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Light/Darkness in Two of the Abrahamitic Religions 2/3
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-10-24 00:09:50
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The flapping of a butterfly's wings in Africa may be historically insignificant but they may trigger a hurricane that arrives in Florida a few weeks later, so our scientists inform us nowadays. Indeed, the macrocosm of the childhood of humankind is the reflection of the microcosm that is the childhood of each one of us. I find it uncanny that both Augustine and Heraclius played among the ruins of ancient Carthage when they were children. Looking at Canne’s ruins one cannot but exclaim: “Sic transeat gloria mundi!”

All events are part of history and at the conclusion and recapitulation of that history (at the parausia, envisioned by Christian theology as the final judgment and interpretation) those events will all be translated into a transcendent universal language and placed as chapters and verse in the book of life for everybody to read, for if history has no meaning and purpose neither has life. For the moment, Paul intimates, we see through a glass darkly, and De Chardin adds that the omega point is what history’s telos (purpose) is all about. Could it be that such is what all poetry intimates? That God is a poet, (in the beginning was the Word), not a philosopher with clear and distinct ideas. We creatures reason because we are imperfect, God intuits and knows no lagging between thinking and doing. The universe is Her poem for us to read as Galileo suggested we do when he called it the other Scripture.

The royal family of Saudi Arabia does not openly promote terrorism or hatred of the West in their kingdom's schools, except in the exalted imagination of conspiracy theorists. It does however take seriously this quote from the Qur'an: 'And behold [at the Last Judgment] God will say: 'O Jesus, son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men: worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of God?' He will say: 'Glory to Thee. Never could I have said what I had no right to say.' (Qur'an v: 119).

Moslems, since the beginning of Islam, do in fact consider Westerners as infidels long superseded by Islam. They actually learned that theological posture from the Christians who misguidedly thought that they too had superseded Judaism and the Old Testament from which they had originated. Paul reminds Christians that they are the branches of the tree and the Jews the roots. One may of course continue to hope that the ancient conflict among the three monotheistic faiths will be resolved ecumenically via an inter-faith dialogue, taking to heart the famous prayer of Pope John XXIII at Vatican II: "teach me Lord to imitate the best in them but not to fear their worst."

Admittedly, in an age of new Crusades and preventive wars, one cannot at the moment be too sanguine about such a positive outcome; we may be whistling in the dark, so to speak. In any case, I'd like to suggest that those who continue ridiculing the suggestion that what we may be witnessing nowadays a renewed clash of civilizations buttressed by their traditional faiths, rather than a mere war carried to a few despicable criminals and terrorists who like to behead people a la Robespierre, may well be naively resorting to the proverbial ostrich's head in the sand.

For example, I recently watched a documentary on Afghanistan, wherein an American journalist inquired as to Bin Laden's standing among some "freedom fighters" of a local warlord, i.e., those fighting the Taliban. He fully expected from them a repudiation of both Ben Laden and terrorism in general. To the surprise of the journalist, that was not their immediate reaction; those “holy warriors” calmly responded that Ben Laden might be a terrorist all right, but he was a darn good one; after all, he too had been a freedom fighter against the Russians, with the full support of the Americans. Admittedly, this was a Machiavellian reply construing "virtue" as mere competence. But then Machiavelli was no African, or Asian, for that matter, and, if truth be acknowledged, Machiavellianism and cultural imperialism remains alive, well and at work in the "real politik" of much of Western culture.

But let us return to the "deconstruction" of Heraclius' remarkable medieval statue. We need to remember that the region of Bari Puglia (which the Byzantines called the Levante) was for a while (in the 10th century) a Moslem Emirate. Eventually the Byzantines re-conquered it together with some portions of the old Western Empire which for a short while were governed from the vice-royalty of Ravenna, Italy. Later on the whole of Puglia became part of the Southern Italian Empire of Frederick II (a contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi and Rumi, half Italian on his mother's side) who inherited the so called "Holy Roman Empire" from his ancestor Charlemagne. The famous octagonal Castel del Monte also near Barletta, (found on one of the Euro coins) was built by the same Frederick II. That castle also speaks volumes of the mystery of the influence of one civilization upon another.

In any case, the contentiousness between Christianity and Islam is quite apparent from the above statement from the Qur'an. It clearly casts a definitive judgment on Christianity; a judgment purportedly coming from God via Muhammad's visions (610-632). That was not lost on Dante, the poet of Medieval Christianity, who countered it with his own judgment by placing Muhammad in hell with other fomenters of heresies and religious wars. Indeed, it was well known to Dante that, unlike Jesus of Nazareth (who proclaimed that "he who lives by the sword dies by the sword"), Muhammad moved about surrounded by a band or armed men who took the proselytizing of Islam very seriously.

It seems that, as in the case of Constantine and Heraclius, here too spiritual visions were needed for the support of a temporal military vision. No wonder the two monotheistic religions ended up clashing with each other. In any case, it was in those visions, as Muslims believe, that God has spoken once and for all to Muhammad, the last of the prophets. The past is therefore undone by the last prophet's message. As proclaimed by modern Hegelian speculation: what comes at the end as a dialectical synthesis of thesis and antithesis is necessarily superior as such to that which came before and leading to it. Within salvation history Jesus himself is thus relegated to the role of just another of the many prophets, a precursor of sort albeit an important and revered one, leading up to Muhammad, the culmination of history and therefore the last of the prophets.

What I find worthy of reflection is that in all the three monotheistic Abrahamitic religions, truth itself seems to be a process, and history (the immanent within time and space) just as important as Plato's universals which bypass and even transcend history. Thus, it is easy to arrive at the conclusion that the Jewish and Christian message was merely a preparatory monotheism to which ultimately the Arabs were summoned to partake fully as Semitic children of Abraham.

Moreover, just as the Christian emperors Constantine, Justinian and Heraclius believed, the holders of this new monotheistic faith were also convinced that God blesses the armies of those who truly believe in Him. Victory is a sign of God's favor. The symbols change, but the mind-set is the same. Hence their strident militancy destined to clash, sooner or later, with that of the West.


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Emanuel Paparella2007-10-21 01:47:35
Footnote: an important orrection by the author: in the third sentence of the fourth paragraph the section "and the Christian the root" should read " and the Jews the root."

Emanuel Paparella2007-10-24 02:43:41
The correction has already been graciously performed by the editors. The reader may ignore the above footnote.

Gaebyeok2007-10-25 20:17:39
"Within salvation history, Jesus himself is thus relegated to the role of just another of the many prophets, a precursor of sort albeit an important and revered one, leading up to Muhammad, the culmination of history and therefore the last of the prophets."

It's my understanding Jesus actually has more important role to play in Islamlic eschatology; most mainstream Muslims believe that Jesus will return to earth preceeding the coming of the Mahdi. While it's true he is one in a long line of prophets which culminates in Muhammad, I think it might be an exaggeration to say that Jesus is simply "just another prophet" in Islam. It's telling that his name is often followed with the honorific known as "salawat": i.e. "Prophet Jesus, On Him Be Peace". So I think there's a great deal of reverance for Jesus amongst Muslims, unlike, say, the general Christian conception of Muhammad (exemplified by Dante's placing him in the Eighth Circle of Hell).

The major sticking point between them is that Christianity embraces a Triune God, where as for Muslims God is radically One. Hence the Quranic passage you cited above. There is however also explicit reference to the treatment of rightous non-Muslims in the afterlife:

"For each we have appointed a divine law and traced out a Way. Had Allah willed, He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which he has blessed you, He has made you as you are: many communities. So if you must compete, vie with one another in good works. Unto Allah, you will all return. He will then inform you of that wherein you differ."
(Q V:48)

Of course in all three Abrahamic traditions one finds elements both of love, compassion, and understanding as well as violence; the question, as you've eloquently stated, is which elements will ultimately prevail.

Emanuel Paparella2007-10-25 22:30:27
Thanks for the interesting follow-up Mr. Gaebyeok. Sometimes one wonders how to interpret the silence on certain issues. Those are fine points that you contribute, worth reflecting upon. I'd be interested in your take on the concluding remarks to the article which is due out tomorrow I believe.

Jack2007-10-27 05:10:24
An important difference between Jesus and leaders of other religions is that he died and arose again, and lives now. There were over 500 witnesses at least. His way was turn the other check, nothing less than love thy neighbor as thyself. There leaves no room for violence, whether justifed or not.

I appreciate know more about Islam, for the world need not fear what they have not taken time to understand.

Emanuel Paparella2007-10-27 07:28:48
Indeed Jack, the violence arises out of the mixing of the corruption of the spiritual by temporal power. There was no violence in the Christian communities till Constantine made it the official religion of the Empire and then even a St. Augustine begins to talk of "just wars" in defense of that religion seen as synonimous as the empire. Prior to that Christians were persecuted because they refused to serv in the Roman army and were deemed unpatriotic. Dante places three Popes in hell for mixing the temporal and the spiritual.
I'd be intereste in your take of the last couple of paragraphs of the last part of this article, part three.

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