Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Pope and Islam

I have just added an article to this site giving some of my views on religion. More light, possibly, made be added in my forthcoming book How to Live Forever or Die Trying. I shall not, in the interim, pretend to be a theologian and attempt to unravel the present Catholic-Islamic crisis. I have read the offending lecture and I am inclined to agree with a Catholic friend who remarks that a lot of Muslims seem in need of anger management. Moreover, without wishing to make things worse, should they consult the online Catholic Encylopaedia on the subject of Islam, they may become even angrier. But human tribes disagree, it is fatuous to deny that and wise not to make too much of it.
The coverage that I have seen has been remarkable for its shallowness and opacity. I will add to it two clear - I think - points.
First, though I do not sympathise with any violent Muslim reaction, I am puzzled as to why the Pope used the offending quotation from the Byzantine emperor. It is not essential to his argument. Rhetorically and logically, it is superfluous. One wonders...
Secondly, there is a lazy view among the ignorant that Islam and Christianity are very much alike. Both have the same roots that they share with Judaism and, as one often hears at dinner parties, Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a prophet. The reality is - and this is at the core of the Pope's lecture - the two religions differ fundamentally in their conception of God. I encountered this myself in the course of a debate with a British convert to Islam at London University. He described the Christian tradition of "justifying the ways of God to man" - theodicy, essentially - as blasphemous to a Muslim. This is because man can aspire to have no such access to the mind of God in Islam. In Christianity, in contrast, man is made in the image of God and this means, crucially, that our reason is an aspect of the mind of God. We do, therefore, have some access to His mind in this world and this life.
That difference explains a very great deal about our present world. Either God is utterly beyond us or God is here and now, though veiled. The distinction is so deep, so fundamental, that it is largely unseen.


  1. Regarding Muslims having no access to the mind of God or experience of the divine, what of mystics like Rumi and the Sufis? Though perhaps with all the higher mystics we are beyond concepts and in a sense beyond religion- into the cloud of unknowing, the Void etc. As for the Pope and where he's coming from, I have to admit to being rather open to the interpretation of Dostoevsky's Legend of the Grand Inquisitor regarding the hidden spiritual background of much of the powers that be. I think we tend to forget Jesus' very strong statements about Satan being "the Prince of this world". Whatever about the comforting notion of a God that eases the troubled minds of today's people, this kind of notion has become a great taboo and beyond the pale. A little imagination though and alot of historical awareness, and the notion of Satan or an acitive evil ideology being a guiding light in world events becomes more than plausible. Or to put it alternatively a doctrine that exalts the ego over the true spirituality of submission, humility etc.
    Going back to Islam of which I'm basically ignorant, it seems extraordinary to me that a religion could not aspire to experience of the Divine, or Mind of God. Though perhaps Muslims see some kind of middle ground here where religious experience is possible but not actually of the mind of God- all a bit unsatisfactory I think though.

  2. One wonders a lot about this pope - Prada shoes and Intelligent Design ???

  3. Ah, David, welcome back - if that is the David I think it is. This Pope is, indeed, an enigma. The shoes may be a hint, but what do they say about Islam?

  4. Andrew, Islam is more strange to those brought up in a more or less Christian context usually realise. The absolute otherness of God is a concept that seems to me to make an enormous difference, It is often said that Christ's 'Render unto Caesar...' was the foundaton of the Christian ability to live within secularity. This is seen as a huge difference from Islam. But, in fact, I suspect the differing concepts of our relationship with God may be more basic - though perhaps they are the same thing.

  5. Yes, indeed it is I (or a very good fake - I can't tell the difference).

    Shoes - one removes them before entering a mosque usually and certainly before putting ones foot in ones mouth.

  6. I found you all via Minx's blog. I am a Muslim. And I'm adding my two cents'worth.

    God says to His servants, 'I am to my servants according to his thoughts concerning Me'.

    For me as a Muslim, this means that if I see God as a near, dear, well wishing God, a loving God, who always wishes the best for His creation, then to me He is so.

    And if I choose to see Him as this distant, unfathomable God, then He is so to me. This is essentially Islam. He is closer to us than our jugular vein. He tells us this in the Quraan. We do not belive in anthropomorphosising Him, for He is unique, unlike his creation. Independant of us, completely.

    And as for the Pope, I myself wonder at his choice of text to quote from. But I must admit, that Muslims that react in this way, as many did with the cartoon crisis, serve the cause of Islam in no way. And they feed the media stereotype of Muslims as terrorists. Also, they are a minority.