and its opponents as righteous".
To those brought up in a post-Christian milieu, it goes without saying that "God sending his son to die for you" is better than "sending your son to die for God". To an Islamic John Ashcroft, the exact opposite would be the case. The difference between the two faiths on this point is important and unmistakable. To put it into plain words is not "insensitivity" but attention to truth.
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February 25, 2002

The real threat to research in this country doesn't come from the right, despite the publicity given to the creationists, but from the left, where animal rights activists and Greens are hard at work to inhibit scientific progress with a tightening web of little regulations and large scare campaigns.
What these groups and their activities have in common is contempt for mankind. On the other hand, what motivates religious conservatives, whether in opposition to Darwinism or to ES cell research, is love of mankind, and fear that science misapplied will lead to a denigration of human dignity. In these specific cases, I don't agree with them, but I can see where they're coming from. When the lives of mice and rats conflict with human life-saving research, though, it should be no surprise where someone like Jesse Helms stands.
This statement, from a laboratory researcher, points up why Christian conservatives should reject tactical alliances with left-wing anti-science zealots. Joining with others in a political (as opposed to a military) struggle inevitably means giving some credence to their basic principles. That is fine where the allies' principles are congruent on the issue at hand; there is plenty of overlap between conservatives and, for instance, old-school libertarians, making it easy to campaign together on many issues.
The eco-extremists, in sharp contrast, object to embryonic stem cell research for reasons that are diametrically opposed to those that disturb Christians. We do not like the idea of deliberately bringing a human being, even a very tiny human being, into existence for the purpose of conducting medical experiments on, and then disposing of, her. We are not troubled by the expansion of scientific knowledge, only by the means employed.
The eco-extremists present the opposite case: Knowledge is dangerous in and of itself, and acquiring greater knowledge is a worthless enterprise, humans being, after all, vile predators on nature. They feel no sympathy for the aborted boy or girl, only for the abstract "nature" that scientific progress threatens. Rather than lend credibility to such ideas, Christians would be better off to fight alone, even if that means finding themselves on the losing side of every controversy over embryonic research. The prospect of "therapeutic cloning" may be appalling, but that of a world where it is respectable to hold mankind in contempt is far worse.
February 18, 2002
The Spectator, a conservative though often snooty-about-America British magazine, has published a pair of articles on antisemitism and Christianity. One is a sober piece by a right-wing Jewish intellectual rebuking the idea that persecuting Jews is Christians' chief preoccupation (Paul Gottfried, "The Church and the Holocaust"). The other, which gets top billing and an inflammatory cover illustration, pushes precisely that idea (Melanie Phillips, "Christians Who Hate the Jews").
Miss Phillips vividly describes the revelation that she received only recently concerning the intellectual basis of antisemitism among Christians:
It was one of those sickening moments when an illusion is shattered and an ominous reality laid bare. I was among a group of Jews and Christians who met recently to discuss the Churches’ increasing public hostility to Israel. The Jews were braced for a difficult encounter. After all, many British Jews (of whom I am one) are themselves appalled by the destruction of Palestinian villages, targeted assassinations and other apparent Israeli overreactions to the Middle East conflict.
But this debate never took place. For the Christians said that the Churches’ hostility had nothing to do with Israel’s behaviour towards the Palestinians. This was merely an excuse. The real reason for the growing antipathy, according to the Christians at that meeting, was the ancient hatred of Jews rooted deep in Christian theology and now on widespread display once again.
A doctrine going back to the early Church fathers, suppressed after the Holocaust, had been revived under the influence of the Middle East conflict. This doctrine is called replacement theology. In essence, it says that the Jews have been replaced by the Christians in God’s favour, and so all God’s promises to the Jews, including the land of Israel, have been  inherited by Christianity.
The term "replacement theology" will not be familiar to most Christians. So far as I can determine, it originated in debates among ultra-Protestants over the fine points of millenarianism. As for the concept that Miss Phillips' informants conveyed, it bears a faint resemblance to the ancient Christian teaching that through Christ the promises that God made to Abraham have been extended to all men. The Church is the heir and successor to Judaism in the sense that it is the vessel through which those promises are being and will be fulfilled. A quibbler could contend that, since the land of Israel was promised to Abraham, it too must have been inherited by the Church, but no Christian teacher of any note has ever drawn that inference. Even when medieval Christian powers made a concerted effort to occupy the Holy Land, they did so for the defensive purpose of protecting its pilgrimage routes and shrines, not out of a conviction that Christians had a special duty to settle there. In fact, not many Christians did, which was a major reason for the Crusades' ultimate failure.
Antisemitic Christians have their proof texts, but those are drawn from the hostile Jewish-Christian encounters portrayed in the Gospels and Acts. Far from insisting that Christians have inherited the blessings bestowed on the Jews, the most vehement and deadly antisemites deny the existence of any family ties. From the second century Marcionites through Hitler's "German Christians", they have argued that Judaism is not ancestral to Christianity, that the God of the Old Testament was not the First Person of the Trinity and that Jesus was not a Jew.
Miss Phillips quotes present day Palestinian apologists whom she interprets as expounding "replacement theology", though they mostly seem to express something like the Marcionite view. One avers, "The Old Testament is a horrifying picture of genocide committed in God's name. . . . And genocide is now being waged in a long, slow way by Zionists against the Palestinians." Another "says that he has come to accept Israel’s existence, [but] his brand of radical liberation theology undermines it by attempting to sever the special link between God and the Jews".
Miss Phillips no doubt accepted in good faith what she was told about Christian belief. Her informants were Christians and were, to outward appearances, speaking "against interest".
Or were they? We are not told much about the Christians who first introduced the writer to "replacement theology", but they themselves clearly did not agree with it. They came forward to confess not their own sins but somebody else's. Their evident hope was to enlist their Jewish interlocutor as an unwitting combatant in an internecine Christian conflict. Tarring traditional Christianity as inherently antisemitic serves the purposes of those Christians, of both ultraliberal and fundamentalist persuasions, who regard the development of Christian doctrine over the past 2,000 years as a mistake, either because that doctrine is the enemy of progressive, politically correct thought or because it vitiates faith in sola scriptura.
As noted immediately below, the treatment of the Jews is not a shining chapter in Christian history, but the lesson that we should learn is that Christians can be as prejudiced and unreasoning as anyone else - not that prejudice and unreason lie at the heart of Christian belief.
February 9, 2002
The contemporary resurgence of antisemitism (discussed elsewhere) has marched in parallel with another phenomenon. Even as the Left becomes less hospitable to Jews, it more and more feverishly blames prejudice against them on historical Christianity, to the virtual exclusion of any other source. (Vide Andrew Sullivan, "Goldhagen's Smear: Catholicism, Nazism and the Holocaust"; Sam Schulman, "Goldhagen to Christianity: Whatever You're Doing, Stop It!")
The long history of antisemitism in the Christian Church is sad and undeniable. The new wave of accusations goes beyond that fact to contend, first, that antisemitism is an essential element of the Christian faith and, second, that Christian antisemitism is the root of antisemitism everywhere else. If there had been no Church, we are told, there would have been no Nazi genocide.
If that claim is true, the Gospel writers and early Church Fathers were worse than Hitler, for they fashioned a religion whose raison d'etre was the extermination of the Jewish people and bear responsibility not just for Hitler's crimes but for all of the less deadly Jew-hatred that has darkened the world for two thousand years.
Reviewing all of the evidence adduced for this thesis would require long immersion in the extremely difficult task of tracing intellectual influences. What I should like to discuss here is the preliminary question of plausibility. Do the readily observable data suggest that antisemitism is a fundamental Christian doctrine that can be identified as the fons et origo of substantially all of the antisemitism that exists today?
The charge that antisemitism is of the essence of Christianity rests on finespun analysis of the supposed implications of other Christian doctrines. The Church's own statements of what it believes say nothing about the topic. There is not a word about Jews or Judaism in the Nicene Creed or in any other generally accepted summary of the faith. The major liturgies are likewise virtually silent on the topic. The New Testament does speak at length about Judaism - not surprisingly, since almost all of the earliest Christians were Jews, and they professed to build their faith on Jewish foundations. Many individual instances of conflict are recorded, most strikingly the mob pressure that led, according to the Gospel accounts, to the crucifixion of Christ. The overall "story line", though, is of gradual separation of Church from Synagogue. Jews who do not follow Christ are portrayed less as diabolical than as obsolete. From being leading figures in the Gospels and the Book of Acts, they fade to intellectual opponents in Paul, to ancient history in the Catholic Epistles and to dream-visions in the Apocalypse. Not a single verse hints that a Christian should deal with contemporary, post-Testament Jews differently from other nonbelievers.
As one proceeds through the Church's history, anti-Jewish sentiment is always present, but it is never at the forefront of Christian concerns. St. John Chrysostom, for instance, is widely identified as a convinced antisemite. If one judges by his series of eight sermons adversus Judaeos preached to his Antiochene congregation in 387, he certainly was that. There his description of contemporary Jews is laced with spite and could have come from the dung-heap mouth of a proto-Goebbels.
In the same year, however, Chysostom preached a much longer series, the Homilies on the Statues. These were delivered in the midst of public disorder, with the city under the Emperor's displeasure and apprehensive of exemplary punishment. The circumstances were precisely those in which classic antisemites turn to "blaming the Jews". Yet the only mentions of Jews in the 21 long sermons (120 closely printed pages in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers) are half a dozen passing references to Old Testament events (e. g., Esther's intercession on behalf of the Persian Jews is likened to Christ's intercession for the Church). When the preacher turned his mind specifically toward the Jews, he might loath them, but they were mostly absent from his thoughts. Elsewhere in his extensive writings, the rare references to Judaism are sometimes favorable or ambivalent. He denies that later generations of Jews were condemned by God for the Crucifixion (Homilies on Matthew ¶86) and offers reasons why first century Jews' rejection of Christ's teaching was not unreasonable (Homilies on Acts ¶1). Conspicuously absent are exhortations to shun or mistreat one's Jewish neighbors - a significant point, as Chrysostom harps constantly on details of personal conduct, extending to such minor matters as the misuse of cosmetics. If the text of Adversus Judaeos had perished, no one would suspect that its author thought worse of Jews than of other non-Christians.
To prove that the whispered theme of antisemitism is the central message of historical Christianity is, then, a daunting challenge. The challengers must, in effect, prove that Christians are unaware of the essence of their own religion. The postmodernist concept of "false consciousness" has hardly ever been pressed more strenuously and implausibly.
The second part of the indictment is that Christianity's essential hatred of Judaism caused the antisemitism even of those who ostensibly reject Christian doctrine. Here "false consciousness" must stand on stilts. The worst modern exemplars of non-Christian antisemitism are Nazis, fundamentalist Moslems and left-wing intellectuals. All proclaim that Christianity is false, yet, on the question of antisemitism, all are allegedly in thrall to subtle emanations from Christian dogma!
Hitler is the case study around whom the argument most revolves. His family was Roman Catholic, and that is all the proof that some observers need that Catholicism was responsible for his hatreds. It doesn't matter that his regime attacked both Catholicism and Protestantism and tried to eradicate Christianity from the German Volk. The Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion's "Nuremberg Project" recently published on-line the war crimes prosecutors' preliminary report on Nazi persecution of Christian churches (in the form of a gigantic PDF file; The New York Times has a short summary; vide etiam Dave Shiflett, "You Mean Hitler Wasn't A Priest?"). That the Nazi führer borrowed his movement's key tenet from a religion that he and his followers despised may be psychologically explicable, but it is not a natural inference.
As for Islamic fundamentalists and the left-wing intelligentsia, they mostly grew up in surroundings where Christian doctrine was either unknown or the object of nothing but sneers. Those who used to be Christians, such as A. N. Wilson, generally appear to have begun expressing anti-Jewish sentiments only after leaving the Church. To fit these facts into the theory of Christian responsibility requires logical contortion on an heroic scale.
If antisemitism is not particularly prominent in Christian teaching and is virulent among anti-Christians, attributing its existence on the Christian Church is a bold surmise indeed. Occam's razor suggests that we should look elsewhere than within Christianity if we wish to discern why and how it infects either Christians or non-Christians.
December 25, 2001
This is the time of year for stories about the anti-Christmas movement. Bloomingdale's stocked no holiday cards that referred to the Christian feast by name; Hannakah and the made-up black nationalist Kwanzaa were okay. A town in Maryland barred Santa Claus - unmasked as St. Nicholas of Myra - from its "winter celebration". Local governments here and there warned employees not to greet the public with the abhorred words "Merry Christmas". The ACLU filed its standard flurry of lawsuits against manger scenes and other non-secular displays.
The rationale for breaking the public connection between December 25th and Christianity is that government "support" of Christmas amounts to sponsorship of a particular religion. Yet very few secularists press that rationale to its obvious conclusion: If it is unacceptable for city employees to say "Merry Christmas", how can one justify giving those same workers a day off in recognition of the birth of Jesus? Why shouldn't Christians have to draw on their vacation allotments to observe their holy days, just like Jews and Moslems and Hindus and Buddhists? Closing down the entire country is surely a far more emphatic endorsement of Christianity than allowing school skits based on the gospels of Matthew and Luke. (The great Talmudic scholar Jacob Neusner once noted that his sister's Jewish faith had not been undermined by several years of portraying the Virgin Mary in Christmas pageants.)
The courts have been unreceptive to the occasional lawsuits aimed at the essence, rather than the accoutrements, of official recognition of Christmas, but secularists are not required tamely to accept judicial defeat. They could agitate in the media, by reminding us every December of the millions of non-Christians whose psyches are seared by the annual flood of religious propaganda that a recognized "Christmas season" facilitates, by pointing out the vast waste of indiscriminate gift giving and the disruption resulting from curtailment of economic activity for the better part of a week, by demanding that stores and businesses stay open to at least the same extent as on, say, Martin Luther King's Birthday, and by urging government bodies to treat December 25th like an ordinary day, as by any secular standard it is. In lieu of doing any of those things, they carp about trivia, almost as if this particular task on the anti-Christian agenda were an onerous duty to be gotten over with the least possible effort.
Christians often complain about attacks on Christmas. Rarely do we ask why the assault is so half-hearted, so much less relentless than, for instance, the villification of Christianity for opposing abortion, promiscuity and homosexuality. I do not have a confident explanation but should like to offer a hopeful theory.
No man who looks at the universe from a purely naturalistic and secular perspective can be wholly satisfied, either intellectually or morally, by what he sees. The universe begins and ends in incomprehensible riddles. Between lies the greater riddle of why any being should show justice, mercy or love toward another except as a selfish means of obtaining the necessities and pleasures of existence. Secular ethics invariably winds up as either an unexamined acquiescence in transcendant morality or an elaborate justification for using others as means to our own ends.
The Incarnation of Our Lord offers a different, less despairing picture of who we are, and where, and why. Moreover, it is less threatening than that presented by much of the rest of Christian (or other religious) doctrine. God comes not as an irresistible King but as a helpless Baby. He knows our weakness and infirmity, because He has lived like us. Divine justice, mercy and love are more real, less like condescension, when they issue from one Who is truly human.
The Orthodox Church's epistle reading for Christmas Day teaches, "But when the fullness of time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the power of the Law, in order that he might redeem those held under the power of the Law, in order, that is, that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba, Father!' So then, you are no longer a slave but a son; and if you are a son, you are also an heir by God's act of adopton." (Galatians 4:4-7)
God and His Church cannot always speak to us sweetly and comfortably, but on Christmas Day they do, with a message of undiluted hope. That message is for everyone, and not even its fiercest disbelievers can, it appears, wholly regret that once a year our secular state grants a forum for its proclamation.
December 8, 2001
Because the September 11th attacks were launched by Moslems as battles in a purported jihad, Westerners have begun paying more attention to Islam. Sales of English versions of the Koran are reportedly brisk, and the media have rushed to inform us about a faith that was hitherto known in only a vague and caricatured way.
Ironically, in light of the events that gave it impetus, this new interest in Islam has been almost wholly sympathetic. One never hears criticism of Moslem beliefs, only assurances that figures like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar preach aberrations that are far removed from the peaceful, tolerant, broad-minded Islamic mainstream. Sensitivity extends even to indifferent matters: All bien pensants now write "Muslim" and "Quran" (or, better, "Qur'an"), never the familiar "Moslem" and "Koran". If Arabic typefaces were more widely available, we should probably be exhorted to forgo transliteration altogether.
One topic that Islamic popularizers never touch is the early history of Islam, its Prophet and its Holy Book. Quests for the historical Jesus are the subject of best selling books. The parallel quest for the historical Mohammed receives hardly any notice outside of academic circles.
The popular picture is that Islam arose in the full light of history, that we possess detailed information concerning the life and teachings of Mohammed, and that the Koran represents an exact transcription of his revelations. Research over the past century has called those points into question and made the origins of the world's second largest religion fairly problematic.
The accepted Moslem account of the compilation of the Koran gives grounds for doubting how accurately the text represents the ipsissima verba of Mohammed. The Prophet himself was illiterate. According to the official story, his sayings were initially memorized by his disciples and were handed down orally for two or three decades. Only during the reign of the Caliph Uthman (reg. 644-656) was the Koran put into writing - about 20 years after Mohammed's death and over 30 after the commencement of his ministry.
Examination of the earliest manuscripts of the Koran, dating from well after the supposed publication of Uthman's standard version, shows considerable textual variation. The extent of the variants is difficult to judge, because most of the pertinent materials are under the control of Moslem governments that have not been very open to scholarly research. On the other hand, they have not prevented it altogether, and the quantity of accessible evidence is steadily increasing. It is quite possible that different versions of the Koran circulated in an early period or that major "corrections" were made at a late date. Internal evidence supports such theorizing (anathema to orthodox Moslems, of course): Some verses of the Koran purport to cancel earlier ones. The most notorious instance of a discarded passage - one that appears to sanction the worship of divinities other than Allah - was the springboard for Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses.
The biography of Mohammed, known as the sira, has come down to us in immense detail, full of information about not only religious matters but also military campaigns, business dealings, travels, personal habits, and relationships with family members and friends. Western historians often accept the entire account uncritically, yet it rests on a fragile foundation. The Prophet's first comprehensive biographer, Ibn Ishaq (c. 704-767), wrote over a century after the events that he relates, and his work survives only in partial rescensions and quotations by later historians. He and other early biographers do not claim to rely on written evidence from the time of their subject, only on tradition transmitted by word of mouth for at least two or three generations. Very suspiciously, each biographer seems to know more than his predecessors, and many events look like attempts to explain obscure passages in the Koran.
A major portion of the sharia, Islamic law, is founded not directly on the Koran but on other recorded statements of the Prophet concerning legal, ethical and ritual matters (hadith). These are so voluminous that official Islam rejects most of them as spurious and has developed procedures for evaluating whether an alleged hadith really does go back to Mohammed. The methodology for authentication rests, however, on dubious chains of witnesses (isnad) leading back to the Prophet. These take the form of "A said that B said that C said the D said that Mohammed said (or did, or heard and did not object to) thus and so". What the Moslem scholar evaluates is how credible it is that A spoke to B. The scope for forgery is obvious, and the authenticity of an isnad does not in any case guarantee that the original words were spoken by Mohammed or repeated accurately from one informant to the next.
Further darkening the first decades of Islam is the evidence furnished by outside observers. Christians and Jews throughout the Middle East came into early contact with the new religion. Their statements about it are of course highly prejudiced, but they have the virtue of being contemporary and are often at odds with the picture presented in later Moslem writings. Some Western historians have gone so far as to reconstruct Islamic history on the basis of giaour testimony and have argued that primitive Islam was a syncretic Jewish-pagan sect whose theology took shape only after the 7th Century Arab conquests.
Leaving aside radical revisions, the evidence, when reduced to its credible core, leaves many intriguing questions. Mohammed may have been a semi-polytheist, may have preached in northern Arabia rather than Mecca and Medina, may indeed have been less than a central personage in the religion that he is credited with founding. The theory that he did not exist at all sounds fantastic, yet it is more plausible than many widely bruited speculations about the life of Jesus.
Skeptical historical analysis of the Gospels has been commonplace for generations, and all but the most anti-intellectual Christians have accepted the need to address the problems that it raises. So far the Islamic world has kept silent about revisionist inquiries or has rejected them as "orientalist" lies aimed at undermining faith. In the long run, though, as the Christian experience shows, anger is not a convincing argument. Moslems will have to muster better scholarship or else see their history rewritten by infidels.
Further reading:
Toby Lester, "What Is the Koran?" (Atlantic Monthly, January 1999) (long overview by a nonspecialist)
Daniel Pipes, "Who Was the Prophet Muhammad?" (Jerusalem Post, May 12, 2000) (concise article by a leading authority on Middle Eastern affairs)
Alexander Stille, "Radical New Views of Islam and the Origins of the Koran" (New York Times, 3/2/02) (includes the philologically plausible theory that the houris awaiting the faithful in paradise are succulent white raisins)
Ibn Warraq, ed., The Quest for the Historical Muhammad (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000) (an extensive sampling of skeptical opinion about Islamic origins - be warned that some of the essays are dense to the point of obscurity)
Letter of Comment: "Talib" (12/18/02)
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