Jihad, the Lord's Supper, and eternal life
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
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
It is amusing to see liberal Jewish commentators in the United States, eg, 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
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
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.
Postscript 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