This article appeared originally in the Boston Globe.
“Fanaticism,” William James wrote, ”is only loyalty carried to a convulsive extreme.” Religious fanaticism was James’s subject, and his reflection, published in ”The Varieties of Religious Experience” more than a hundred years ago, seems especially resonant now.
What James called ”jealousy for the deity’s honor” defines the apparent mode of feeling among those who take to the streets to protest the blasphemies that come like battle cries once war is deemed holy. When the virtue of loyalty is experienced as loyalty to a heavenly lord, restraints on behavior can seem like proof of insufficient devotion. The publishers of the Danish cartoons may not have been able to anticipate the responses that still roil the Islamic world, but those who attacked the Askariya shrine in Samarra last week surely knew what the reaction among Shi’ite Muslims would be — nothing less than an unbridled urge to defend the Holy One against such sacrilege. The civil war in Iraq aches to be a holy war.
An army that understands itself as defending God inevitably provokes reactions that are experienced as attacks, not on the army but on the Godhead itself. This in turn generates ever more ferocious escalations because more than the tribe is at stake, or the nation, or even the family. This is why, in history’s supreme irony, holy war is the most savage war of all.
The now familiar scenes of enraged protesters waving fists at cameras, en route to acts of sacred vengeance, cannot be understood apart from the theology that undergirds such passion. ”God is great!” the Koran says, and Muslims in the streets seem to take that to mean that the deity is a being of such infinite supremacy that any offense against it must itself be experienced as infinite, requiring an infinite rage in God’s behalf.
God, it seems, is understood to be a feudal potentate whose honor, once slighted by nefarious human actions, can only be restored by counterbalancing nefarious reactions. This theology, not particular to Islam, is rooted in the various mythologies of monotheism, some of which tend to portray the deity itself as jealous of its glory, ready to take offense.
Thus, as James puts it, ”crusades have been preached and massacres instigated for no other reason than to remove a fanciful slight upon the God.” Such theology has ”conspired to fan this temper to a glow, so that intolerance and persecution have come to be vices associated by some of us inseparably with the saintly mind.”
But what if ”God is great!” does not mean God is a transcendent king, alert to trespass by lesser beings? The Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr suggests that the common phrase is mistranslated, and that what it actually means is ”that God is greater than anything we can conceive of Him as.”
In this radical otherness, kingship is as irrelevant an image as serfhood, and the idea of offending such a deity does not apply. Greatness is not the point. Nor is defending it. ”As soon as God is represented as less intent on his own honor and glory,” James concludes, religious fanaticism ”ceases to be a danger.”
In Islam, as much as Judaism and Christianity, as this Christian understands it, the core theological tradition so affirms such otherness of the deity that no merely familial, tribal, or national claims can be made upon it. Indeed, that the Holy One is wholly other is the first principle of human toleration, since no single person or group has an exclusive claim on the divine. The second principle of toleration is that God, as its author, belongs to the entire cosmos, not to any mere part of it.
God is other, yet, as each tradition affirms, God is also the creator, fully invested in creation. ”I was a hidden treasure,” as the Koran reports God telling the Prophet. ”I loved to be known. Therefore I created the creation so that I would be known.” God creates, that is, to be known by all that God creates. God’s family, tribe, and nation — are everyone and everything.
Obviously, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have all had trouble keeping these principles of toleration straight, with each of the monotheisms having regularly reduced God to a tribal deity, and loyalty to God to a cause of war. We see just such a thing unfolding in the streets of Muslim cities today, as self-appointed defenders of the greatness of God are the ones, in fact, defiling it.