Yesterday’s Religion Report on Radio National

21 Sep

There were two items. The second was Andrew Robb going the spin on the latest immigration debate, in this case his address to the Imams. The first was Father Joseph Fessio and Pope Benedict’s incendiary comments about Islam; a taste follows:

Stephen Crittenden: Well in a week when a nun has been killed, churches have been attacked, and Pope Benedict has apologised, there are still questions about what he was up to, whether he was poorly advised, or speaking with some sense of the effect his words would produce. Today on the program we’re joined by one of Pope Benedict’s former students, and a member of his annual schulekreis, the circle which gathers each summer at Castelgandolfo, American Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio. This time last year the topic of conversation at Castelgandolfo was Islam, and Father Fessio got himself into trouble when he gave an interview later, in which he revealed that the Pope had said in private that he believed Islam was incapable of being reconciled to the modern world…

Stephen Crittenden: Would you say in fact that the Pope has in some senses, successfully demonstrated the problem he was talking about?

Joseph Fessio: Absolutely. Yes.

Stephen Crittenden: One other issue that you raised just there that I suspect is important to emphasise, is the academic context in which this speech was made, raising the questions of whether Muslims accept freedom of speech in relation to any issue of importance to Islam.

Joseph Fessio: Well I think there’s no question they don’t. When we say Muslims, we do know that because of the nature of the media, that a small group can make itself heard and make itself feared and become intimidating, and so you get a network of people who if you publish a cartoon in Denmark, or you make a slip perhaps in Regensburg, all of a sudden you get a world-wide network of protest going on, and it’s on the front pages of all the papers. I mean this is a calculated way of addressing the West and intimidating the West through the media. So it doesn’t matter whether it was a university forum, the words were said, that’s all that’s needed. And in fact when the protest took place I doubt that any of the protesters had actually read the Pope’s remarks because they had not been translated into Arabic…

Stephen Crittenden: So you think that with a single short quotation the Pope is raising questions that go to the status of Islam at least from the point of view of the Christian churches. I mean does the Christian church regard Muhammad of Mecca as a Prophet of God?

Joseph Fessio: We cannot regard him as a prophet, and I expect any good Islam to consider me as a Jesuit priest, and as a Catholic, to be both a blasphemer, because I introduced plurality to God, and as an idolater, because I hold that worship is due to a man like us, named Jesus, who completed and fulfilled all prophecy. We must believe, as Christians, that Muhammad is not a prophet, and that therefore whatever comes from Muhammad is either coming from his own imagination or his own reflection, or from borrowings.

Stephen Crittenden: It’s not a true revelation.

Joseph Fessio: No. Or it’s coming from the evil one. I mean those are the only sources there can be from the Christian point of view…

Joseph Fessio:…the very structure of revelation as seen in Judaism and Christianity is radically different from the structure of revelation in Islam, namely in Islam, you have Muhammad claiming to receive the Angel Gabriel, the uncreated word of God, unmediated. This is God’s word for all time, never to be changed. Whereas in Christianity you have God working with his people calling a community together, and it’s not just God’s word, it’s the word of Isaiah, the word of Mark, the word of Paul, the word of Luke, and when God becomes flesh in Jesus, he does not write sacred writ, he says ‘Here’s you, here’s me’ and he gives his disciples authority to speak in his name. So there’s a whole different dynamic there in which within the Catholic Church, those who are authorised as successors of the apostles appointed by Jesus, are able to interpret sacred scripture for the times, consistent with its original meaning.

Stephen Crittenden: And perhaps even however difficult it is to admit it, and however painful the process, Christianity can actually change…

Joseph Fessio: Yes, it must be true to its principles, but the way God is working with us is to allow us to co-operate with him in manifesting the fullness of his truth, but in Islam you’ve got the Qur’an and you can’t change the Qur’an. So there’s no internal dynamism to the kinds of revelation which would allow them to adapt it or interpret it…

Well, a bit more than a taste! Certainly controversial statements come thick and fast in this interview, don’t they? And I couldn’t help wondering how the openly gay Crittenden felt as Father Fessio concluded thus:

Stephen Crittenden: I take that point, but I guess I’m making a different point, that in this battle, secularism and Christianity are actually allies, are they not?

Joseph Fessio: Well it depends what you mean by secular, you mean abortion and same-sex marriage, and cloning and euthanasia, I’d say No, we’re not allies. But if you say that secularism which comes from Christianity, which respects the personal, individual human freedom, and the right to make a choice in religious matters, of course we’re allies, but we created secularism. I mean Jesus is the one who says ‘Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God’. Muhammad didn’t say that.

Stephen Crittenden: Thank you very much for being on the program.

Joseph Fessio: All right. God bless you.

My own position on revelation will displease many and appear heretical even: I simply do not believe that God writes books. For example, while lately reading the books of Kings, which appear in all Christian and Jewish Bibles, I was struck first by the fact they are often very interesting stories, second by the fact they are very often morally and ethically dubious, but also sometimes not, and third by the fact one would be very foolish to read them as “history” in any modern sense of the word. My problem with the Qu’ran is partly along the lines Father Fessio suggests: the view of revelation it embraces is very explicit, and to me very questionable, as the Qu’ran also endorses literally (unsurprisingly in a book from its historical time and place) much in the Bible which is quite clearly mythical, poetic or ahistorical at the very least, thereby drawing attention to its own fallibility. I know, I will burn in hell for that… And I have repeatedly offended too: see here. People will quite clearly aspire to the religious and the spiritual, but if any of us are to survive people really have to embrace uncertainty and pluralism. Is there any viable alternative? I think not.” I could also have mentioned Pol Pot.

At the same time, there are contemporary Muslims grappling with this issue, and Father Fessio does no-one any service by seeming not to know this. He attributes a blanket absolutism to Muslim scholars and thinkers which he would resent, I am sure, if attributed as glibly to the Catholic Church by an outsider like myself. This is far too complex for elaboration here, so I commend Abdullah Saeed, Interpreting the Qu’ran (Routledge 2006), which is, whether one agrees with it or not, a scholarly treatise of considerable subtlety, and far more open to modern thought than many would expect. Such paths could lead to bridge-building, and should be acknowledged.


But not by Piers Akerman: I have only now caught up with his Tuesday performance. He is in fine form. I am therefore moved to cap his Qu’ran references with one Jews and Christians will remember.

Deuteronomy 21:18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:
21:19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;
21:20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
21:21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

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11 responses to “Yesterday’s Religion Report on Radio National

  1. Daniel

    September 23, 2006 at 9:55 am

    I’ll let you have the last word, A.V. That will make you happy!

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