Copyright (c) 1995 First Things 57 (November 1995): 8-13.

The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Theological Erudition

Younger scholars may find themselves intimidated by the learning ostentatiously on display at meetings of the American Academy of Religion, Catholic Theological Association, and other conferences of academic theologians. This guide was reportedly prepared by the dean of a major divinity school to help junior faculty who are making their debut at gatherings of the guild. An item chosen from the first column and matched with any items from the following three results in an observation that is guaranteed to mark the speaker as a person to be reckoned with.
Column A Column B Column C Column D
1. A formal analysis will quickly show that 1. the meaning a major elements 1. is further compounded by considering 1. the revelant dynamics of Luke-Acts.
2. From an exegetical point of view 2. The Linguistic consideration 2. imposes smothering constraints upon 2. the ramifications of consensus-building.
3. Although Moltmann does not state it in so many words, the implication is clear that 3. a structural dynamic analysis 3. necessitates that urgent consideration be made of 3. the clarity of the sociological dimensions.
4. There can be no doubt that 4. the eschatological structure 4. adds considerable urgency to 4. the unfortunate faux pas of neo-orthodoxy.
5. Based upon interdisciplinary considerations 5. the homiletic problem 5. calls into question 5. any attempt to introduce historical analysis.
6. In the last analysis 6. a liturgical perspective 6. must give way to 6. an emphasis on dogmatics.
7. From a strictly theological viewpoint 7. the introduction of gnosticism 7. orients the serious scholar toward 7. undue reliance on derivative materials.
8. Most scholars seem to have forgotten that 8. the underlying question provokes an exmaination of 8. global perspectives
9. Under the guise of liberalism 9. an ahistorical stance 9. tends toward 9. excessive use of the nineteenth century frameworks.
10. One might say 10. a need to master data 10. drives us to consider 10. a soteriological point of view.

Defending Diversity

Gilbert Meilaender

Every spring a few of the better high school juniors in Ohio compete in the Ohio Tests of Scholastic Achievement. I imagine something similar happens in many other states. Although I pay attention to such matters only from a considerable distance, I was intrigued to learn about one feature of the English test given to the juniors this year.

The test covers the standard things one might anticipate: spelling, grammar and syntax, reading comprehension. But this year there was an interesting twist to one section of the test in which students are asked to identify mistakes and infelicities of expression. Along with identifying grammatical errors, they were required to find and identify instances of sexist language. Thus they found themselves asked to ponder whether, for example, it would be appropriate to refer in a sentence to T. S. Eliot as a poet and Emily Dickinson as a poetess.

I wouldn't myself know what to say about such a question other than, perhaps, "do whatever you like." One suspects, however, that the education professionals who constructed the test had no such laissez- faire attitude in mind. On such matters, even in a postmodern world in which readers may construct a text any way they wish, I'm confident the education pros believe they know the Truth. Diversity of expression-not to mention thought-is not as high on their scale of values as they like to imagine. Indeed, it is disconcerting to think that these are the folk to whom we entrust the task of broadening and enriching the minds of the next generation. And, of course, it helps one to understand why the papers submitted for college courses so often read as they do-full of convoluted "himself or herself" expressions.

While I was in this mood, contemplating the vagaries of our commitment to diversity, I noted an article in our student newspaper. Entitled "Religion Faces Student Hostility," the article recounted concerns of believing students about the attitude of many other students toward religion. Catholic students complain that they are seen as "agents of the Pope." A Jewish student comments that the campus is "only tolerant if you fit into the chosen few who deserve to be tolerated." There are reports of flyers posted listing stereotypes attributed to Muslims and Arabs. Evangelical Christians note how hard it is to express their beliefs when the immediately surrounding culture assumes that an intelligent person would not be Christian.

Such a climate of opinion had also been observed by others, and one senior administrator noted, "I've been distressed by the willingness of some people to make pretty prejudicial comments about religion. That seems, to me, to run directly against a celebration of diversity." Such a statement, spoken surely with all the good will in the world, is useful. It allows a place for religious belief-as well as other potentially unpopular ideas-to survive. But it also invites our reflection. It is striking to reflect upon our need to defend religion in the name of diversity, the reigning value of academic communities in our day.

How well is religion served by such a defense? Well enough, perhaps, as long as we can rely on the character and genuine good will of those committed to diversity, but in the long run this may not be sufficient. To defend religion on this ground, helpful as it may be, will also miss important elements of religious belief. For one thing, such a defense takes the passion and purpose out of religion. It becomes a way of life to which a few people may be drawn-fine if that's your thing, fine to ignore as well. How could such an attitude exist on a campus where, in fact, quite a few students major in religion and many more take courses in it? Perhaps, I have often reflected, our students are drawn to the study of religion because it seems to offer the big picture, a "handle on the cosmos." But they would be very disappointed indeed were they to discover that this big picture committed them to anything in particular. Defending religious belief as a form of diversity misses the intense particularity of such commitment.

Such a defense also overlooks the fact that the value of diversity in our culture is itself the product of a long, laborious development in which religion has played a major role. Nor has that role been confined to wars of religion in which we wore ourselves out until, finally exhausted, we were forced to settle for tolerance. Its role has been far more positive than that. It is precisely because every individual is equidistant from God that each must be cherished. It is precisely because faith must finally take root in the heart that it ought not be required or coerced. It is precisely as a possible companion in future beatitude that each person ought to be loved. Thus, C. S. Lewis once wrote:

Each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently? . . . If all experienced God in the same way and returned Him an identical worship, the song of the church triumphant would have no symphony; it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note. . . . Heaven is a city, and a body, because the blessed remain eternally different. . . . For doubtless the continually successful, yet never completed, attempt by each soul to communicate its vision to all others . . . is also among the ends for which the individual was created.
This image gives a transcendent ground to our invocations and affirmations of diversity. But it does not invite a flaccid relativism which supposes that it is just fine to want to play in this symphony while constantly striking wrong notes. The image is grounded not in a commitment to individual diversity but in love for what is true and good-in which all that is important about us as individuals will be preserved. Indeed, Lewis shows us what a celebration of diversity-if it is really to be festive-must involve. If, by contrast, our commitment to diversity is grounded only in the individualism of self-expression, it will eventually prove unreliable. It will provide an acceptable cover for asserting our own view, though always in the name of diversity, never in the name of truth.

And then others will have to devote their energies to determining whether we commit any grave wrong by referring to Emily Dickinson as a poetess.

Gilbert Meilaender is the Francis Ward and Lydia Lord Davis Professor of Religion at Oberlin College.

Getting Real About Christian-Muslim Dialogue

C. M. Naim

A while back I had occasion to sit in the audience at two Christian- Muslim dialogues in Chicago and to attend a pair of similar sessions at the "Parliament of World Religions." The sponsors on each occasion were different, as were the speakers; but what was said was alarmingly similar.

Interfaith dialogues, until recently, typically occurred only between Christians and Jews. And their urgency derived from the impact of the Holocaust upon the Christian conscience, with the horror of the realization that what had happened to the Jews of Europe was partially a consequence of a long-entrenched anti-Semitism among too many Christians. Such dialogues tended to be between those who saw themselves as victims of unspeakable crimes and those who saw themselves, in some sense, as parties to the crimes. Surprisingly, the same modes of thought seemed to govern the Christian-Muslim dialogues that I witnessed.

The Christians usually began by denouncing the Crusades, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonial expansions into Islamic lands, and the more recent Cold War policies of the United States against various nationalist movements in the "Third World." They readily identified themselves with "the West" and its history, only to castigate all Western protagonists and proponents, past and present. Their Muslim counterparts began in the same vein. They denounced the Crusades and argued that the same crusading spirit worked equally behind the colonial expansion and American support of Israel against the Palestinians. These were the crucial moments, they argued, when the "West" (Christianity) encountered the "East" (Islam) and behaved shamefully. The listeners nodded in agreement. One Muslim speaker mentioned the expulsion of the Moors from Spain as another such moment, and all heads were further lowered in sorrow and shame.

Amazingly, no one asked how the Moors arrived in Spain in the first place, or what had brought Muslims to the land of the Testaments. It was as if there had been no imperial expansion of Islam, no Arab conquests of Syria, North Africa, and Spain. I'm not denying the horrors of the Reconquista and the Crusades. I merely wish to point out the absurdity of denying any agency to the Muslims themselves. Islamic history unfolded as a series of conquests. This is not to say that Islam spread only by the sword or that Christians and Muslims should argue over who shed less blood. It is simply to acknowledge that the sword was very much present in the story of Islam's expansion, too.

When this acknowledgment is not made, interfaith dialogue soon turns into an incoherent comparison of Islam, a faith without history, and Christianity, a history without faith. More, the inordinate emphasis in such dialogues on the scriptural and juristic aspects of religion, with the simultaneous neglect of the experiential and salvific, turns the two faiths into two ideologies, of which one seemed to control all of history while the other appeared to have no agency at all-one standing for a body of aggressors, the other for a cohort of victims. By the same token, the dialogues manage to suppress the plurality of Islam-its many regional forms, the differing ways it adapted itself to local conditions and traditions. A rich and variegated religion is presented in such dialogues as a homogenous, featureless whole.

There is such a thing as Islam, of course, and there are many Islams as well. There is one Islam in the sense that there is one revealed book and one Prophet to whom it was revealed. There are many Islams in the sense that there are many different traditions of interpreting that book and understanding that Prophet. The lived Islam of a peasant in Bangladesh is similar to but not identical with that of his counterpart in Algeria, as is the Islam of a middle-class professional in Karachi and his counterpart in Indonesia. In each instance, the differences as well as the similarities are greatly cherished. These differences, however, found no mention in the dialogues I witnessed. They were not present in the remarks of the Muslims and formed no part of the understanding that the Christians sought.

This elision of Islamic differences has dangers not merely for the Christians engaged in dialogue, but for the Muslims as well. The Christians never scrutinized a repeated Muslim claim that what made Islam unique was that it was a totality, a complete system that covered each and every aspect of human life. That such a claim has a dangerous edge went unnoticed. Both for Muslims in self-proclaimed Islamic countries and for Muslims in such non-Islamic nations as India, Islam was said to be a total religion-which easily transposes into the demand that every Muslim be a total Muslim, a Muslim entirely in terms of the person making that demand. Any suggestion of diversity, any opposition to that proclaimed totality then becomes ruthlessly punishable. It takes very little to turn a dream of totality into a totalitarian nightmare.

These lapses, I believe, happened because the Christians engaged in the dialogues neglected to remember their own struggle to allow the existence of a plurality of Christian sects. That didn't happen overnight; it took centuries and cost much innocent blood. A structurally stable peace of this kind has not yet come about in the world of Islam. Ecumenism is not a familiar term among Muslim theologians and mosque leaders. That does not mean that diverse, ordinary Muslims have not lived in peace with each other. They have. But it has been an uneasy peace that unscrupulous religious leaders are able to destroy only too easily, as they have, for example, in Pakistan.

The interfaith dialogues I witnessed took place in America, within the dynamics of a secular polity. And yet the protagonists in these dialogues displayed a curious and selective ambivalence toward that polity. One only heard that secularism is good for America but not for Pakistan or Egypt, because Pakistan and Egypt are Muslim countries with majorities and Muslims are required by their religion to establish an Islamic state. But what of those Muslims in Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, Iran, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan-all over the world-who would rather live within a polity that allows every religion-and every sect within a religion-to freely pursue matters of faith within a context of equality and reciprocity? Are they not good enough Muslims, even in the eyes of American Christians?

The Christians who initiated these dialogues may have gained some understanding of contemporary Islamic politics. But if their aim was to gain an insight into lived Islamic religion, they should have brought to these dialogues their own lived religion. At none of the meetings that I attended did the Christians raise any real issues of religious faith.

The Muslims were not inclined to raise such issues either. And when they did, it was only to dismiss them with a scriptural quotation. For the overwhelming part, they used these occasions as opportunities to tell their story of grievances and hurts, placing their remarks precisely and entirely in recent history-in a narrative of defeat and loss, neglect, denial, and victimhood.

The Muslim narrative of hurts not only posits an immediate colonial past of utter decline and passivity but also implies a pre-colonial past of pristine Islamic glory. Both descriptions are not merely false, but also harmful; invoking them only distorts any effort to think through our shared future. A selective memory of caliphs and kings cannot help us much in working towards a world that is not just pluralistic but also democratic.

The goal of an interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims should certainly not be the position taken in the Qur'anic verse invoked by one Muslim: "To you your way, to me mine." That verse is explicitly addressed to kafirs, "the Unbelievers." Christians are not kafirs, perhaps not even in the sight of the most absolutist Muslim. More, in its full context, the verse is a statement of an absolute parting of ways, which, of course, cannot be the aim of any dialogue-any more than a dialogue can be for the sake of a victory for one of the participants. But neither should some compromise or syncretism be the goal. The only dialogues that we should deem fruitful must either clarify something that was obscure in our own thought, or at least make a little bit opaque what we earlier thought patently clear.

Judaism and Christianity are religions explicitly affirmed in the Qur'an, but the Qur'an equally explicitly commands Muslims to "judge between [Christians and Jews] in the light of what has been revealed by God, and do not follow their whims, and beware of them lest they lead you away from the guidance sent down to you by God"-which would seem to rule out any kind of dialogue. The Qur'an, however, elsewhere seems to invite dialogue when it enjoins Muslims to say to Christians and Jews, "O people of the Book, let us come to an agreement on that which is common between us, that we worship no one but God, and make none His compeer, and that none of us take any others for lord apart from God." The Qur'an also clearly places Muslims, Christians, and Jews on an equal footing to the extent they are capable of performing deeds that are good in the sight of God. "To each of you We have given a law and a way and a pattern of life. If God had pleased He could surely have made you one people (professing one faith). But He wished to try and test you by that which He gave you. So try to excel in good deeds. To Him will you all return in the end, when He will tell you of what you were at variance."

How we can differently worship one God; what makes a given deed good or bad; how these critical issues play out in the lives of ordinary Muslims, Christians, and Jews, at different times and in different places-some understanding of these matters is the worthy goal of any interfaith dialogue. It is by no means an easy goal. But we may hope to get somewhere close to it if we-Christians and Muslims-pursue that goal in the spirit Wolfhart Pannenberg advised (quoting 1 Corinthians 13:9- 12): "While the truth of God's revelation is indeed ultimate, our understanding of that truth is always provisional and will remain so until the end of history."

C. M. Naim is Associate Professor of Urdu in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. This essay is the revised version of a talk given at the University's Rockefeller Chapel.

To Be Conservative in Ireland: A Lament

David Quinn

The Irish have the dreadful habit of keeping about thirty years behind the times. This being so, Ireland is a blessed place to be in the 1990s if you happen to be a 1960s-style liberal. The "long march through the institutions," completed in the United States years ago, has just begun to gather steam here in the Emerald Isle. But for a conservative, Ireland is a thoroughly depressing place to be at present, and I look across the Atlantic to America with more than a hint of envy.

Why do I feel envious when I cast an eye across the Atlantic? Let me put it this way. How would you enjoy finding yourself transported back to 1965, realizing that it is going to be years and years before all the silliness and political correctness finally lose their steam?

I know America is only now (hopefully) breaking free from that sixties liberalism, but in Ireland there is no major political party that even remotely resembles the American Republican party. Our media are split between the politically indifferent and the politically correct. There is no Wall Street Journal, no National Review, no First Things, no Crisis, no New Criterion, no conservative platform of consequence whatsoever. And to add to our woes, the influence of the Catholic Church is in precipitous decline.

This might surprise those who still harbor a romantic image of Ireland as the Land of Saints and Scholars. If it ever was, it isn't now. Romantic Ireland's dead and gone.

Catholicism still remains the religion of over 95 percent of the populace, of course, and something like 76 percent still go to Mass each week, but nominalism is widespread and the so-called "ethic of personal autonomy" is in the ascendancy. That this should be so is perhaps not so surprising. Irish Catholicism, while in its strength, was often thought to rule too harshly. Tales of overbearing priests are by now well and truly part of Irish folklore. But after World War II, Irish Catholicism's power began to weaken under the combined blows of more widespread education, growing prosperity, and increased exposure to the "sinful" ways of the rest of the world. People began to rebel against the old "authoritarian" ways.

When Vatican II opened the doors of the Church somewhat, the young intelligentsia couldn't flee fast enough. Mostly in their twenties and thirties, and filled with an overpowering desire to cut the whole of Irish society loose from the "dead hand" of the Church, they came to occupy, in the decades that followed, almost all of the key positions in the media, politics, and the academy. With the generation that preceded them now largely retired, their dominance is total and unchallenged.

While this story will strike many as familiar-it has surely happened all across the Western world-what makes Ireland different is not only the lateness of the revolution but also the extent of the victory. It is not just that liberals have won the culture war or that the opposition has been pushed to the margins; conservatism in Ireland has been virtually exterminated. Irish conservatism today, with a few notable exceptions, consists merely of bona fide cranks and sad, elderly people mourning the loss of all their ancient world. The Church itself seems to feel helpless before the changes. It is astonishing, really, to reflect upon the fragility of Irish conservatism. When the assault began, it collapsed like a cathedral of sand.

Future historians will have a grand time writing books analyzing why this was so. For my own part I believe Irish conservatism was uniquely vulnerable to the changes of modernity. Irish Catholicism was too powerful, too massive-so massive that it displaced all other forms of conservatism. Although for several decades after the foundation of the State in 1922 all of the main parties reflected the conservatism of the wider society, none was convinced of conservatism: they were conservative more by convention than by conviction.

With the Catholic Church as the bulwark of conservatism, no one felt obliged to establish a conservative party such as the American Republicans or the British Conservatives, and no conservative tradition independent of Catholicism developed in Ireland. There was thus nothing to fall back on when Catholicism itself came under attack. There is a hint of irony here, for Ireland is after all the home of the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. He left no discernible impression, however, and his chief Irish interpreter, Conor Cruise O'Brien, is a liberal.

The task of conservatives in Ireland today is to found a new conservative tradition from scratch. It will have to be a creation ex nihilo, and it will be made doubly difficult by the fact that anything even remotely conservative is instantly dismissed by the liberals as being of a kind either with the old-fashioned Catholicism they so fervently despise or with the Thatcherism discredited by its checkered response to the "Irish Question."

The irony is, of course, that the very people who so pride themselves on having thrown off the "yoke" of the Church are busy constructing a new yoke for us. These Artisans of a New Ireland seem unaware of what Americans have already discovered-that as mediating structures such as the Church retreat, the State automatically rushes in to fill the vacuum.

But not only is the State growing by default, it is also growing by design. Large sectors of the economy are already tied to the State and hundreds of thousands of people are dependent upon it. It has a monopolistic position in the TV market and it is in the process of taking over the education system from the Church. This last is painfully ironic: in the name of pluralism, education is simply passing from one monopoly (the Church) to another (the State).

Ireland has a history of political domination by Britain on the one hand, and moral domination by the Church on the other. Such a history does not breed a culture of self-reliance. Dependency comes naturally to us. The theological correctness of the past has been superseded by today's (entirely secular) political correctness. Thus, while the watchdogs of the old guard find it very difficult to have lewd advertisements removed from public places, the new sexual watchdogs of Ireland's powerful feminist lobby rarely have such difficulty. They are taken very seriously indeed by the same liberals who have no time for what they dismiss as Catholic prudery.

Make no mistake. Ireland is still an extremely civil, warm, and friendly society. But the Irish cultural terrain today inevitably reminds one of 1960s America, in which a group of liberals-declaring themselves liberated from what they insisted was an oppressive, old-fashioned order-set out to destroy all the existing culture and impose the power of the "enlightened" state. It is sad to consider that we Irish must relive America's sixties, seventies, and eighties before we arrive at our own conservative movement, thirty years hence.

David Quinn, a native of Dublin, is a new contributor to First Things. He is a columnist and feature writer with the Sunday Business Post as well as editorial writer for the Irish Catholic, a weekly newspaper.