The more I read about this mosque controversy, and the more hatred of Islam I see, the more horrified I become. It turns out that even Geert Wilders is involved, which should tell one quite a lot about the sort of people who are opposing the Cordoba Initiative. Anyway, I was trying to ignore this as it only arouses my own passions, when I dipped into a collection of essays by David Goa: A Regard for Creation: Collected Essays (Synaxis Press, 2008). One in particular caught my attention, entitled “Zealous for Truth” and I then discovered that it is also available online. I find Goa’s article particularly helpful for the way in which he shows the relationship between zealotry and relativism, something that comes into particular focus in some current western discussions of Islam.
Recently I have listened to various people talk about Islam. Some are noted scholars. Others are journalists and others simply thoughtful men and women in the grip of fear. I have come to know some of these people. These women and men identify themselves, usually with vigor, with either the right or the left in both religious and political circles. They identify a discreet set of cultural diseases with our present age and I share at least a portion of their concern. Where I part company with both the right and the left – conservatives and liberals – and with their growing fraternities is when they prescribe antidotes to our cultural diseases based on their relativism or zealousness for the truth.
This is seen particularly in the interpretive framework which both the left and the right use for understanding Islam.
Triangulation and the Fraternity of Enemies: Let me illustrate with my recent gleanings from public and private commentaries on Islam and arguments about its current geopolitical situation.
A number of pundits who are zealous for the truth have begun to revive a thesis that we may understand the difference between Islam and Christianity simply by comparing the founding figures of the two faiths: Jesus Christ and Mohammad.
Each time I hear this starting point suggested by a person who stands on religious ground, I am taken aback. Neither a thoughtful Christian nor Muslim would stumble into this way of treating or defining Jesus Christ or Mohammad. Rather, this is a typical secular historian’s trick that reduces complexity and purpose to frame conclusions. It is what we have come to expect from journalists seeking easy copy and snappy headlines; from those who have spent too much time with the Jesus Seminar or with Bishop Sponge, Tom Harper or Marcus Borge.
From the perspective of the Christian tradition this is a false start for it begins neither at the heart of human nature or in the presence of God’s love. What the zealous commentators then proceed to do is paint a picture of the founding period of Islam through the military actions of the prophet Mohammad based on a set of historical facts. This reduction of Islam to a militant religion with an appetite for conversions by the sword runs like a set of threads through the European literature of the last seven hundred years. Its thesis and argument and its marshaling of facts and truths is claimed by a curious set of fellow travelers. Some of them are zealous for Christian truth. Some are deeply committed relativists. Enemies need enemies and thrive on each other’s presence. They claim, of course, to stand on different ground but this claim is simply a way of hiding from each other their relationship as codependent spiritual twins.
Moreover, such interpretations simply reinforce and further the cause of the likes of Osama Bin Laden.
Why is the description of Islam given by Qutb and Bin Laden the same as that of scholars and journalists whom I have recently heard, while Muslims in general never reduce their faith to militant terms? What leads them, as well as Rushdie and some of those who critique Shariah, to the same body of images and ideas on the origin of Islam? Why this common narrative?
In Bin Laden’s case, you must take up arms to be faithful. It is as simple as that. In the narrative of those on the virulent right and left, including Christians, Islam is also reduced by arguing that its foundations, its essential nature, demand that the faithful engage in both conquest and destruction.
We may learn by reflecting on who our companions are in supporting particular positions we come to hold dear. A curious tradition of rhetoric stretches from medieval hate literature down to our own day. Militant Islamist movements claim this tradition. They have taken the infection into their body and seek to turn it into a virtue. This rhetorical landscape was central to Rushdie’s novel and to the fear that led the writers in PEN to respond as they did. It is central to the fine women I have known who have been shaken to their roots by the horrific treatment of women found in countries that have adopted some form of Shariah law. Osama Bin Laden comes a little closer to winning his war for the definition of Islam each time others voice his position and give young Muslim men – and increasingly women – something to die for amidst the complexities of our fragile world. When the religious right and secular left engage in such reductionism of the faith of Islam, they contribute to Bin Laden’s cause.
Such zealotry is based on a sort of spiritual adolescence, and
The Orthodox teaching shaped by Isaac the Syrian and other Church Fathers and Mothers is that we must “taste of truth” and be healed of our appetites for philosophical truth and historical fact, our predilection for getting our teeth into the truth and holding on, for competing in pitting truth against presumed truth. We need to be healed also of the historian’s habit of elevating facts to truth. We want the comfort of our truth statements, of our elevated theologically clothed philosophical doctrines. And we want them because we are addicted to the spiritual adrenalin we feel at the sudden rush of winning, at least in our own minds and hearts, the argument for truth. We want to be defender of the faith, the kind of person who knows he is right and takes pride in staking a claim to what is true no matter what the cost. It is not surprising that this attitude is growing in our day. The age of relativism deepens our inclination to be zealous for the truth and, tragically, it does this for some of the best and brightest among us as well, and dangerously so.
We are called to better. We are called to better precisely because in Him who is “the truth and the life” we are freed from the habit of taking refuge in abstract notions of truth. If we taste of truth at every Eucharist we know better. If we taste of truth every time we, like the disciples, find ourselves in Emmaus breaking bread with someone we didn’t know we knew, we know better. We know better every time our hearts are moved with compassion.
No wonder St. Isaac says that when we learn what truth really is we will cease being zealous for truth, cease responding as if it were our place to defend and protect truth. If the history of religions teaches us anything, and I think it teaches us much, it teaches us that one of the most serious religious diseases is zealousness. It was a deep concern to Jesus as he walked the valley of the Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem. And he finally healed us of its bondage when he spoke from the throne of the cross to those who were contentious for truth, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”