Letters Spring 2002

Attitudes to Islam

I found the last In Communion rich and thought-provoking, in particular Jessica Rose’s article, but the unsigned essay, “A Christian Perspective on Islam,” requires a rejoinder.

Some of the author’s statements correspond to what I have observed in visiting Muslim countries in the eastern Arab world. The author’s experience of living among Muslims rings true, for instance, in his description of the image of the Muslim community at prayer throughout the world. It reminds me of Egyptian Muslim friends explaining their sense of being part of a world-wide community during Ramadan, where as darkness falls across the globe the faithful break their fast.

But I could not agree with much of what the author said. In the first place, he appears to believe that “Allah” is an exclusively Muslim name for God. In fact “Allah” is the Arabic word for God, used by Muslims and Christians alike; the phrase “Bism illah” (In the name of God) may be followed by “al-Rahman al-Rahim” (the Compassionate, the Merciful) but also by “al-Ab wa-l-Ibn wa-l-Ruh al-Quddus” (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). The names of God, and the language which Islam has developed to talk about God, are far less remote from Christian theology than the author states. While the concept of the Trinity is indeed alien to Islam, Christians and Muslims share much thinking about the attributes of God.

This was brought home to me clearly last summer at a conference on Middle Eastern Christianity from 750 to 1100 AD. One of the speakers discussed the style and language of a section from a treatise in Arabic by a Christian theologian of the 11th century. It was the section on God, where the writer uses many terms and expressions which can also be found in the Quran and in Muslim texts about God. At the end of the paper the chairman of the session, a Muslim, said to the speaker, a Christian: “I wish your paper could have gone on longer. It was so beautiful to hear God being talked about like that.”

Like Christianity, Islam is spread over different regions of the world and consequently takes on very diverse forms. Senegalese, Omanis, Indonesians, Iranians, Muslims settled in the US and Tatars do not live their Islam in the same way, and the differences may be compounded if one takes account of whether the people concerned are villagers or city-dwellers. It is just as hard to generalize about Islam if one looks at how it is lived in these different countries as it is to generalize about Christianity if one looks at it in, say, Scandinavia, Nigeria, Brazil, South Korea and Kerala.

An easy way to realize this is to look at aspects of society, such as political participation of women. In Saudi Arabia they are completely excluded from political activity, in Iran they can be members of parliament, in Egypt they can be government ministers, in Pakistan and Bangladesh they are, or have been, heads of government. Yet all these countries describe themselves as Muslim. I do not doubt the author’s good faith, but statements like “Islam is a man’s world where women must stay in the background, not seen in mosques, coffee bars, or public life” have to be set against facts like this, and also against shots of streets in Cairo or Jakarta on TV news films.

This is not to say that women do not suffer restrictions on their freedom in Muslim countries, depending on the country concerned, the woman’s social position and so on. But one cannot generalize about this matter, nor can one claim that it is something specific to Islam. A few decades ago, how many women did one see in Greek cafes or Greek public life?

Some of the features which the author ascribes to Islam belong more to what is often called a traditional society than to a specifically Muslim one. When he describes traditional Muslim education, his remarks remind me of accounts of the early school experience of some Arab Muslim writers — but also some Arab Christian ones, where it was the local priest, not the imam, who was the teacher. The Lebanese Orthodox journalist, historian and novelist Jurji Zaidan paints a bitter picture of his first school in Beirut in the second half of the 19th century, run by an ignorant and authoritarian priest. (Instead of the Quran, the Psalms were the text the pupils had to learn).

The Palestinian poet, painter and critic Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who grew up in the Syrian Orthodox community of Bethlehem in the 1920s, came off better in church schools, for the teachers were not authoritarian. But only when he went to the state school did he really start to develop intellectually. His teachers there, some of whom were Christians, others Muslims, were committed to preparing their pupils for building a modern democratic state after the end of the Mandate. And if it were true that the “forms of educational instruction and thought in Islam” do not guide Muslims “to become active and responsible, but to submit … passively to [their] fate”, how could one explain the intellectual achievements of medieval Muslim civilization, the movements of resistance in different Muslim countries to British, French, Russian, Dutch or Italian colonization, or the success of a project like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which has provided credit for small-scale projects to hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, whom ordinary banks will not consider lending to?

The author does not allow for a diversity of opinions within Muslim societies, yet diversity exists. Fr. Stephen Headley gives examples from Indonesia. Elsewhere one can note that Khomeini’s ideas have always been controversial in Iran, contested not only by secularly oriented thinkers, but also by sections of the clergy who disapprove of the involvement of the religious establishment in politics. And they have refused to accord his successor, Khamenei, the same authority as he enjoyed. (In any case Khomeini is a reference only for Shiites, about 10 percent of Muslims.)

The Sunni Muslim world, like the Orthodox Christian one, does not have a single central authority, and so debates on ethical issues can, and do, take place, as one can see if one follows the decisions given by the Shaikh of al-Azhar or the Chief Mufti in Cairo, who do not always agree with each other.

Muslims living in Europe and America, facing the challenge of living in a non-Muslim and even an entirely secular society, are developing a variety of responses to the new situation they find themselves in. Some Muslims are very critical of those who claim to represent them. I have a Lebanese friend who refuses to make the Pilgrimage because he considers that the regime in Saudi Arabia makes a farce of Islamic values. Public expression of dissident views such as this is difficult in most Muslim countries but it can be found in all but a few. As in other countries, where freedom of expression is severely limited, literature is often the vehicle of critical reflection. Indeed, one good way to discover something of how Muslims live, of the role their faith plays for them (or does not play — there are nominal Muslims, just as there are nominal Christians), and of how many other factors determine the choices they make in their lives, is to read literature — novels, short stories, poetry — from Muslim countries.

Admittedly, it is not easy to write about another religion, especially if one has suffered at the hands of some of its adherents, as may well be the case with the author. But as followers of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, we must be committed to seeking for truth, whether in our own lives or our relations with others, or whether truth in the academic sense is concerned. To make sweeping and sometimes denigrating statements about the beliefs and behavior of millions of people all over the world (“Muslim emotions often flare up uncontrollably”) does not help the cause of truth; rather, it contributes to false images and hostility.

The Gospels give some guidelines about how to approach people of another religion. It may be worth reflecting on those passages where Samaritans are mentioned. In the time of Christ the Jews regarded them as holding wrong beliefs because they had their own temple and did not worship in Jerusalem. But Christ saw Samaritans as persons. He recognized that they could be capable of extraordinary good, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When He healed ten lepers, the only one to come back and thank Him was the Samaritan. And when Christ met the Samaritan woman at the well, he approached her not as a faceless adherent of a false religion but as a person deserving of respect, with her own spiritual needs. He did not raise the issue of what the right beliefs were; she did, once they had been talking for some time and she had realized that this was no ordinary meeting.

To combine a commitment to truth with respect for the persons who hold other beliefs — but who may still have been touched by the Holy Spirit — is a starting point for approaching the mystery of the existence of different religions in the world.

Hilary Waardenburg

Pursuing peace

It is important to pursue peace. I think that this is required of us. I join the rest of you in finding peaceful ways to solve problems. I start with my own attitude towards others (the log in my own eye). I think that our individual witness of Christ’s love to those around us is more important than our words. This is not an accusation but a simple statement. I know that many of you are more engaged in this kind of face-to-face witness and service than I am!

It is important to point out that this or that war is “unjust”, but we cannot let it distract us from the harder and greater tasks before us. Are we working toward a Christian world when we denigrate those with whom we disagree? It is one thing when our Church offers an unambiguous answer to a question (“Thou shalt not kill”), it is another when it seems to offer contradictory commands (Don’t kill, but …). Rather than assuming we know more than our betters, why not learn from this? Certain things may at first seem contradictory, but the task of reconciling them might just make us wiser.

I may never be placed in a situation where I am asked to kill another person. Lord help us, few of us have or will. But every day, I am faced with the temptation to hate another person, and I think this is the standard of murder Christ has given us. War and violence are symptoms and indicators — two of many — that I am not the only one tempted to murder others.

Doug Perkins

Just wars?

During the course of this past week public radio aired the comments of a prominent Roman Catholic theologian as he expounded upon the principles of a “just war” as they applied to our present War on Terrorism. Augustine held that wickedness must be restrained, by force if necessary, and that the sword of the civil authorities is divinely commissioned to this end.

Historically speaking, theorizing on just or unjust killing only became a matter for consideration after the Church was no longer at odds with the civil authority about the 4th century. During the period which preceded that, while the Church was still the object of the state’s oppression or outright persecution, no Christian writing left to us condoned Christian participation in war. It was commonly held in the Christian community that all bloodshed, whether as soldiers or executioners, was unlawful according to Christ’s commandments. In order to fully appreciate their position we should recognize that it was not infrequently Christian blood that was being shed!

Hippolytus (c.170-c.260), who compiled a canon of apostolic tradition, maintained that a soldier who wished to join the Church must refuse to kill men even if ordered to do so. The historian Kenneth Scott Latourette says: “So clear was the opposition of the early Christians to bearing arms that Celsus (2nd cent. Pagan philosopher), in his famous attack on them, declared that if all were to do as did the Christians the Empire would fall victim to the wildest and most lawless barbarians.” This remains today the primary argument. The response of the Church was that if all were to become Christians, the barbarians too would also be Christian, and even then, while Christians were in the minority, their love, labor, and prayers were doing more to preserve the Roman Empire than the Roman army.

Nevertheless, when we contemplate what the world might be like if all Orthodox Christians attempted to live faithfully all of the Gospel Commandments like that early Christian community, we are faced with the problem of evil and violence, intolerance and prejudice all around us. St. Augustine attempted to address that problem with his theory of the Just War. St. John Chrysostom, on the other hand, wrote “A Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself.” In that famous treatise St. John argues that neither sickness, poverty, nor any other injury, nor even death itself can take from man what it is that our Lord has commanded us to store up as treasurers in heaven. Only a man himself can do such terminal injury to himself.

We may never know what the world might have been if Christians throughout every century had sought, even at the cost of their own blood, to live the Gospel Commandments of love like that early Church. As Celsus contended, perhaps the barbarians would have prevailed. But we the faithful of St. Nicholas of South Canaan Orthodox Church do have the present to discover what effect such living might have in our own city. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself exemplified for us the truly human life and left us His Commandments of unconditional love. At the end of His earthly life He was crucified at the hands of evil, but it is His resurrection, and our own, that we celebrate every Pascha.

Fr. Joseph O’Brien

The Lord of the Rings

I had a letter from a friend who comments that Lord of the Rings is a fantastic work of imagination that somehow taps into something very deep within our collective western psyche but “there is something fundamentally non-Christian about it… The interplay of good and evil is fundamentally different from the gospel of Jesus.”

As I see it, the pivotal idea of Lord of the Rings is that weakness, foolishness, self-giving love and the renunciation of power are at the heart of the life God intends for us. Frodo, and Sam with him, in effect embrace the Cross. They even experience a death and resurrection on the side of Mount Doom after the ring of power’s destruction.

Jim Forest

Tolkien sometimes seems to be going out of his way to avoid a Christian “message” in his book — Middle-earth is devoid not only of Christianity but, to a notable degree, of any religion: no worship, no temples, no priests/shamans/etc. Events are guided by a larger, hard-to-discern purpose, a “doom,” as Tolkien likes to say, using an older sense of the word, but he’s very careful not to suggest more.

Tolkien wants to set his Christian commitment aside in the telling of this story so that, without violating or contradicting it, he can talk about things in another way. As it says in the Silmarillion, “In that hour was put to the proof that which Mithrandir (Gandalf) had spoken, and help came from the hands of the weak when the Wise faltered.” But all the warriors making their stand “beyond hope” (another favorite Tolkien phrase) play an essential part in Frodo and Sam’s work, so it would be a distortion of Tolkien to say that Frodo’s path is held up as the “right” model for dealing with evil in the world — it’s an essential part of a larger picture. The world-view that most strongly informs Lord of the Rings, it seems to me, is that of the Norse mythology that Tolkien knew and loved so well.

Lord of the Rings is a meditation on how evil works in this world: Evil is real. Peace is not a norm. It is a blessing, achieved only rarely, temporarily, and at the cost of great pain, sacrifice and sorrow. There is no way out of dealing with the world’s evil, or with the world’s great events. (This is hardest for me, since I’ve always had a stay-out-of-it attitude toward “politics”). Frodo and Sam (Sam in particular) are people with no interest in glory, desiring only to live quiet lives, who are nonetheless called out to play a part in huge events. They don’t like it or really understand it, but they are faithful.

Faithfulness: I think that if there is one thing that moves us today about Lord of the Rings above all others, it’s the book’s emphasis on faithfulness, loyalty, true friendship, fealty. Faithfulness to friend, master, lady, land, duty, expressed by unwavering commitment to a way of conduct expressing that faithfulness, held to even “beyond hope,” is, I think, something that sets off a great yearning in us; it’s not what our world values, but our hearts long for it.

The book’s treatment of the working of the power in the world is very deep, and I don’t think I’ve really understood it. On the one side, it’s perilous and corrupting… that’s what the imagery of the rings, and the Ring, is all about. On the other hand, the book’s politics, if they can be called that, are monarchist (Tolkien’s were too — see Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien): the only chance of good in the world is rule by a noble king, who is hard to find and tragically corruptible.

Those who imagine that Lord of the Rings gives us a black-and-white treatment of evil can be cured by reading the story of Boromir in Fellowship of the Ring: a man corrupted by his desire for good, destroyed because a good end became so important to him that he was willing to use forbidden means to attain it. Perhaps not many in OPF would agree with Tolkien on what “good means” are, but his commitment is clear: no good end will come by bad means, no matter what the threat.

I’d be curious to know how, in your friend’s words, “the interplay of good and evil is fundamentally different from the gospel of Jesus.” Is it because humans (and elves, dwarves and hobbits) seem so completely responsible for whether good or evil triumph in the world, that divine help seems lacking? Is it because violence seems to “work” in combating evil?

As for people being somehow on their own in doing good and fighting evil: some readers have missed the fact that, in Tolkien’s mythology the wizards, including Gandalf, are divine beings — angels — sent to aid the world in its peril. In a letter to a friend, Tolkien wrote “Gandalf is an angel.” From the Silmarillion: “Even as the first shadows were felt in Mirkwood there appeared in the west of Middle-earth the Istari, whom men called the Wizards … afterwards it was said among the Elves that they were messengers sent by the Lords of the West to contest the power of Sauron, if he should arise again, and to move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds.” Perhaps it’s a measure of Tolkien’s view of the corruptibility of all things that even some of the Wizards become corrupt.

Tolkien is describing the world before Christ — he said that Middle-earth is meant to be our own world in an earlier, forgotten age. I believe that, in all he wrote, he was pondering how divine providence works itself out, and sometimes reveals itself, in a world that does not know Christ. We could with as much (and, thank God, as little) justification say that the interplay of good and evil in the Old Testament is “fundamentally different from the Gospel of Jesus.”

All of Tolkien’s work is suffused with a sense of the goodness and rightness of the natural order, to a degree that many will dismiss as “medieval.” Pay attention to how often Sauron and his minions express their evil by twisting or tampering with the natural. A favorite Lord of the Rings quote of mine comes from Gandalf, when he is confronting the corrupted Saruman. He might as well be speaking to the scientists and engineers who define our world: “He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

The question was raised: Is Frodo a “Christ figure?” In literature, what we call Christ figures are rarely meant simply to be Christ in disguise. They present some shining of Christ’s nature into the world, usually mixed up with their mortality, fallibility, sinfulness. Frodo might, at least, fit this description, yes? In Orthodox spirituality, Christification is the goal of every believer; in this life, we hope that it can be attained, by grace, in some degree, not that we will become equivalent to Christ, or Christ by nature — a demonic goal.

My son just located one of the key passages in Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo says of Gollum, “He deserves death.” Gandalf replies: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many — yours not least.”

John Brady

Gandalf’s wisdom

When we forget that this is a story and try to test out its parallel or lack thereof with the Gospel, we get into trouble. There are many beautiful, teaching moments where Tolkien portrays an aspect of humanity which may/will connect to others’ experience of the God we as Christians know. This combined with the childlike imagination and world of journeys and adventures of fantasy creatures is a fantastic story and a great way to both relax and learn. We must not get totally lost from reality, however, and remember that it is a story. Yes, one that we may love and cherish, one that may help to form our lives; yet to pick it apart in order to understand it or not fear it, well, to quote Gandalf, “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Sheri Bunn San Chirico

Not Narnia

Tolkien himself warned pointedly against the interpretation of his work literally or as allegory. This is not Narnia. Events, characters and things in the story aren’t supposed to have a one-to-one relationship with things in our world. And war is a reality — even the nonviolent are engaged in struggle. Take the struggle in Lord of the Rings any way you want to. It could be the good guys against the bad guys, or it could be a monk, or even a faithful Christian, struggling against sin or passions.

Matthew R. Brown

Purity of heart

Let me tell you about the “Purity of Heart” session I led for teen-agers of our parish.

In preparing it, I used the Philokalia, the Orthodox Study Bible, and Jim Forest’s book on the Beatitudes. After defining what a “Gospel” is, we talked about what Matthew the Apostle might have been like. We also talked about how the children how feel about their parents — how badly they would feel if something happened to their mother/father. We discussed their feelings when they told their parents good night and then said their prayers. This was a type of purity of heart since it is totally bound up in love with no thought of gain, anger, jealousy and so forth.

We went around the room in a roundtable discussion with each teen saying what they thought “purity of heart” is. A common answer was that when they sensed purity of heart within themselves when they were most happy and felt that those most inward feelings defined who and what they were; in other words “my heart — in purity — is who I really am.”

We also talked about going to confession, fasting and communion as methods to restoring purity of heart when we felt we had “lost it.”

It was a morning well spent.

Deacon Benedict Mann