Nigeria’s Francis Cardinal Arinze seems ideally situated to address the most urgent issues before the Roman Catholic Church. One out of every eight Catholics is African, a proportion that seems certain to rise. Coincidentally, Arinze holds the Vatican’s portfolio for relations with the Islamic world. Ireland once exported priests to the world, and now must import them from Nigeria, as John Derbyshire observed recently in National Review Online. Nonetheless, I doubt that white smoke will rise for Arinze. Likely failure awaits both ventures, namely the recruitment of African Catholics and the creation of common ground with Islam.

Religion anchors the promise of immortality in the physical existence of individuals on Earth; what distinguishes the great religions of the world is the means by which they accomplish this. Christianity calls out individuals from the mortal nations and offers them immortality in a new people. To be Christian means to abandon one’s gentile, that is, tribal, character and become part of another nation, a new Israel.

The Catholic Church cannot readily call individuals out of African tribes into a new Israel; an alternative is to recreate the tribal myth by making Jesus a common ancestor of all tribes. Father Donald Goergen of the Catholic University of East Africa observes:

The traditions venerating ancestors in Africa are strong and widespread, even if not universal. More attention has been given to ancestor as a way of “Africanizing” Jesus than to almost any other metaphor. The concept as applied to Jesus, however, needs to be qualified. Jesus is not just one of our ancestors, but ancestor par excellence, a unique ancestor … An ancestor, who was once living a natural life among the people, now enjoys a quasi-supernatural or supersensible mediatorial status. He is an intermediary between God and the ancestor’s people … Among the strengths of the image is that Christ as a common ancestor can help us to overcome a destructive ethnocentrism. We are one family in Christ, one tribe, one community. [1]

Alternative representations of Jesus are as “healer,” that is, “witch doctor,” reports Father Goergen, adding, “Among Christians, and in the West, some may find ‘witch doctor’ too strong given negative associations with the word ‘witch’.”

What distinguishes this form of evangelism from the historic mission of the Church in Europe and the New World is the different concept of peoplehood. Rather than call the convert out from his ethnicity, Jesus as a proto-ancestor accommodates himself to the tribal character of the individual. In this case, Catholicism becomes a facade for the dominant tribal identity. In Rwanda, where half the population was Catholic, the Catholic Church offered no resistance to the murderous Hutu hordes during the 1994 genocide, and that individual Catholic clergy participated in the massacres.

Christianity absorbed a thousand years of pagan invaders on this premise. Europeans never could get this quite right; nothing less drastic than immigration to America could persuade Christians to turn away from their inner pagan. That explains why American Christianity flourishes and European Christianity lies at death’s door, and also why Americans continue to reproduce while Europeans refuse to breed.

Never is the promise of heavenly reward quite enough for people who must live on Earth; immortality must be embodied in some earthly form. Jews find the promise of immortality in the Covenant that promises the physical continuity of the Jewish people. Converts to Judaism therefore must be “reborn”, as it were, by a miracle as descendants of Abraham and Sarah, in a ritual of total immersion in water that mimics the physical circumstance of birth.

Baptists and some other “born-again” Christians similarly require full body immersion, that is, a second birth, for adults who have accepted Jesus as a personal savior. In a very real sense the physical nature of the individual changes, such that the congregant joins God’s people, the new Israel.

For Goths, Vandals, Lombards and Vikings to bow before the image of a crucified Jew stretched the bounds of credulity. Syncretic Christianity allowed the invaders to keep their gods in the form of saints. In the end, as Franz Rosenzweig remarked, Siegfried ultimately triumphed over Christ (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003). American Christianity molded a new people cut off from the old cultural roots (What makes the US a Christian nation, November 30, 2004), but by the same token is afflicted by a Protean instability.

But what of today’s Africa?

Nations are ready to kill each other in a desperate effort to postpone their own day of reckoning. “The love of the nations for their own ethnicity is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death,” wrote Rosenzweig. Against this, religion offers an alternative sense of nationhood. That is explicit in Judaism, and somewhat harder to define in Christianity. In “born-again” Christianity, individuals select themselves into the new Israel. The Catholic Church must make finer distinctions. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in 1999, published a book-length tract against the “banal” notion that the Catholic Church represents a “people of God”, rather than a “mystery” founded by God himself. The Church “is not just a human institution; because of its divine origin it is, above all, a ‘mystery’,” Ratzinger wrote in Dilexit Ecclesiam. Nonetheless, the Catholic faithful constitute a “new Israel”, an invisible nation.

The American model of enthusiastic faith requires continuous renewal; the syncretic Catholic model and the reformed model both failed in Europe. All the poorer are the prospects for African syncretism, which makes no attempt to call individuals out of their tribes into a new people. There is greater hope for African Christianity in the emulation of American Protestantism.

An even greater exercise in frustration will be the Church’s dialogue with Islam. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote a little book on ecumenicism in 1998, which contains the following remarkable passage:

I shall reflect in particular on the relationship between Christian and Jewish monotheism, leaving aside, for reasons for brevity, the problem of the third great figure in monotheistic religion – Islam … Israel’s religion must be regarded as iconolatry even though it forbids images, since it insists on a personal, named God. [2]

Precisely the same point is made by such Jewish theologians as Michael Wyschogrod and James Kugel, who emphasize the personal aspect of the Jewish God in contrast to the Maimonidean insistence on an invisible, bodiless God. Wyschogrod goes as far as to suggest that the notion of the indwelling of God among the Jewish people offers a parallel Christian incarnation – God is “incarnate” among the entire Jewish people, as opposed to in a single Jew, namely Jesus.

In another book, Ratzinger speaks of the “radical anti-Incarnational” influence of Islam [3]. “Anti-Incarnational,” for Ratzinger (as well as for Wyschogrod) simply means “impersonal.” I have written at length about this issue in other locations (Oil on the flames of civilizational war, December 2, 2003), and note here the commonality of outlook between Cardinal Ratzinger and certain Jewish theologians.

Islam absorbs individuals of all tribes and nations, but defines its Peoplehood quite differently. As I wrote in Does Islam have a prayer? (May 18, 2004):

Islam acknowledges no ethnicity (whether or not one believes that it favors Arabs). The Muslim submits – to what particular people? Not the old Israel of the Jews, nor the “New Israel” of the Christians, but to precisely what? Pagans fight for their own group’s survival and care not at all whom their neighbor worships. A universalized paganism is a contradiction in terms; it could only exist by externalizing the defensive posture of the pagan, that is, as a conquering movement that marches across the world crushing out the pagan practices of the nations and subjugating them to a single discipline. If the individual Muslim does not submit to traditional society as it surrounds him in its present circumstances, he submits to the expansionist movement.

For these reasons, common ground for dialogue between Christianity and Islam is vanishingly small.

[1] “The Quest for Christ in Africa,” African Christian Studies, Vol 17, No 1, pp 5-51.
[2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Many Religions – One Covenant (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1998).
[3] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2000).

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