An All-Too Common Word

Yale Divinity School last week hostedLoving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed: Implications for Christians and Muslims,” a conference on global inter-faith dialog, which was a follow-up to a written dialog commonly referred to as “A Common Word,” started back in late 2006 by several dozen Muslim leaders responding in an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI regarding Benedict’s famous University of Regensburg address, in which he infamously used some quotes from an obscure Byzantine text of Emperor Manuel II Paleologus to help make what was an extraordinarily well articulated appeal to the importance of nurturing a renewed understanding, in Western intellectual circles, of the profound and necessary interrelatedness of faith and reason.

Quite a bit could be said about this ongoing effort at promoting world peace through the attempt to moderate religious fanaticism, but if the opening keynote address of the conference, given by Senator John Kerry, is any indication of the direction this dialog is taking, I do not hold out much hope for the outcome. Perhaps it is not fair to tar the working group with Kerry’s views, but they did invite him to give the address, which at least raises some questions about their understanding of the character of the problem they assemble to confront. He’s not even credible within his own religion; I don’t see how he could be taken seriously as a spokesman for inter-religious dialog

Mr. Kerry, of course, is the junior U.S. Senator from my home state of Massachusetts, as well as a former Democratic Party nominee for U.S. President (2004). He is also a Roman Catholic, by upbringing and by personal affiliation, but is one of several prominent American politicians who have become lightning rods for criticism in conservative Catholic circles for their continued superficial embrace of Catholicism – and assertions that they remain in communion with the Church – despite their very public and materially efficacious dissent on fundamental matters of faith and morals, among which abortion perhaps looms largest, but hardly alone.

Senator Kerry’s address contained numerous occasions of what I consider to be, at best, muddled thinking, but there is one particular statement that I think reflects not only the lunacy of commonly held Western views of religion’s role in global issues, but also just how badly the intellectual world needs to listen closely to the pope’s message of the imperative of reintegrating faith and reason – the alleged jumping off point of this entire enterprise:

Somehow, we have to find a way to agree that faith may be worth dying for, but it cannot be worth killing for. John Kerry, 7/28/2008

At first blush, this statement perhaps looks very noble – enlightened, even. It appeals, if you will, to both sides of the aisle: by paying homage to the seriousness of held religious belief, while aiming to express the very common sentiment that religion should foster peace – and peaceableness. Implicit, however – and not too subtly – is the idea that this will require some kind of change: that religion currently – and historically – foments violence and animosity.

Now, the question of whether religion has done more over the course of human history to cause warfare and violence, or more to tame the same, I will leave unexplored here – though personally, I think an honest and reasonable assessment of the question would infuriate religion’s cultured despisers. Rather, I’d like to look at the admittedly very popular proposal that religion (“faith,” as Mr. Kerry actually puts it) cannot be worth killing for.

This claim may sound innocuous enough, but only of we don’t stop to ask the question: is anything worth killing for, and if so, what?

The question might make many people uneasy, but only because our modern culture has weaned us on euphemism. Simply put, it’s a question of whether or not there is anything in the world worth going to war for.

I’m quite certain that John Kerry is not a pacifist. It is well-known that he honorably served two tours in Vietnam, and he campaigned only four years ago to be commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military. I think it’s safe to say that John Kerry – like almost everyone in the world, thinks at least some things are worth killing for. If I asked Mr. Kerry if “freedom and democracy” (which is shorthand for “American political ideology”) is worth fighting for, I’m pretty sure he’d come back with a pretty quick affirmative.

So what does it mean to insist that faith, or religion, is not to be counted among those things worth fighting or killing for?

The reasons people go to war are complex. Not only are there almost always in each case a complex of reasons, but it is a different question to ask why states go to war versus why people participate in war. It is a different question again to ask why people engage in other acts of collective violence that do not fall (at least not at first) into the category of war proper, such as rebellions. Likewise, states and tribes do not war in the same way, and it seems dangerous to try to reduce the whole matter to an historically pertinent formula.

Still, not being above trying to make myself look foolish, it seems to me that the motive for warring can be broken out into three general categories, which are by no means mutually exclusive when it comes to providing motivation, and which each contain a wide breadth of expression.

  1. Gain. Let’s be honest: this is the primary motivator for most warring, whether it takes the guise of greed for booty, slaves, or natural resources; the lust for power; the pursuit of glory; or perhaps even the modern euphemism “national interest.” Other examples abound. Despisers of Christianity would want to see pursuit of indulgences included here – fair enough.
  2. Ideals & Conviction. While some wars may be fought purely for selfishly immoral ends, some are fought for convictions. I have no illusions either that these ends are mutually exclusive (I’d say they’re usually pretty much mixed together), or that some convictions, however well-intended, might be thoroughly immoral. But that fact remains that there is a world of difference between fighting for ideals and fighting for gold. I think these convictions can be broken out into two sub-groups: religiously formed conviction, and political ideology.
  3. Duty. I again see two basic sub-categories here: self-defense, and love of neighbor – where love of neighbor involves things such as the willingness to sacrifice in defense of your family, community, or nation, as well as the willingness to come to the aide of other vulnerable peoples who have been or are being wronged by a greater power. The promise of indulgences aside, it is here that I would place the greater part of the motivations for the Crusades. That observation raises the point that perhaps these duty-oriented motivations should really be subsumed under the above subheading of religious convictions – which I think is absolutely true – but I’ll leave that for now.

So, where does that leave John Kerry, and the myriad others who think like him?

If there exists a human being naive enough to think that man’s propensity for warring can somehow be mitigated by barring religious conviction from the calculus of political decision making, he can look to the grotesque and murderous history of the last century to see just what a religion-free political ideology will buy you. Somewhat ironically, I write this on the day I read of the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, so he won’t be available for comment, but his body of literary work should suffice.

Indeed, Solzhenitsyn would seem to have had little patience for attempts to marginalize religious conditioning of political thought, a modern trend which he saw as a bane of both modern East and West: “the calamity of an autonomous, irreligious humanistic consciousness.” At Harvard, in 1978, he had this to say on the subject of the “cleansing” of religion from political life:

It has made man the measure of all things on earth—imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now paying for the mistakes which were not properly appraised at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility.

No, Mr. Senator, war would not go away if we banished faith from the table of those things we find worth fighting for. Instead, the ideals and duty motives that are part of the calculus would be reduced to those that are informed by ideology. Ideology, by definition, rules not by appealing to truth – to something “out there” by which all can be judged – but through power accomplished by compelling conformity to a desired, manufactured, status quo. Religion, in however perfect or imperfect a form, at least has the advantage of seeking its goal in some kind of transcendent meaning, rather then the purely political and self-interested machinations of ideology.

The highest ideals that people possess are their religious ideals- whether they are explicitly religious, or even atheistic. Claiming that society must advance by making peoples’ highest ideals about the only things not worth fighting for is sheer lunacy. There is no way that such an approach to statecraft could make the world anything but more barbarous.

It is precisely this kind of divorce of religion from public rational processes that Pope Benedict inveighed against the German scholars for in Regensburg, which prompted this whole discussion to begin with. Benedict, of course, was not promoting religious warfare – he was in fact condemning it as an irrational means of advancing religion. But as long as states resort to warfare, it is imperative that religion provide civilizing boundaries. Furthermore, it is religion, with its transcendent moral requirements, which must provide the framework for reason to work out the differences among peoples, so that warfare can be avoided.

Not all religion is created equal, but the real value of inter-religious dialog needs to be the pursuit of truth for the sake of reforming religion, not the marginalization of religion from the public sphere.

If faith and reason are cooperative forms of God’s revelation of Himself to man – as Benedict, speaking for the Church militant, expectant, and triumphant, insists – the end result of genuine dialog will not be a means for all of us to get along cheerily with our differences, but the correction of bad religion, and, ultimately, unity of faith. If God is truly One, then there can be no other end but unity.

We may be a long ways off, and we may need to ensure that the road leading us there is peaceful enough to be fruitful, but we should not confuse the means with the end – or allow muddled thinking to subvert our highest ideals by renouncing them for ideology.

  • John W Gillis

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