Sunday, July 23, 2006

Praying for terrorists, and God's victory.

[Also via Zenit]
Benedict XVI has appealed to a convent of cloistered nuns to pray for the conversion of terrorists.

The Holy Father visited the Carmelites of Quart on Saturday. The convent, which was inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in 1989, is located near Les Combes, the Italian Alpine resort where the Pope is vacationing.

According to Sister Maria, one of the 10 Carmelites of the community, the Holy Father said, "Pray also for the terrorists, as they do not know that not only do they harm their neighbor, but above all they harm themselves."

Concerned about what is happening in the Holy Land, Benedict XVI added: "Now we experience a worsening of the conflict in Lebanon, but also in many other parts of the world there are people suffering because of hunger and violence."

"Contemplative life, rich in charity opens heaven to humanity, which so needs it, as today in the world it is as if God did not exist. And where God is not, there is violence and terrorism," the Pope said.
(Emphasis added) At one level, of course, I agree with the Holy Father: where God really, objectively is there ought not to be violence and terrorism (and of course, yes, one should pray for terrorists for sure!). And also rhetorically, his insistence that those who commit acts of terror in the name of God are distorting what religion means, is a very important point to be made in today's climate.

"To live as if God doesn't exist" is one of the key ways that Pope Benedict uses to describe the modern secular West (for instance, very clearly in L'Europa di Benedetto). It would seem, the implication is that this secular eclipsing of the role of God in the public square, also gives rise to terrorism and violence (I believe Pope Benedict said this about the rise of Nazi fascism as well). But this is not really so. The major source of current international terrorism is jihadist Islam, where God is anything but banished from the "naked public square." [It is also why, I suspect, so many friends, at least at the surface, agree with the secular instinct that "too much God" is a bad thing for civil society.]

A recent Foreign Policy article, God is Winning (free, registration requred), analyzes the rise of the influence of religion in modern publich life (Zenit has a summary here), particularly (though not exclusively) in the Islamic world.

Religion was supposed to fade away as globalization and freedom spread. Instead, it’s booming around the world, often deciding who gets elected. And the divine intervention is just beginning. Democracy is giving people a voice, and more and more, they want to talk about God.
God is on a winning streak. It was reflected in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Shia revival and religious strife in postwar Iraq, and Hamas’s recent victory in Palestine. But not all the thunderbolts have been hurled by Allah. The struggle against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and early 1990s was strengthened by prominent Christian leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Hindu nationalists in India stunned the international community when they unseated India’s ruling party in 1998 and then tested nuclear weapons. American evangelicals continue to surprise the U.S. foreign-policy establishment with their activism and influence on issues such as religious freedom, sex trafficking, Sudan, and AIDS in Africa. Indeed, evangelicals have emerged as such a powerful force that religion was a stronger predictor of vote choice in the 2004 U.S. presidential election than was gender, age, or class.

The spread of democracy, far from checking the power of militant religious activists, will probably only enhance the reach of prophetic political movements, many of which will emerge from democratic processes more organized, more popular, and more legitimate than before—but quite possibly no less violent. Democracy is giving the world’s peoples their voice, and they want to talk about God.
If people are wealthier, more educated, and enjoy greater political freedom, one might assume they would also have become more secular. They haven’t. In fact, the period in which economic and political modernization has been most intense—the last 30 to 40 years—has witnessed a jump in religious vitality around the world. The world’s largest religions have expanded at a rate that exceeds global population growth. Consider the two largest Christian faiths, Catholicism and Protestantism, and the two largest non-Christian religions, Islam and Hinduism. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, a greater proportion of the world’s population adhered to these religious systems in 2000 than a century earlier. At the beginning of the 20th century, a bare majority of the world’s people, precisely 50 percent, were Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, or Hindu. At the beginning of the 21st century, nearly 64 percent belonged to these four religious groupings, and the proportion may be close to 70 percent by 2025.
Not only is religious observance spreading, it is becoming more devout. The most populous and fastest-growing countries in the world, including the United States, are witnessing marked increases in religiosity. In Brazil, China, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, and the United States, religiosity became more vigorous between 1990 and 2001. Between 1987 and 1997, surveys by the Times Mirror Center and the Pew Research Center registered increases of 10 percent or more in the proportions of Americans surveyed who “strongly agreed” that God existed, that they would have to answer for their sins before God, that God performs miracles, and that prayer was an important part of their daily life. Even in Europe, a secular stronghold, there have been surprising upticks in religiosity.
The statistics marshalled by the authors are impressive. However, there's a distressing tendency to try and throw Catholicism in the mix on the same level as the other players:
Far from stamping out religion, modernization has spawned a new generation of savvy and technologically adept religious movements, including Evangelical Protestantism in America, “Hindutva” in India, Salafist and Wahhabi Islam in the Middle East, Pentecostalism in Africa and Latin America, and Opus Dei and the charismatic movement in the Catholic Church.
Really now, Opus is hardly on the same page as the salafis or the Hindutva brigade, both in its values and rhetoric, as well as in its popularity and reach in the Catholic Church (though it might indeed by an example of a movement or group that is "savvy and technologically adept"). And the charismatic movement? How big is that? Actually, I'm finding it hard to identify a Catholic equivalent that matches these others in its political activity and influence. Maybe I'm just not well informed about the politics of areas with large numbers of Catholics. [Not saying that the Catholic hierarchy would not have an influential role in politics. Just not sure about similar Catholic, grassroots or lay movements that would.]

Religious influence isn't entirely negative. One brief paragraph goes over things like independence movements, the promotion of human rights and dignity and so on. [Weren't most of these, Christian movements, or strongly influenced by Christianity? Viz. apartheid, or even, liberation theology?]

And there's also a recognition that Catholicism's highly centralized institutional structure is a good thing.
Islam and Pentecostalism, by contrast, are not centralized under a single leadership or doctrine that can respond coherently to fast-moving social or political events. Local religious authorities are often tempted to radicalize in order to compensate for their weakness vis-à-vis the state or to challenge more established figures.
(I was reminded of this interesting piece at TCS Daily by Edward Feser, "Does Islam need a Luther or a Pope?" See also Stephen Schwartz, also at TCS, "The 'Islamic Reformation' Revisited") Anyway, one can hope that God winning the world over does not necessarily mean societies that are more violent, or more prone to conflict.

At least in the Christian view, that is not what God's rule, the Kingdom, is about. Ay, that's the rub.

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