Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pinker and the Pope Condemn Religious Violence

Steven Pinker and Pope Benedict XVI seem to agree with one another in condemning religious violence.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker explains the Darwinian evolutionary process by which violence has declined in human history.  For Pinker, one manifestation of this evolutionary shift is that while "the Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery," most biblical believers today--Jews and Christians--reject the sanctified cruelty of the Bible.  "Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible.  They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles" (10-12).

Pinker explains this as showing the "benevolent hypocrisy" of biblical believers:
Of course most devout Christians today are thoroughly tolerant and humane people.  Even those who thunder from televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the strappado.  The question is why they don't, given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good.  The answer is that people in the West today compartmentalize their religious ideology.  When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years.  But when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful. (17)
A few days ago, the Pope acknowledged that violence has often been religiously motivated, while insisting that religious people should find this disturbing, and Christians should feel shame for the history of Christian violence.
As a Christian, I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith.  We acknowledge it with great shame.  But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature.  The God in whom we Christians believe is the Creator and Father of all, and from Him all people are brothers and sisters and form one single family.  For us the Cross of Christ is the sign of the God Who put 'suffering-with' (compassion) and 'loving-with' in place of force. . . . It is the task of all who bear responsibility for the Christian faith to purify the religion of Christians again and again from its very heart, so that it truly serves as an instrument of God's peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans.
In other statements, the Pope has made clear that what he is condemning, in particular, are the faults of the Catholic Church in sanctioning the propagation of the faith through violence--as in the Inquisition and the Crusades.

But while Pinker sees this as the "benevolent hypocrisy" of biblical believers who reject the religious violence of the Bible, the Pope sees this as recognizing that religious violence is "an abuse of the Christian faith."

In asking forgiveness for the faults of the Church in promoting religious violence, Pope Benedict XVI continues a position that began with his predecessor--John Paul II.  This is remarkable, because as far as I know, this is the first time in the history of the Church that Popes have asked forgiveness for the sinfulness of the Church in supporting unjustified violence.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pope has previously endorsed a remarkable statement of the International Theological Commission (ITC) in 1999 on "The Church and the Faults of the Past." 

Following the lead of Pope John Paul II, this statement explores the reasoning for the Church's confession of faults and asking forgiveness.  This is recognized as a radical move: "in the entire history of the Church, there are no precedents for requests for forgiveness by the Magisterium for past wrongs" (1.1).

This is an amazing confirmation of Pinker's argument about the power of the evolutionary historical forces in pushing for a decline in violence, including religious violence.

As the ITC statement makes clear, there are two interrelated problems.  How can the Church confess the faults of the past without denying the divine authority of the Church?  And how can the Church condemn the religious violence of the Bible without denying the divine authority of the Bible?

To the first question, the answer is that the Church is "at the same time holy and ever in need of purification" (sec. 3).  This is supported by Thomas Aquinas's claim that the Church cannot be sinless in its earthly pilgrimage, because the fullness of its holiness will be achieved only in Heaven (3.3, quoting ST, III, q. 8, a. 3, ad 2).

To the second question--about the authority of the Bible--the answer is ambiguous.  The ITC statement agrees with Pinker's comment about the Bible--particularly, the Old Testament--being "staggering in its savagery."  It is troublesome, then, that the Old Testament never shows the people of Israel asking forgiveness for their unjustified violence against their enemies.  Although we see people confessing their sins before God, we don't see them confessing their sins before the people they have injured.  Why not?
We can propose various hypotheses in response to this question.  First, there is the prevalent theocentrism of the Bible, which gives precedence to the acknowledgement, whether individual or national, of the faults committed against God.  What is more, acts of violence perpetrated by Israel against other peoples, which would seem to require a request for forgiveness from those peoples or from their descendants, are understood to be the execution of divine directives, as for example Gn 2-11and Dt 7:2 (the extermination of the Canaanites), or 1 Sm 15 and Dt 25:19 (the destruction of the Amalekites).  In such cases, the involvement of a divine command would seem to exclude any possible request for forgiveness.  The experiences of maltreatment suffered by Israel at the hands of other peoples and the animosity thus aroused could also have militated against the idea of asking pardon of these people for the evil done to them. (2.1)
If one reads this passage carefully, one can see a quiet admission that we must recognize that the Bible is mistaken when it reports God as commanding unjust violence.  The people of Israel saw no need to be forgiven for acts of violence that they "understood to be the execution of divine directives," and thus "the involvement of a divine command would seem to exclude any possible request for forgiveness."  Is this a hint that they were mistaken?  That what the Bible reports as "divine directives" for unjust violence is wrong?

Turning to the New Testament, the ITC statement emphasizes that the "frailties of Jesus' disciples" are acknowledged, especially in the gospel of Mark, and this includes Peter, whom the Church regards as the first Bishop of Rome and the source of the apostolic succession for the divine authority of the popes (2.2).

And yet, the New Testament never shows the first Christians confessing the faults of the Old Testament past.  Consequently, John Paul II's calls for admitting the guilt of the Church in religious violence "do not find an exact parallel in the Bible" (2.4).

So how do we explain this move by John Paul II, which has been continued by Benedict XVI?  One answer suggested by the ITC statement is that there has been a "paradigm change":
While before the Enlightenment there existed a sort of osmosis between Church and State, between faith and culture, morality and law, from the eighteenth century onward this relationship was modified significantly.  The result was a transition from a sacral society to a pluralist society, or, as occurred in a few cases, to a secular society.  The models of thought and action, the so-called "paradigms" of actions and evaluation, change.  Such a transition has a direct impact on moral judgments, although this influence does not justify in any way a relativistic idea of moral principles or of the nature of morality itself. (5.1)
Pinker stresses the importance of Enlightenment thought in supporting the "humanitarian revolution" (129-188) as one of the historical trends favoring a decline in violence.  This was part of a larger shift in thought towards classical liberalism, in which religious belief became a matter of individual liberty and conscience expressed in the voluntary associations of civil society but not coercively enforced by government.  Now, it seems that the Catholic Church has embraced liberalism in accepting the move from a premodern "sacral society," in which violence could be used to enforce religion, to a "pluralist society" or "secular society," based on religious toleration and nonviolence.

Rather than seeing this as a break from traditional Christianity, we might see it as a return to the position of the first Christians in the New Testament.  After all, with the possible exception of the book of Revelation, the Christians of the New Testament are never presented as using coercive violence to compel religious belief.  Believers punish heretics by expelling them from their churches, but they never try to execute them.  The execution of heretics in the Inquisition had no clear basis in the New Testament.  That's why Christians like Roger Williams could argue that a policy of absolute toleration--even for atheists--was part of the New Testament teaching of Christianity, as opposed to the theocracy of the Old Testament.

The evolutionary history of strengthening the "better angels of our nature" to promote a decline in unjustified violence can be rightly understood as a fulfillment of true Christianity.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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