The letter of Pohl to the blogosphere

The good Professor attracts great comments, which is only natural since people are forced to keep up with the great posts.  His Labor Day post, replying to CNN’s ruminations on Muslims in America, is a case in point.

CNN starts us off with a “global public square” blog entry by one Steven Kull that reads, in part [with some judicious commas courtesy of yours truly]:

A particularly frustrating feature of the U.S. narrative, for Muslims, is that it divides Muslim society into a progressive liberal and secular sector on one hand and on the other a regressive Islamist sector that seeks to impose backward Islamic traditions.   America then seeks to promote the liberal forces and to undermine the Islamist forces. …

To most Muslims this American perspective on Muslim society is simply incorrect… While Americans do tend to divide the Muslim public into secular and Islamist groups, polls show that Muslims do not divide so neatly.

Overwhelming majorities endorse liberal principles, including that the will of the people should be the basis of governance, government leaders should be chosen through free elections, and that there should be full freedom of religion.

At the same time, equally large majorities say that Sharia should be the basis of government, that all laws should be vetted by Islamic scholars to ensure they are consistent with the Koran, and that Muslims should not be allowed to convert to another religion.

“Obviously there are some serious contradictions here,” the author concludes.  If you like, you can read it all, and save yourself the trouble of buying his book, Feeling Betrayed: the Roots of Muslim Anger at America.  (Just skip the comments: a vast number are profoundly stupid.)  You should know, however, that this book (and accompanying article) are the product of a five-year study involving “focus groups and surveys throughout the Muslim world.”  The author doesn’t mention if the study also involved watching the news for reports of terror attacks, honor killings, or other mayhem; nor listening to any standard “Death to America and/or Israel” speech at any time since Nixon left office.  One has to be working quite hard to miss all of them, as regular and frequent as they are… being the Director of the Program of International Policy Attitudes must occupy a lot of one’s time.*

*Policy attitudes?  They don’t study the policies themselves, just the attitudes?

Mondo tramples this small, representative snippet like Bo Jackson trampling Brian Bosworth:

In short, what we see is a call for everyone to have the freedom to agree with the Muslims. … (But remember, it’s the Dominionists and Opus Dei we should fear. OMG Krazy Kristers and even worse, Krazy Krister Katholiks!!!eleventy!)

(And if any of you out there want to play some moral equivalency card between those folks and the ones who talk about Judeo-Christian roots of American/Western culture, don’t bother. Most Christians at least know there’s a difference between what must be rendered unto God and unto Caesar. The people in the CNN article who seek a greater Dar-al-Islam don’t, because they think God and Caesar are the same guy.)

As you may have guessed from the lead, it’s one of the comments that really caught my eye: J Otto Pohl seized on the quoted section above to write this:

There is no such thing as Judeo-Christian. Theologically both Christianity and Judaism are closer at different ends of the spectrum to Islam than they are to each other. Christianity represented a very radical break with Judaism and Islam was an attempt to bring religion back closer to its Abrahamic ancestor. Both Christianity and Islam are universialistic religions. Whereas Judaism is very much the religion of a single closed ethno-confessional group. That is Christianity (a priesthood of all believers) and Islam (the Umma) are communities based upon faith. Being Jewish is a matter of ancestry or lineage, belief in God is not the defining element. Both Judaism and Islam are religions of laws whereas Christianity is a religion of morality. It would thus be more accurate to speak of Islamo-Christian or Judeo-Islamic values than Judeo-Christian ones.

This all sounds very reasonable, but it has one serious flaw: it’s completely incorrect.  Judaism and Christianity are inextricably related, value nearly all the same things, and a well-ordered society based on those values will be recognizable for it at once.

The first consideration is Jesus Himself, who was Jewish, and who clearly regarded himself as the Savior of His people.  I’ll grant that He was not what a lot of them were expecting; He said things that the scrupulous authorities regarded as blasphemy.  They also could never quite trap him with His words, however.  In the end they had to have the Romans get rid of Him for them, on ginned-up testimony.  As different as His teaching seemed – to the point of suspicion of diabolical influence – the most scholarly minds of Judaism couldn’t find the error, even though it was in their dearest interests to do so.  Some of them wound up following this Messiah himself.

The second consideration is the Church that He founded.  All of his disciples were Jewish.  Nearly all His early followers were Jewish.  They rejoiced that God had sent them a Messiah and established a new covenant with them.  They greatly doubted that Gentiles were permitted to join, and there were controversies when others wanted to embrace the faith: did they have to be circumcized, and follow all of the law?  Saul of Tarsus (soon called Paul and known as St Paul nowadays) put his lifetime of learning to work on this, and wrote at great length to all the congregations that he helped to establish, explaining that this new covenant in fact fulfilled the old covenant and all its promises – not a radical break but a consummation.  And he further explained that whosoever accepted Jesus as the Messiah could enter into this covenant.  (It’s all in The Letter to the Galatians.)

The third consideration is philosophical.  Not only the early Church but everyone else regarded these Christians as a sect of Judaism, both inside AND outside Judea.  By itself, their evangelization wasn’t considered remarkable by anyone at the time.  There were many such movements afoot in the ancient world.  When it was John the Baptist, the authorities sent a delegation to find out his motives, but otherwise let him be – there was no great alarm or shock.  (It was Herod who eventually arrested and killed him, for reasons that had nothing to do with religion.)  The new believers regarded Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, and when He said, “Make ye disciples of all nations,” they took Him at His word.  It’s all in how you answer the question: “Who do you say that I am?”  If Jesus is just a Jewish rabbi, there’s nothing new to talk about; if He is the Christ, then it’s obvious that people ought to know about Him.  What seems like a “radical break” is nothing more than the difference between preparing for a Messiah and getting one.  That explains all.  The switch from “provincial” to “universal” follows naturally:  it turns out that Jews are indeed evangelical when they think they have something worth telling us about.  In the face of their persistence, one of the Jewish religious leaders, Gamaliel, finally concluded that the believers had better be left alone, “lest you even be found to fight against God.” (Acts 5:39)

The fourth consideration is cultural.   Christianity and Judaism share a great common heritage.  The Ten Commandments are still the same.  The concepts of free will, divine justice and divine love, and the call to righteousness are still the same.  Those faithful to God are still expected to live in a particular manner.  The essence of the beliefs are quite the same – even to the central question where the faiths have diverged.  The theological differences are only a question of timing: has the Messiah arrived yet?  If not, this belief behaves in a certain way; if so, then it behaves differently; but each flows naturally and properly from the same source.  These don’t make for two different and unrelated things.  An eagle may seem quite different than an egg, but it’s an error to thus conclude that the egg has more in common with a rock.

It oversimplifies to say that Christianity is about morality while Judaism is about laws.  The most zealous rabbi would say that following the law is how a pious Jew pleases God – the law is a description of good morality.  The most permissive pastor would still at least confess that one’s conscience speaks with force of law, and it would be immoral to disobey.  And the Bible upholds this need for law and morality to intersect, in the words of the One who is the pivot between the two covenants: “If you love Me, keep My commandments.”  For all the detailed precepts in the Torah, it still talks of these laws as being written upon the hearts of God’s people; the Old Testament is where you will find all the poetry and nearly all the prophecy; David is called “a man after God’s own heart”; and the prophets talk of a God who will never forget His people, and a people who thus “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”  Then flip to the New Testament, and you find “Faith without works is dead,” and all the “don’t’s” that people love to complain about.  Again, these seeming departures and “radical breaks” are simply a unified whole – leaves above and roots below, but each part of the same tree, taking in sunlight and water and minerals, serving their different functions.

Finally, it all comes back to the point that the Professor made – in this culture, informed by Judeo-Christian tradition, the state and the church are different things.  In fact it is one of the most common historical objections to both Jews and Christians.  Pharoah feared that the Hebrews weren’t really loyal to him, but to their God; while in exile, the Jews were continually harassed by the various kings and rulers for keeping their own ways, or accused by “proper” citizens of seeking to undermine the state or otherwise seize power; the Sanhedrin used this fear of rebellion to get the Romans to rid them of Jesus; and in more recent times, we’ve seen the Nazis use this fear.  Even in their own nation, the Jews were best-served under the judges – their woes began anew when they demanded kings for themselves.  Similarly, Christianity spent most of its early life threatened with extinction at the hands of the State, on the accusation of sedition.  When it grew over the centuries to be accepted, and for ecclesial power to influence state affairs, there was no end of trouble.  The supreme ironic example must be Henry VIII’s England – he grew so suspicious of Catholic conniving that he had many prominent officials and clergy executed for treason, his Prime Minister Sir Thomas More among them… and then seized the church himself and declared himself the head of it, which seems rather like sheltering from the rain at the bottom of the ocean.

So on to America and the West.  In the name of keeping the government untainted by the faith, believers are herded out of more and more of the society at large… and creeping in to replace it is Pure Government in every awful sense of the phrase, government untempered by any real virtue.  This fear that religious folk will take over the place has led to one of the great contradictions in all human history: a culture steeped in the common values of the Judeo-Christian tradition wants to scrap that tradition, and continually finds itself amazed that it has also lost the values.  Every substitute eventually fails, “…for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing.” (Acts 5:38)    We downgrade from charity to charitable deductions, from compassion and respect to tolerance, from variety to diversity, from unity to monotony, from understanding to indifference, from dignity to self-esteem, from integrity to perception, from substance to image, and from character to pretense.  The law loses its morality and becomes a cage; morality loses its compass and becomes aimless.  It bears a horrible similarity to Henry VIII’s solution: we are spared the horror of theocracy by the far worse horrors of amoral tyranny and abject servitude.

People aren’t meant to live that way.  This is the insight into human nature that gives rise to major belief systems in the first place: they are all an attempt to satisfy this universal need for transcendence.  The element that is radically different in the Judeo-Christian tradition – the real break that makes this belief unlike any other – is that God supplies Himself as the solution.  Mankind reaches out through faith, but this is the only time that we find a Hand reaching out in the other direction.  As far as I know, all the other faiths leave their adherents to wander unaided towards Nirvana, or Enlightenment, or Valhalla…  you might get a map, more or less, but guidance is limited to a more detailed set of directions.  There’s no search parties.  If you make it, great, and if you don’t, then the best you can hope for is a do-over (if applicable).  It’s all operating manuals, no tech support.  Grace is exclusive to the God of the Jews and Christians, as is the promise to turn mere followers into His own children.  Hand in glove with this concept is that the followers are free to decide whether or not to take up that offer.  Since God is the point of faith, rather than any wordly system, believers become superior to the State.  They owe allegiance, but not devotion.  And even non-believers are better off this way – if you’re free to disobey even God, you’re certainly under no obligation to put up with any civic usurpation of your freedom.

It hasn’t always worked that way in practice, because people have a truly prodigious capacity for self-destruction, willful blindness, and self-serving behavior.  We are masterful at justifying all manner of evil, and the moreso when we’re convinced we’re right.  This is perhaps the most dreadful evidence of all that the Judeo-Christian account of our history is the accurate one: there, but for the grace of God, go all of us.  Only creatures who could plausibly become like unto God are capable of such self-idolatry.  CS Lewis explains this often, perhaps best in The Four Loves, when he says that our instincts don’t attempt to claim divinity until the claim becomes plausible – and then those “better angels of our nature” become idols and demons.  In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape describes it as “Christianity-And.”  Eventually the Christianity drops off to the side, because the “And” is the part that people are really interested in.

It’s one point often used to try to make Christian-based sins equivalent to their worldly counterparts, and I think it backfires.  Whether you invest the State with holy authority or banish it entirely from the realm, you are committing the same idolatry – the Government becomes the ultimate power, suffering no rival; blasphemy becomes treason, and if your chains chafe, you’re free to stop trying to move around so much.  Either there is no higher power than the State, or the State is the higher power, and therefore there is no higher power than the State.  Thus the equivalency here is not between Judeo-Christian morality and other faiths (or lack thereof), but just between their crimes: making a Church into a State, or a State into a replacement Church.

I contend that America has held out furthest thus far against either of these errors precisely because it sprang from the unified Judeo-Christian tradition, and was grounded in its common values and concepts: the primacy of individual conscience and free will, separate civil and religious powers, and a society that was more than just the basic laws it lived by.  And I contend that Islam, by attempting to go back to its ancestry (as J Otto Pohl writes), has actually gone too far back.  Superficially, it might resemble Judaism in being a religion of laws, and might resemble Christianity by obligating its followers to spread the faith – but Judaism is not just about the law, and Christianity is not just about evangelization.  The core values of the Judeo-Christian tradition are drastically, radically different than Islam’s.  You don’t have to take my word for it; scroll back up and read it from the source.  That is a clear declaration that there is no will but Allah’s, and thus no difference between the faith and the law.  Blasphemy, idolatry, and apostasy are capital crimes.  It results in an inversion of the concept of God reaching down to mankind to give them the chance to be like Him, to turn followers into family; instead, mankind strives to stop being itself entirely, to be only so many tools.  One is transcendent, with humanity growing to full stature; the other, reductive, souls flattened into paper dolls.  Any resemblance is, again, fleeting: to claim there is no difference is like mistaking the perfect coordination of a great symphony for that of a hive of ants.  Only one of them is going to give you Mozart.  And even a badly-played recital is preferable to the perfection of brainless drudgery.

So the clash that Mr. Kull falsely claims is an “individual clash of civilizations” is really between groups.    Muslim individuals find it much safer to practice both personal faith and secular freedom in a culture like ours, where each is allowed to be itself, than they do at home, where the very concept is an affront punishable by death.  Here they are free to disagree with the very concept that makes such disagreement possible (and it helps explain the appeal of secular freedom); there they must not (explaining the similar appeal of Sharia).  We can embrace a paradox; they have a contradiction that they feel must result in the utter defeat and destruction of one side.

That’s why the phrases “Islamo-Christian” and “Judeo-Islamic” are (sorry) complete nonsense.  Anyone who doubts it can always test the hypothesis by suggesting to a Muslim that his values resemble those of the Jews or Christians… though I suggest that you do so from a prudent distance.

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