Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ortho-Pente in Ethiopia

The other day an Ethiopian friend told me about a movement that was partly Protestant and partly Orthodox called "ortho-pente". I cannot find much on it, but I did find this. There is alot going on in Ethiopia that should be paid attention to by people who are aware of the need for Orthodox and Evangelicals to work together.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christian Solidarity Worldwide conference in London

the respected human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) put on a conference last weekend in the Westminster section of London. CSW is a class outfit that does work that compliments other similar groups such as Barnabas Fund and Open Doors. CSW's work has a legal and policy edge to it that distinguishes it from the other groups, at least in my take. How does what I saw there relate to my current blog theme?

I was so please at the way that the Evangelicals related to the Coptic bishop. Bishop Angelos of the UK Coptic Orthodox Church gave a very impressive talk in which he urged us not to feel sorry for Egyptian Christians but to pray for them and for all of Egypt. Having just finished Brother Andrew's book Secret Believers: What Happens when Muslims come to Christ in Muslim Countries, which also shows cooperation between Evangelicals and the Coptic Orthodox church (I am quite sure the main country is Egypt though it is not named as such) I am sure this is one the ways forward in this situation.

Tina Ramirez, who works in government in the US and has studied the issue of religious freedom at the academic and policy level and knows it in depth, spoke on the alarming trends of inceasing persecution of Christians in the world in the last 20 years. She, as well as an MP named Burt (whose first name I lazily can't recall without looking for it on the net) talked about how the case must be made to leaders in Muslim majority countries that respecting the rights of Christians is improvement in their society overall. There are statistical studies that have been done showing that levels of relgiously motivated violence against minorities is tied statistically to political instability. I wish I knew more about this, but someone named Brian Grim, whose name came up in Ramirez' talk, has done work on this and is part of a very intelligent discussion on these issues.

There was a church leader from Iran, whose name does not appear on the CSW website, I suppose for his protection, said that there a big changes taking place in Iran. The most conservative estimates say that there are several hundred thousand Christian converts in the country just in the last few years, and the more liberal estimates are one million. The speaker works for Elam ministries, who do very good work. He also mentioned the issue of Persian martyrs in the Iranian church before the coming of Islam. I am writing my dissertatin on the Church of the East and its formation in the Sasanian Persian empire, and this issue of maryrs is very close to my heart. If eastern orthodox and Roman catholics and the other liturgical tradtions believe in the power of martyrs, and the importance of martyrs, why do we not just stand up and say that the 50 people killed in Iraq last October and the 100 people who've been killed in Egypt this year for their faith are martyrs?

Tertullian of Carthage, one of my heroes and whom I wrote my MA thesis about some years back, wrote that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." why don't we start thinking about what this might actually mean?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My Cambride Round Church Tour

Just to explain folks, I sometimes give a tour on the history of Cambridge and how that relates to religion. I sometimes do it in Mandarin and Japanese. These pics, when I show them to native speakers of those langauges, can be a good way of practing for the tour. These are some of the key spots on the tour.

Photo #1 The Round Church
Photo #2 St. Benet's (Benedict's)
Photo #3 The River Cam

Photo #4 Magdalen College court yard

photo #5 Inside Magdalen chapel

Photo #6 CS Lewis plaque

Photo #7 Colonial reformers

Photo #8 Thomas Clarkston

Photo #9 William Wilburforce

photo #10 Martin Luther

Photo #11 Trinity window/Key Reformation Figures

Photo #12 Lady Margaret Beaufort

Photo #13 John Fischer

Photo #14 Divinity School statues

Photo #15 Francis Bacon

Photo #16 King Henry VIII

Photo #17 Isaac Newton

Photo #18 Isaac Newton tree

Photo #19 Great St. Mary's

Photo #20 Senate House

Photo #21 Cambridge University Press

Photo #22 Little Germany Pub

Photo #23 Eagle Pub plaque

Photo #24 Cavendish Lab door

Photo #25 Cavendish Plaque

Photo #26 Sidney Sussex Court yard

Photo #27 Sussex Chapel

Thursday, January 6, 2011

How Islamism and Secularity in the West are Related

Europe and Islam in the wake of attacks against Copts in Alexandria
by Samir Khalil Samir

Absurd accusations against the Coptic community of keeping two women who converted to Islam captive. The psychosis of a country that prohibits changing of religion. Islamic attacks against Shenouda, the criticism of the imam of Al-Azhar against Benedict XVI. Europe must open up channels for cultural dialogue with Islamic countries, rejecting secularism and fundamentalism. Just like the pope said.

Rome (AsiaNews) - The attack against the Church of Saints in Alexandria, Egypt, on December 31 last, shows in an increasing harsh light the growth of Christianophobia in the Islamic world (and beyond). It is important to denounce this violence, but also to find practical steps to counter it.

First, the facts: Muslims accuse the Egyptian Coptic Church and Patriarch Shenouda III, of holding two women who converted to Islam captive against their will in convents in Egypt. This accusation, which is completely false, was repeated on the very same day of the attack, on December 31. In the mosque 200 meters from the church attacked at midnight, following his imam’s sermon, there was a demonstration of Muslims calling for the release of these two women and all others.

This story has been dragging on for four years. It claims that the two women, Wafa 'Constantine and Camelia Shehata, who are married to two priests, had marital problems, that they then converted to Islam and were kidnapped and hidden by the Church. It is true that women had marital problems, but it is not true that they converted. In fact the late leader of Al-Azhar, Tantawi, decreed that there is no evidence of their conversion. The two women were then brought to the Church, who for fear of their possible kidnapping by Islamist movements, gave them refuge in convents. But the story keeps coming back to the surface. Even after the attack on the Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad on October 31 last year, the group that claimed responsibility for the terrorist act, cited the case of these two women, to justify attacks against Christians in Egypt.

All of this is absurd. Yesterday, I participated in an online forum of an Islamic newspaper, al-Mesreyya, discussing the attack on the church in Alexandria. Instead of expressing their condolences for the Christian victims, their horror at the attack, etc.. Everyone - at least 60 comments- said that "it is the Copts fault," and cited the story of the two women; that the attack on the church was organized by Copts themselves "to make us look bad in front of the rest of the world"; or something that was organized by the U.S. and Mossad. I posted a short comment, but it was not published. In the few lines I wrote, I asked what right is there to force a conversion? Conversions are in stifled in Egypt, that is, conversion to Islam is facilitated but those from Islam to another religion are strongly hindered.

The imam of Al-Azhar

In this situation the reaction of Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the current Imam of Al-Azhar, is understandable. He paid a visit to the Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III to express his condolences. In Egypt, these visits are a formality every time there is an attack, they imply “we always understand each other”, and "we should not destroy national unity." Thousands of Christians were demonstrating in front of the patriarchate to ask for more security and protection for Christians. The faithful reacted by shouting slogans and throwing stones at the car of the Muslim representative. But we must also take into consideration what Muslims do. Over the past three months several times a picture Shenouda was trampled upon and destroyed, and the names of 200 Copts are on a death list, with the patriarch in first place. Among them are 100 names of Canadian, German, Austrian and European Copts, and "shedding their blood – reads the list - is lawful." In this case too, the obsession with conversions is at the root of the violence.

The Egyptian government says that the attack on the church of Alexandria was carried out by foreigners. And in a way it's true: the Iraqi group linked to Al Qaeda that claimed responsibility for the Church attack in Baghdad on Oct. 31, threatened further violence if the two Egyptian women were not handed over to the Islamic community. Al Qaeda, whose leader is al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, is in fact a widespread terrorist mafia with international branches.

The imam of Al-Azhar has criticized the pope for asking world governments to defend Christians and claims he does not care about Muslims killed in Iraq. That a figurehead such as he, considered a very learned and moderate man - he knows several languages and studied in Paris – should say such things against the pope is unacceptable: he has criticized the pope without really knowing anything, by simply repeating what he has read in the headlines[1].

In fact there is nothing to criticise in the Pope's address. Benedict XVI only recalled that violence against man is against the will of God. Of course he asked for help for Christians, seeing that he was referring to recent events. But even if he asked for increased security for Christians, is that really a scandal? If the governments of the Middle East are not able to defend them, because they do not want to or because they are not capable of doing so, then the world must do something, otherwise what's the UN or other international bodies for?

It is also ridiculous to say - as the imam of Ahzar did - that the pope has never defended the Muslims of Iraq. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI ever approved of the American intervention of Iraq, nor believe that it was lawful. It must be said then that Muslims are often targeted and killed by other Muslims. The pope can condemn violence and say that we must defeat intolerance, and stop justifying violence in the name of God, but the pope has done this countless times.

The destiny of Europe and the Middle East

Some analysts warn against attempts by the West to exploit all this violence against Christians. In fact, however, in many European countries, Muslims continue to increase their demands, presenting them as their "rights"; they do unusual things and nobody says anything. For example, in France and Italy, Friday Muslim prayer takes place in public spaces, on the streets, blocking traffic.

Islam in Europe is becoming increasing more demanding and governments do not know how to react to it; some impede integration; the relationship between governments and Muslim immigrants is among the most difficult.

Of course, the vast majority of Muslims want peace, want to integrate, but among them there are people who have another project: we in Europe have the right to have our law, Shariah, and you prevent us from having this. A few years ago in Milan, the head of the Viale Jenner mosque, responding to a questions about conversions to Christianity in Egypt said “you simply have to apply the law”, which means the death of those who have converted. And if you condemn the application of the law then you are holding back our freedom of religion. This position is creating problems in France, Italy, Sweden, etc. ..

It is possible that European governments use violence against Christians to block Islamic emigration. Just as is it possible that Israel uses this violence to justify an ever more apparent racism in Israeli society. But violence against Christians is something that happens every day and has as its aim to rid the Middle East of the Christian presence. Bombings and killings are a constant reality in Egypt.

Dialogue to defeat fundamentalism and secularism

For this reason, some European countries are beginning to say "enough". There is the growing realization that something must be done. It is true that other attacks on the religious freedom of Christians in China or Vietnam or in Laos, are condemned, if only, sporadically. The fact is that the Middle East is closely tied to Europe and the problem of coexistence with Islam is a European problem. I am pleased with the unanimous response of the international community on the attack on the Copts in Egypt. What is striking in this case is the absolute innocence of the Copts: What have they done to deserve such a murderous attack? In other parts - Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon ... - there are acts of war, but there is none of this here in Egypt, it is a violent, gratuitous attack motivated only by "conversions" and just as we all ask for freedom religion, as in the pope's message for World Day of Peace.

The episode in Alexandria in Egypt is an act against religious freedom. But Muslims in the name of Shariah, are not able to understand the value of human rights. Human rights must come before all tradition and all laws, even sharia.

It must be said that this violence also involves the West. The pope, in his speech on 1 January, said that it concrete actions are needed and not just words. I think we need pay particular attention to the Middle Eastern or Islamic countries, or wherever violence against religious freedom occurs. It is no good putting pressure on these nations, because they see it as too much interference. The American proposal for collaboration with Islam, made by Barack Obama, does not arouse enthusiasm because the U.S. proposals then lapse into a form of colonialism.

The point is that the relationship with these countries must become not exclusively economic but also cultural. One of the main points of this dialogue is the need to take the fundamentalists criticism of Western civilization, which they see as atheist, seriously. The fundamentalists are full of critical errors, but they are based in reality. They see that the West promotes an irreligious culture. In fact, the West is either neutral or indifferent, or even contrary to religion. While fundamentalists promote Islamic religious culture.

We have to take the middle road between two extremes: the secularist West, in which there is no room for religion, or Islamic fundamentalist way in which religion penetrates, through force, all areas of life : prayer, work, sex, family, etc. ...
In the Angelus of January 1, the pope said: "Today we are witnessing two opposite trends, both negative, both extremes: on one hand, secularism, which often in a very deceitful way, marginalizes religion to confine it to the private sphere and on the other fundamentalism, which instead wants to impose it by force. " I really think the pope is right. We must reject both secularism and fundamentalism.

[1] Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the imam of Al Azhar, criticized the pope for – in his opinion - having only appealed for greater protection for Christians in his homily on 1 January. "I do not agree - he said - with the position of the pope and wonder why the pope did not ask for protection when they were killing Muslims in Iraq." In fact, the pope's words were: "Faced with the threatening tensions of the moment, especially in the face of religious discrimination, abuses and intolerance, which today affect Christians in particular (cf. ibid., 1), once again I address this urgent appeal to not give in to despair and resignation. I urge everyone to pray that the efforts undertaken by several parties to promote and build peace in the world come to fruition". It is true however, that many media have published headlines like "Pope calls on governments to protect Christians," with a clear reduction of the message.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Tina Beattie on "The New Athiests"

Cultural Sadomasochism and Religion in Britain: A Review of Tina Beattie’s The New Atheists: the Twilight of Reason & and the War on Religion

There is always a danger in making a book review blatantly autobiographical, as I am going to do here. But since I am writing purely for enjoyment and only to explore my own thoughts about Tina Beattie’s book The New Atheists: the Twilight of Reason & and the War on Religion, I am not only going to dispense with this common wisdom but go against it zestily. I discovered Beattie’s book only some two days ago and read it cover to cover over a period of 24 hours. As an American living in England working on a post graduate degree in Religious History over the past six months, and having been an English teacher in Saudi Arabia and having thought a lot about Islam during that time before coming to England, I found Beattie’s spoke to my experience of the religious scene in Britain on a number of levels. I admit to not having read Christopher Hitchens’ and Richard Dawkins’ scathing discussions of religion, which along with Sam Harris and some of the recent apologists for religion in the wake of Hitchens and Dawkins are the focus of Beattie’s book. But we hear so much about them here in Britain (I have in fact seen Harris lecture on cable television in the U.S.) and Beattie gives ample illustration of their discussions in the book, that it is not necessary—the need always to read an author in their own words notwithstanding.

Before talking about how it speaks to my perception of the religious mood of Britain at the present time, let me state what I believe Beattie is aiming to do. Here she aims to show: 1) how the new atheism is situated culturally and historically, and 2) how the new atheism and its rhetorical strategies, especially with regard to Dawkins, shows a basic disregard for civility and intolerance for rational debate at a time when they are desperately needed. These two themes are interrelated. For example, Beattie shows that the new atheists’ proclivity for finding a single rationality to which all of western civilization and beyond should ascribe, one which can only operate fully if the “superstitions” of religion are sloughed off, is similar to colonialist, imperialist and male-dominated types of thinking seen in the 18th and 19th century. There “men of science” attempted to rationalize colonial rule in Africa and Asia and clear it of any local and unincorporated conceptual and political impediments, as Beattie shows in some detail in the first few chapters.

There are other types of basic brush clearing done in the early chapter and where Beattie goes through typical assertions made by the new atheists in order to nuance the debate and bring civility to it. I particularly liked chapter 4 in which Beattie countered the notion found in new atheist writing that religion is a predominant cause of war throughout history. She shows that in the last 3000 years of history religion has been a cause in relatively few wars; the First and Second World War had nothing to do with religion; and if anything Nazism and the Cold War had much to do with Germany and Russia’s having broken away from their cultures’ Christian past. Beattie also shows that witch hunts of 17th century Europe had as much to do with the rise of scientific thinking and the desire to root out “superstition” and control women’s bodies and female subjectivity as it did with religion. The Spanish Inquisition was also counseled against by religious authority (124).

But more interesting for me is how Beattie speaks to what I am now sensing in my six-month-long stay in England with regards to how religion is regarded society-wide in Britain. Generalizing grossly about British views on religion (never a good thing to do), I believe it is fair to say that British society exhibits a set of tensions around religion which is as follows. On the one hand, there is a declining resonance between the British public and The Church of England, occurring for a number of reasons, one of which it its perceived attachment to colonialism and its being the established church. On the other hand we find an anti-Muslim sentiment population-wide, or at least an ambiguity toward Islam because of 9/11 and 7/7 fueled by strife within the British Muslim immigrant community. These frictions are fueled also by the perception that Britain was dragged foolishly into war in Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States, a country whose Christianity is seen as part of the problem, which positions me in interesting ways as part of the landscape being described here. The way to deal with these interrelated problems in British society, it appears to many, is to slough off any attachment to religion, Christian or Muslim or other, a notion found not only among the new atheists.

While the above is my take on the issue, Beattie does not deny these tensions either. She shows us furthermore how these tensions are fed by secular impulses in British society which were rejected in the 7/7 attacks. I would add that there are some conversions to Islam among the British population, some 30,000 or so, who I would argue have been led to Islam because it is seen, at least partly, as way of being countercultural and counter-hegemonic, also part of the rejection of British secularism seen among British Muslisms of Islamic heritage. Conversion to Islam in Britain is also part of the declining numbers in Church of England attendance because of its perceived lack of cultural relevance, which is again part of an impulse which feeds and has been fed by the new atheism and its counterpart in the new fundamentalism in its Christian guises (see 137). Teenage pregnancy, Beattie points out, is among the highest in Europe (146). This and the Freudian influenced sexuality-expressed-will-make-you-free secularism has also contributed to conversions to Islam and to its militancy, or at least its stridency, among the British Islamic community, the female among whom are much more zealous in wearing the hijab in public as a statement of their rejection of this secularism than they were in years past.

Whether or not we need to remedy the current situation depends on where you stand. But that the social landscape sketched about is not civil and is tense on the ground here is beyond question. While I have taken my discussion in a direction different form the main direction charted by Beattie, these concerns are not absent in Beattie’s treatment. Nor do we differ on how they might be treated. Beattie does not use the term “cultural sadomasochism” as I do (to define a strain within the new atheism and paradoxically another strand of society thinking that Islam is counter cultural and anti-imperial) but she does, for example, discuss the way in which Christian roots can be pointed to for European modernity and scientific reason and the placing of the individual at the center of history, therefore suggesting that ignoring these roots is tantamount to cultural masochism. Beattie also mentions thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre who advocate a return to the Aristotelian and Christian views of rationality of the Middle Ages (144). This could not only be a way of forming common ground with Muslims and Jews, both of whom share in the Medieval Aristotelian heritage which the West inherited from the Levant (116), but also a way of finding common ground between religion and science. On this score as well, Beattie has a fascinating discussion of the new physics how it might relate to this medieval and sacramental view of the world. She also mentions how the Protestant Reformers, having come to see human nature as corrupted and grace being divorced from nature, also played a role in the overly narrow version of rationality and the science and theology split we find in the new atheism (58).

Beattie’s final salvo in my view begins with a discussion of Nietzsche and his thoughts on language and power (150). This is made part of an argument suggesting that if the language of or about God is to once again speak to contemporary Westerners it must be part of a renewed campaign for civility, one not afraid to campaign against church abuses as well (such as the Vatican’s failure to prosecute its own with links to Nazism). Nietzsche and the Postmoderns have shown us that language is part of its context: if this God language will once again have meaning, we must be once again good to one another. Literature, Narrative Theology and Holocaust thinkers such as Eli Weisel also show us how to move “beyond thinking of God as a philosophical conundrum” as is the case in the new atheism (152).
Beattie shows us in the last two chapters of the book how the relationship between God, humanity and contemporary history itself seemingly can be thought of as a literary character that stands free from the mind of its author as it speaks its truth and comes to life. This section stands as a dénouement to a postcolonial feminist Catholic analysis that may or not be able to stem the tide of cultural sadomasochism I see in Britain as it moves further away form the Christian tradition that partly built Europe and it. But if the heart of the Christian message is one of civility and integrative complexity, one where science and religion are allowed to inform one another and become subsumed within a rationality which allows for dialogue and organic growth among the social body where it is found, then the cultural sadomasochism that I see in contemporary British liberalism as well as Western liberalism as a whole might be able to be addressed, and addressed by some of the ideas found in this book. The ideas about Narrative Theology found here as well as those about the New Physics resonate with the Emerging Church movement, now worldwide, and with the Sojourners magazine inspired Social Gospel Christianity stemming from the United States.