Thursday, November 8, 2007

Papal Sword—Part 2

Further wrinkles come to mind from my immediately preceding post.

In that post, I wrote:

Considering the threat we face today, restoring a good measure of the military verve and edge to Christianity—the real Christianity of history, that is, not the polar extremes of its caricature either as a proto-Hippie pacifism or as a bloodthirsty Crusade-hungry religion—would seem crucial for us.

It would be instructive to look more closely at that caricature and its polar extremes. First, it should be noted that in our time, those extremes do not cleanly conform to the political fault-line of Left/Right. Indeed, it is rather in fashion among conservative Western Christians to share the ahistorical and simplistic view—with regard to the putative nature of Christianity—of the Leftist-oriented Christians as well as Leftist-oriented anti-Christian agnostics and atheists: both, for the most part, purvey a peaceful, aboriginally ideal, Christianity, inoculated from the rough-and-tumble of the real world. However, their motives for reaching the same conclusion —as well as the further extrapolations to which they take this conclusion—are considerably different.

Conservative Western Christians—particularly post-911, when a certain number of them are increasingly waking up to the need to sharpen the differences between Christianity and Islam, because of Muslim apologetics as well as Leftist anti-Christian and/or equivalencist polemics—seem to be tending to highlight the putatively pacifist nature of Christianity while downplaying its former ability to be militaristic. This could well crystallize Spencer’s motives in this regard, as he is a conservative Christian of singularly conscious awareness of both the threat of Islam and of the pro-Islamic apologetics that try to obfuscate that threat by linking an anti-Christian (or at least an incoherently equivalencist crypto-anti-Christian) argument—if not, indeed, an anti-Western (or at least an incoherently equivalencist crypto-anti-Western) argument—to that obfuscation. However, the baldly ahistorical amnesia that such motives as Spencer might have here are remarkable, since he otherwise demonstrates a good grasp of history and does not strike one as one of those typically preposterous ignoramuses of the conservative American Protestant Evangelical varietyfor whom the entire Middle Ages (and Renaissance as well), from the death of the last Apostle to the Turmerlebnis of Luther (almost a millennium and a half), constitutes a benighted black hole from which for the most part the light of the Gospel was obscured by un-Christian Catholics.

But the sympathetic “strange bedfellowship” between Leftist-oriented anti-Christians, on the one hand, and conservative Christians (mostly out of the vast Protestant nebula), on the other hand, runs deeper. Both posit a kind of “pure” aboriginal Christianity, from which later Christianity departed into corruption, if not into evil. For the former, this aboriginal Christianity is an artificial construct, rather severely restricted to a proto-Hippie Jesus wearing sandals and preaching latitudinarian love, disdain for all authorities, and a kind of proto-Communism.

For the latter, it is a somewhat wider, but not significantly less artificial, construct, slightly less restricted to Jesus and his disciples, with perhaps some grudging admiration for a handful of later Patres, such as (to the extent the individual Christian in question knows enough about his tradition) Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and of course such somewhat later luminaries as Tertullian and Augustine (though Tertullian, signficantly, died excommunicated from the Church of his day, having strayed into a heretical understanding of the Church as united by, and requiring, direct illumination from the Holy Spirit—something akin to what later Protestantesque heterodoxies developed, such as the Quakers and the Mormons). A couple of anonymous texts from the period just after the last of the Apostles died—the
Didache and the Apostles’ Creed—would also be regarded with grudging respect (even if they do not with scant regard for historical scholarship claim these texts were in fact written early enough to be composed by the Apostles themselves) among the conservative Christians of our day who, as we are saying, harbor a tendency to preserve an aboriginal Christianity and delimit it from the temporal corruptions of the Catholic Church.

At any rate, it is conceivable that Spencer, in occasionally purveying an artificially pacifist Christianity, is being tactically disingenuous, skewing the presentation of the nature of Christianity in such a way that it remains artificially inoculated from its history in real time and space—during which for centuries and centuries its leaders and believers had little problem marrying the militaristic necessities of real life with the faith of the Gospel. The aim of this tactic, of course, would be to sharpen the distinctions—if not a putative chasm—between Islam and Christianity, with regard to the integration of militarism into the religious existence of each.

As any reader of mine who has read even only a few of my prior posts on this blog and my other blog, The Hesperado, knows, I am not an equivalencist: I do not think Islam and Christianity are by nature, or have been in historical existence, equally militaristic. To reject the equivalency, however, does not oblige us to exaggerate the differences to preposterous dimensions. Nor does it do to try to argue, gymnastically—once the actual physical violence, military and otherwise, of Christians in historical existence is concededthat all that violence had nothing to do with the nature of Christianity, that all that violence in fact contradicted that nature. One could without too much torture to the facts make a case in that regard for the Amish sect, perhaps, or the Quakers (though Richard Nixon was a Quaker and was quite capable of waging a war)but not for Christianity as a whole, whose leaders and believers for centuries and centuries waged not only wars, amongst themselves and against external enemies, but also indulged in small-scale paramilitary attacks, revolts, pogroms, mob lynchings, and considerable official legal physical punishment—often horrificframed often in terms of the faith of Christianity.

It is a philosophical point, to be sure, but it is tendentious, and circular, to propose that the nature of a sociological entity such as a religion has nothing to do with the expressions and behaviors—at least not the bad expressions & behaviors!of its practitioners. A Christian, of all religious people, should be able to appreciate the mysterious nexus between nature and act, essence and history, spirit and flesh, grace and sin—since the dogmatic and fideistic crux of Christianity is that nexus embodied in the Incarnation of God in the completely, not partially, human being Jesus Christ. Too often, however, Christians veer into docetistic tendencies in order to protect the Gospel and its earthly incarnation, the Church—not seeing that such a protection jeopardizes, by threatening to botch the extraordinary delicacy of the paradox of, the very thing it is meant to protect. While Christians, here and there, may veer into docetistic tendencies, however, Muslims massively implant themselves—psychologically, culturally, ideologically, theologically and institutionally—in docetism and gnosticism in order to protect Allah, Mohammed, the Qur’an and Islam from the limitations and ambiguities inherent to the paradoxical mystery of real life. The paradoxical point that the docetist and gnostic tendency misses is that, in this life, there is no pure nature of the supernatural that can be possessed in purity: there is only to be had the paradoxical nature of the supernatural, in an existential tension between purity and impurity, perfection and imperfection. The finer Christian culture and tradition tended to preserve this paradoxical tension, in the existential virtues of faith, hope and love in this life as pointing to, and prefiguring—in a “Cloud of Unknowing”—, the pleromatic knowledge to be enjoyed in eternity in the next life.

The tensional bifurcation of reality into “this life” and “the next life”, of course, is not special to Christianity: it is part of the eschatological paradigm, in fact, shared by Zoroastrianism, later Judaism, and Islam. Nor is the self-transcending dynamic of that tension—pointing to a final consummation that will for eternity resolve that tensionspecial to Christianity, since again that dynamic is part of the general eschatological paradigm. What distinguishes at least Christianity, however, from Islam in this regard is that the power to resolve that tension is left decidedly in the hands not of man, but of God, Whose plans and timing for this final consummation remain a mystery to be patiently borne by the faithful; whereas, in Islam, Allah specifically entrusts Muslims with the historical job of of bringing history to an end—by attempting to conquer the world—in order to usher in the eschaton of the Last Judgement and the subsequent eternal damnation and salvation of Infidels and Muslims, respectively. Again, this does not mean that certain Christians at various times throughout history have not framed physically violent enterprises in eschatological terms, but the framework for those enterprises did not involve any central tenets of Christian holy texts or dogmatic formulations: they all involved tenuous extrapolations from the decidedly mystically shrouded and future-oriented eschatology, which was the orthodox norm; extrapolations—in this particular regard, at leastmotivated more by cynically rhetorical manipulation of apocalyptic-militaristic symbolisms than by a scrupulously faithful regard for the holy texts and dogmas. Throughout Christian history, the immanentization of the eschaton has always remained a fringe element, and found sustenance only outside the pale of orthodoxy, in heterodox and heretical currents (later to erupt, having gone through circuitous channels, through the modern gnostic movements of the “ersatz religions” of Nazism and Communism). Islam, however, has in its Qur’an and Sunna (as well as in Shia texts), copious and clear justifications for the immanentization of eschatological militarism. It can be argued that it would be actually heretical in Islam not to immanentize the eschaton.

And this brings us back to the essential differences between Islam and Christianity, with regard to physical violence and militarism. Those differences can be illuminated by a recap of their similarities:

1) Waging wars and engaging in various types of social violence short of wars: both Islam and Christianity have done this.

2) Doing #1 while framing such activities in terms of religious symbols and faith: both Islam and Christianity have done this.

3) Engaging, furthermore, in territorial expansionism itself militaristically pursued and religious justified: both Islam and Christianity have done this.

4) Indulging in supremacism and using various forms of physical violence to express and further this: both Islam and Christianity have done this.

With #1-4, some observations are in order, in order to massage the blockish equivalency implied:

a) The similarity of #1 is not meant to be a parity: it is arguable that the quantity of Islamic wars and engagements in various types of social violence short of wars throughout history has been more copious and more horrific, than what was done by Christians.

b) As for #2, there is indeed a difference in quality between the holy texts of the two religions, whereby the Islamic holy texts more copiously and clearly call for such religious justification.

c) With regard to expansionism and supremacism: in terms of the copiousness and horrific nature of the physical violence used to pursue those ends, again Islam has been far worse than Christianity. Furthermore, of course, Islam continues to be far worse into our present, as Christianity has evolved into a benign and relatively submissive partner of modern secular politics, whereas a disquieting number of Muslims in various parts of the globe continue to dynamically and virulently pursue the Islamically traditional idea of Islam itself being the main engine of the fusion of religion and politics (including laws and physical violence running the gamut from family to tribe to mobs to society to paramilitary associations to government policies). The only significant brakes on that engine in recent history have been 1) the remarkable weakness of the Islamic Umma consequent upon the spectacular rise to superiority of the modern West in the past 400 years; and 2) consequent upon #1, the reconfiguration of the Islamic Umma into Western political models of nation-states, with various government leaders of same often trying to navigate a delicate middle path between fidelity to their Islam and the cultivation of power (whether for survival or for greed or a little of both) in a larger geopolitical context where power depends upon the modern West’s needs and goals—acutely augmented after 9/11 with respect to Islam and its nebulous nourishment of terrorism.

Furthermore, with regard to the supremacist division, in Islamic thought, of the world into Muslims and non-Muslims, while it has echoes in Judaism and Christianity, those echoes have been profoundly diluted in the ongoing evolution of Western civilization—to such an extent, indeed, that Westerners began, coinciding roughly with the beginning of the Age of Exploration in the 16th century (though also evident in types like Marco Polo in the High Middle Ages, to the extent that he was not an anomaly), to explore and study other cultures with genuine interest and sympathetic curiosity to a degree unparalleled in any other culture in history. And that evolution of humanitarianism in tension with, and eventually supplanting, the supremacist tendencies in Christianity, did not spring from the blue sky: it in many ways unfolded virtues already present in ancient Israel, later Judaism, and developing Christianity (not to mention Graeco-Roman philosophy), virtues that laid the ground for the ongoing evolution of the concept of universalism.

The differences, then, we may now adumbrate:

1) Religion-Politics fusion: The very essence of Islam; but in Christianity, only a tendency at certain periods of history, waxing and waning, and which created an ongoing tension later resolved—with considerable influence from certain principles and inferences arising out of Judaeo-Christian thought itself (though rarely acknowledged)—by modern Western secularism.

2) Immanentized eschatology, expressed through the structures of this life, including laws, politics and physical violence: The very essence of Islam; but in Christianity, mostly expressed in heterodox and heretical movements going against the grain of orthodoxy.

Without these two powerful conceptions in Islam, the aforementioned similarities would not be much of a problem at all. It is the fusion of religion and politics, coupled with an immanentized eschatology, that makes Islam a physically violent problem and threat. For, it is the political element (with its anchor in laws and militarism) that gives the religious members the opportunity for concrete physical power over others; and it is the immanentization of eschatology which galvanizes and directs that concrete physical power toward ends in this life that are pathologically bent on apocalyptic-utopian ideals, as with the Communists and Nazis. Together, in turn, these two factors make the supremacism, expansionism and injustice which are inherent to Islam (as they are, to some extent, in all religions, relatively speaking—since any given religion excludes a certain number of people who will often disagree with its ethics) a problem and threat to the world.

In a more recent post on Jihad Watch, Spencer repeats the boilerplate difference between Christianity and Islam:

People will do evil in all kinds of circumstances, and use all manner of justification for it; but the violent passages in the Bible are not equivalent to those in the Qur’an in content, in mainstream interpretation, or in the effect they have had on believers through the ages. The fact that in Islam violence against unbelievers has divine sanction in a way that it does not in Christianity makes religious violence more prevalent and harder to eradicate in Islam than it has ever been in Christianity. To equate it to a jumble of passages from the Bible to which no one would otherwise be paying any attention at all, at least as direct marching orders for twenty-first century warriors, is specious and dangerously misleading.

While Spencer is correct about Islam, he is unduly minimizing, in the history of Christianity, the role of religion in framing and inspiring various forms of physical violence, and of what the modern West would consider injustice (such as in the early 19th century imprisoning and often corporally punishing people for mocking Christianity).

Thus, Spencer et al. can go a long way toward dispelling the disingenuous construct of a pacifist Christianity, whose nature is putatively immune from the physically violent expressions and behaviors of Christians in historical existence, by acknowledging more clearly two things:

1) Christianity both in its nature and in its historical existence (both together constituting Christianity) has been religiously violent, but it has been capable of evolving and moderating its nature (even, indeed, of contributing philosophically to the secular evolution of the West), and this evolution and moderation has been overall a good thing, meaning logically that there were some bad aspects to Christianity in the past.


2) A good deal of the physical violence inherent to the nature of Christianity as expressed in its historical existence, once maturely and intelligently acknowledged, includes a good and necessary martial spirit that we need to revive today if we are going to fight an Islam Redivivus more effectively.

I’ll close out today’s post by citing the interesting case of a Venetian cleric from the 17th century, Marco d’Aviano; for his case exemplifies well, I think, the complexities of the issue—and illuminates those complexities into a more manageable simplicity.

According to this story, d’Aviano was a Capuchin priest and friar from Venice, “famed as a preacher of crusades against the Islamic armies of the Ottoman Turks”—including direct preaching to help inspire the Christians to defeat the famous Islamic siege against Vienna in 1683—the last time that Islam was able to muster a major military invasion of the West.

In 2003, the Pope at the time, John Paul II, initiated a process of beatification of
d’Aviano—effectively making him a Saint of the Church. This act by the Pope created some handwringing at the time, mostly from politically correct Catholics, such as Father Justus Lacunza, Missionary of Africa who heads the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies (I wonder if they are studying the same Islam whose believers attacked and beseiged and raped and enslaved and pillaged Christendom for a good millennium from the 7th to the 17th centuries. . .?). Father Lacunza was quoted as worrying whether the beatification of d’Aviano might be “adding fuel to the fire”—even though it was apparently clear that the reasoning of the Pope for the beatification had little to do with d’Aviano’s anti-Islamic crusades, but rather to do with the rather more nebulous laudation of him as an apostle of Europe’s Christian identity” for, as the Pope said, with perhaps overly diplomatic imprecision, d’Aviano’s memorialization symbolizes the conviction that Europe’s unity will be more stable if it is based on its common Christian roots.

Less hackneyed and more subtle was the response of Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Austria, who tries to explain away the admirable martial spirit of
d’Aviano with the deceptively anodyne phrase that d’Aviano was a “child of the times”. I.e., his errors—as a Christian helping to rally the Christian troops against Muslim invaders—can be chalked up to a bygone era when Christianity had not yet evolved into a more pacifist and politically correct culture. Now, as I articulated above, I agree essentially with Cardinal Schoenborn’s rudimentary historical view: Christianity indeed has evolved and become less martial. But to Cardinal Schoenborn, this is a simplistically good thing. To me, it is more complex: it is both good and bad: good in that corporal punishments for anti-Christian expressions; a general climate of censorship and intellectual oppression for anti-religious expressions; and lynchings, pogroms and internecine warfare all to a great degree religiously motivated should be consigned to the dustbin of history. But bad when the martial fortitude of Christians of old—in defense of their civilization against physically violent invaders—is thrown out with the bathwater.

Would Spencer agree with Cardinal Schoenborn that such martial fortitude was a bad thing, an error of
“the times”? If Spencer would disagree, on what basis would he disagree? That the martial spirit had nothing to do with Christianity, but that a martial spirit is good nevertheless, because we have to fight an Islam Redivivus? So will the Christians be good citizens, but bad Christians, when they have to muster themselves to do horrible things, as the West had to do in World War 2? Or will they leave the fighting up to modern secularists, who have no religious tensions to worry about with regard to militarism? Or will Spencer fudge his way out of it, by permitting Christians to be violent as human beings to fight jihad, while simultaneously exonerating them as intrinsically pacifist through their faith in the putatively pacifist nature of Christianity? We have already indicated a few paragraphs above how Spencer can easily step out of the corner he seems to paint himself into.

And, lest the modern secularist worry that a revival of the Christian martial spirit would threaten the successful evolution of Christianity into the maturely docile partner of secularism she has become in modern times, I am of course not calling for a revival of such a martial spirit in terms of any politico-legal institutions
; but only in terms of a lucid willingness and readiness to fight and kill in self-defense, without hamstringing that self-defense in ahistorical calls for us to comport ourselves, in the face of Islam Redivivus, more mercifully and in a manner “more Christian”.

Indeed, it seems that Saint d’Aviano could be hailed as a child of our time as well as of his time, for he was able to embody and understand the complexity of a Christianity at once sufficiently martial to marshal effective defense against Muslim attack, and sufficiently merciful to distinguish it from the very enemy it had to fight.

As the above-linked article describes:

When the imperial armies defeated the Ottomans at Belgrade in 1688, for example,
d’Aviano interceded to save the lives of the surrendering Muslim troops.

It is difficult to imagine a Muslim cleric
—of the 17th or the 21st century—rushing in to a city that had just been successfully overrun by Muslim jihadists, pleading to save the lives of the vanquished. But it is not difficult to imagine Christian clerics doing so. That is the telling difference. And, if any point can be salvaged from my overlong and complicated post today, it is that we, as modern Westerners, surely have the intellectual capacity to hold in our heads and respect, at one and the same time, both the Christian mercy of Saint d’Aviano, and his Christian martialism.

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