Seeing with the eye of faith

A little while ago I blogged on the subject of Islam and the modern world, following the BBC series on Mohammed.  This included some rather dismissive comments about Christianity, which I contrasted with Islam in some rather unfavourable ways, at least with regard to consistency.  Unsurprisingly this annoyed a (Catholic) Christian reader, and we subsequently engaged in a prolonged Twitter conversation, mainly about the crusades.  Twitter isn’t a good medium to explain ideas, and I feel strangely compelled to explain myself properly, even though I am not going to persuade anybody to change their views.  My point is this: I hold my views on Christianity not through ignorance but through a lack of faith.  This has led me to rather a long post, taking me through my own Christian journey.

Faith is an important part of any religion – and any relationship in fact.  To be a Christian you have to subscribe to a whole series of beliefs which you take on trust.  It’s your membership subscription, or, more aptly, the club rules.  You believe these things because you are a Christian; you not a Christian because you believe in them.  Or mostly, anyway.  People will be drawn to the faith because they come to believe, through reflection or experience, in some critical parts of Christian gospel; they then take the rest on trust.  For me I was drawn to the faith in the first place because I believed in my church community and wanted to be part of it; subsequently I was overwhelmed by the truth and beauty of the message of love, forgiveness and redemption that came through in the Gospels and the early Epistles of St Paul.  I lapsed mainly because the burden of faith became too much to bear – the accumulated superstructure of doctrine.  In my heart of hearts I could not believe that God is a person who intervenes in the world beyond the workings of immutable natural laws; neither can I believe in any meaningful afterlife, certainly in the sense of heaven, hell, judgement and so forth.  But I am a secular agnostic, not an atheist.  I am sometimes moved to take Communion in a C of E church service, on the rare occasions that I attend.  It is not inconceivable that I will come back to the faith one day, provided I’m not pushed too hard on the infrastructure of beliefs.

I was brought up as a Church of England Christian.  Both my parents had a strong faith, and took a philosophical interest in it and we talked about Christianity a lot as a family.  My mother’s father was a canon and professor of divinity (at Oxford), though he died long before I came into the world.  Our house was full of religious books, and my mother, who had a degree in Philosophy, studied theology and comparative religion as a mature student.  Our church was rather High, in the jargon of the C of E, meaning that it liked a lot of traditional, catholic rituals.  The biggest controversy at the time (it was the 1970s) was whether women could be ordained to the priesthood – my parents strongly beleived they could, but some of our clergy did not.  At university (Cambridge) I fell in with a much more “Low” group in the Christian Union, associating with Methodists and Baptists.   Here the issues were mainly about how to interpret the Bible, with a strong fundamentalist faction.  I had something of an intense religious experience while meditating in a retreat, as the message of love seemed to explode out of the New Testament in a burst of light.  That experience remains with me still, but I started to lapse pretty much as soon as I began to live on my own in London.

Two experiences in particular stand out in as I passed over the invisible line between faith and agnosticism.  I attended one my local churches (St Mary’s Islington), and the preacher considered at length whether dancing was to be allowed under scriptural rules.  Although he came to the right answer so far as I was concerned (yes), I was appalled by the idea that talking about these sorts of rules was an important part of church life.  In a second instance I visited a packed evangelical service in Nottingham with a couple of university friends.  The preacher there was developing the theme that the Apocalypse was near.  One his arguments: “The price of gold has trebled in just a year [or some such statistic]: that means that the value of money has fallen by two thirds!” – to a chorus of approval.  This dates the story to about 1980, the last time the price of gold shot through the roof.  To me then, as now, this is utter drivel.  Ever since I have had a visceral hatred of the use of gold as a substitute for money.  But more the point I thought to myself: “Why do I have to put up with all this nonsense?”

And so my views of on Christianity became very detached, as I was liberated from the eye of faith.  I have come to see it as a very interesting human phenomenon, and not a process of divine intervention.  It is an outgrowth from the Jewish faith, promulgated by a few years of radical and inspring preaching by Jesus Christ.  Something strange happened on Jesus’s death; his followers became inspired to accept Jesus himself as divine, and to spread the religion further.  There were several strands to this outgrowth, but the most important to us in the west was that of St Paul, who took the message to the Gentiles.  The faith was the right idea at the right time and its popularity exploded.  It survived persecution, with its adherents apparently welcoming martyrdom.

But then it was adopted as a state religion by the Roman empire.  This was a major challenge.  Christianity was at heart a revolutionary creed, with some burning beliefs but with a certain lack of coherence.  Some of its beliefs, especially a very strong strand of pacificism, were inimical to running a state.  Gradually it had to be knocked into shape, and a series of doctrines were established to create an orthodoxy compatible with a state religion, starting with that of the Trinity.  In due course the great thinkers of St Augustine of Hippo and St Thomas Aquinas added to this process to create a coherent framework of doctrine.  This has subsequently been added to and taken away from both by the orthodox branches and various breakaways – the latter often trying to recapture the early Christian magic from the dead hand of the orthodox (that is Catholic and Orthodox) institutions.

These doctrinal systems may or may not be quite tidy, but they really do need the eye of faith to make them work, and the more so as time passes.  They are simply part of a process of divine revelation.  But without faith they just look awkward.  This awkwardness has two roots.  The first are the compromises required to get the cat back into the bag.  Monotheism is one of the most conspicuous casualties here.  The divinity of Christ was an early theological problem, and the Holy Spirit crept in too.  To this pantheon has been added the Blessed Virgin Mary and countless saints, to whom many Christians pray.  Of course Christian theologians offer a reconciliation of this pantheon to monotheism, but these sound very similar to any other defence of polytheism.  The contrast with Judaism and especially Islam is quite striking – though some Islamic sects (notably Shias) have blurred the difference by consecrating saints.

A further difficulty is that the doctrinal view is increasingly at odds with modern beliefs about the universe.  On my kitchen wall hangs a facsimile of the Mappa Mundi, the early medieval map in Hereford Cathedral.  The world is a flat disc, with Britain at the edge and Jerusalem at the centre.  Such a world view was quite compatible with the idea of God being a person, a bit like us, inhabiting a nearby world, and intervening in our affairs.  We can begin, perhaps, to understand the idea of Atonement, that “God so loved the World that he gave his only Son to be a living sacrifice”, which comes through from the very earliest Christian writings.  But now we understand the universe as being vast, which leaves this idea with a problem: either God is much bigger and more powerful than we thought in which case the idea of the son of god, and sacrifice, and indeed the whole concept of God as a person is impossible to get a handle on.  Or else God is much smaller than that, like The Authority in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, in which case it becomes impossible to offer him the respect the religion demands.

And the Crusades?  I am rather shocked that any modern Christians seek to defend them.  The intent, apparently was to protect and liberate Christians in Jerusalem (and elsewhere, for that matter).  This might be argued as an extension of self-defence.  But they have become associated with the slaughter of infidels, and many other crimes (such as the sack of perfectly Christian Constantinople).  These may or may not have been part of the intent, but it is quite futile to separate the “justifiable” bits from the crimes.  Christians do not do that sort of thing now – and Christian communities remain under attack in many parts of the world.  Violence begets violence; early Christians turned the other cheek.  It has allowed Muslims to convince themselves Christianity is something that it is not.  If you’re in a hole, stop digging.  Best to put it all down to a horrible mistake, based on values that we have long left behind.

Compared to Islam, Christianity is a chaotic muddle of a religion.  But in that muddle there remains a burning light, which the muddle, paradoxically, seems to magnify rather than diminish – that light burns more brightly for me than any equivalent understanding in the faith of Islam.

 

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8 thoughts on “Seeing with the eye of faith”

  1. So much to debunk in this post Matthew! The question is where to start? How about with the idea that the Church taught the earth was flat?

    Perhaps the easiest way to deal with this myth is to ask if you know what a Globus cruciger is?

    It’s a cross on a globe which shows the triumph of Christianity over the world. The image of an emperor holding a cross on a globe first appears on Roman coinage with Theodosius I (346-395). Emperors and rulers, such as Charlemagne, are shown with the cross over the globe. Many paintings and figures of Christ, especially as a child, show him holding this sign. It is a prominent symbol in images of Christ as the Savior of the World, Salvator Mundi. The sign is first found in the Cheops pyramid as a masonry mark. The ancients knew the earth was round. Washington Irving created the story of the belief in the flat earth when he told the story of Columbus.

    The ancient Greeks had concluded that the Earth was round long before the advent of Christianity. In the 3rd century BC, Eratosthenes even made quite accurate estimations of the Earth’s circumference.

    Even in the early Church, educated people would certainly have had access to this knowledge.

    1. We continue to talk past each other Mark! The point I was trying to make about the Mappa Mundi was not that it represented Christian teaching at time, nor that anybody was teaching that the world was flat. Just that the general (Christian and pagan) understanding of the world at the time was that it was much, much bigger in relation to the rest of the universe. This makes their understanding of god, heaven and so on much easier to understand than we do now. The only way to accept doctrines like the Atonement is through faith; to the modern outlook it is pretty much incomprehensible. Islam avoids some of these difficulties, because its understanding of god is more self-evidently infinite – but it runs into plenty of others to the modern mind.

  2. Mark, your comment is far from a debunk, it rather illustrates Matthew’s point. Let me explain.

    You have chosen to attack the assumption that early christians thought the world was flat. You point may well be completely correct, although it doesn’t explain why the author this Mappa Mundi represented the earth as he did. But no matter – these points are not critical to Matthew’s argument. If you wish to debunk something more crucial, then attack the assertion that the use of lethal force on the Crusades was incompatible with Jesus’ injunction to ‘love you enemies’ and his example of dying on the cross.

    And here’s how who are illustrating his point. I can infer from your post that you are a Christian, because you read Matthew’s blog with the ‘eye of faith’. Through that lens you see ‘so much to debunk’, where an agnostic reader is nodding his way through.

    How can two people of different faiths have a conversation? They have to see each others point of view. This does not involve debunking, but clarifying differences.

    Personally I consider myself a Christian, although I don’t like much church doctrine, nor feel the church has behaved well historically. I think I have two main points of difference with Matthew:

    1. I believe it is the individuals right and responsibility to take back the definition of the word ‘Christian’. Many people of very different beliefs and orientations call themselves christians – who are the ‘real ones’? The solution is not to look at the churches and their doctrines, which are not error free, but to look into one’s own heart. I see it as an individual rather than club thing.

    2. I don’t believe in the immutability of the laws of science. If spiritual forces wished to meddle with our destiny, they could do so through the loop-hole of ‘chance’ without contradicting our experimental knowledge. Some aspects of our world are predictable, allowing us to create technology, but many are not – we can believe these arise mechanically, from God, spirits or a mixture, and this is matter of faith and judgement. I personally believe our thoughts have a direct influence on events. I challenge anyone to prove this right or wrong!

    Mark, I hope I haven’t been rude. I would love to know what your personal points of difference with Matthew or myself are. But please, no debunking!

  3. Matthew: “Just that the general (Christian and pagan) understanding of the world at the time was that it was much, much bigger in relation to the rest of the universe. This makes their understanding of god, heaven and so on much easier to understand than we do now.”

    Do you know what St. Anselm’s ontological argument is Matthew? It was outlined in Anselm’s Proslogion, written in 1077-1078. You can outline the argument thus:

    1. One can imagine a being than which none greater can be conceived.
    2. We know that existence in reality is greater than existence in the mind alone.
    3. If the being we imagine exists only in our mind, then it is not a “being than which none greater can be conceived”.
    4. A being than which none greater can be conceived must also exist in reality.
    5. Failure to exist in reality would be failure to be a being than which none greater can be conceived.
    6. Thus a being than which none greater can be conceived must exist, and we call this being God.

    Does this sound like a Anselm understood God in dimensional terms? Surely the very existence of metaphysics in medieval philosophy demonstrates that scholars had moved beyond dimensional concepts when talking about the divine?

    Richard: A very good post, you make some excellent points. Mappa Mundi wasn’t a person though, it’s a thing, or a general term used to describe medieval European maps of the world. These maps range in size and complexity from simple schematic maps an inch or less across to elaborate wall maps, the largest of which was 11 ft. (3.5 m.) in diameter. The term derives from the Medieval Latin words mappa (cloth or chart) and mundi (of the world).
    Approximately 1,100 mappae mundi are known to have survived from the Middle Ages. Of these some 900 are found illustrating manuscripts and the remainder exist as stand-alone documents. Even the guy who made this one—Richard de Bello, didn’t necessarily believe in a flat earth as this article about the map in Wikipedia points out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hereford_Mappa_Mundi

    “If you wish to debunk something more crucial, then attack the assertion that the use of lethal force on the Crusades was incompatible with Jesus’ injunction to ‘love you enemies’ and his example of dying on the cross.”

    OK that’s fairly simple, but first, can I point out that I am not defending atrocity, merely attempting to point out historical inaccuracy.

    With regards to the use of lethal force, here are some theological starting points:

    1. The Gospel acknowledges the role of the civil authorities to punish wrong-doers Mt 22:23-22; Rom 31:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-15

    2. Although Capital Punishment is not discussed in the New Testament, it existed and neither it, nor its operation were challenged.

    3. The right to self-defense is rooted in the natural inclination to self-preservation (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 94, a. 2). Here St. Thomas judged that it was the proper function of the public authorities to punish wrong-doers, not the right or responsibility of individuals. Thus offenders ought to be brought to justice according to a proper system of apprehension, investigation and trial. An individual does not have the right to kill an unjust aggressor normally.

    4. The right to self defence is not an absolute duty for an individual where that individual is the only one at risk; he might forgo that right for reasons of pacifism. However it would seem to be different of the one at risk were frail and needed assistance in order to save his life or to avoid serious injury.

    5. St. Thomas thinks that murderers lose their right to be treated as human beings and are worse than animals—thus they could be killed—although only by command of public authority and after judgement (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 64 a. 2-3).

    6. Recent changes in attitude toward no death penalty in society are because of the execution of people who have later been found to be innocent, and partly because the execution leaves no possibility for the criminal to reform. The major change however, is the existence in many more developed parts of the world of much more sophisticated means if controlling dangerous criminals. Notice that it is the common good which accounts for this teaching; the common good requires the effective protection of society and the effective restraint of criminals who are a threat to the lives of others.

    7. There is a strong emphasis on punishment. A little research reveals that the Catechism, in its original text of 1992 listed the functions of punishment with a hierarchy, putting retribution for injustice first. There is no doubt that this is a key and essential feature of punishment. It is the retribution for those judged guilty which distinguishes punishment from mere terror or manipulation. A deterrent effect upon those guilty and on others us another feature of punishment, but the reconciliatory function has been given more prominence of late. In the definitive (Latin) edition of the Catechism there is not a suggestion of hierarchy and subordination of functions.

    Even the original there was a very strong discouragement from use of the death penalty, mainly because it precludes all possibility of a person reforming.

    9. Notice the way Capital Punishment is discouraged in Evangelium Vitae:

    It is an ‘extreme’ (Evangelium Vitae, n. 56) not to be used except “when it would be not possible otherwise to defend society”—something “very rare, if not practically non-existent” because of “steady improvements in the organisation of the penal system”. It quotes the Catechism saying that public authority “must limit itself to such (bloodless) means”, since “they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good” and are “more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”.

    Full text of Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, the paragraph which particularly relates to the topic at hand is n. 56

    Given the changes in the penal system, the Magisterium is stating very strongly that there is no longer a proportionate reason for capital punishment, that such punishment is no longer a proportionate means of dealing with dangerous criminals.

    However, note that it stops short of excluding capital punishment altogether: this is because of the practice in past centuries, no doubt, but also because there could be ‘rare occasions’ when the ‘concrete conditions of the common good’ were not what they generally are in the developed world. Unusual circumstances such as civil disorder might render effective protection of the innocent from the danger from very violent criminals something which could not be ‘otherwise’ assured.

    Now that we have a way of understanding the basic premise, let’s look at the urban myth promulgated by Matthew in his original post: this legend of the Crusades is of a ruthless, intolerant Church driving Europe into a barbaric war of aggression and plunder against a peaceful Islamic world. As the common portrait paints it, the Crusades, led by mad preachers and manipulating popes, were a Church-sponsored invasion that descended into slaughter in Jerusalem, the persecution of European Jews, and papal manipulation that led to the sack of Constantinople.

    Of course, the Crusades are a far more complicated series of events in history than portrayed in anti-Catholic rhetoric. But there are a few prejudices that can be addressed in a way that any serious historian—no matter his perspective—would agree.

    1. “The Crusades were an unwarranted European invasion of an innocent Islamic people.”

    This claim was never part of general European or Islamic understanding until the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Ottoman Empire, as it was dying, tried to stir up Islamic nationalism by painting the Crusades as eleventh-century colonialism. The reality is that the Crusade announced by Blessed Pope Urban II in 1095 was the answer to an urgent plea from Constantinople for Western assistance against an Islamic invasion from the Seljuk Turks.

    Islam, springing from Arabia, had been militarily aggressive for centuries, conquering Jerusalem in A.D. 638 and most of northern Africa by 700. Spain was conquered in 711, and it was not until the victory of Charles Martel at Tours and Poitier in 732 that the Islamic advance in Western Europe ended. Constantinople was able to maintain the Eastern Empire, although it was stripped of Syria, Palestine, and northern Africa by the military advance of Islam. Over the next three centuries, the empire recovered somewhat, but it was never able to reclaim the Holy Land itself.

    By the eleventh century, there were three different centers of Arab rule—in Spain, Egypt, and Iran\Iraq—with the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt exercising control over Jerusalem. At the same time, there were a number of Islamic leaders with their own military forces, dynasties, feuds, and battles for power. By 1027, the Eastern emperor had negotiated relief for the Christians of Jerusalem, and pilgrimages from Europe had resumed to the holy sites. The rise of the Islamic Seljuk Turks shortly thereafter, though, destroyed this peaceful interlude and was a direct cause of the First Crusade.

    The Seljuks quickly overran Armenia, threatening the entire Anatolian peninsula. Imperial forces were destroyed at the battle of Manzikert in 1071, considered the greatest defeat in the history of the Eastern Empire. Ten years later, when it appeared that the entire empire was on the verge of collapse, Alexios Komnenos took over the imperial throne. Through negotiations and careful manipulation of Islamic disunity, he was able to survive and rebuild a base of power against the Seljuks.

    As part of his plan, Komnenos also mended fences with the papacy, and it appeared that the East-West schism of 1054 could be healed. He developed a cordial relationship with Pope Urban II, who held a council of the Church in 1095 that was attended by representatives of the empire. In desperate need of soldiers, these representatives begged for assistance from the West to fight the Seljuk advance. In November 1095 at a Church council in Clermont, France, Urban issued the formal call for a crusade to rescue Eastern Christendom from Islamic invasion and recover the Holy Land to make it safe for pilgrimage.

    On July 15, 1099, nearly two years after they began to fight their way to the Holy Land, the Crusaders successfully took Jerusalem. But unfortunately, the papal legate who had accompanied them had died. Without his restraint—which had been evident throughout the march to Jerusalem—the crusading army stormed the walls and engaged in a general slaughter of the population. (This was not uncommon at the time. If a city staunchly resisted an attack, its slaughter was almost inevitable. When the Islamic leader Saladin retook Jerusalem in 1187, his charity became legendary: After negotiations, instead of slaughter, those who could afford it were allowed to buy their freedom. Those who could not—men, women and children—were sold into slavery. Such were the times.)

    Why did Urban support the idea of a crusade to the Holy Land? His primary objectives were, first and foremost, the return of the Holy Land and the defense of the Christian communities under siege in the Near East. But there was an additional concern. There was the direct threat of an Islamic advance into Europe. If Constantinople fell, Charles Martel’s victory at Tours would be rendered moot, and all of eastern Europe would be wide open to Islamic advance. And that’s exactly what happened once Constantinople fell to Islam in the fifteenth century.

    2. “The Crusades were an exercise in Church-inspired anti-Jewish riots throughout Europe.”

    Anti-Jewish riots took place in a swath of the Rhineland—not throughout Europe—and primarily in a short period before the First Crusade began. These riots were not instigated or preached by the Church; in fact, Church leadership worked mightily to save Jewish lives.

    In the Rhineland, disparate groups of peasants and townsfolk proclaimed themselves ready to march to Constantinople to fight Islam. They quickly descended into violence and began to launch attacks on local Jews. The bishop of Speyer managed to protect most of the Jews, but at Worms there was greater violence. The bishop opened up his home to protect the Jewish community, but the mobs broke in and slaughtered them. At Mainz, another slaughter followed in this rag-tag army’s wake. As the army approached Cologne, Jews were hidden in Christian homes, and the archbishop was able to protect most of them. At Trier, most of the Jewish community was protected in the archbishop’s palace. Eventually, Christians and Turks destroyed the peasant armies.

    The attacks on Jews in the Rhineland took place despite the constant intervention of Church authorities on behalf of the Jews. When the Second Crusade was preached, St. Bernard of Clairvaux went to the Rhineland to stamp out any anti-Jewish riots, and they ceased.

    3. “The sack of Constantinople took place under the indirect orders of Pope Innocent III as a means to recapture Byzantine Christianity for the Western Church.”

    Pope Innocent III, who was elected in 1198, dedicated his pontificate to recapturing Jerusalem, which had been lost to Saladin. He negotiated with the Eastern emperor, Alexios III—who had ascended to the imperial throne in 1195 after overthrowing (and blinding) his brother—for a healing of the schism and a joint effort to reclaim the Holy Land.

    But Innocent lost control of the endeavor virtually from the start. The French barons leading the Crusade planned to sail directly to the Holy Land and bypass Constantinople. The Crusaders’ transportation from Venice was secured, but when the time came, a much smaller army assembled in Venice than had been planned. The Venetians had constructed a fleet for a much bigger invasion, and they wanted to be paid accordingly. It was finally decided that the Crusaders could start to make good on the cost by subduing the rebellious city of Zara on the Dalmatian coast. The problem was that Zara was Catholic and under the control of a Catholic crusading king whose lands the Pope had pledged to protect. When the Crusaders attacked Zara, an outraged Pope Innocent excommunicated them.

    Eventually the French Crusaders were reconciled to the Church, and it seemed the Crusade was finally ready to embark. Then, the son of the former emperor (who was deposed by his uncle, Alexios III) entered the picture. This young Alexios hoped to regain the throne taken from his father by his uncle. He convinced the Crusaders that, if they helped him retake Constantinople and place him on the throne, he would pay the Crusaders what they still owed the Venetians and supply them with all they needed to proceed to the Holy Land. Innocent, thinking little of the young Alexios, called on the Crusaders to move on to Palestine and forget any interference in Christian Constantinople, warning them against attacks on fellow Christians.

    In June 1203, the Venetians and the French Crusaders, along with young Alexios, arrived at the gates of Constantinople. Alexios had assured them that the city would rise up in his favor. That did not happen. His uncle did flee, his father was restored to the throne, and Alexios co-ruled with his father as Alexios IV. But the treasury he found could not pay off the Venetians. In February 1204, he was overthrown and killed by the citizens of Constantinople. The Crusaders saw this revolution as a direct attack on them, and they abandoned their plans to continue on to the Holy Land. The French and the Venetians poured into the city, and plunder and murder became the order of the day. Constantinople fell completely to Islamic invasion in 1453.

    No serious historian of the Crusades would argue that Pope Innocent brought about or wanted the sack of Constantinople, but this Catholic urban legend remains. The simple fact is that the Pope explicitly begged them not to attack Constantinople; besides, the Crusaders paid little mind to a pope far away when there was plunder nearby. Though some argue that Innocent was privately pleased at Constantinople being brought back under Latin control, there is nothing in his actions that would lend credence to this. Three times he warned the Crusaders not to travel to Constantinople, he incessantly warned against any attack on Christians, and he complained bitterly after the fact about the ruin of the city.

    The Moral of the Story

    Catholic urban legends always have an anti-Catholic moral. The moral of this one is that the Catholic faith promotes zealotry, which leads only to intolerance and violence: “Just look at the carnage and bigotry associated with the Crusades.”

    No real historian would make that case. Historians have and will disagree in interpreting the Crusades and their impact on European and Islamic life. But they would agree that we could do without the misinformation surrounding them. Like most Catholic urban legends, they are propaganda disguised as history.

    1. Wow! To me, the issue is not whether or not God exists, but who he is. Is the God who is the cause of the known universe the entity revealing himself in the Bible, the Koran or wherever? My argument is that modern conceptions of the universe make this a bigger leap for Christianity than before, and a lot of the doctrinal inheritance makes this more difficult still. This is especially true of the Atonement, which makes it seem that God is subject to natural laws (like having an only Son and making an emotional investment, etc). To be clear, I think this is a bit of a practical problem rather than an insuperable obstacle. A lot can be parked in a big box labelled “mystery” along with much else of our understanding of the universe; and the imagery can still be used to draw out insights about our place in the world. I was making a rather smaller point that the uncompromising monotheism of Islam makes this process intellectually a bit easier.

      As to the Crusades. I would say two things. First that pacifism, of a sort that I regard as is incompatible with the crusades, has always been a strong strand of Christianity, even though this is not part of Christian orthodoxy. We have the story of St Martin from the early church (and no doubt others) – a soldier who refused to fight a battle, and not on the grounds that the battle was illegitimate but because as a Christian he could not fight for a secular power. We have such sects as the Quakers now. There’s plenty in the New Testament to give succour to such a view (turn the other cheek, etc).

      The Church did instigate the crusades (even if it did not the various Jewish pogroms, which went well beyond the Rhine – some Jewish bodies were recently found down a well in Norwich). They may well have have gone out of control, and hijacked by other interests. But even if the Church lost control the people fought and committed crimes (if I can permit a value judgement) were Christians, at a time when belief in heaven, hell and judgement was generally held. So far as the “victims” are concerned, you can easily see how they might argue that if Christian faith could not restrain these people, what is the point of it? And if I’m not mistaken the Church wasn’t exactly forward in condemning most of the bad things. Of course Muslims have used the crusades as black propaganda, and they perpetrated many crimes themselves…but Islam does not pretend to be a pacific religion, even if the the Prophet on occasion used non-violence in face of provocation. And Christians have for a very long time perpetrated their own black propaganda against Muslims. Compare the (comparative) tolerance of Moorish Spain with the intolerance and murder (as I see it) of the Inquisition.

      Where’s all this going? History is history. It’s impossible to right past wrongs. Our mission should be to try to make the world a better place, and to use history to gain insight and understanding. I consider the crusades, like the slave trade, to be a black episode for western peoples. But it’s quite silly for arabs and others to use it as a reason to reject western ways, just as it’s silly of Afro-americans and afro-Caribbean s to seek material compensation here and now for the slave trade.

  4. Is the God who is the cause of the known universe the entity revealing himself in the Bible, the Koran or wherever?

    Not just there. Would you not agree that humanity undoubtedly bears a seed of eternity irreducible to the merely material? If there were not a divine reality, why would we postulate one? Life ends, even the rocks wear away, this is what we observe all around us. Why then would we consistently, through all times and cultures, reach beyond ourselves towards that “other”?

    Similarly, our own lives consist in a unique teleology, growth outwards, consisting in developing emotional connections; love moving outwards and encompassing more and more understanding…until what, we die and it ends? This hardly makes sense.

    God is revealed in all times and cultures but we need to listen carefully, because His communication depends on our willingness to listen. (check out 1 Kings 19:1-18 for a good lesson on this). There is truth in Al Qur’an, there is truth in the Buddhavacana, the Taishō Tripiṭaka, Adi Granth, and the Hindu Vedic texts.

    My argument is that modern conceptions of the universe make this a bigger leap for Christianity than before, and a lot of the doctrinal inheritance makes this more difficult still.

    I think you feel faith is retreating to a position where we only have a “god of the gaps”, who hides in the places science can’t reach. Matthew, Christians invented the scientific method and have never shied away from science. The current dichotomy between faith and science is only played out in the media. A true theology wants what any scientist wants; that is better understanding of the universe. Who came up with the Big Bang Theory? A Catholic priest. Who developed genetic theory? A Catholic priest. aith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2). See http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_15101998_fides-et-ratio_en.html

    This is especially true of the Atonement, which makes it seem that God is subject to natural laws (like having an only Son and making an emotional investment, etc). To be clear, I think this is a bit of a practical problem rather than an insuperable obstacle.

    No, God does not change. God the Son is not “made” as we are, but begotten—unmade. He always was one with the Father, One God; De Deo Uno. As the Creed begins “Credo in unum Deum…” I believe in One God. The Son is the logos, evident throughout the Old Testament writings; manifest to Israel and made flesh in order that we might have a real, substantiated, historical person who came to reveal God to us in His full reality, i.e. “turn the other cheek”, “love one another as I have loved you”, “Go and do not sin again”. Jesus is the fullness of humanity, what we were designed to be and therefore what we each should aspire to.

    There are different theological theories surrounding the idea of atonement which are perhaps too complex to examine in any way which would do them justice here. Perhaps if you would care to outline your understanding I can address any disparity with the doctrine that might help you better understand what is being taught here?

    A lot can be parked in a big box labelled “mystery” along with much else of our understanding of the universe; and the imagery can still be used to draw out insights about our place in the world.

    Yes but that’s not really what mystery means. It is more something we can grasp (but perhaps not fully understand) rather than something we can’t grasp.

    I was making a rather smaller point that the uncompromising monotheism of Islam makes this process intellectually a bit easier.

    Seriously, Christianity is equally as uncompromisingly monotheistic. Trinity offers us an important insight into heaven. If God is love, He must be more than one person because otherwise, whom would He love? Trinity demonstrate how we are an outpouring of that expansive love; Lover, Beloved and the love passing between them. The ideas are worth reading in Augustine and Aquinas, the uni-personal models of Augustine and Thomas best help us see the Trinity as the Exemplar for the inter-personal project…as the transcendent Archetype of unity-in-diversity, or, to use a more personal expression, as communion-in-love-without-rivarly. It is as such that the Trinity draws human communities, and the Church, to the goal of communion-in-love-without-rivalry: we are to cherish each one’s gifts and individuality in the Body in such a way that he or she can “become more him or herself” in the growth of non-oppresive unity (a truly liberal ideal?)

    More later…Must get on!

  5. Mark, thanks for your comments. I remember reading an article by one of the priest involved in discussion the issue of women priest’s in the Church of England. He described the discutants as putting forward arguments as expertly as chessmasters executing killer combinations, the only trouble was that each one was operating on a completely different chess board!

    That’s how it is with us, I’m afraid. My original question was how to square the use of lethal force with Jesus injunction to “love one’s enemy”. Your answer – no trouble at all – and you launch in to references to other parts of the bible, and then into the Aquinas, and then to Pope John Paul II. After that you point out that the Crusades weren’t half as bad as a lot of people think they were.

    I can go along with the Crusades being not as so bad as medieval war campaigns go. I can go along with the Catholic church justifying some use of lethal force, just as the muslims do. The only thing is – that’s not my religion.

    This discussion cannot be about whether you are right or wrong, or me for that matter. It can only be about whether your arguments can speak to my difficulties and vice versa. I try to be a good listener.

  6. Many thanks for your comments Richard, I am sorry, I guess I thought a more holistic approach might place the thing in its appropriate context. Perhaps you would permit me to try again?

    Specifically, I hope I am correct in assuming, that you are referring to Matthew 5:44:

    “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.

    Is this an injunction, i.e. an order not to do something? Surely it is exhortative?

    Whenever one attempts to comprehend Scripture, one must attempt to understand the social and historical context, as well as the literary form of the text. Here, in the sixth antithesis between the Old Law and its perfection by Christ. Each of these antithesis has a triadic structure; all begin with a sharp opposition between the narrow interpretation of an OT command and the wider application which Jesus enjoins. There is a saying of the Law, which is either superseded or given a more far-reaching application. Secondly, there is a practical example or case (22bc, 29-30, 34b-36, 46-47), and finally, there is a positive command (23-24, 37, 42, 48). Matthew is interested in speaking to the Jews and is interested in neat literary structures (such as chiasm, which some have posited demonstrates a Hebrew origin).

    The specific antithesis you allude to relates to the perfection of love and relates to the practice taught by rabbis of restricting this to fellow Israelites and those who dwelt in the land (Lev 19:18, 34). Hatred of those outside their own community was regarded as a sacred duty by the sectaries if Qumran (1 QS 1,10). The extension of the commandment of love to all men, even beyond the brethren is specifically Jesus’ own, cf. 22:40; Lk 10:29-37. In Matthew it is particularly stressed that this is the basis of all Christian action.

    Loving your enemies is not hopeless idealism but a wise strategy for overcoming the persecutor. Early Christian martyrs gave late antiquity a bad conscience. Christianity is not introverted aggression, but aggression transmuted into a strategy for winning through the wisdom of love.

    I can go along with the Crusades being not as so bad as medieval war campaigns go. I can go along with the Catholic church justifying some use of lethal force, just as the muslims do. The only thing is – that’s not my religion.

    I understand that, but was attempting to address my comments towards the Crusades as you asked. The Crusaders were Catholics and thus I feel the Catholic position would be pertinent to the question, would it not?

    I hope I have put the Scripture verse you refer to in proper context in order to properly demonstrate its purpose. Please feel free to comment further!

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