Warning: statements of epistemological certainty – dealing with the topic of religion of all things! – are made below. If you do not think that religious statements can convey simple truth and be counted as knowledge, you are likely to be offended and/or exasperated by the content of this post.
How can society avoid ugly religious incidents – or at least minimize their occurrences? I think some intelligent things can be said here.
Recently, Jonathan Last, author of the excellent book What to Expect When no One’s Expecting, reported:
Dana Milbank says that a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation turned “ugly” yesterday when a Muslim student named Saba Ahmed from American University tried to defend the honor of Islam:
“We portray Islam and all Muslims as bad, but there’s 1.8 billion followers of Islam,” she said. “We have 8 million-plus Muslim Americans in this country and I don’t see them represented here.”
Even if the number of 8 million-plus Muslims in America is probably very high – the point Mr. Last contends against – a bigger point needs to be made:In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther talked about putting “the best construction on everything” – “explaining everything in the kindest way”. Here, we want to be accurate and honest but also not jump to hasty conclusions – particularly those that confirm our prejudices and biases.* Romans 12:18 gives us some good advice as well: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.“
So – in these discussions plenty of respect (and even affection), nuance, highly intelligent questioning, a willingness to listen, etc. are all needed – and broad brushes should never be applied. No doubt – we don’t no one wants things to get ugly – that is, politically volatile.
That said, contra some of the new atheists and other Enlightenment folk it is fallacious to say that religion is the main cause of war. On the other hand, no one should want religious strife of any kind to arise, for religion certainly has and can exacerbate tensions in the conflicts that exist among persons – particularly war – which throughout human history has been a common occurrence.
All this said, there are two more important things we must say here:
a) religions need to be able to say that they think that they are right and others are wrong – and be able to give reasons for that, if they have them,
b) religions should not have to worship together in order to prove that they cannot only respect but “get on with” the adherents of another religion.
This is why some of Pope Francis’ most recent actions – praying in the Vatican gardens with a Muslim & Jewish delegation on Pentecost – are so disheartening (see here** ; no, I am not saying I don’t want peace here – if you are thinking that)
Why? What is so bad about what he is doing? What could this possibly encourage? Well, this incident for one:
As I wrote at the time…..
… There is no doubt that it is easy to criticize the tactless and insensitive actions of some of the members of the Society of St. Pius X(see “A Profanation Protesting Profanation“ at the First Thoughts blog). Here, [Pope Francis’] words in paragraph 94 [of his encyclical] perhaps should come to mind: “It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity”. That said, what about more traditional believers who are far less radical? Really, what prevents the Catholic church from having joint worship services with rabbis, for example, as much as possible? Why not do so if they will simply refrain from condemning out loud the message of Christ? Why would a refusal to join in worship with them not also be intolerant and divisive – even “aggressive”?
So, what is the answer to this dilemma? It seems to me that Pope Francis laid it out in so many words when he said:
“a facile syncretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture on the part of those who would ignore greater values of which they are not the masters…What is not helpful is a diplomatic openness which says ‘yes’ to everything in order to avoid problems, for this would be a way of deceiving others and denying them the good which we have been given to share generously with others. Evangelization and interreligious dialogue, far from being opposed, mutually support and nourish one another.” (paragraph 151, talked about more in this post)
These words do sound pretty reasonable to me. However, one would think that this does not mean that joint worship is in view here – where one assumes that we are worshipping the same God! Joint worship services and even joint public prayers (um, or private, when the impression is given that the same God is being addressed) are simply a place where the Christian cannot go.
Which is why what this woman – who interrupted a Muslim’s prayer in a cathedral some months ago – says about the deception that is taking place is, in fact, correct. I invite you to listen to this six minute piece which interviews her
No, I do not think that what this women did is something that any of us should get in the habit of doing. That said, when we do not talk constructively about matters of truth in public – being willing to not only “dialogue” but debate respectfully and civilly*** – it seems that people perhaps feel driven to these kinds of “prophetic actions”.**** Many people, whether they are badly or well informed, are at least well aware of the fact that there are important differences between theses religions – and that should be common knowledge.
As the interview shows, this is hardly some wild-eyed and crazy person. She is a normal, devout Christian woman, who, I imagine, has caused at least a few hearts to question their assumptions. She has earned the respect of many, and not without reason (here is one particularly thoughtful piece). She puts the rest of us to shame who are not willing to be faithful – both vigorously and winsomely – in in far less trying circumstances.
It is easy for me to criticize this woman. This was not a joint worship service, I say, but a concert meant to promote good will between Christians and Muslims. But am I really looking for excuses to avoid confronting the obvious? – that is, that those organizing these events likely have absolutely no desire to mention differences over what is true – much less to allow full-throated Christian proclamation! As such, it seems that one faith is gradually “hi-jacked” by the other, the more vigorous and assertive.
These are the kinds of questions the devout are going to wrestle with – and why I submit that it is important that there are outlets for healthy public debate – even in publicly funded arenas like public universities. Debates such as these between intelligent persons of good will – who are both irenic and bold – must not be squelched but rather encouraged. Pastors who might be particularly capable of doing these things should try and get involved.
NOTE: some sentences in the above post have been slightly revised upon original publication for clarification.
*I submit that considering Luther’s words against Rome and its leaders, we should not jump to the conclusion that Luther was being hypocritical, but, explaining his actions in the kindest way, speak about how strongly he must have thought that the evidence was against Rome and the Pope.
**From the piece I linked to: “Sunday’s prayer event was organised in minute detail and comprised Jewish, Christian and Muslim prayers.”
***Where I work at Concordia University – “where Christ is honored and all are welcome” – this is often done in religion classes (where we have very many non-Christian students) – and quite effectively, it seems to me (not so much that we are seeing many conversions, but that persons begin to understand the differences, why they are important, and that we can still be civil and kind to one another even as we disagree about these particularly critical matters of what is true about salvation).
****Incidently, in case you missed it, something similar happened in the American Congress just a few months ago – see here for the initial news report and here for a report on the stenographer who interrupted the session.