Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A God of Tolerance?

As Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq attack one another in an effort to avenge grave religious offenses, including the attack on the Askariya shrine, and as Muslims in many other parts of the world turn to violence to express their outrage over offenses against the prophet Mohammed, James Carroll reminds us that, "in history's supreme irony, holy war is the most savage war of all."

But, Carroll suggests, the haste with which believers of all kinds rush to defend God may come from a misunderstanding of the divine.

Believers--whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian--tend to view God as Someone like us--only much, much greater. In the words of a beautiful Irish hymn, God is the "High King of Heaven." In Arabic, the idea is expressed by the expression Allah akbar! (God is great!) In English (at least as spoken by Americans in the twenty-first century), the preferred expression may be "God is awesome!" (The state of Washington has allowed someone to reduce the phrase to license-plate English: AWSMGOD. I know, because I saw a car bearing such a plate parked on campus today.)

Carroll points out that the divine is more nearly apprehended in each of the great monotheistic religions through an awareness that God is beyond all human comprehension. God is, in other words, wholly other. This, according to Carroll, should make all of us--Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike--see belief in God as a reason for toleration.

In Islam, as much as Judaism and Christianity, as this Christian understands it, the core theological tradition so affirms such otherness of the deity that no merely familial, tribal, or national claims can be made upon it. Indeed, that the Holy One is wholly other is the first principle of human toleration, since no single person or group has an exclusive claim on the divine. The second principle of toleration is that God, as its author, belongs to the entire cosmos, not to any mere part of it.

God is other, yet, as each tradition affirms, God is also the creator, fully invested in creation. "I was a hidden treasure," as the Koran reports God telling the Prophet. "I loved to be known. Therefore I created the creation so that I would be known." God creates, that is, to be known by all that God creates. God's family, tribe, and nation--are everyone and everything.

Obviously, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have all had trouble keeping these principles of toleration straight, with each of the monotheisms having regularly reduced God to a tribal deity, and loyalty to God to a cause of war. We see just such a thing unfolding in the streets of Muslim cities today, as self-appointed defenders of the greatness of God are the ones, in fact, defiling it.

The brief version of the lesson is this: If God is beyond the comprehension of any one person or group or sect, then it is an offense against God to attack those who understand God differently.

The longer version of the lesson is in Carroll's column here.