Faith and Altruism: The Cases of Pope Benedict and Osama bin Laden

by Raymond Ibrahim

Private Papers

After being accused of having a special vendetta against Muslims, Pope Benedict XVI is back in the spotlight for offending Jews, Protestants, and the Orthodox.  In back to back moves, he formally removed restrictions from annually celebrating an old Latin Mass which includes prayers calling on God to “lift the veil from the eyes” of the Jews and to end “the blindness of that people so that they might acknowledge the light of your truth, which is Christ”; and approving a document which states that “though we [Catholics] believe they [non-Catholic Christians] suffer from defects, [they] are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation.”

These steps — reinstating a prayer for the Jews and asserting that the surest road to salvation is through the Catholic church — have precipitated an avalanche of condemnations from, not just Jews and non-Catholic Christians, but secularists and Catholics.

The Anti-Defamation League announced:  “We are extremely disappointed and deeply offended that … [the Vatican] would now permit Catholics to utter such hurtful and insulting words by praying for Jews to be converted.”

Overall sentiments are perhaps best captured by an op-ed — “The pope shows his fangs” — written in the Seattle Times by a Catholic parishioner.  Regarding the document asserting that Catholicism is the surest way to salvation, the parishioner remarks, “It was something the folks at Trent (the sixteenth-century Catholic council) could have embraced.  But now?  In the 21st century?… When you’re a pastor for the world, you need to first listen to what the world is saying, feeling and longing for.”

The problem with all the complaints leveled against Benedict is that they are rooted in a very subjective, “postmodern” outlook that is nonetheless often presented as objective and therefore universally binding — even in discourse. This epistemology takes for granted that a) there are no objective “truths,” certainly not in the fields of ethics and morality, and that b) religion’s ultimate purpose is to make this life as peaceful and pleasant as possible — or, as the parishioner puts it, to respond to “what the world is saying, feeling and longing for.”

This same parishioner culminates the indictment against his Pope with, “Benedict, simply stated, is speaking like a man who hasn’t met a lot of people since he took over the barque of Peter (the church) more than two years ago.It’s as though he made his mind up long ago about the things he wanted to say during his papacy. And, if people are offended, excluded or shut out, too bad” (emphasis added).

What many seems to miss, however, is that’s just it.  Regarding right and wrong, Benedict has made up his mind, and yes, a long time ago. The fact is, most religions — especially the missionary ones, Christianity and Islam — claim to possess the one and only truth, or road to salvation. And there is no difference between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries where “truth” — or, more properly, what one believes to be truth — is concerned, since truths transcend time and circumstance. If two plus two equaled four in the sixteenth century, is there reason to believe it won’t in the twenty-first? So is it really that bewildering for a sincere Catholic — say, the Pope — who firmly believes that the teachings of scripture and his church are necessary for universal salvation to have a position maintaining that those — be they Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Orthodox — who, to varying degrees, refuse scripture and the Church doctrine are in error and need correcting?

In fact, Benedict’s actions reveal that his many “offenses” to non-Catholics can be seen as acts of altruism: if you truly believe — and one assumes that if the average Catholic doesn’t at least the Pope does — that you know the one road that leads to paradise and averts damnation, is it not altruistic to be up front about it and share it with humanity, rather than being merely politically correct, and maintaining that all religions are equal? If, for instance, Benedict truly believes that Jews need to accept Christ in order to be saved, it would seem that his initiating a prayer that they “acknowledge the light of truth, which is Christ,” is altruistic; conversely, if he truly believes that the Jews need Christ but says nothing for fear of being “offensive,” then he would be behaving egotistically — since, according to his beliefs, he “leaves them in blindness” simply to save his good name.

Based on this dichotomy of altruism and egoism, one must wonder what Benedict’s predecessor Pope John Paul II had in mind when he kissed a copy of the Koran in front of millions of Christians and Muslims — a book that, among other contradictions with Christianity, vociferously denies the trinity (K 5:17, 5:73), or even that Jesus was crucified (K 4:157), and calls Christians infidels whom Muslims must wage war against until they are subjugated (K 9:29).

At any rate, Benedict himself has, in so many words, intimated, in print, his belief that there is only one truth:

The prevailing view today is that everyone should live by the religion — or perhaps by the atheism — in which he happens to find himself already.  This, it is said, is the path of salvation for him.  Such a view presupposes a strange [euphemism for “erroneous”?] picture of God and a strange idea of man and of the right way for man to live (Jesus of Nazareth, 92)

The conviction that there is only “one” true path to salvation is, of course, not a Catholic or Christian phenomenon.  Christianity’s historic competitor, Islam, maintains the same view by presenting itself as the “final” revelation to humanity offering misguided infidels the true path to righteousness and salvation in the hereafter. Again, by default, Islam assumes that all other religions are “wrong.” Indeed, under Islamic law, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, atheists, etc., are so misguided that they must be warred against until they either accept the “truth” — Islam — and convert, or are killed (K 9:5). The so-called “people of the book” — Jews and Christians — may practice their religions, but only after being subdued and acknowledging Islamic superiority (K 9:29).

After blasting the concept of inter-faith dialogue as beyond futile since “[W]hat is false is false — even if a billion individuals agree to it; and truth is truth — even if only one who has submitted [a Muslim] holds on to it” in one of his essays, Osama bin Laden offers the following regarding Islam’s relationship to non-Muslims:

There are only three choices in Islam: either willing submission [i.e., conversion]; or payment of the jizya [tribute], through physical though not spiritual, submission to the authority of Islam; or the sword — for it is not right to let him [an infidel] live. The matter is summed up for every person alive: either submit, or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die….Allah Almighty’s Word to his Prophet recounts in summation the true relationship [between Muslims and non-Muslims]: “O Prophet! Wage war against the infidels and hypocrites and be ruthless. Their abode is hell — an evil fate!” [K 9:73]. Such, then, is the basis and foundation of the relationship between the infidel and the Muslim. Battle, animosity, and hatred — directed from the Muslim to the infidel — is the foundation of our religion. And we consider this a justice and kindness to them (The Al Qaeda Reader, 42-43)

Incidentally, I write all of the above as neither a Catholic nor a Muslim.  According to both Benedict and bin Laden, then, I am misguided.  But that’s just fine by me: they are entitled to their beliefs, and their conclusions about me are at least logically consistent to their particular dogmas. Moreover, I acknowledge that when they want me to convert, that is to a great extent only because they are so sure that they have the truth and wish me to share in it — altruism. Even bin Laden concludes that Islam’s animosity to other faiths is for altruistic purposes: “And we consider this [warfare] a justice and kindness to them.” At any rate, so long as it’s just words and opinions, what real difference does it make to me — or you?

And therein is the final point: words based on theological positions and convictions are immaterial. They are only the logical outcome of a system of belief. What does matter, however, is when these words materialize into coercive action — which is not part of the doctrines of any Christian denomination but is, in fact, well enshrined in Islam: jihad.

Thus we can disagree, but there is certainly nothing startling, disappointing, sad, insulting, depressing, perplexing, baffling, or hurtful — all adjectives recently appearing in headlines next to the Pope — in the Pope’s implied position. Nor is there even in bin Laden’s blunt assertions. It is nothing short of ludicrous to complain about people when — through words alone — they demonstrate theological consistency. Equally foolish is not responding, or just complaining, when people of religion do act on their faith — such as when radical Muslims of an al-Qaedist bent wage jihad around the world.

Raymond Ibrahim is the editor of the Al-Qaeda Reader, translations of religious texts and propaganda.

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