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Jihad injures reason, for it honors a god who suffers no constraints on his caprice, unlike the Judeo-Christian god, who is limited by love. That is the nub of Pope Benedict XVI’s September 12 address in Regensburg, Germany. It promises to be the Vatican’s most controversial utterance in living memory.
When a German-language volume appeared in 2003 quoting the same analysis by a long-dead Jewish theologian, I wrote of “oil on the flames of civilizational war.”  Now the same ban has been preached from St. Peter’s chair, and it is a defining moment comparable to Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946. Earlier this year, Benedict’s elliptical remarks to former students at a private seminar in 2005, mentioned in passing by an American Jesuit and reported in this space, created a scandal.  I wrote at the time that even the pope must whisper when it comes to Islam. We have entered a different stage of civilizational war.
The Islamic world now views the pontiff as an existential threat, and with reason. Jihad is not merely the whim of a despotic divinity, as the pope implied. It is much more: jihad is the fundamental sacrament of Islam, the Muslim cognate of the Lord’s Supper in Christianity, that is, the unique form of sacrifice by which the individual believer communes with the Transcendent. To denounce jihad on theological grounds is a blow at the foundations of Islam, in effect a papal call for the conversion of the Muslims.
Just before then-cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope last year, I wrote, “Now that everyone is talking about Europe’s demographic death, it is time to point out that there exists a way out: convert European Muslims to Christianity. The reported front-runner at the Vatican conclave … Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, is one of the few Church leaders unafraid to raise the subject.”  The Regensburg address oversteps the bounds of dialogue and verges upon the missionary. A great deal has changed since John Paul II kissed the Koran before news cameras in 1999. The boys and girls of the Catholic youth organization Communione e Liberazione that Ratzinger nurtured for a generation will have a great deal to talk to their Muslim school-fellows about.
No more can one assume now that Europe will slide meekly into dhimmitude.
In that respect [I wrote during the conclave] John Paul II recalled the sad position of Pius XII, afraid to denounce publicly the murder of Polish priests by Nazi occupiers – let alone the murder of Polish Jews – for fear that the Nazis would react by killing even more. It is hard to second-guess the actions of Pius XII given his terrible predicament, but at some point one must ask when the Gates of Hell can be said to have prevailed over St. Peter.
Specifically, Benedict stated that jihad, the propagation of Islam by force, is irrational, because it is against the Reason of God. Citing a 14th-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Mohammed’s “decree that the faith he preached should be spread with the sword” as “evil and inhumane” provoked headlines. But of greater weight is the pope’s observation that Allah is a god whose “absolute transcendence” allows no constraint, to the point that Allah is free if he chooses to promote evil. The great German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig explained the matter more colorfully than did the pope, as I reported three years ago in the cited review:
The god of Mohammed is a creator who well might not have bothered to create. He displays his power like an Oriental potentate who rules by violence, not by acting according to necessity, not by authorizing the enactment of the law, but rather in his freedom to act arbitrarily … Providence thus is shattered into infinitely many individual acts of creation, with no connection to each other, each of which has the importance of the entire creation. That has been the doctrine of the ruling orthodox philosophy in Islam. Every individual thing is created from scratch at every moment. Islam cannot be salvaged from this frightful providence of Allah … despite its vehement, haughty insistence upon the idea of the god’s unity, Islam slips back into a kind of monistic paganism, if you will permit the expression. God competes with God at every moment, as if it were the colorfully contending heavenful of gods of polytheism.
It is amusing to see liberal Jewish commentators in the United States, e.g., the editorial page of the September 16 New York Times, deplore the pope’s remarks, considering that Rosenzweig said it all the more sharply in 1920.
Benedict’s comments regarding Islam served as a preamble to a longer discourse on the unity of faith and reason. “Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?” Benedict asked, and answered his own question: “I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.” It is not, however, the reasoned side of Benedict’s remarks to which Muslims responded, but rather the existential.
Rather than rail at the pope’s characterization of Islam, Muslims might have responded as follows: “Excuse me, Your Holiness, but did we hear you say that you represent a religion of reason, whereas Allah is a god of unreason? Do you not personally eat the body and blood of your god – at least things that you insist really are his flesh and blood – every day at Mass? And you accuse us of unreason!” That is a fair rebuttal, but it opens up Islam’s can of worms.
True, we are not pottering about in this pilgrim existence to be rational. Today’s Germans are irrational, and know that their time has past, and therefore desist from bearing children. What mankind – Christian, Muslim and Jew, and all – demand of God is irrational. We want eternal life! Christians do not want what the Greeks wanted – Socrates’ transmigration of souls, nor the shadow existence of Homer’s dead heroes in Hades. That is an unreasonable demand if ever there was one.
Before the Bible was written, the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh learned that his quest for immortality was futile. The demigods of Greece, mortals favored by Olympians, suffered a tedious sort of immortal life as stars, trees or rivers. The gods of the heathens are not in any case eternal, only immortal. They were born and they will die, like the Norse gods at the Ragnorak, and their vulnerability projects the people’s presentiment of its own death. To whom, precisely, have the gods offered eternal life prior to the appearance of revealed religion? Eternal life and a deathless mortality are quite different things.
But what is it that God demands of us in response to our demand for eternal life? We know the answer ourselves. To partake of life in another world we first must detach ourselves from this world in order to desire the next. In plain language, we must sacrifice ourselves. There is no concept of immortality without some concept of sacrifice, not in any culture or in any religion. That is a demand shared by the Catholic bishops and the Kalahari Bushmen.
God’s covenant with Abraham is unique and singular in world history. A single universal and eternal god makes an eternal pact with a mortal that can be fulfilled only if Abraham’s tribe becomes an eternal people. But the price of this pact is self-sacrifice. That is an existential mortal act beyond all ethics, as Soren Kierkegaard tells us in Fear and Trembling. The sacraments of revealed religion are sublimated human sacrifice, for the revealed god in his love for humankind spares the victim, just as God provided a ram in place of the bound Isaac on Mount Moriah. Among Jews the covenant must be renewed in each male child through a substitute form of human sacrifice, namely circumcision.  Christians believe that a single human sacrifice spared the rest of humankind.
Jihad also is a form of human sacrifice. He who serves Allah so faithfully as to die in the violent propagation of Islam goes straight to paradise, there to enjoy virgins or raisins, depending on the translation. But Allah is not the revealed god of loving kindness, or agape, but – pace Benedict – a god of reason, that is, of cold calculation. Islam admits no expiatory sacrifice. Everyone must carry his own spear.
We are too comfortable, too clean, too squeamish, too modern to descend into the terrible space where birth, death and immortality are decided. We forget that we cannot have eternal life unless we are ready to give up this one – and this the Muslim knows only through what we should call the sacrament of jihad. Through jihad, the Muslim does almost precisely what the Christian does at the Lord’s Supper. It is the sacrifice of Jesus that grants immortal life to all Christians, that is, those who become one with Jesus by eating his flesh and drinking his blood so that the sacrifice also is theirs, at least in Catholic terms. Protestants substitute empathy identification with the crucified Christ for the trans-substantiated blood and flesh of Jesus.
Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross to give all men eternal life, on condition that they take part in his sacrifice, either through the physical communion of the Catholic Church or the empathetic Communion of Protestantism. From a Muslim vantage point, the extreme of divine humility embodied in Jesus’ sacrifice is beyond reason. Allah, by contrast, deals with those who submit to him after the calculation of an earthly despot. He demands that all Muslims sacrifice themselves by becoming warriors and, if necessary, laying their lives down in the perpetual war against the enemies of Islam.
These are parallel acts, in which different peoples do different things, in the service of different deities, but for the same reason: for eternal life.
Why is self-sacrifice always and everywhere the cost of eternal life? It is not because a vengeful and sanguineous God demands his due before issuing us a visa to heaven. Quite the contrary: we must sacrifice our earthly self, our attachment to the pleasures and petty victories of our short mortal life if we really are to gain the eternal life that we desire. The animal led to the altar, indeed Jesus on the cross, is ourselves: we die along with the sacrifice and yet live, by the grace of God. YHWH did not want Isaac to die, but without taking Abraham to Mount Moriah, Abraham himself could not have been transformed into the man desirous and deserving of immortal life. Jesus died and took upon him the sins of the world, in Christian terms, precisely so that a vicarious sacrifice would redeem those who come to him.
What distinguishes Allah from YHWH and (in Christian belief) his son Jesus is love. God gives Jews and Christians a path that their foot can tread, one that is not too hard for mortals, to secure the unobtainable, namely immortal life, as if by miracle. Out of love God gives the Torah to the Jews, not because God is a stickler for the execution of 613 commandments, but because it is a path upon which the Jew may sacrifice and yet live, and receive his portion of the World to Come. The most important sacrifice in Judaism is the Sabbath – “our offering of rest”, says the congregation in the Sabbath prayers – a day of inactivity that acknowledges that the Earth is the Lord’s. It is a sacrifice, as it were, of ego. In this framework, incidentally, it is pointless to distinguish Judaism as a “religion of works” as opposed to Christianity as a “religion of faith.”
To Christians, God offers the vicarious participation in his sacrifice of himself through his only son.
That is Grace: a free gift by God to men such that they may obtain eternal life. By a miracle, the human soul responds to the offer of Grace with a leap, a leap away from the attachments that hold us to this world, and a foretaste of the World to Come.
There is no Grace in Islam, no miracle, no expiatory sacrifice, no expression of love for mankind such that each Muslim need not be a sacrifice. On the contrary, the concept of jihad, in which the congregation of Islam is also the army, states that every single Muslim must sacrifice himself personally. Jihad is the precise equivalent of the Lord’s Supper in Christianity and the Jewish Sabbath, the defining expression of sacrifice that opens the prospect of eternity to the mortal believer. To ask Islam to become moderate, to reform, to become a peaceful religion of personal conscience is the precise equivalent of asking Catholics to abolish Mass.
Islam, I have argued for years, faces an existential crisis in the modern world, which has ripped its adherents out of their traditional existence and thrust them into deadly conflicts. What was always latent in Islam has now come to the surface: the practice of Islam now expresses itself uniquely in jihad. Benedict XVI has had the courage to call things by their true names. Everything else is hypocrisy and self-delusion.
Regarding Benedict XVI’s statement that the characterization of the Prophet Mohammed did not reflect his “personal opinion”: In 1938, at the peak of Stalin’s terror, a Muscovite called the KGB to report that his parrot had escaped. The KGB officer said, “Why are you calling us?” The Muscovite averred, “I want to state for the record that I do not share the parrot’s political opinions.”
1. See Oil on the flames of civilizational war, December 2, 2003.
2. See When even the pope has to whisper, January 10, 2006.
3. The crescent and the conclave, April 19, 2005.
4. See The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity, by Jon D Levinson (Harvard; Cambridge 1993).