Archive for October, 2006
Further Thoughts on Faith and Violence
While I appreciate all the comments in response to my recent post
Reason, Religion and Violence, in the end they all reiterated one or
another of the four unsatisfactory explanations of the problem of violence in
the Old Testament, where God is seen commanding the death of the innocent, that
I had sketched.
There is, however, a fifth explanation, which occurred to me when I was in
Alabama last weekend for the marriage of Maclin’s daughter, my godchild.
Before I explore that with you, though, I’d like to clarify something: that
I recognize the problem with certain Old Testament texts which attribute
commands to kill to God does not mean that my faith was threatened by this. Nor
was I trying to undermine anyone else’s faith. Jesus Christ is unique in history
for the sublimity of His teaching and the purity and integrity of His life, a
uniqueness peaking in His resurrection and ascension. Whatever dissonance I
might perceive in certain scriptural texts there is none in Him nor in His
Also, let me preface my remarks by noting that I am half-educated at best,
a hick among the theologians, and if I stray into error it is
And I submit all my conclusions to the judgement of Holy Church, without
which I am lost.
So, then, the fifth option:
When the Catholic Church approaches the claims of visionaries, it does so
with the understanding that whatever God has revealed to them has been revealed
within the context of their personalities, limitations and sins and in a
particular cultural milieu. Thus even a valid revelation can be colored by the
seer’s prejudices and imagination.
So, for example, when the seers of Fatima claimed that more souls perish
because of sins of the flesh than any other, they contradict St Thomas Aquinas,
who taught that sins of weakness were not as deadly as sins of malice: greater
in shame, lesser in blame, as the saying goes.
Direct revelation, after all, is not propositional. It is a fundamental
intuitive apprehension of Truth, wrapped in Mystery. When this is translated
into words it is transformed in some degree into a human construct. Granted, we
are talking here of "private revelation", but even public revelation is by
definition first personal revelation.
Church teaching, too, reflects this dynamic, and modern attempts at
dialogue with other Christian communions largely consist of trying to get to the
underlying meaning of the language used. Sometimes, notably with the Oriental
Orthodox Churches, this has led to the recognition of unity where our ancestors
There is a distinction between dogma, the truth, and doctrine, the
explanation of that truth.
Or think of the doctrine of Purgatory.
The fundamental revealed truth is that the soul’s journey into God
continues after death, that imperfections can be purified in the afterlife, and
that the soul is aided in this process by the prayers of the living. (I
recognize that this explanation is itself inevitably a human construct).
In the hands of Roman Catholics of the counter-Reformation era, though, all
this takes a legalistic turn, in keeping with the juridical Latin mindset. Thus
we have the familiar outline of a Divine Judge needing to satisfy His sense of
justice. "Purgatory" becomes a "place" where the soul goes to endure the
temporal sufferings needed to atone for its sins, sufferings not fulfilled in
its earthly sojourn, until the Judge decides it has paid its price in
This is not a caricature; that is the way the teaching was generally
presented for centuries and is still presented in certain circles. It is not
hard to see why the Orthodox renounced "Purgatory", though they too believe in
the soul’s continued pilgrimage and they too pray for the dead.
This is not to say there were not more sublime and- dare I say it-
spiritual expressions of the nature of Purgatory in the West; St. Catherine of
Genoa’s Treatise on Purgatory coming to mind, and in contemporary times
the Anglican C. S. Lewis’ The Great DIvorce.
And fortunately the Catechism of John Paul has left the juridical Purgatory
behind and outlines a process of spiritual growth more akin to Orthodox
The principle that non-propositional revelation must of necessity be
translated into human language, that it requires a human construct to be
communicated, by nature affected by human limitation, is the key to
understanding the apparent contradiction in the Old Testament of a good God
commanding objective evil (the slaughter of children, for example).
Thus the warlike Hebrew tribes, having apprehended the revelation that God
is One and idolatry an abomination naturally took this as a command to
annihilate the polytheists according to the customs of war with which they were
Or Abraham, the desert wanderer, having encountered the Living God and His
relentless demand to be adored, and perhaps intuiting that the ultimate
sacrifice would be for a father to give up his only son, translated this as the
demand that he, Abraham, must sacrifice his long-awaited and much-beloved son as
the sign of the totality of his submission to God.
His hand, of course, was stayed by the angel.
But doesn’t what I propose present the same problem that the historical
critical method does? Isn’t revelation judged by human reason? Doesn’t anything
that offends modern sensibility get jettisoned? Isn’t this, in the end, just a
species of that "solution"?
Not at all.
The historical critical method measures only what can be empirically
determined and is by nature reductionist. It begins with a low Christology,
viewing Christ only in human, historically verifiable terms, just as it begins
with skepticism regarding the reliability of Scripture.
The "fifth option", on the other hand, is born of a high Christology, the
faith that Jesus Christ is the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, incarnate in
the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
Thus, unlike the historical critical theologians we do not critique His
words, for He is transmitting revelation through a human nature unmarred by
sin and unshackled from cultural prejudice.
Thus, the teaching of Jesus Christ, not human reason, is the
standard by which all transmission of revelation is measured
Along with this goes a high ecclesiology, the certainty that the Church
faithfully interprets the words of Christ and their meaning.
And of course, all of this is rooted in an exegesis which assumes that the
writers of the Gospels reliably transmit the words and deeds of Jesus
I may, of course, be blind to some fatal ramification of what I have
proposed, may not see some heretical logical conclusion to it.
I trust, my friends, that you will be faithful in kindly pointing it out if
that is the case, and those of you who are more theologically astute than I can
assist me in working out any problems inherent in this "fifth option".
Caleb Stegall’s review of Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America, very much worth reading in its own right. Contains at least one great phrase: "sound-bitten ghosts," as in "the talking heads and sound-bitten ghosts of American punditry." (Note: it’s a PDF document and therefore may be slow to load.)
Pope Benedict XVI, a few weeks ago, caused quite an uproar when he quoted a
medieval Byzantine emperor’s anti-Islamic polemics in the introductory remarks
to a discourse on reason, religion, and violence.
The passage, which the Pope quoted without comment, was understandably
offensive to Muslims, though Benedict has since gone to great lengths to
distance himself from it, leaving the rest of us to wonder what in the world he
Meanwhile, the point of the address itself has mostly been lost.
To whit, paraphrasing: the moral law is the manifestation of the nature of
God. Hence, God acts in harmony with that Law, and in harmony with reason. God’s
transcendence does not extend to contraditction of moral law and/or of reason.
Therefore violence in the name of religion is a contradiction in terms.
So far, so good.
However, the Pope seemed to focus on Islamic tendencies to overemphasize
the transcendence of God, to the point of portraying the moral law as arbitrary,
and paid little attention to Christianity’s own problematic history.
True, he did mention Blessed Duns Scotus, somewhat unfairly confusing the
Subtle Doctor with the aberrational doctrines of some of his midguided
disciples. To characterize Scotus as a nominalist is sort of like calling
Aquinas a rationalist. Yes, there is some connection, but no, the charge is not
But Benedict mentioned not at all the history of forced conversions (St.
Olaf in Scandinavia, St. Vladimir in Rus, Charlemagne among the Franks, and so
on), nor the "holy wars" against Islam, nor the persecution and execution of
The Western tradition has problems of its own regarding religious
Nor is this merely ancient history: in modern America there are religious
zealots who consider violence in the name of God perfectly acceptable, from
those who kill abortionists ("the Army of God") to those Zionist and Christian
Zionist apologists for total war, to those who confuse the new Manifest Destiny
with the Will of God. For that matter, readers of this weblog know only too well
that there are modern Catholics who think violence in the name of religion is
justifiable. And who can forget- though we wish we could- the pulp fiction best
seller from the 90s, Bud McFarlane’s Pierced by a Sword, quite possibly
the worst novel I have ever read. I mean it is so bad I couldn’t put it down; it
was utterly fascinating in its ineptitude. But the Catholic subculture ate it
up. For those fortunate enough to have never read the thing, it ends up with
Marian militias fighting the forces of Antichrist, with a rosary in one hand and
a gun in the other.
And while it is hardly the focus of much attention, let us recall the
historically recent phenomenon of Mormonism, the American religion par
While Mormonism is such an aberration that it is in truth neither Christian
nor even monotheistic, embracing as it does a weirdly materialistic gnostic
polytheism, it is nevertheless a byproduct of the cauldron of 19th century
Protestant revivalism, an offshoot of Christianity.
Joseph Smith, the supposed prophet of Mormonism, said in 1838 "…we will
establish our religion by the sword. We will trample down our enemies and make
it one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. I will be
to this generation a second Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was ‘the
Koran or the Sword!’ so shall it eventually be with us: ‘Joseph Smith or the
Of course Mormonism eventually mellowed, thought not before much violence,
both on their part and on the part of their "Gentile" enemies.
But while mainstream Mormonism eventually became synonomous with white
bread and well-scrubbed wholesomeness- not to mention doctrinaire Republicanism-
a small minority persisted in its violent ways. A tiny percentage of
self-identified Mormons belong to the fractured polygamist Mormon Fundamentalist
sects, a subspecies notable for its murderous ways. The crimes of the LeBarons,
the Laffertys, the Lundgrens and the rest are well-documented; often the murders
of women and children as a result of a "revelation from God".
As they mostly kill one another in sectarian feuds this generally garners
little attention, aside from the curious and occasional news story. But note
that there are roughly 30,000 Fundamentalists of the 12 million or so Mormons
worldwide. The number of murders -in the name of God- among such a small
population is staggering.
Radical jihadists also are a small population within Islam’s billion or so
adherents, probably around the same percentage as violent fundamentalists among
the Mormons. But do the math: obviously they are going to generate more violence
and hence more attention, especially as they target not only Muslims they
consider apostate, but "infidels" – ie, the rest of us- as well.
Of course, a German Pope living in Italy may be excused for not drawing
parallels with an American phenomenon.
Nevertheless, I would suggest that Mormon Fundamentalist violence is not a
mere aberration, but has its roots in certain problematic themes in the very
Western and Christian tradition in which it is rooted and from which it deviates
These are things we cannot dismiss as historical distortions, but which lie
deep in the Sacred Scriptures of our Faith.
I long ago gave up trying to figure them out, long ago filed them under "Do
not Disturb"; and while I try not to disturb them, they still disturb me.
I refer to the numerous texts in the Hebrew Bible where God commands the
slaughter of whole populations, men, women and children and sometimes even the
Or the passage in Genesis where God commands Abraham to slay his only son,
Or the bloody vengeful sort of Psalms.
Yes, I know that is not all there is to the Old Testament, that there is
also a good bit of tenderness and mercy.
And yes, I have heard all the rationalizations, all the symbolic exigesis,
and I don’t buy any of it.
You still, in the end, have God not acting or commanding in harmony with
His own moral law.
I can think of only four ways around this problem, none of them
The first is the fundamentalist assertion that God indeed commanded what is
ordinarly immoral, and He can do this because He is God and not bound to any
In other words, the very thing that Pope Benedict critiqued in Islamic
hyper-transcendentalism, that Maclin mocked here as the "God said it I believe
it that settles it" rejection of reason.
Then there is the modern liberal solution, that of the historical critical
scholars: of course God did not commmand such evils. This is only the culturally
conditioned attribution of such things by men not as morally evolved as
True, that solves the problem, but it creates a host of new ones. An
arbitrary divine will is replaced by an arbitrary human will, and any unpleasant
moral demand is likely to be cast off as "culturally conditioned" as well.
Third is the "solution" offered by the ancient Marcionites and echoed by
various gnostic sects since: the god of the Old Testament, wrathful and
vengeful, cannot be the same god as the one in the New Testament, merciful and
loving. Clearly the god of the Jews was Satan. Some of them even say that it was
this dark god who created matter, and that Christ came to free our spirits from
the evil material world.
Clearly this is not an option.
The fourth explanation runs something like this: since all life belongs to
God, it is His to give or take at will. Men acting as His instruments, under His
command are thus not guilty of murder when following HIs instructions.
This is precisely the rationale of the Mormon Fundamentalist murderers and
of Islamic terrorists, and contradicts Benedict’s contention that God does not
violate the moral order, that violence in the name of religion is
If there are other solutions to this dilemna I am unaware of them, and
doubt I would find any of them more satisfactory than the ones I have sketched
I for one wish the Pope had turned his brilliant intellect to this tension
within our own tradition, instead of needlessly offending Muslims. I am not
saying it is not to be devoutly hoped that Muslims will examine their
tradition’s problem with violence, only that to insist on this without working
on our own tradition’s problems is a bit disingenous.
I only wonder at the Pope’s throwing fuel on that particular fire when
there is so much work to be done closer to home.