The Question: Pope Benedict’s recent baptism of a well-known Italian Muslim has prompted criticism in much of the Islamic world. Has Benedict done enough to build bridges to Islam?
So here we go again – a religious act that polarizes. The Pope, a leader of 1.1 billion people decides to officially convert to Catholicism a well known Italian Moslem journalist on Easter, one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, in front of millions of people. While the Vatican proclaimed the innocence of this international act it is not surprising that the reactions were swift and harsh. On all sides opinions were predictable with every opinion containing a partial truth that ignored, either consciously or unconsciously, other truths.
First was the Catholic Church’s official truth. The Vatican claimed that converting a very popular journalist, who admittedly had long left Islam and embraced Catholicism, was a purely innocent act by the Pope with no ulterior motives except to bring a new person into the faith. This is naïve at best and Machiavellian at worst for there is no choice by the Pope to publicly convert anyone, on Easter Sunday no less, that is anything but a well calculated act saturated with meaning.
The Pope surely knew that his claim was at best a half truth. The other truth that is so obvious, whether admitted or not, is that the Church wanted to teach a sociological and spiritual truth to millions of people who are adherents of Islam, the world religion with a strand which is presently the most damaged, extremist, and violent in the world, that people’s freedom of choice regarding religion is the new reality. Religions now need to peacefully compete in the world religious and spiritual marketplace of ideas and Catholicism can compete and so has converted a popular journalist raised as a Moslem who decided to become a Catholic. The Vatican’s pretense that this was a neutral act above any political fray is less than one hundred percent truthful.
Second we have our secular fundamentalists. These are the people who have a visceral hate for anything having to do with religion and often have a particular animus for Catholicism in general and this Pope in particular. Besides seeing all religions as primitive superstition that dupe people and create division and hate, they see a Catholic Church whose absolutism drives it, in the midst of a very complex and difficult conflict with Islam, to rub the face of Islam into the ground by publicly converting a born Mulsim to Catholicism. Obviously, there is a partial truth here but the hostility and dismissiveness and reflexive repugnance toward all religion also misses a partial truth. The spiritual dimension is real and there is a science and technology of the spirit deeply embedded in every major religion, even if the technology is hidden behind creed, dogma, and wrong metaphysics, that provides meaning and purpose and that helps people develop psychologically, morally, and ethically.
And so we have Catholics defending an act that while perfectly legitimate is obviously sticking it to Islamic fascists and we have secular and liberal fundamentalists legitimately critiquing this act with a predictable fierceness and complete disrespect for anything religious.
And then of course we have the Islamic fascists (according to Pew less than seven percent of Muslims world wide) inciting the Islamic street who see the Pope’s converting a born Muslims as an affront worthy of riots and terrorism. Rather that reflect on how Islam, one of the historic wisdom traditions and practices, can actually compete in a globalized world this cancerous strand of Islam demonstrates its truth by killing those with whom it most deeply disagrees making no distinction between a cartoon illustrator, an individual conversion, a political resentment, or a fellow Muslims. Anyone who disagrees with the adherents of this murderous strand of Islam, whether a mother and child in a pizza parlor, riders in a train In Spain or Great Britain, or innocent workers in a business tower are fair game. And because of their power to murder and terrorize, the vast majority of Muslims who know better are afraid to criticize yet alone condemn them.
Each of these reactions embody a partial truth and no side either admits it own partialness or any partial truth of another side. The result increased polarization, conflict and hostility.
What we need is a genuine spiritual truth which is always the most inclusive truth. An authentic spiritual truth is one that understands that from an infinite, absolute, cosmic, or God perspective every voice has a partial truth. As one of my teachers taught there is no person so smart that they can be one hundred percent wrong. A genuine spiritual approach wrestles with, grapples with, and searches for the truth in every view. This is not an argument for relativism as I am not claiming every truth is equally true but rather an argument that even in the most repugnant view there is some partial truth that we need to reveal, understand, and embrace if we are to move ahead. The challenge for spiritual/religious people that intuit the infinite quality of reality and their own finitude is to try to include as many facets and aspects of the truth as possible. The more spiritually, psychologically, and morally evolved we are the more we understand that we are most often right about what we include and most often wrong about what we exclude.
And so we need to own all of these truths. The Pope had every right to baptize whomever he wanted to baptize but he also needed to acknowledge that it was not some neutral disinterested act but meant to teach a very serious truth about the freedom to choose one’s religious identity – something the Church knows well given the attrition rate in the American Catholic Church as shown in the recent Pew study on religion. Muslims have a legitimate right to feel dissed and express their dismay at the Pope’s act as the act was obviously purposeful, but rather than react violently to the conversion of one person on a planet of over six billion people they needed to reflect on what it means to peacefully compete for the attention of people around the world. Secular fundamentalists are also partially true that far too many traditionalist religious people think they have the absolute truth and feel that the only way they can be right is if everyone else is wrong. But by rejecting all spiritual and religious insight and promulgating an absolutely certain exhaustive materialist view of reality and a complete human self-sufficiency these secular fundamentalists flatten reality, disenchant the world, disqualify the universe and dismiss people’s deepest intuitions about reality.
So has the Pope done enough to reach out to Muslims? Absolutely not. It will not be enough until there is peace.
Have secular people and liberals done enough? Absolutely not. It will not be enough until there is peace.
Have Muslims done enough? Absolutely not. It will not be enough until there is peace.
The greatest hope we can have for the Pope’s visit to the US is that he embodies a most evolved spiritual and religious leader – one that embraces and integrates as many truths as possible – inviting all of us, whether Catholic or not, to celebrate our particularity while being deeply ecumenical. But once we hope that the Pope inspires us we might as well try to embody this way ourselves.