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Monday, December 28, 2009

In Reply to a Comment on "Disturbing Thoughts on the Religion of Peace"

A commenter (?) wrote:

Do you feel that Islam as a faith is more intolerant of competing faiths, and
is intolerant of secular government itself?

And if so, I wonder if there are ways to foster an evolution of the Islamic
belief system such that there's less of a threat to the Western way of life. A
billion Muslims aren't going away, and banning minarets/mosques seems likely to
be counterproductive.

A fair question, deserving an honest, well-meant answer.

In some ways, whether a belief system is "tolerant" or "intolerant" is beside the point. All belief systems present truth claims; all, with sufficient incentive, are capable of great violence against those who dissent or disbelieve. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that words like "reason" and "justice" taken their meanings from the traditions of discourse in which they are used. Perhaps "tolerance" or "intolerance" are similar. Is tolerance simply a case of accepting that the person who is “wrong” nonetheless retains certain personal and civil rights? Is it a matter of recognizing the validity of the “other’s” point of view? The latter case, which seems to be what many are demanding, is in fact impossible.

I admit to holding to a very intolerant belief system myself. Yes, I believe in such last things as a final judgment, heaven, and hell—even if I have strong theological reasons to refrain from hastening anyone on his way to the last-mentioned (the sixth commandment, for starters). I am primitive enough to believe that if Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would suffer and die for his people (Isaiah 53), and that if the apostles bore witness that he actually did do that and then rose from the dead (cf. First Corinthians 15), then the Qu'ran's statement "...but they did not kill him, or crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them" (Qu'ran 4:157) cannot possibly be true. If I believe that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh--and that the Word was God--as John wrote in the first chapter of his Gospel, then Muhammad's statement that Jesus is no more than a human messanger (Qu'ran 43:57-59) is excluded from the things that I can believe. If I believe that anyone who adds to the corpus of divine revelation (the Bible) is in danger of suffering all the plagues written therein (Rev.22:18), then I cannot accept either the Book of Mormon or the Qu'ran as revelation. If God has been so merciful to us as to become flesh, live among us, offer the final atoning sacrifice for us, and then conquer death for us (yes, I believe in Jesus' resurrection, and observe it every Sunday, thank you), what need is there for a "next" revelation?

The thing that is intolerant isn't this or that belief system, religion, or philosophy; it is logic itself. Now, perhaps we Christians (and the Jews, from whom we received much) falsified the Scriptures, as Muslims claim, and Muhammad's Qu'ran is needed to give us the real story. If this is the case, the things I believe and confess are thereby false. However, since not even Mr. Ahmad Deedat has explained how, after all that conflict, the Jews and the Christians read the same Old Testament and a score of Christian conflicting Christian sects read the same New Testament, I'm not really losing any sleep over the possibility of Islam being true.

Hence, the issue is not whether Christianity is more "tolerant" than Islam or vice versa, but whether one or the other is true, or whether both are false. My commenter, whom I know to be a follower of Ethical Culture, doubtlessly accepts the latter possibility. Does that make him dangerously "intolerant", since his intolerance takes in both a couple billion who call themselves Christians and another billion plus who call themselves Muslims? Well, perhaps it does. But he, I, our Muslim neighbor, and others are not alone in being intolerant.

Why, then, is Islam especially disturbing?

The historical record is replete with dreadful violence perpetrated by both Christians and Muslims. Certainly, some of this was (and is) motivated by the belief that "our side" has the truth. In the 20th century, "liberals in a hurry" (as the Communists were once described) were responsible for more politically motivated deaths, imprisonments, and exiles than Christians in power were in the 1500 years between the conversion of Constantine and 1811, when Ruggles v. New York upheld the imprisonment of a man for blaspheming the name of Jesus. Surely this was partly motivated by the obscenity of people unwilling to accept the clear, obvious "truth" proclaimed by Karl Marx (at least in Marxist eyes)and, to borrow a leaf from Rousseau,the need to compel men to be free.

But how intrinsic is violence to the tasks which God and Allah have put before Christians and Muslims respectively?

Christianity has long understood the ban on the Seven Nations of Canaan to be a unique event, and containing within it the warning to Israel that the practice of similar abominations would result in a similar curse. Hence the unhappy story of the kings of Israel and Judah, the warnings of the prophets, and the Babylonian captivity. The Christian may tremble in fear before the "show them no mercy" texts of Numbers and Deuteronomy and may thank God that he, in his justice, has not seen fit to treat us in a like manner. But these "show them no mercy" texts are not the current marching orders as they were in the 1400's B.C. Today, we are called to "make disciples" (Mt. 28:19). Further, Paul tells us that the weapons of our warfare are spiritual rather than carnal (2 Corinthians 10:4ff). These are reasons why Christians who passionately believe the whole Old Testament to be every bit as "God-breathed" as the New can be tempted by pacifism and see no contradiction in such a stance (for the record, I hold to the just war theory and recognize the state's need to use violence against evildoers).

Islam, however, is a program of subjugation. The Qu’ran and Hadith divide the world into the House of Islam and the House of War, the latter seen as a legitimate target of Islamic aggression. Whereas those who speak of Islamic “tolerance” of other religions point to the protected status of Jewish and Christian minorities (and, to a lesser extent, Zoroastrian, Hindu, and Buddhist ones) at various times and places in Islamic history, they tend to forget that dhimmi status involved subjugation. This meant the absence of full political and legal equality, a “one-way” freedom of conversion from the subjugated community to the dominant one, and the imposition of special taxes at the very least. Persecution and persistent pressure on non-Muslims in Muslim-dominated countries has been the normal pattern throughout the Islamic centuries. While much has been said in recent years about the “greater” and “lesser” jihads in Islam—self-subjugation as opposed to armed conflict with the world of unbelief—jihad itself is fundamentally warfare to convert or subjugate non-Muslims and occupy their lands. The late Samuel Huntington has spoken of the “bloody borders” of Islam in his work on inter-civilizational conflict; a thesis which seems to have all the more salience now that the sole counterfactual case (southern Thailand, where a Cold War alliance between Buddhist Thailand and Muslim Malaysia put a simmering conflict on hold) has broken out in a renewed round of violent Muslim separatism. While all inter-civilizational borders can be and have been violent, there seems to be a special propensity for violence on the borders of Islam. Certainly the doctrine of jihad is an important element in this volatility.

It is indeed true that more than a billion Muslims will remain a force to be reckoned with in international politics for some time to come. But it is not within the competence for secularized Western statesmen to police the Muslim conscience from the outside in order to foster the evolution of Islamic belief systems that are less of a threat to Western values and polities. The various Muslim peoples, sects, schools, movements, individuals, and states will adopt a peaceful or belligerent approach to us “Harbis” (after dar-al-harb—or “house of war”) based on their own calculus of what is advantageous or disadvantageous to themselves. The world of Islam today, no less than the Far East of roughly 1919-68, is not clay in the hands of the West, and is making its own choices. For Western statesmen to pretend that they can strengthen or bring about Islamic “moderation” or “reformation” (forgetting what our own reformation was like) is hubris.

My own position is that the “reform” of the Islamic world depends on a mighty movement of God’s Spirit that will lead people who are now Muslims out of Islam to Christ—in short, a massive Los vom Islam. It is one of the things on my prayer list. Certainly, it sounds impossible, but we Christians have a God who is merciful, able to turn human hearts, and sovereign over history. Now, such a movement will doubtlessly require much time (even if there are a few fruits of such a movement present—such as small Evangelical communities in Turkey, Algeria, and the “Little Tehrans” of America made up of former Muslims).

In the meantime, my only advice to Mr. Obama would be to keep the proverbial powder dry while talking, and to understand that sometimes the causes of conflict can’t be found in the stubborn insistence of certain parts of the American electorate to vote Republican. But, I suspect that Mr. Obama is already coming to understand some of this without my help.

Post-modern Apocalypticism

The Copenhagen climate change conference and Christmas may seem to have little to do with each other except for their occurring in the month of December. However, they are in fact closely related, for both reflect differing types of apocalyptic. The key to Jewish and Christian apocalyptic is the idea that God controls history. Against the disparaging modernist theologians who see Daniel and Revelation as driving people to despair over the state of the world, these works are in fact rich in hope. Groups and sects that have devoted much study and attention to them are not usually passive, but urgent and energetic evangelists. As the late David Hadas of Washington University once observed during a class lecture decades ago, “there’s something energizing about the whole thing.”

There is. The announcement that the Messiah had come—the clear import of the beginning chapters of both Matthew and Luke and the burden of Revelation 12—kaunched a movement that swept much of the Old World within the space of a few centuries. Indeed, some, such as myself, continue to believe this message. Climate skeptics often liken fears about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) to a new religion. They may actually be on to something.

Apocalyptic announcements rally people in times of both real and perceived crisis. This is a phenomenon that can be observed across cultures and across periods of historic time; and is by no means limited to Abrahamic religion. In Buddhism, certain Mahayana sects proclaimed that the future would bring the age of the Maitreya, the Buddha of the future—the fat idol called Mi Le Fo by the Chinese. Belief in the imminence of the Maitreya’s coming sparked a number of revolts in Chinese history, including the one that ultimately brought down Toghan Temur, the last Mongol ruler. Part of the power of Marxism has been its claim to reveal the hidden workings of history, and its promise that the rising proletariat might seize control of these forces under the revolutionary leadership of the vanguard party. Believers in AGW hold that sufficient agitation by concerned people and concerted action by the world’s governments will “save” the planet.

However, apocalypticism runs the risks of overplaying its hand and burning itself out. Believers in AGW seem to be in little danger of the latter possibility at present. However, the first possibility was broached in Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear and has intruded into real life with evidence that the East Anglia Climate Center has tried to suppress data contrary to its expected findings and hound dissenting climatologists out of the profession. While hacking may be disreputable, those who hacked the East Anglian e-mails have uncovered the unpleasant truth that scientists and other academics are not necessarily dispassionate seekers of objective truth, but are as motivated by the possibilities of prestige, grant money, and eligibility for political power as anyone else.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Reflection on Jesus, Chanukah, and Salvation

When I was younger, the discovery that the Jewish holiday of Chanukah is mentioned in the New Testament came as quite a surprise.

And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And
Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch. (John 10:22-23).

The purpose of this is to call attention to Jesus’ redemptive work. Redemption brings us back to an ancient Near Eastern world, in which people go into bondage due to their inability to repay debts. However, they have hope in a wealthy kinsman who may discharge their debts and redeem them from slavery.

How then, is Jesus work like this?

The feast of Chanukah—first mentioned in the apocryphal books of the Maccabbees-- celebrates the re-dedication of the Jerusalem temple to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel after that center of Judaism had been defiled by pagan rites under the Greek Seleucid emperors. Once again, the sacred place was used by the Jews to present their sacrifices; once again it was the place of atonement. The Judaism into which Jesus was born was not an easy, laissez-faire religion; but one with a very deep and pervasive sense of the seriousness of sin, and the need for atonement. The temple, unlike a synagogue or church, was not a place primarily for prayer and teaching, but for sacrifice—and these animal sacrifices of the Old Testament addressed the need for atonement. A great historical drama appears in the history of the Jews after the Babylonian exile, in which joy at being restored to the land and permitted by the Persian Empire to rebuild their temple, followed by the sudden revocation of their privileges under the Seleucid Antiochus. No wonder the successful revolt of the priestly family of Judah the Hammer caught the imagination of devout Jews to the point where they made a prominent holiday out of an event not mentioned or enjoined in the Hebrew Bible itself.

In John 10, Jesus discusses his person and mission. He speaks of giving his life for his sheep, giving them eternal life, and how no man is able to pluck his sheep from his Father’s hand (John. 10:29). This is a quick outline of the redemptive work Jesus performed for us. His death is a sacrifice rather than martyrdom, for he is offering himself not as dissenter, but as the Anointed of God by whose wounds and stripes his people are healed (Isaiah 53). In this he fulfills his role as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). He takes us from the dominion of sin and death to return us to his God and Father. So great is the debt our sins have piled up that it cannot be discharged save by one infinitely greater, more holy, and more righteous who takes it on himself. In this, he is our redeemer from sin. For this, the Messiah was named Jesus—Yehoshua—or “Jehovah saves” (Mt. 1:21).

Just as Judah the Hammer and his family rededicated the temple after its defilement, let us rededicate ourselves to our God, showing thankfulness for the redemption he sent when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Let Jesus be our true temple and the presence of God with us. Immanuel.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Why Weber Was WRONG

A little more than a century ago, Max Weber (1864-1920) gave shape to one of the last things that American elites “know” about the Calvinism that shaped their civilization.

Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism held that anxiety over predestination led early Calvinists to stress works as the way to reassure themselves that they were part of the elect—i.e., those predestined from all eternity to salvation. The honesty, industry, support for the community, and other virtues fostered by the Reformed (the real name for “Calvinist”) went on to inadvertently create modern capitalism. Weber’s work also led lesser minds to believe that worldly wealth and success were the marks of the Reformed faith’s elect.

Interestingly enough, after a century of being attacked by Marxists, modern Calvinists are more than willing to accept Weber’s reading of their faith as the fountainhead of capitalism. Even Chinese raised as Marxists who have recently found themselves free of Marxism’s more extreme forms find the Weber thesis attractive.

Weber was trying very hard to stand Karl Marx on his head by finding an example of how economic phenomena were, in fact, expressions of spiritual phenomena. In this, he is probably to be commended for taking on his bullying, embittered, highly selective, and self-deceived countryman who hoped—as Lawrence Peter noted—to abolish hierarchies by positing twin hierarchies of ability and need with the former willingly serving the latter. But Weber was nonetheless terribly, terribly wrong; and it is necessary to point out exactly where he wrong.

First, he misread European economic history. Capitalism was already launched long before the likes of Jean Cauvin of Noyon or even Huldrych Zwingli were born. The Roman Catholic houses of Medici and Fugger succeeded mightily in banking despite their church’s dislike of usury; while the cities between northern Italy and the North Sea became veritable hives of non-agricultural economic activity during the 15th rather than the 16th century.

Second, Weber may have been more than a little influenced by Lutheran accounts of Lutheranism’s Reformed rival. For 17th century Lutheran theologians, who cast a long shadow over theological study in Germany, the charge that Calvinists stressed “works” was a way of saying that they had abandoned the doctrine of justification by faith—17th century Lutheranese for saying that the Calvinists had cloven hooves and tails. Perhaps a Lutheran commentator could enlighten us further.

Thirdly, Weber’s thesis has virtually no support at all in the classical works of Reformed divinity.

For the Reformed, God’s eternal decree to save a people from the fallen mass of humanity unfolded through something that they called the Covenant of Grace. In this, the persons of the Holy Trinity made an agreement that the Father would choose some, the Son would save them, and the Holy Spirit would apply the benefits of that salvation to them. The Reformed were much impressed by the sovereign power of God manifested in Old Testament prophecy, especially the Psalms and Isaiah; and with predestinarian teaching evident in the New Testament writings of John and Paul (as well as in the Synoptic Gospels and in First Peter).

Calvin and his Puritan disciples taught that Christ went to the cross and gave up his life for the sheep whom the Father gave him (cf. John 10: 15, 28-29). The Holy Spirit would ultimately quicken and work faith in Christ in those same persons, whether they were Old Testament saints who hoped in the coming of Messiah, contemporaries of Jesus and his apostles, or in future generations. In Calvinism, no less than in Lutheranism, the faith that justified man before God was confidence in the righteousness of Christ rather than in the righteousness of the believer, which would always be less than perfect due to the lingering effects of original sin.

The Reformed did indeed stress good works—but these were the fruit of a living faith and the Christian’s proper expression of gratitude towards the God who had saved him, and did not justify a person before God. Moreover, such an attitude was scarcely limited to the Calvinists. Luther also included a lengthy exposition of the Decalogue in his Shorter Catechism; while works of practical Christian living flowed effusively from the pens of divines belonging to all Christian denominations.

Thomas Watson, the 17th century English Puritan divine, did indeed enjoin the readers to work in their appropriate callings in his exposition of the Ten Commandments. Yet such work was not to prove themselves elect, but rather to maintain life. Watson and his hearers, after all, belonged to that long stretch of historical time that knew want intimately and plenty scarcely at all, in which the man who did not work did not eat. Towards the wealthy, he is more concerned that their wealth will lead them to forget their God, and has no word of congratulations to them. While he (or Calvin) would have had no objection to a poor believer bettering his condition by industry and thrift, he and his colleagues do not seem to have expected such a thing to happen very often. In short, poor elect people in common walks of life were the most common kind of elect people to be expected.

Perhaps one reason why Weber’s thesis has been plausible was that he tended to take the heirs of English dissent as quintessential Calvinists. Yet in doing this, Weber ignored how the Unitarians, Quakers, and Methodists lumped under the label “dissent” along with Congregationalists and Presbyterians could scarcely be seen as Calvinists. And in noting the prominence of British dissenters in business circles, Weber missed the more likely explanation that a tolerated minority with limited access to political power is more likely to find its niche in commerce. Joel Kotkin’s Tribes, which describes the important role played by Jews, Overseas Chinese, the Indian diaspora, and other communities in the economic development of the world, was probably closer to what Weber should have discovered.

So, after a century, the Weber thesis probably needs to be put to rest.

LIberals Sticking their Feet in Others' Mouths

Daniel Pipes has recently disparaged “Sheikh Obama” for questionable remarks about Islam:

"Religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam." Here, Obama follows his predecessor in presenting himself as an interpreter of Islam. I ridiculed "Imam Bush" for telling Muslims about true Islam and its distortion, and now I must ridicule "Sheikh Obama" for the same. He's a politician, not a theologian. He's now a Christian, not a Muslim. He should steer completely clear from the topic of who are good or bad Muslims. (December 10, 2009)--

In his comments, Pipes has laid a finger on a peculiarly American penchant for policing the consciences of others from outside.

A commentator on Pipes’ blog charges that Obama is, in fact, a Shi’ite Muslim practicing Taqiyya, or presenting himself as something else to a hostile audience. More likely, Mr. Obama knows next to nothing about the merits of either side of the struggle for the early Islamic Caliphate that gave rise to divisions between Sunni, Shi’ah, and Ibadi. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s praise for Islam and appeals to his own Muslim heritage while speaking to the assembled delegates of the Islamic world in Cairo following his protestations of being a Christian during the U.S. presidential campaign suggest that Mr. Obama’s religious identity is tailored to the community he wishes to persuade and influence; that he is a politician who sees all religions as equally useful rather than a believer in the truth of any one of them.

But is it not presumptuous for either Mr. Bush or Mr. Obama to claim to fathom all the intricacies of the Islamic doctrine of jihad, or when points of ethics shared by Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are to trump the call to jihad? At best, both recent U.S. presidents possess only a rudimentary knowledge of Islamic doctrine.

Both, however, are claiming the post-enlightenment liberal’s presumption to stand in judgment over all prior traditions, while denying the right of others to challenge his own presuppositions about reason, justice, and the nature of reality.

Many an American liberal who cannot tell whether the book of Job is in the Old or New Testament, prides himself on his disparagement of “organized religion”, and has not darkened the door of a house of worship in years dares to tell Evangelicals who oppose abortion or homosexual marriage that they are “un-Christian”. Nancy Pelosi has presumed to lecture the Pope on how the encyclicals of his predecessors are somehow cryptically pro-abortion; even though it is clear even to God-bless-King-Billy Presbyterians that the Pope, not the U.S. Speaker of the House, is the ultimate interpreter of Roman Catholic doctrine.

Perhaps such attitudes did much to drive both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics away from the Democratic Party—the political home of many of the most outspoken American militant godless--for which their grandparents voted in droves. It is also likely that such attitudes, which expects the Islamic world, with its very different set of values and historical experience, to share a set of core ethical principles with secularized Americans, will only exacerbate America’s relations with that quarter of the world.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Disturbing Thoughts About "the Religion of Peace"

Recently, 57% of Swiss voters voted to ban the building of minarets in their country. This was neither a ban on the practice of Islam or the building of mosques. Perhaps the reason was that they just didn't like the thought of five daily Azzan disturbing the peace of their cobbled cities and Alpine valleys. Perhaps they thought that the minaret is a sign of Islamic triumphalism rather than the mere practice of the religion.

In any case. Libya's Moammar Qaddafi reacted to the news by saying how hard it would be to build new churches in Muslim-majority countries.


Already, few Muslim countries permit the building of new churches. In Egypt and Turkey, Christians (and Jews) are required to worship in pre-existing edifaces, following older Ottoman statutes. In Saudi Arabia, the practice of any non-Islamic religion is forbidden, and can be punished by deportation or even death. Where new Christian movements have arisen, such as Evangelicals in Turkey and the Kabyle region of Algeria, they are required to meet in private homes--although there may be some unlicensed shanties in a couple of Turkish cities used as churches.

While the Swiss electorate's reaction to Islamic inroads in Europe may be extreme, the fact is that the Muslim world is extremely short on tolerance--regardless of what President Obama said in Cairo. At the present time, there are active movements against the Coptic minority in Egypt, while half of pre-war Iraq's Christians have fled. Arrests of Christians of Muslim background are on the rise in Iran, while Pakistan's Christians are subjected to frequent abductions and rapes of their daughters.

Indeed, while many school textbooks laud the toleration of Ummayad Spain and Saladin's Egypt (with no mention of how Dhimmi laws, which made a tolerated non-Muslim's testimony equal to half of that of a Muslim), the Qu'ran and Hadith are replete with commands to subjugate non-believers. Many still take Muhammad's massacre of the Jewish males of Medina and the enslavement of the women and children as normative Islamic practice. The late Samuel Huntington paused to reflect on Islam's "bloody borders"--and recent developments in the south of Thailand showthat the main counterfactual to Huntington's thesis no longer holds.

Finally, Qaddafi's reaction expresses an all-too common Muslim attitude of "Call us a religion of peace, or we'll murder, pillage, rape, and bomb you, and persecute your co-religionists." This is hardly expressive of a sincere desire for cross-cultural dialogue, and makes the Swiss vote all the more understandable.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Liberal Prissiness and Ignorance

Today, WUSA9 News made liberals look stupid, prissy, and bigoted.

The report dealt with Sarah Palin's book signing, which drew crowds in Fairfax and prissy titters near Dupont Circle. One man interviewed in a "liberal bookstore" quipped that the snow came to town with Palin, who drew it in from her Russian neighbors--as if anyone would be so stupid as to think that any part of America could be anywhere near Russia.

Well, the former governor is right that her state borders Russia. Big and Little Diomede Islands are only a cople of kilometers apart, so given three-mile and twelve-mile territorial waters, the state of Alaska and the Chukotski Okrug do indeed share a border--albeit a maritime one. Further, given Alaska's geographical position, any Alaskan politician unaware of Russia's proximity would be unfit for office.

Further, anyone who finds folly in Palin's comments on Russia "bordering" Alaska is unfit to be taken seriously as either a leader or commentator on American foreign policy or geopolitical interests. During the Cold War, while most Americans were aware that Germany, Greece, and Turkey bordered Warsaw Pact signatories, few were aware that the USA was one of three NATO allies from whose territory Soviet (rather than satellite) territory could be seen (the other two were Norway and Turkey). Hence, WUSA9's interviewee suggests that liberal pretensions to a greater savvy about America's place in the world are, well, pretensions.

Further, they suggest that too many liberals see "Overseas" only by looking across the Atlantic. As one who has family ties and travel experience across both major Oceans, I find this highly disconcerting in a class of people who tend to pride themselves on their geographic, ethnological, historical, and political sophistication.