Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Conservative Catholicism and Liberal Islam

I just finished reading Thomas F. Madden's Empires of Trust: How Rome Built--and America Is Building--a New World, and I'm planning to write a couple posts shortly reviewing the book and the ideas it presents. As a prelude of sorts, however, I'd like to revisit some thinking I did a while back:

A month or so ago I finally had the chance to read Steven Vincent's account of life outside the green zone in post-war Iraq: In The Red Zone. It's a very fair book, and worth a read whether you support the war in Iraq or not. The author, since then killed in Iraq by militants, was a New York art reporter who watched the attacks on 9-11 and supported the Iraq war. Having supported the war, he felt like he should go over and see what was really happening over there. The book has the advantage of being writing from a culture writer's point of view rather than a political writer's. And although Vincent starts out as an enthusiastic supporter of the project, he ends unsure whether it's possible for democracy to flourish in Iraq. (I'd be curious to read later work by him and see what he thought of the elections and the provisional constitution, both of which post date his book.)

This reminded me of my long held intention to read more about Islam, so I pull off the shelf the copy of Living Islam (now apparently out of print) by Ahbar S Ahmed which I'd bought on remainder some nine years ago and had been meaning to read ever since. Living Islam is half cultural history, half apologia (think a very, very light weight version of Letters To A Young Catholic with lots of pictures and basic intro information.)

To round things off, I'm currently reading Thomas F. Madden's The New Concise History of the Crusades.

Now, one of the things that struck Vincent in touring Iraq is that some of what he discovered were the best allies of a democratic Iraq were people that most conservatives would be hesitant to ally with. For instance, the Iraqi Communist Party was, contrary to the history of most of their comrades, one of the few political parties not maintaining a militia to enforce their will by violence. Similarly, radical secularist feminists tended to be the advocates for what American conservatives would consider to be standard human rights for women. Meanwhile Sistani, the voice of moderate to conservative religion on the Shia side, had an on-again off-again relationship with ideas of democracy, much less religious freedom.

All of which led me (slowly as usual) to some thinking on ecumenism. Now, I'm used to thinking of ecumenism in terms of Christian doctrine. In this sense, those groups which take Christian revelation most seriously are often 'closer' to Catholicism than those which see Christian revelation as a non-authoritative step (one among many) in the conversation between God and creation. I've got used to, generally, seeing the more orthodox or conservative elements of a given Christian tradition as 'more faithful' and the less orthodox ones as 'less faithful'. (I don't mean strictly adherence to scripture here. Indeed, I'd see the Orthodox as 'more faithful' to the Christian revelation than any Protestant denomination specifically because they have retained the Church's understanding of the correct relationship between Scripture and Tradition. Within the Protestant spectrum, I would see those who have remained most faithful to both Scripture and Tradition as most faithful to historic Christianity, though I'd see those who accept scripture along as more faithful that those who do not feel strictly bound by either Scripture or Tradition

Similarly, looking at Judaism, I tend to admire the more conservative elements of Judaism over the heavily 'reformed' groups, in that they seem to have remained most faithful to God's original revelation to Israel. Since Judaism is, at root, fully true (though not encompassing all truth) it seems clear that more strict adherence to that core is 'better' than less strict adherence.

But what, then, is one to make of Islam? Some conservative Catholics seem to look at our desire to see the Middle East become more secular and say: "Secularization has brought divorce, fornication, abortion, pornography and a host of other moral horrors into the mainstream. Why should we think that Islamic countries ought to follow us down the devil's road to secular hedonism?"

Certainly, no good Christian would actively suggest that Muslims practice fornication, abortion, etc. However, while the fallen nature of humanity may mean that ceasing to publicly execute people for fornication will result in more fornication, that does not mean ending the practice of executing fornicators is the same thing as encouraging fornication.

The difficulty in knowing which horse to back in the world of Islam is that from a Catholic point of view, Islam does not merely lack the whole truth, but also contains elements (indeed, major elements) which are directly contrary to truth. (And it seems, from an Islamic point of view, the same would have to be said about Catholicism.) So while in a the sense that 'anything worth doing is worth doing well' it might seem that the most orthodox understanding of Islam is the one that we should admire -- since being a firm believer in Islam means firmly believing not only some things that are true, but also others that are false -- in fact an orthodox Muslim is in firmer opposition to Catholicism than a 'liberal' Muslim.

One of the dangers of discussing another religion is lack of context. Perhaps what looks to me from the outside to be 'orthodox' Islam is in fact (by the standards of other Muslims) a radically imbalanced form of Islam, in the same way that someone looking at Christianity from the outside might assume that "Bible alone" Christians were more 'orthodox' than Catholics and Orthodox are. Indeed, I wonder if this is an impossible question to answer for someone who doesn't accept the truth of Islam. I think, at best, from the outside one could identify that line of thought which is most historically consistent in an religion. I am fairly confident that such an outside observer would identify Orthodoxy and Catholicism as the forms of Christianity with the most ancient lineage.

But from the point of view of Catholicism, which asserts that while containing some truth Islam contains major tenets which are false, should we see the most historically prevalent form of Islam as the "best" form of Islam? Should we encourage the form which, through liberalizing of the original Koranic meaning, comes closer to a Catholic understanding of the human person, morality, and man's mission in the world? (Or at least is less of a threat to them.) Should we smile on any form of Islam at all?

From the point of view of basic human rights, it seems that 'liberal Islam' is the friend of Catholicism, not orthodox or historic Islam. But then, conservatism is, in this sense, a relative term. Modern orthodox Catholicism might be described as 'liberal' in comparison to 1300 AD Catholicism.

I've read a number of secular commentators say that "Islam needs a Martin Luther" -- though I suspect that what they actually mean is, "Islam needs a Bishop Spong" -- and it is certainly the case that both for political stability in the Middle East and for Christian missionaries to have more of a chance to reach that part of the world, it would be of great help to us as outsiders if a much more "liberal" and "moderate" form of Islam were to take hold. And yet it grates against me to wish against others modernizing trends which I oppose when applied to my own faith. Though I do not think that the Koran is the word of God, it hardly seems right to encourage people to take what they believe to be the word of God and change it in order to make it fit the spirit of the age.


bearing said...

A good illustration of why we should be less concerned with "liberal" or "conservative," "traditional" or "progressive," and even "orthodox" or "reformed," and simply concern ourselves with truth and falsehood.

CMinor said...

Whoa, do you know Darwin's jacking your work at AC? Or did you just post under his name there?

Darwin said...


That was my post but I didn't realize MrsD was the one logged in. Oh well... The two shall become one and all that.

Tito Edwards said...

Christopher West would appreciate that!

Bang Gully said...

I'm very confused about what you're writing about in this post. You're taking examples of political actors in a war torn country (a country invaded by the quite modern, quite liberal America) and then talk about how this equates to Islam and Catholicism in a much larger sense.

Your assumption is that fighting back or using violence as a means of political power against American forces is somehow bad. As a believer in God myself, I find it hard to beleive how that could be seen as bad. If another country invades your land, bombs your cities, and then tries to make your govt and steal your resources, you have every right and every duty to fight back.

Unfortunately most Catholic conservatives I've met in America are either religious hypocrites who never oppose the status quo or maybe the idea that "man is fallen" leads to a cynical and negative view of human nature that says that fighting for anything good is not worth it since it is man's lot to suffer.

It's funny how the older Catholics in America are very establishment. They are similar to the Saudi Arabian religious scholars who issue numerous fatwas about fornication and women can't drive but overlook that the rulers of the Kingdom do the same things and take the Muslims wealth and oppress the poor. Something the Prophets (peace be upon them all) never did.

Also I beleive certain Christians are jealous of Muslims in a larger sense because Muslims have not been religiously emasculated. We still maintain our religion in much larger numbers than the Catholics and Protestants, we have rules and regulations that set standard and guideways for our relationship with God. The Jews have this but only a minority of them follow this. Whereas the Christians have historically been led astray by denying the law and misreading Jesus (saws) message.

But I digress. You mention that Islam is wholly against truth. What is the truth?

CMinor said...

Evidently Bang Gully isn't acquainted with the Passion narratives--that concluding sentence was wholly unfortunate in this context.

Darwin said...

Bang Gully,

I'm not sure where you get the impression that my objection to "conservative Islam" is that some of its adherents are fighting against US troops (or more often just plain blowing up Iraqi civilians indiscriminately, since that's much easier) in Iraq. I tend to think that the US invasion of Iraq was justified, however my objection is not that those Iraqis who believe otherwise are fighting the US. My objection to "conservative Islam" is, rather, some of its tenets which I think violate basic human rights. For instance, according to some mainstream interpretations of the Koran, it is required that if a Muslim leaves Islam, he or she be executed. From a Christian point of view, this would be doubly wrong, both because leaving Islam for Christianity would be seen as a good thing by Christians (rather than as a crime to be punished) and because according to the Catholic understanding of religious freedom it is not right to execute someone for apostasy.

So my concern is not so much that some Muslims oppose the US, but that Islam itself commands come actions which as a Christian I believe are wrong. In this sense, Muslims who take certain elements their faith less seriously are in a sense acting more rightly from Christian perspective than the more orthodox Muslims.

But I digress. You mention that Islam is wholly against truth. What is the truth?Well, to be precise I said, "the point of view of Catholicism, which asserts that while containing some truth Islam contains major tenets which are false." I would say that Islam is right to assert that God is One, all good, all powerful and all knowing. However, Islam does not reflect very important aspects of what I, as a Catholic, believe to be true. For instance, we believe the Jesus the Christ was the incarnation of God: true God and true Man. We believe that Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead on the third day, conquering sin and death, and that through His grace we can receive the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal salvation. Islam instead describes Jesus as a great prophet, and not the last of them as Mohammad came later and provided the final and complete revelation from an Islamic point of view.

So while Islam reflects some truths, it lacks others and asserts some things to be true which as a Catholic I believe false.

Just as an FYI, you might want to be wary of using the phrase "What is the truth?" in dialog with Christians. In the Gospel narrative, Pontius Pilate says, "What is truth?" right before condemning Christ to death. In that context, Pilate is questioning whether there is such a thing as real truth. So the phrase carries a lot of baggage.

Bang Gully said...


I don't have a clue as to what you mean to even imply when you say "conservative Islam" in quotes. There is no such thing as "liberal" an "conservative" Islam. Islam is Islam. Liberal and conservative are conventional titles and it depends on the context.

Your understanding of the apostasy issue is wrong and uninformed.

There is absolutely no justification in the Qu'ran for any kind of earthly punishment for apostasy.

Allah (swt) says in the Qu'ran:

"Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things. " (Surah Al-Baqara, 2:256)

You are most likely referring to the hadiths that clearly mention death for an apostate. Hadiths ,like the Qur'anic verses themselves, are interpreted in light of the events and circumstances they were revealed in or the circumstances that the Prophet (saws) spoke with his companions. There were certain people who would join the Muslims under the pretext of conversion but were really spies for the pagan Quraysh tribe in Mecca. Belief in Islam was the sine qua non of political order amongst the Muslims in a pretty much decentralised tribal society. Therefore , if one went back on their word, they were a threat. If for example, there was a treaty between 2 different tribes and one of the tribes broke the treaty, the punishment was death of all the male members of the tribe since they could not be trusted and the tribe who did not break the promise was actually in danger if they exposed their women and children to such treacherous people. In that context, apostasy was a form of treason.

This also goes to explain why the Muslims, who sought refuge from the Negus in Christian Ethiopia, did not kill or even make mention of such thoughts against one of their own when he decided to convert to Christianity and stay with the Ethiopians instead of returning back to Mecca with the Muslims. He did not commit treason.

I have a question for you: Was the Inquisition wrong? That was the Catholic understanding of religious freedom.

If a Muslim wishes to convert to Christianity, that is his or her wish. If their family gives them a hard time, that's unfortunate but he has every right to live his life and follow his religion.

As for the truth, one thing I've always wondered as an American raised South Asian Muslim is that why aren't Catholics considered polytheists but Hindus are? Hindus say the same things about their pantheon of Gods. "There is only one God, but many incarnations of the Godhead" So what if the Catholics say 3 instead of 100? It is still more than one. I have yet to be convinced that God would first of all fault man for something he didn't do (disobeying God in Eden) and in order to atone for this "sin" that God would send himself in Man's image to die for their sins? I am not even trying to be dismissive. I just do not beleive God gave a baby any fault in this world. God gave us life and gave us perfect souls. It is our acts which stake out our future, not the death of God or part of God! It just seems to be almost blasphemous to say something like this about our Creator.

Muslims beleive that Isa (aws) was a prophet and messenger, and also RuhAllah (the Spirit of Allah) and we revere and love Isa (aws) very much as we love and revere all the Prophets that Allah has sent. In Islam you could say "I declare there is no God but God and that Isa (aws) is his Messenger" and still be an orthodox Muslim.

We also beleive that Isa (aws) will come before the Day of Judgment and kill Al Masih Ad Dajjal (the False Messiah)

If Isa (aws) was the Son of God or part of a Trinity, where in the Bible does he in his own words say this clearly?

Darwin said...

Bang Gully,

Sorry to be slow in replying. I'd wanted to do so thoughtfully, and sometimes there's not much time for thought in the day!

There is absolutely no justification in the Qu'ran for any kind of earthly punishment for apostasy.I would consider that a moral and humane understanding, so I'm glad to hear you state it. As you say, I think it's hard for outsiders to understand how some of these arguments internal to Islam work out. For instance, I posted this same piece on a group blog that I contribute to and got a response from a very polite Malaysian man who is a Muslim and explained to me that it was required by Islam that apostates be executed.

Now, if you asked me a bunch of questions about Christianity and then asked a member of the Church of Christ (a Protestant Evangelical denomination), you'd get very different answers. You'd even get some argument among Catholics as to what the Church teaches, even though we have a centralized spiritual authority to speak on these matters. So it's hardly surprising to me that Muslims would disagree, but this is what I was talking about as what Westerners percieve as "liberal" and "conservative" versions of Islam.

I have a question for you: Was the Inquisition wrong? That was the Catholic understanding of religious freedom. Well, I would certainly say that many things which members of the inquisition did were wrong. However, there is also a lot of deceptive history circulating about the inquisition, so one must separate myth from truth.

It has been the understanding of the Church throughout history that faith is only pleasing to God when it is given freely, not forced. However, at some earlier points in Church history it has been argued by many in the Church (and this was the motive behind the inquisition) that it is acceptable to use force to protect the wider society from heresy. The justification is: Teaching heresy injures those who hear it, and so protecting people from that injury justifies the use of force. This is been a topic of dispute through much of the Church's history, but in the last 100 years it has been pretty definatively taught that using such compulsion is in contradiction to human dignity.

Muslims beleive that Isa (aws) was a prophet and messenger, and also RuhAllah (the Spirit of Allah) and we revere and love Isa (aws) very much as we love and revere all the Prophets that Allah has sent. In Islam you could say "I declare there is no God but God and that Isa (aws) is his Messenger" and still be an orthodox Muslim.

We also beleive that Isa (aws) will come before the Day of Judgment and kill Al Masih Ad Dajjal (the False Messiah)

If Isa (aws) was the Son of God or part of a Trinity, where in the Bible does he in his own words say this clearly?
The trinity is something which is certainly mentioned a number of times in the Bible, though as a Catholic I would also consider it key that it is attested to from the very earliest writings of the Church (for Catholics, the Tradition [capital T] of the Church consists of the writings and beliefs of the Church throughout history, and if I understand you right it is for us something like the Hadith). The main Bible verses would be:

Matthew 28:19
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

2 Corinthians 13:14
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

John 1:1-4,14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth.

Romans 9:5
Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.

1 John 5:20
We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

Hebrews 1:8
But about the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever,
and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom.

Colossians 2:9
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,