On the “Politics of God”
I have more confidence in Catholicism’s ability to dialog with Islam than in the opinions of a writer like Mark Lilla, who hasn’t done his homework in “The Politics of God,” published this week in The New York Times Magazine.
Mark Lilla, who is a professor of the humanities at Columbia University, published a plaintive essay this week (August 18, 2007) in the glossy pages of The New York Times Magazine. Entitled “The Politics of God,” the article has been one of the most frequently cited and sent among website visitors to the New York Times. “The Politics of God” focuses upon the divergent paths taken by Liberal Christianity in the West and the very different route of Islam in reconciling state and religion. I am sure that the Starbucks’ crowd that lives and dies on liberal imitations of theology feels comfortable with Professor Lilla’s perspective. I don’t.
It’s not that Lilla says anything off-base: it’s just that his narrow view of the role of religion, the Enlightenment, progress and culture leaves out too much of religious experience world-wide. “How,” I would ask, “can a contemporary essay on political theology omit Latin America’s Theology of Liberation?” From the Zapatistas in Mexico, to the struggles in Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and now Venezuela, the Latin American and Catholic political theology of liberation has changed not only religious thinking but governments as well. Professor Lilla’s presumption that Liberal Protestantism shapes religion today prevents him from appreciating the reality of a world in which Liberal Protestantism counts for very little once you wander off the campus of Ivy League institutions.
I recognize that the essay was mainly historical and about religion in Europe and the United States, and so Latin America and the contemporary were not in Lilla's focus. But even here, the article suffers from his intellectual myopia. In discussing the historical relationship of Christianity with Islam, a serious historian would have to examine the 700 years of interaction in medieval Spain. In everything from the words for pillow, rug and mayor as well as in cuisine and architecture, Spain is the product of seven centuries of convivencia with Muslim life and culture. Religiously, the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy as a basis for theology and the preservation of biblical texts entered Europe through Spain. Ramón Llull established a language school at Miramar and devised the world’s first machine to process logic to dialog with Muslim theologians. Aquinas wrote the Summa Contra Gentes to use only religious sources that Muslims would accept in order to engage in interfaith communications. This is a much richer history than what is cited by Dr. Lilla about the Protestantism that he projects as normative of Christianity.
How does my exploration of history square with the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century and expulsions of Muslims in the 16th century? Such events are often supposed to characterize all interfaith relations in Catholic Spain. However, anyone capable of reading beyond the sloganeering must admit that such institutions were created precisely because of centuries of interaction, communication and (even) syncretism. I do not pretend to give a blank check to Spanish Catholicism: I would insist, however, that competent scholarship would at least mention that these 700 years of interactive religious history are part of the Christian experience with Islam.
To his credit, Lilla dissents from the oft-repeated notion that early Protestantism reconciled religion and the Enlightenment. Calling Luther and Calvin “renovators” rather than “liberalizers” he suggests that Islam needs similar thinkers to wrestle with the demands of modernity. However, Luther and Calvin rejected “the ideal of celibacy,” “otherworldly monasticism” and the “all-too-worldly imperialism of Rome.” Loyola and his Jesuit companions did not. They renovated these religious institutions and made Catholicism world-wide and global by the 17th century precisely on the energy of a celibate clergy and a modernized form of otherworldliness. If success can be measured by numbers, the world’s billion Catholics prove that Loyola was a much more effective renovator than Lilla’s heroes. In contrast, Lutheranism and Calvinism today suffer from membership sclerosis, just as in the past they long ignored missionary work among the non-whites of the world.
The fatal flaw in Professor Lilla’s analysis is one commonly repeated among my Liberal Protestant friends. They fail to see that Catholicism’s relative success over two millennia is not because Catholics don’t make mistakes, but rather that they find ways to learn from the mistakes. Catholicism is the truest expression of Christianity, wrote Cardinal Newman, because it allows for the development of doctrine in continuity with the past and mediated by institutions with varied functions. It is a religion that practices checks-and-balances, is not afraid of syncretism and makes religious practice more important than doctrinal profession.
The 15th century characterization of Christianity by Jean Gerson, ecclesia semper reformanda est, would seem a better formula for renovation of religion and dialog with Islam than the stillborn Christianity described by Professor Mark Lilla. True enough, Protestants appropriated this dictum as their lodestone, but they presumed that with the establishment of a new order for Christian institutes by themselves the process would end. Hence, we find the notion of Protestant sect, admitting only the perfect or latter day saints. Catholicism, on the other hand, recognizes itself as a church of sinners – hence the need for a sacrament of Reconciliation. I have more confidence in Catholicism’s ability to dialog with Islam than in the opinions of a writer who hasn’t done his homework.
The comments to this entry are closed.