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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Pope at Auschwitz: a response to Oliver Kamm

We all have our blind spots. For my money Oliver Kamm, nemesis of the World's Leading Public Intellectual, has one of the sharpest brains in the blogosphere. But when I read his Times article on the Pope's visit to Auschwitz, some of his reasoning left me wondering whether he has been reading too much Chomsky for his own good.

He perorates thus:-

'Pope Benedict pointed at Auschwitz to literally the worst crime of our age, which was committed by those who certainly considered themselves emancipated from superstition, and the agents of supposedly scientific notions of race.

'But no amount of theological reflection will render future generations immune from the atavistic forces that aimed at the destruction of every last Jew in Europe, and to which the Church certainly made a historical contribution. I have no interest at all in the fortunes of Judaism, but a great concern in the resilience of historically persecuted peoples. Only by removing the accumulated detritus of malign ideologies can that happen.

'Organised religion, even in the form of so learned a man as Pope Benedict, is one of the obstacles. Revealed truth cannot be discarded, precisely because it does not come from human reason: it can only be accepted or rationalised. Yet revelation turns out to be a highly unreliable guide. There was no revelation to the Catholic faithful till Vatican II that the Jews were not Christ-killers. There has never yet been a divine revelation, to my knowledge, that freedom of speech, tolerance and religious liberty are values to be prized and defended. If there ever is, it will paradoxically be because the way liberal civilisation operates has superseded the traditional religious imagination. It is time it did.'

My head's spinning. Kamm starts out here with the acknowledgement that the Holocaust was the work of people who consciously rejected the claims of organized revealed religion. Two paragraphs later he has arrived at the contention that if we are to prevent future Holocausts we must dispense with... organized revealed religion.

It's not easy to respond to a generalized attack on revealed religion, because one cannot very sensibly do so with a generalized defence of it. The only thing that can unequivocally be said in favour of a claim to divine revelation is that it happens to be true. But since there exists a plurality of such claims and they are frequently mutually contradictory, to uphold one claim is necessarily to reject others (unless one adopts the unconvincing syncretist postion of denying the contradictions), and having done that one is an easy target for the charge of intolerance . However much one insists that one upholds the right of others to believe in their false revelations, the suspicion lingers that one doesn't really mean it.

Nevertheless I must declare myself a believer in the truth claims of the religion which I practise. Provisionally and tentatively, I would assert the following at least as working hypotheses:- God's covenant with Israel is a genuine revelation of God and one which remains valid and sufficient for the Jewish people. The life, teaching, cross and resurrection of Christ constitute God's definitive revelation to mankind - definitive in being the self-incarnation of God and in its universality. The Quran, and the faith tradition built on it, contains valid religious insights, but its claim to the status of divine revelation is one which, because it explicitly contradicts the central claims of Christianity, I must respectfully reject.

From my reading of the Pope I think this would also pass muster as a crude thumbnail sketch of his views.

As a fairly recent convert I'm well aware of the difficulties thrown up by the idea of divine revelation. I'll just say here that it does not seem to me inherently unreasonable to believe that the claims of a particular revealed religion are true and those of others are false. This belief does not require me to be intolerant of adherents of the religions which I reject. It also does not entail the belief that the possession of revelation enables Christians to dispense with the exercise of reason, nor that when they exercise reason they always do so correctly. And indeed this is a powerful argument for tolerance. For it is always perfectly possible that in a particular argument I will want to side with non-Christians against Christians.

Before coming to their failings, there is after all something to be said in favour of revealed religions in general. They have consistently been sources of immense cultural vitality and creativity. Kamm professes indifference to the fortunes of Judaism, but can he really be indifferent to the very existence of Jewish culture and identity, which would long since have faded away had it not been for Jews' extraordinarily tenacious loyalty to the revelation contained in the Torah? For centuries the simple act of accepting baptism held out the promise of an immediate end to persecution, and yet it was steadfastly rejected.

It is clear that revealed religions have prompted and condoned innumerable crimes against humanity. Kamm rightly points to the history of Christian treatment of the Jews as an egregious example, even if the record is considerably less black and white than he implies. But something else should be equally clear, though it consistently turns out to be the point at which rationalists like Oliver Kamm display the limitations of their rationality. That is the fact that the era which saw a turning of the intellectual tide against revealed religion was also marked - and not coincidentally - by crimes against humanity on a hitherto unimaginable scale.

When men started believing that human will and human reason were the only guides they required for their actions, there was nothing to prevent some of them from literally giving themselves an unrestricted licence to kill.

That the Marxism of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot left no space for God hardly needs saying. And for all that OK insinuates that he was some kind of residual Catholic, I'm not aware of a shred of evidence that Adolf Hitler considered himself in any way accountable to a God-given moral code.

To say that the Church 'made a historical contribution' is very different from making it directly responsible for the reality of genocide. We can all agree that the project of punishing the Jews for theological recalcitrance was abhorrent, but it was not a project of racial extermination. Conversely, theology was not on the agenda at the Wannsee Conference. Whatever the correct assessment of Pius XII's wartime record may be, the simple fact is that if Hitler had looked to him for moral guidance the Holocaust could never have happened. Indeed I would question in all seriousness whether any Pope - even the most morally degraded specimens that the late Middle Ages threw up - would have approved of it. Or, for that matter, any Archbishop of Canterbury, or any of the founding fathers of the Reformation, the admittedly appallingly anti-Semitic Martin Luther included. I'm open to contradiction from those better-informed than I am, but I offer that as a hypothesis.

The revelation at the heart of Christianity is that God is love, and I must confess to having no urge to discard it as Kamm would have me do. It is not a contention which can be verified by any process of reasoning, but neither does it exclude reason. It is both possible and necessary to use reason in working out its practical consequences, and the result can and should be a Church which concurs with Kamm that 'freedom of speech, tolerance and religious liberty are values to be prized and defended'. I believe the Christian gospel cannot be turned into a rationale for anti-Semitism without fundamentally distorting and abusing it. If I did not believe that I could not be a Christian. That such distortion and abuse is a historical reality is manifest - Christians are not exempt from human fallibility. It's harder to see the grounds for Kamm's confidence that his own preferred ideology is any less vulnerable to distortion and abuse.

The defence of liberal civilisation is the great cause that unites Oliver Kamm, me and, yes, the Pope. Auschwitz cannot fail to confront us with the fragility of that civilisation. Up to 1933 the German people made immense contributions to it, and, as Kamm acknowledges, they have done so again since 1945. And yet in the twelve intervening years its breakdown was total. Today liberal civilisation faces the threat of a 'traditional religious imagination' which has, paradoxically, absorbed the nihilism of the twentieth century's secular mass murderers. The broadest possible coalition of forces is needed to defend it - and that, if nothing else, makes it folly to write off religion per se as the root of all evil. Oliver, there are many, many religious people on your side, but if you keep telling us we really belong with the enemy, what do you expect to achieve other than persuading us to believe it?

In Albert Camus' great allegorical novel The Plague, the existentialist narrator Rieux and the priest Panneloux are irreconcilably at odds over the ultimate cause and significance of the plague which has struck the city of Oran. But they sink their metaphysical differences in the common fight to contain the plague and assist its victims. Faced again with the plagues of murderous intolerance and racism, we are surely called to the same kind of solidarity.

1 comment:

Neal said...


I see, from your writing, that your theology rejects rather openly the version of Christianity in which Judaism is superceded. That is a rather brave stance, as I see the matter. It certainly leads, I would think, to your more independent stance regarding the Arab Israeli conflict.

I tend to agree with quite a bit of what you say here about Kamm. And, I say that from my agnostic viewpoint. Yes, the Nazis were not Christians. And it is mistake to link the two, even if the Nazis grew up in European Christian soil - as did the Communists and the Fascists -.

Then again, historically and even to this date, Christianity often has portrayed itself as the successor to Judaism and the central - now speaking as a non-Christian and not intending to be offensive - myths in Christianty are set among Jews. The role of Judaism in Christian mythology and theology and the refusal of Jews to accept Christian mythology and theology placed the Jewish Question on the table in Europe while the Nazis provided an answer. So, while Christians qua Christians are not responsible for the Nazis, two thousand years of Christian myths and theology must somehow have something to do with what the Nazis did.

I note that religions are capable of many interpretations. Christianity, as you know better than I, has been intepretted to allow pogroms, holy war and every other imaginable horror. One virtue of Christianity is that voices of sanity do stand up against horrors and in some cases - e.g. holy war - nasty doctrines have been beaten back.

Judaism, as you also know, made a radical transition with the original fall of Israel. The rabbis re-made the religion to allow for life in exile so that Jews would not simply disapear, as so many others among the ancient peoples disapeared. It is somewhat amusing, in this regard, that much Christian mythology and theology about Jews and Judaism are about a religion which was, itself, superceded by a new Judaism and a new Jewish mythology and, in a sense, theology.

You are correct that Islam claims to supercede Christianity. And the Jesus story in Islam does not include Jesus' death. Rather, he is a prophet who will return to break the cross. Those who believe in replacement theology overlook this little detail in their attempt to find common ground with Islam.

Islam, for its part, has also been remade time and again. The early fights were over who would rule as a rightly guided one (i.e. imamism) and even individual Jihad (e.g. the Kharajite, not to mention those in Mohammed's company who engaged in razzias). Later, empire became the repository of the religion. Unlike Christianity, a thorough critique of holy war has not occurred and, further - and, in my view, far more importantly - there has not been a sufficient secularist political movement to remove Islam from the public square, as Christianity was forced, for the most part, out of the public square. A religion teacher - 28 years ago - from my undergraduate school days (and he was, like you, a minister) was a big advocate of secularization, as it placed, in his and my view, religion into a more personal context where it serves mankind, rather than blinding him, as now appears to be the case among very large numbers of Muslims.

Which leads me back to your comment. While religion is not the case of all things, it is certainly a major world force to be reckoned with and understood, if not also believed in.