Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The elephant in the cathedral

Pope Benedict has discovered how dangerous it is to make sweeping generalizations -- or even to appear to be making sweeping generalizations -- about another religion, especially when that religion is Islam. I find it remarkably ironic that observers at once point out how "offensive" the pope's remarks are, since they imply that Islam is inherently violent and barbaric, and then immediately try to hold him responsible for the consequences of his words by tying the statements to the death of nun at the hands of Muslims. "Because you called the Muslims barbaric, they went and did something barbaric. Shame on you!"

I've been reading a lot in the blogs and news lately of various people, both from the Muslim world and the Western world (both Christian and secular), trying to answer this question: "Is Islam a peaceful religion? Or is it inherently violent?" There is a lot riding on this question, since so much of the "global war on terror" is either explicitly or implicitly framed as an ideological clash of cultures with radically different views of what society should be like. Or, to put it in simpler terms: "Westerners are decadent dogs" vs. "They hate our freedom."

It's not hard for someone to find passages in the Qu'ran that explicitly direct Muslims to convert people with the sword. So, if you want to pull a Pope Benedict, you can call it an open-and-shut case. But, in practice, it's been a mixed bag with Islam; some Muslim cultures have been remarkably tolerant (think Toledo in Middle Ages), while others have been brutally repressive (who else but the Taliban). And, it's going to be quite a shoot-out if you put Islam next to Judaism or Christianity in terms of tolerance. The Old Testament texts always seemed to be just as blood-thirsty as the Qu'ran, when it comes to conquering the Other Guy. Christianity might have a slight leg up in terms of straight theology with the whole "love your enemy" thing, but Christianity's track record on tolerance is almost as spotty as Islam's.

Reading Ken Wilber's The Marriage of Sense and Soul has given me a different perspective on this debate. Wilber points out that most of the values that we point to today as the pinnacles of our moral achievement -- the abolition of slavery, the rule of law, human rights, equality of women, etc. -- are the fruits of modernity. While they may their roots in the premodern religions, they are things that only came about in modern cultures, and were never realized by the strictly premodern religions. Jesus never said that slavery was wrong. Nor did he try to disrupt the status quo when it came to political or economic rights -- "give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" means that, when it comes to questions of worldly rights and order, Jesus is going to punt.

Now, I happen to think that Jesus got it right. He focused on the important stuff -- "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart . . . . and thy neighbor as theyself" -- and I feel no need to turn him into a progressive liberal in order to recognize the essential truth of his message and the sanctity of his person. But it's important to recognize that Jesus' message of love was only the starting point. It took modernism to allow that love to progress into societal values we have today.

So, all the monotheistic religions of the world are facing the same conundrum. They want to believe that God gave them, straight from the mountain top, the values that they have today. (Whether that mountain is Hira, or Sinai, or the Mount of Olives, is up to you.) But the original messengers of all faiths seem to have some rather embarrassing lapses of values, if by omission if nothing else. At some point, everyone has to acknowledge that peace, love, and understanding doesn't come from the revelations of the past -- it comes from the revelations of the present. It comes from us.


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