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Archive for October 17th, 2006

The Parousians

Name of a Catholic student group at LSU, who would like the world to know they’re fighting Planned Parenthood et.al. A little more info over at my blog (it’s not always clear what should be a Caelum et Terra post and what should be a Light on Dark Water post).

Maclin Horton

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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
was thinking.

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
accurate.

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
heretics.

The Western tradition has problems of its own regarding religious
violence.

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
excellence.

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
Sword!’ "

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
so radically.

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
cattle.

Or the passage in Genesis where God commands Abraham to slay his only son,
Isaac.

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
acceptable.

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
law.

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
ourselves.

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
blasphemy.

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
here.

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.

Daniel Nichols

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