Interreligious dialogue with edge and purpose

George Weigel

The evening of September 12, 2006, was, in a word, memorable. My wife and I were having dinner in Cracow with two of John Paul II’s oldest friends when my mobile phone rang and an agitated Italian journalist started hollering in my ear, “Have you zeen zees crazee speech zee Pope has given about zee Muslims? What do you zay about it?” I replied that I wasn’t in the habit of commenting on papal texts before I had read them, which only drew the further plea, “Yes, yes, but what do you zay about it?” I finally asked my caller to e-mail me the text and call again the next day.

The “crazy speech” was, of course, Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address, which, far from being crazy, was a lucid, penetrating description of the challenges facing Islam in late modernity – an analysis lost in the media scrum over Benedict’s (arguably imprudent) quoting of a robust exchange between an Islamic ruler and a Byzantine emperor, many long years ago. What Benedict outlined in 2006 remains true eleven years later, however: In order to live in peace with “the rest,” Islam must find within its own religious and intellectual resources a way to affirm religious tolerance, and to distinguish between the institutions of religion and the institutions of politics; Catholicism took several hundred years to traverse that path; reflecting on that Catholic experience of finding a Catholic rationale for religious tolerance and free politics might help Muslims who wish to move beyond the intellectual stagnation in which they find themselves on these crucial questions; a conversation exploring how Catholicism’s wrestling with political modernity may or may not be applicable to Islam should focus the Catholic-Islamic interreligious dialogue for the foreseeable future.

There was no media blowback after Pope Francis’s fine address at Cairo’s al-Azhar University on April 28. But the money quote from the Holy Father’s speech fit neatly with what Benedict said at Regensburg in 2006:

“As religious leaders, we are called…to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the ‘absolutizing’ of selfishness than an authentic openness to the Absolute. We have on obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion, and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God: Holy is his name, he is the God of peace, God salaam. Peace alone, therefore, is holy, and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God for it would profane his name.”

What kind of Islam could “unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity” – and more than “unmask” it, condemn it and drive it to the peripheries of the Islamic world? Precisely the Islam that had taken Benedict’s Regensburg advice: that had dug deeply into its religious, philosophical, and legal traditions and had found there warrants for religious tolerance and a clear distinction between religious and political authority.

This approach differs in kind from suggestions that jihadist terrorism will only cease when Muslims become good Western liberals – which too often means good secular liberals. That just isn’t going to happen across a complex religious world that now numbers more than 1.6 billion souls. Moreover, secular warrants for religious freedom are not as sturdy as religious warrants, as we’ve discovered in the West in recent years. The secular defense of religious freedom crumbles when lifestyle agitations (“gay marriage,” the LGBT agenda) reach critical mass politically. By contrast, people who believe it’s God’s will that they be tolerant of those who have other ideas of God’s will are more likely to defend the religious freedom of the “other” when social and cultural pressures for intolerance (and political correctness) intensify.

Catholicism didn’t embrace religious freedom as a fundamental human right by surrendering core Catholic convictions to secular liberalism; Catholicism came to affirm religious freedom by recovering an ancient conviction that had gotten encrusted with political barnacles over the centuries: the conviction that (as the 1986 Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation put it, luminously) “God wishes to be adored by people who are free.” Can Islam make such an affirmation? That is the Benedictine/Franciscan challenge to 21st-century Islam, and it ought to frame the future of the Catholic-Islamic dialogue.

COMING UP: A caveat on the great Tom Wolfe

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When the great Tom Wolfe died on May 14 — he of the white suits, the spats, and the prose style as exuberant as his wardrobe — I, like millions of others, remembered the many moments of pleasure I had gotten from his work.

My Wolfe-addiction began on a cross-country flight in 1979, shortly after The Right Stuff was published. Always an airplane and space nut, I was fascinated by Wolfe’s re-creation of the culture of America’s test pilots and astronauts at the height of the Cold War. And there was that extraordinarily vivid writing. At one point I burst out laughing, scaring the daylights of the elderly lady sitting next to me but not daring to show her the passage — it must have involved Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon outside Edwards Air Force Base — that set me off.

After The Right Stuff got me going on Tom Wolfe, it was impossible to stop. The first half of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Wolfe’s scathing account of a reception thrown for the Black Panthers by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein — remains the quintessential smack-down of political correctness among the 1% cultural elites. From Bauhaus to Our House explains why anyone with an aesthetic sense thinks something is seriously wrong with modernist architecture, and does so in a way that makes you laugh rather than cry.

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that it was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Bonfire was also brilliant in skewering the destructiveness of New York’s race hustlers, the obtuseness of a values-free media, and the fecklessness of too many politicians.

Asked once by monks who run a prestigious prep school what they might do to disabuse parents of the notion that their sons were doomed if they didn’t get into Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and the like, I suggested giving a copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons to the parents of every incoming senior. Wolfe’s fictional tale of life on elite American university campuses in the 21st century is a sometimes-jarring exercise in the social realism practiced (a bit less brutally) by Dickens and Balzac. But Charlotte Simmons, like Wolfe’s other fiction, has a serious moral core and an important cultural message. The young innocent, the brightest girl in town who makes it to an elite university, gets corrupted by stages: and her moral corruption is preceded by intellectual corruption — the class in which she’s taught that there’s really nothing properly called “the truth.”

I do have one post-mortem caveat to register about Tom Wolfe’s oeuvre, which takes me back to The Right Stuff (and while we’re on that subject again, forget the inane movie). The central figure in Wolfe’s tale of aeronautical daring-do is Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the “sound barrier” in the Bell X-1, and did so with a couple of broken ribs, which he managed in flight with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle. Yeager was an extraordinary figure who never became a national celebrity because of the (absurd) news blackout surrounding the X-1 project, and Wolfe clearly wanted to pay tribute to him as an unsung American hero.

To do so, however, Tom Wolfe seemed to think he needed a foil, and he cast astronaut Gus Grissom in that role: “L’il Gus,” the Hoosier grit lampooned as a bumbler to make Yeager look even better. And that was a grave disservice to the memory of Virgil I. Grissom, who did not mess up the second Mercury space flight (Wolfe’s account notwithstanding), and who gave his life for his country in the launch pad fire that consumed Apollo 1 — which Grissom knew to be a deeply flawed spacecraft and had urged NASA to improve.

So now that Tom Wolfe and Gus Grissom have both crossed what Wolfe once called the Halusian Gulp, I hope these two American patriots are reconciled. Both had the right stuff.