A SEDITIOUS CLICHÉ
By Paul Merkley
Political Genesis of a Theological Fallacy.
Clichés exist because they serve a purpose – as short-cuts to conclusions that might not be reached if we took time to think about them. In short, there is always some motive involved.
Take this one: Isn’t it true, after all, that we all believe in the same God? — we” meaning Jews and Christians and Muslims.
This dictum springs effortlessly to the lips of politicians and spokesmen for the police when presented with an opportunity to discountenance an act of outrage against a mosque, a synagogue or a church. Official voices speaking for our ecumenical denominations take the cue and join in. It seems not merely right but necessary – a requirement of public order. It does not follow, however, that it is true. Indeed, the very fact that it snaps into place so automatically is the best objective clue to its falsity.
A good rule is that the amount of truth behind a cliché is usually inversely proportional to the thickness of the assenting silence that falls around it when it is uttered. This particularly beloved cliché is perhaps the outstanding example of its type. It is nowadays a dogma of Ecumenical Christianity, re-iterated whenever the subject turns to Inter-religious dialogue. This cliché (which purports to express the substantial truth latent behind the confused religiosity of average people) has everything going for it but theology. It has political correctness on its side, and, some imagine, it meets all the requirements for civil dialogue; but it is simply false, and, being false, extremely dangerous.
I can understand why politicians feel it is necessary to speak this way and I can understand why atheists and agnostics applaud from the sidelines as they do so; but for clergymen and Christian laity to speak this way it is necessary to put aside the consensus of rabbinical wisdom from Moses forward, all the basic Christian doctrines, all basic Muslim theology (including the Qur’an), not to mention all the evidence from History.
The impulse to simply vault over all the claims of Christian theology in order to salute Islam as a common shareholder in “The Three Abrahamic Faiths” has its source in contemporary politics. It has no basis whatever in Scripture or in Doctrine or in History. The biggest clue that we have to the falsity of this dogma is that in practice it works only in one direction. While Christian clergymen cheerfully clear the ground, tossing aside virtually everything that belongs to the Creed, no accredited Muslim spokesman has ever volunteered to shave so much as a syllable from any line of the Qur’an for the sake cause of seeking ecumenical consensus.
The Issue of Israel.
It is no accident that the line separating those Christians who are prepared to defend the unique authority of the Gospel and those who assert communality among “The Three Abrahamic Faiths” almost always coincides with one’s attitude towards Israel.
Among our political leaders the insight has taken hold that the “dispute” between the State of Israel and her myriad global enemies would quickly evaporate if only “they” – the Christians, the Jews, and the Muslims — all believed the same thing. And so it follows as the night the day that in truth “they” really do all believe the same thing, even though some of them deny it and even though it requires the superior insights of anthropology and sociology to make this clear.
This is the thinking: There is a theological difference at the heart of the “misunderstanding” which afflicts the three parties quarreling for possession of the Holy Land. Tempers will go down on all sides, and the conflict will then be amenable to “resolution,” once people of goodwill can get the religious types to chill out.
The leaders of our mainline churches, all of whom took Sociology 101 in College and few of whom have any knowledge of History whatsoever, know that the way to win the heart of political leaders and thus to get dealt into the broader discussion about major issues at highest levels is to raise immediately the issue of theological difference among the parties and then, just as immediately, to dismiss it by declaring solidarity with the secular theorists on the historically-conditioned character of theology.
Why Can’t They All Just Get Along? How Religion Complicates the Diplomatic Task.
In my book, American Presidents, Religion and Israel (Praeger: 2004), I have described how American political leaders and policy-makers have been fumbling the “Arab-Israeli dispute” for two full generations now (since the creation of the State in 1948), because they have tried to make a virtue of “standing-above” the theological differences. Typical is this expression by Dean Rusk, who was on the team of State Department people who tried to postpone the creation of the State of Israel in 1947-1948, and who eventually became Secretary of State under Kennedy and Johnson: “When both Jews and Arabs are convinced they’re speaking for God, that makes for a tough negotiation. I’ve been at the table when the Arabs quoted the Koran while Jews quoted the Book of Moses, and I couldn’t say, ‘Oh, come on now, don’t give me any of that stuff!’”
Almost needless to say, Dean Rusk was raised on “that stuff”– in Cherokee County, Georgia, deep in “the Bible Belt”, the son of an ordained Presbyterian clergyman. In commenting on the “Arab-Israel dispute,” he displays an appalling ignorance (that is, pretended ignorance) of basic facts of religious history as they are taught in every Sunday School in the world. Thus, speaking of the insolubility of the Jerusalem issue, Rusk notes that “Muslims, Jews, and Christians look upon Jerusalem as a city essential to their religions and traditions; the city of David, Christ, and Muhammed, the centre of three great religions [SIC !]” Rusk says that before entering into diplomacy with any of the parties he would set himself the task of finding the common ground in these claims.
But there is no common ground in these claims. Israel’s claim is reared on a story which is set in the context of History – of real time and real place. The other is set in fantasy. (See my essay, “Zero-Sum Historiography: The Palestinian Assault Upon History, www.thebayviewreview.com November 26, 2012.)
Theology and History.
Most of our contemporary political leaders have never read any History. Their impressions about the content of the past comes from movies. Fantasy is much easier to grasp, easier to state, and in general more fun than fact.
Muslim commentators work both sides of this street. They loudly assert that “history proves” the truth of the events which are described in the Qur’an, then walk away when one asks to be shown the historical evidence. Thus A. Yusuf Ali, translator and editor of the English-language edition of the Holy Qura’n which North American Muslims recommend to curious outsiders like me, proclaims: “Historically the Temple at Mecca must have been a far more ancient place of worship than the Temple at Jerusalem.”
There is no need to ask: Why must it have been anything at all? What is the evidence for its antiquity? Where are the traces of the Temple in question? No Muslim speaker ever pauses to address these complaints.
The Subjection of Theology to Diplomacy.
There is the heart of the matter. In Islam, tradition takes the place and has the standing of History. The distinction between the two is simply not entertained. “Historically” (we are told) the Temple was at Mecca, because “Arab tradition” says so. To quarrel with this is to show disrespect for Islam. Rather than appear to show disrespect for Islam, our statesmen and our ecumenical church leaders simply go along.
Where our scholars and commentators go wrong is in permitting this distinction to pass – as an irrelevant theological difference. We are routinely told by encyclopedias that “Arab tradition connects various places in and around Mecca with the name of Abraham and identifies the well of Zam-zam with the well in the story of the child Isma‘il, that Arab tradition also refers the story of the sacrifice to Isma‘il and not to Isaac, therein differing from the Jewish tradition in Gen. xxii 1-19.” This ground-leveling rendition of the two sets of stories simply ignores the difference between historical statement and fantasy.
The Foreign Affairs Departments of all of the governments of the Western nations are committed to assisting rapid negotiation of the “differences between Arabs and Jews” and are likewise committed to the premise that they must level the playing-field between Muslims and Jews. This they accomplish by assigning equal moral weight to the argument from History on the one side and the argument from fantasy on the other. By means of this condescension they overlook the easily-demonstrated fact that Islam despises, on principle, historical proof.
When politicians require Jews and Christians to give up the narratives that they have retained regarding Jerusalem as the price of admission to negotiations under American or other auspices they are imposing on all parties the Muslim standard in these matters. They are imposing Muslim theology. This gambit makes it possible for Dean Rusk to speak of Jerusalem as “the city of David, Christ, and Muhammad, the centre of three great religions.”
Suppressing Faith For the Sake of Impartiality
If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:38.)
In order to achieve the heights of “impartiality” on such matters, our statesmen have to repress anything that they may have learned along the way about Christian faith. In plain words: they have to deny the Gospel for the sake of the praise of men — in this case, for the sake of participating in the mysteries of “Conflict Resolution” which now dominate the teaching and learning of University Departments of Political Science and International Relations and informs the official thinking of the U.S. State Department and Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since our different evaluations of Israeli and “Palestinian” claims to land, natural resources, religious locales, archeological sites, etc., result from our reading of History, we must put aside History — that fussy, “linear”, Western-oriented obsession — and celebrate the virtues of “myth”, and other non-historical, a-historical, or para-historical presentations of the past.
A great part of our difficulty in defending Christian faith in modern times is simply that the fantasy-history which the Qur’an offers is simply more appealing than authentic historiography. It has always appealed to people who do not understand historical arguments. It finds congenial common ground with modern-secular deconstructionist rhetoric about alternatives to the past.
As the secularization of the culture advances, it becomes increasingly easy to discredit historical arguments about the Middle East by pointing out that they are sustained consistently and fervently only by religious people. It takes a certain toughness of intellect to defend historical arguments when at any moment one will be hooted off the platform by the charge of “fundamentalism.”