It was the Gerbils what did it, Guv!

The Rats were innocent!

Gerbil Rats - We was stitched up






















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Australia Day Reform: A modest suggestion

From time to time, I make “modest suggestions” for the political reform of our nation (see in the side bar of this page my suggestion for an Australian Constitutional Monarchy). Not many (ie. none) have been taken up by those in charge (ie. the people of Australia).

Well, here’s another one. It concerns the date of Australia Day. For good reason, many have agitated for a change from January 26 to something a little less historically and ideologically charged. However, no other date seems to work.

This blog post makes a number of suggestions for alternative dates. But none of them really work. Think of January 1st, “Federation Day”. It’s already a public holiday, and it is smack bang in the middle of Australia’s “off season”. 9th and 27th of May are just as ideologically charged as 26th January – from the opposite direction. Or what about the suggestion of the Monday of Melbourne Cup weekend? Sorry, again, for many of us it is already an unofficial holiday – and do we really want to make a horse race the focus of our national day?

One reason for the inertia in doing anything about Australia Day is that the timing of the holiday works – perfectly. It concludes the January break. After the Monday holiday for Australia day, everybody is back at work. And school begins that week. It is the last great “hurrah” of the Summer shutdown.

So here is an idea. Why should we have a “fixed” date for Australia Day? There is no fixed “Melbourne Cup Day”, or Queen’s Birthday holiday, or even Easter. The day itself is special, not the historical date it commemorates. So here is my “modest proposal”: why not simply make the last Monday in January “Australia Day”? That would cut it loose from the events of 26th January 1788 as “Invasion Day”. It would solve the silly fact that we often have the public holiday on a day other than Australia Day itself. AND (most importantly for Ozzie culcha) it would preserve the most iconic Long Weekend in the Australian calendar.

What think you?

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Understanding Islam through its Origins (Part 2): Of Hawks and Doves

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an introductory post on the topic of The Origins of Islam. If you have not read Understanding Islam through its Origins (Part 1): A Counterfeit Religion? then please do so before reading this post.

Having embarked upon this series of blog posts, I have been somewhat reticent to continue, and only do so now because a) people have continued to ask me about this, and b) I promised to give an answer. My reticence comes from the fact that I am by no means an expert in this area. But I guess that if we all put off writing or saying anything about anything until we had gained a PhD in the subject, nothing would ever get said or written. So here goes. Just remember, I am an amateur in this area.

In my last post I expressed an idea about the intention of the original founders of Islam. Contrary to the suggestion made in the sermon I heard – ie. that Islam was developed as a “counterfeit of Christianity” (far less as a completely “new religion”) – what I have learned of the origins of Islam seem to suggest an intention to restore, combine and extend the existing monotheistic faith(s) of the world of Late Antiquity in such a way as to serve the purposes of the new Arab empire. (Okay, I may not have said it quite so clearly in the previous post, but that’s what I have been getting at.) If this is true (and that is, admittedly, a big if) we non-Muslim monotheists can learn to respect Islam for what it preserves of our faith, even while acknowledging that it differs in many respects. This, I suggest, was the intention of the Second Vatican Council’s statement in Nostra Aetate.

My second suggestion is that the current scholarly studies into the origins of Islam, the history of Late Antiquity and the rise of the Arab Empire support my first suggestion, and that if this history were better known at a popular level we would be far better equipped to understand present geo-political and geo-cultural developments in relation to Islam.
So let’s talk about history.

It is amazing the number of things we actually assume we know when we don’t know anything of the sort. We state these “facts” as facts and don’t even think to give them a footnote. For instance, in his very informative book “Trent: What happened at the Council”, John W. O’Malley writes:

The next pope, Alexander VI (1492-1503), stirred up resentment on a broad scale because of his shifting political alliances, his reckless promotion of his children, and his amorous affairs. As Cardinal Rodrigo de Borgia he fathered seven children and, most scandalous, he fathered two more while pope. (Trent, p33)

Of course, we know nothing of the sort, but everyone thinks they do, and so we can simply state it as if it is fact.

Let’s give you another example: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem”. Now, of course I know that two of the canonical gospels clearly state this and a third makes a telling allusion to it and a host of Christmas carols confirms it, but of course we don’t know this – at the level of academic certainty – such that we can call it an historical “fact”. What we can say is that his birth in the “City of David” is a very strong early Christian tradition attested in these sources.

So we come to the question of the origin of Islam. This will bring us to things in particular:

A. The life of the Prophet Muhammad
B. The origin of the Qur’an

About these, most people who know anything about the origin of Islam assume they know the following: that the Prophet Muhammad was born around 570AD and died in 632AD, living in Mecca and Medina in Arabia, and the Angel Gabriel revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad in a cave by telling him to “recite”.

And yet as often as the latter “fact” is repeated by history books and books about Islam, self-evidently only Muslims actually believe it to have happened. Any non-Muslim who arrived at the conclusion that the Qur’an originated as a revelation of God via the archangel and the prophet would be 9 steps out of 10 on the way to becoming a Muslim themselves. That doesn’t mean that the Qur’an didn’t originate with Muhammad. It had to originate with someone, someone, somehow. It just discounts the divine aspect.

But what about Muhammad? Can we actually be certain about his identity, or about the details of his biography as Muslim tradition relates it or, indeed, his very existence? The 19th Century French historian Ernst Renan once famously opined that “In the place of the mystery under which other religious traditions have covered their origins, Islam was born in the full light of history.” Or, to quote a more recent author,

The degree of authority one can give to the evangelists about the life of Christ is relatively small. Whereas for the life of Mohammed, we know everything more or less. We know where he lived, what his economic situation was, who he fell in love in with. We also know a great deal about the political circumstances and the socio-economic circumstances of the time. (Salmon Rushdie, Critical Essays, Volume 2, p199)

Oh, really? Scholars today are not so sure.

And so this is where my recent story actually begins. All I can really do is relate my conversations, reading, listening and viewing history of the last couple of months. You can find what you like in it.

A bit before Christmas, a friend of mine asked about a recent book by Karen Armstrong “Fields of Blood” that he saw reviewed in the Financial Times []. “Why do you want to read that?”, I asked. The answer was because he wanted to understand more about current world events involving ISIS and other Islamicist terrorists, and more about the nature of the religion that such terrorists could claim as the basis for their actions. “There are better books”, I suggested, and proceeded to nominate a couple that I had some familiarity with, including Jonathan Berkey’s “The Formation of Islam” (2002) and Sidney H. Griffith’s “The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque” (2008). These books are, however, on the scholarly end of the spectrum of writing on Islam, and may not be easily accessible to the lay person. Still, both books have something important to offer non-Muslim readers: access to the fruits of a study now over a century old, viz. the historically scientific study of the origins of Islam.

“There are two extremes in non-Muslim writing on Islam,” I told my friend, “both of which should be avoided: the doves and the hawks.” I had this idea from a 2006 article by John L. Allen Jnr, in which he described the “doves” as those who write to encourage:

outreach to moderates, a critical examination of conscience by the West for the various ways its past and present have stoked Muslim resentment, and a determined effort to solve the roots of anti-Western sentiment today. The premise of this approach is that the tensions between the Muslim world and the West often only appear to be religious and cultural; at bottom they are usually political and economic.

On the other hand, there are the “hawks”, those who

believe this approach is naïve. Ultimately, they say, the most determined Muslim leaders believe that Islam is destined for global supremacy, which means that Islam is not really interested in making its way in a pluralistic world. For those who take this view, only a determined reassertion by the West of its traditional Christian identity will have the inner strength to resist the pressure. From this point of view, politics and economics are secondary to the real forces of history, which are intellectual and cultural.

Karen Armstrong is an excellent example of a “dove”. One reviewer of her “Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet” (1993) on [] writes:

I could rant forever about all the ways in which this book rubbed me the wrong way and what a disgrace it is to the genre of “history”, but I will try to be brief… The texts she uses as sources for Muhammad’s life are written 125 years after the death of the Prophet, and, … she seems to take everything they say as fact. She believes in every miraculous event related, despite her professed attempt to find the “historical” Muhammad. There is no critical component to her work. She clearly has an agenda and accepts anything that supports her agenda without giving it the objective, critical eye of a historian. Every chance she gets, she will pass moral judgement on “Western society” and its history, portraying it as this sinkhole of ignorance and depicting the world Muhammad created as this wonderful new land of enlightenment and total social justice…

On the other hand, I warned my friend off other writers such as Robert Spencer. Many conservative Christians take everything Spencer writes and says on Islam as Gospel (including, sadly, Catholic media groups such as EWTN). Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and may safely be categorised as a “hawk” in Allen’s analysis. That is, he has the stated motif of discrediting Islam as a false religion that poses a real and present danger to the future survival of Western society as we know and love it. The subtitle of his book “The Truth about Muhammad” sums up his assessment of his subject: “Founder of the World’s most Intolerant Religion”. In this book – which ostensibly sets out to do the same thing that Armstrong’s book does (ie. inform readers about the person of “The Prophet” of Islam) – Spencer acknowledges much of the current critical and revisionist scholarly work done by historians of early Islam, but goes on to say:

These historical speculations have had virtually no effect on Islamic doctrine or practice. For our purposes it is less important to know what really happened in Muhammad’s life than what Muslims have generally accepted as having happened, for the latter still forms the foundation of Muslim belief, practice, and law. It is important to know the Muhammad of history, but perhaps even more important to know the Muhammad who has shaped and continues to shape the lives of so many Muslims worldwide…elaborated from his words and deeds in the Hadith that orthodox Islamic schools of jurisprudence and clerics consider authentic. It is this picture of Muhammad that inspires Muslims worldwide…” (The Truth, p31-32)

…and therefore it is “this picture” that he relates and uses as fuel for his polemic throughout the rest of the book. And so the very next chapter opens with a restatement of the “assumptions” that we assume to be true: “Muhammad introduced Islam into Arabia”, his tribe were the Quraysh, who were “based in the city of Mecca, which was a centre of trade and pilgrimage” etc. etc. We are back where Karen Armstrong was.

Let’s be clear about this. I applaud the “dove’s” intention to be irenic and their commitment to dialogue – but I deplore their moral and historical naiveté. On the other hand, I applaud the “hawk’s” readiness to offer a critical approach, but deplore the fact that their driving motive is hatred for the religion of Islam and that their works make hardly any more use of the historical scholarship available to us than do those of the “doves”.

You can be assured that, among liberal Catholics and those involved in the so-called “interfaith movement”, I have gotten to know a lot of “doves”. At the same time, among traditionalist Catholics and through ecumenical contact with some of our Pentecostal and Evangelical brothers and sisters, I have gotten to know my fair share of “hawks”.

So, while we are at it, let’s mention our own local Melbourne “hawk”, the Anglican minister Rev. Dr Mark Durie. My wife recently reported that she heard a Lutheran pastor say in a sermon that Drurie was his “go-to” source for information on Islam. Durie has written a number of books and articles on the topic of Islam, which can be accessed through his website. There is a 2012 interview on that page which tells you something of Durie’s scholarly background and motivation for writing about Islam. I advise you to read all of it, as it helps you understand the context for his writing, but here is just a snippet which gives his interesting history:

Durie: I began studying Arabic in Leiden in 1985 with Professor G. W. J. Drewes, who had been a student of Snouck Hurgronje. …During the 1990’s I also apprised myself of Bat Ye’or’s writings on the dhimma. I did not commence my systematic study of Islam until after the 9/11 atrocity. At that time I researched through many volumes of hadiths, studies of the Qur’an, revised my Arabic, and engaged in a systematic exploration of what Islam teaches, and how this is changing the world today. For the past three years I have also been undertaking a second doctorate – this time in Islamic Theology. My research focus is on whether the Qur’an can be considered a continuation of Biblical faith, or a clear break from it.

So, on the positive side, Durie’s scholarly encounter with Islam began through actual personal contact with Acehnese Muslims in Indonesia (his PhD in 1984 was on their language). However, his renewed interest in Islam as a religion was spurred by the negative writings of Bat Ye’or and the horror of September 11. Since then, his studies (enabled by his knowledge of Arabic) have been in the Qur’an, Hadiths and other Islamic traditional material – but not, unless I am mistaken, at the feet of Muslim teachers themselves. I am not sure where he is doing his current PhD “in Islamic Theology”, but he is an Adjunct lecturer at the Melbourne School of Theology, Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths, a school which is not a member of the University of Divinity. In sum, Durie’s stance, over against the religion of Islam as a whole, is negative and polemical, and his writings are widely read by Australian Christians.

One thing Mark Durie says in the above interview is very interesting: “My research focus is on whether the Qur’an can be considered a continuation of Biblical faith, or a clear break from it.” In a sense, that is the question at the heart of my initial suggestion: what is the relationship between the Muslim religion and that which went before it? Durie talks in terms of “Biblical faith” – does he mean Judaism or Christianity or both? If the latter, then does he take into account the fact that at the time of the rise of the Arab empire in the Seventh Century, there were many different “Christianities”, and even different “Judaisms” (not to mention Zoroastrianism and Samaritan religion and Gnosticism and everything else in between and beyond) swirling around in the religious mix in the Middle East?

And, as far as “continuity”/“discontinuity” goes, is there any phenomenon in history which can be described purely as a “continuation” of what went before or “a clear break from it”? Thus the question of the relationship between Islam, Christianity and Judaism cannot be answered simply from studying the respective scriptures of the three religions and doing doctrinal comparisons. Surely a linguist like Durie should at least be interested in the historical antecedents to the Arabic of the Qur’an? Who were the peoples who spoke these languages? What cultures did they belong to? What springs of knowledge did they drink from?

There is perhaps another question that remains to be asked, and it a question asked by an author by the name of Tom Holland whose work I will discuss in the next : “What if it wasn’t Islam that gave birth to the Arab empire, but the Arab empire that gave birth to Islam?”

Time to bring this post to an end, and to begin writing “Understanding Islam through its Origins (Part 3)”, where I begin to tell you about what I’ve actually been reading…

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I am the very model of a…

I love Gilbert & Sullivan. And I love modern adaptions of their songs. In particular, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”. Many years ago, when I was a Lutheran pastor trying to start a new congregation in a developing outer suburb of Melbourne, I went along to a “Church Planting Conference” which inspired the following text:

I am the very model of a modern Luth’ran mission’ry,
my methods are biotic and my leadership is vision’ry.
I cultivate the ministry of those with special giftedness,
and have a team of laity to save me lots of busyness.
I’ve statements that are visional and statements that are missional,
I’ve got a list of values that are solidly foundational,
and yet in my confession and in word and sacrament you see
I am the very model of a modern Luth’ran mission’ry.

I haven’t got a church and so I’m using rented premises
between a buddhist temple and a kingdom hall of witnesses.
I’m targetting intention’lly the unchurched and post-modernists,
our choruses are varied so they don’t become monotonous.
Chorus: our choruses are varied so they don’t become monotonous.
our choruses are varied so they don’t become monotonous.
our choruses are varied so they don’t become ….

[stop–look sheepish–carry on, “Now where was I? Oh yes!”]
I’m touching people where they’re at, my small groups are relational.
My services are relevant, my talks are inspirational.
And yet in my confession and in word and sacrament you see
I am the very model of a modern Luth’ran mission’ry.

I’ve studied demographics and prevailing ideologies.
My principles are biblical, just like my methodologies.
I’m reaching generation X, the boomers and millennials…
[“Oh…ah…um–Ahah! I have it!]
I’ve just redone the garden in both annuals and perennials!
I face opponents one and all with spirit quite irenical
and never will I stoop so low as to become polemical,
and yet in my confession and in word and sacrament you see
I am the very model of a modern Luth’ran mission’ry.

In a similar vein, but far surpassing my meagre attempt, I recently came across this particularly fine version of the genre, “I am the very model of a biblical philologist”. Enjoy!

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Time for a Lutheran Ordinariate?

In response to a posting at The Catholic Thing “Time for a Lutheran Ordinariate?”, a friend wrote the following on an email list::

I do not know what to think of this. While there are aspects of what might be termed the Lutheran “patrimony,” particularly, perhaps, in the area of music, which could be incorporated into Catholic practice, it seems to me that the fundamental “patrimony” of Lutheranism is doctrinal, based on the belief that Catholic teaching on a particular doctrine of (in their view) transcendent importance (Sola Fide; articulum stantis aut cadentis Eccleiae) is erroneous and that therefore they constitute a doctrinally sound reformed remnant of the Catholic Church. If some Lutherans should cease to believe, either that what the Catholic Church teaches on this locus is mistaken, or that it is the articulum stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae, then (1) what is to prevent their becoming ordinary Western/Latin Catholics and (2) if there were to be an Ordinariate for former Lutherans, would music alone be a sufficient thing to justify its existence? No particular Lutheran “Mass Rite” or worship formulary has ever occupied anything like symbolic place of the Book of Common Prayer for Anglicans, and just as the BCP rites have had to be supplemented and corrected to suit them for Catholic use, so one imagines that the same sort of thing would have to be done for a Lutheran Ordinariate (e.g., no Eucharistic consecration by use of the Verba alone, outside the context of an anaphora/eucharistic prayer).

I have naturally thought about this matter a great deal – especially while sitting with my family in a service at St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Box Hill where they worship (my “Church-in-law) as I like to call it. How it saddens me each time to think that this and many other faithful Lutheran congregations remain separated from the joyful unity with the Bishop of Rome and the Catholic Churches in communion with him. 

Naturally it has occured to me that the Anglican Ordinariate might provide a model for reunion between Cathoic and Lutheran churches. However, I do not think we can simply take the model of the Anglican Ordinariate and apply it to Lutherans. And I think the article in The Catholic Thing reads Pope Francis correctly. He is not, as far as we can tell, even a fan of the model as it exists. 

There are similarities in the situation. Just as a future reunion between the Catholic Church and the Church of England, Episcopal Church, and other liberal communities of the Anglican tradition is now tragically out of the question, so there can be no hopes of future unity with liberal Lutheran synods and national churches. On the other hand, I do think something needs to be done to facilitate the dialogue with traditional/conservative Lutherans. The International Lutheran Council should not be alienated, for it is with them and their friends that the Catholic Church has most in common doctrinally. However, they are also less likely to be ecumenically minded toward Rome (or anyone else for that matter). 
The Catholic Church must approach Lutherans committed to their tradition with a “white flag” approach: a truce, a readiness to address divergent doctrinal issues rigorously but eirenically, recognising that there is a fundamental brotherhood between us and that future unity is possible. If it happens that “groups of Lutherans” (eg. parishes with their pastor, or, could it be imagined, whole synods?) desire to seek communion with the Catholic Church, then some way of enabling them to maintain their identity as a distinct community must be sought. Should it, for instance, be a Church divisive matter whether or not a community prays the Rosary or seeks the intercession of the saints in their liturgy (as long as to do so is not opposed)? Should Lutherans in communion with the bishop of Rome be required to adopt celibacy for the clergy? Would communion under both kinds be regarded as standard in such congregations? Could less divisive ways of talking about Purgatory be found – a little less St Margaret Mary and a little more Spe Salvi, for instance? Could Synodical government and lay parish councils be maintained? 
There are things that belong to the Lutheran patrimony beyond just music. Perhaps the greatest patrimony, which the Catholic Church would certainly benefit to receive in a spirit of receptive ecumenism, is the centrality of the proclamation of the Good News. In addition, modern conservative Lutheranism has developed a quite startlingly strong spirituality of baptism (almost equivalent in emphasis to the spirituality of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church), and have a proven track record in catechetical formation of their young people. Not to mention their deep tradition of scriptural spiritualiity and preaching. 
So, you see, a different approach for a different circumstance is required. That doesn’t mean that we do nothing, however.
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Eamon Duffy “The Heart in Pilgrimage: A Prayerbook for Catholic Christians” (2013)

This morning I received a Christmas card from the Centre for Catholic Studies & the Ushaw Project at Durham University. I am on their mailing list because we hosted Dr Paul Murray (the ecumenist, NOT the Irish Dominican) some years back. On the back cover was a prayer that struck me as very appropriate for our present times in the Catholic Church – and perhaps a good “New Year” prayer for everyone:

if this be not your will, frustrate it:
frustrate it fully and frustrate it quickly,
and move our heart’s desire
closer to the heart of your desire for us.
But if it be of your will,
then continue to open for us
the generosity of heart, mind, and means
that are needed,
and may this generosity begin with us.

I thought it a beautiful prayer – containing similar sentiments to the traditional “Prayer for Serenity” – but I loved the strength of the word “frustrate”, and the request for “generosity”. Think of any single issue, debate, proposal, plan or trend in the Church today – one, perhaps, that really gets under your skin and up your nose and hot under the collar – and slowly and with great conviction pray this prayer. By the end of it, I think you will find yourself in a different place.

Liking the prayer so much, I went online to try to find who had authored it. And thus I made a second happy discovery for the day. My google search threw up this:

The heart in pilgrimage

The Heart in Pilgrimage: a Prayerbook for Catholic Christians (Google Books link – for Amazon, click here).

Yes, now I am intrigued. First, my search took me to the page on which the prayer above was included. And the author is Paul Murray himself. So (a) Big thank you, Paul!

But the other surprise is this excellent little prayerbook itself.

First: it is edited by Eamon Duffy, he of “The Stripping of the Altars” fame. This is a bloke with good liturgical and historical sensitivity.

Secondly – what was a cause of attraction to me but may not be for all readers – the Foreword and Preface are written by Rowan Williams (“the Right Reverend and Right Honourable the Lord Williams of Oystermouth” as he is now styled) and by Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP. So while the title says “Catholic Christians”, it is not written solely for Roman Catholics. Included prayers are taken from the traditional Anglican and Eastern Patrimonies as well. This ecumenical approach has a plus side: the prayers are aimed at a truly Catholic sensibility, something with which not all Roman Catholic prayerbooks (or Roman Catholics for that matter) are endowed. Nevertheless, there is nothing here that an orthodox Roman Catholic will find doctrinally or spiritually foreign, and it is clear that the book as a whole is mainly intended for use by Roman Catholics, as evidenced by the inclusion of the full ordinary of the new translation of the Roman Mass.

Thirdly, the language of the prayers is dignified and natural – sometimes employing the more traditional forms of English (“O God, make speed to save us”) or sometimes more modern forms. Either way, nothing I have read thus far “jars”. For someone brought up on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible as I was, the language is “just right”. And indeed, other than the Psalms (Grail) and the Benedicite, all biblical quotations come from the Catholic RSV. Bits of Latin are included when appropriate.

This may well be the best Catholic prayerbook out there, folks. I recommend it wholeheartedly. Thank you, Paul Murray and The Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham for leading me to it.

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Understanding Islam through its Origins (Part 1): A Counterfeit Religion?

This post is in response to interest that has been shown to me by friends, family and even a Lutheran pastor, whose 1st Sunday after Christmas sermon I was blessed to hear while on holiday in South Australia. Rather than write separate emails to all, I am writing my reflections (partial and incomplete at this point) here, and will be directing them to it. You also, dear Reader, will thus also have the benefit thereof.

My Lutheran pastor friend, in his sermon, expressed the conviction that Islam was a “counterfeit” copy of the Christian religion – that many of its component elements had the look of authenticity about them – even very convincing authenticity – but that the whole was nevertheless worthless on account of the fact that it was a copy of the Truth, a fake.

This, those who know me will not be surprised to learn, is not my opinion. I believe that there is much that is valuable in the Muslim religion, the principle being that which the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church itself acknowledged 50 years ago this year:

They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even his inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honour Mary, his virgin Mother; at times they even cal on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgement when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. (Nostra Aetate, 3)

Apart from the bit about “they do not acknowledge Jesus as God”, there is nothing this which is not most praiseworthy. (I do note, with a wry smile, that the translator of the above quotation, taken from the Vatican website, seems to have missed the double meaning of the English word “deserts”). Which leads me to think that “counterfeit” and “worthless” are not fair or honest terms that should be used of the Muslim religion (good Lutherans should recall Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment and realise that “neighbour” applies to Muslims as well!). Is there a better term that could be used? A term which stops short of affirming that the Islamic religion – as a whole and in all its parts – is true (for such an affirmation could only be made by a Muslim), and yet nevertheless does not consign all Muslim beliefs to the dustbin as worthless, nor ascribe to Muslims themselves any devious or malicious intention of deception?

To continue the image of a work of art suggested by the Lutheran preacher, I will suggest another term: “restoration”. This is what I mean: It is my understanding that the earliest Muslims truly believed their faith to be the authentic “restoration” of the previously oft revealed and oft forgotten (or, at least, oft corrupted) religion of the worship of the “One God… merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth”. Their claim was, after all, that this One God had revealed himself through a succession of prophets since the time of Adam, including Moses and Jesus. The problem was that those who had received these revelation had failed to properly transmit it. Hence, the whole Muslim program was the “restoration” of this primal monotheistic religion. The original was corrupted and in need of restoration – according to the very pattern of the original. Thus, rather than an attempt to pass off a “counterfeit” religion as the real one, a more charitable and objective view of the original intention of Islam would be to see it as an attempt to “restore” what its adherents honestly viewed as corrupted.

However, to decide this issue, whether Islam is a “counterfeit”, a “restoration” or even, indeed, “the original” monotheism, one must surely use the same method that one would when seeking to ascertain whether a work of art is “original”, “counterfeit” or a “restoration”, ie. one must look to the question of its origins. And hence, ever since I began to work in interfaith relations, and in particular in Muslim/Catholic dialogue, I have attempted to understand the origins of Islam itself. In one of my first dialogues with a Muslim, I recall asking him to recommend a book to help me understand the origins of his religion.

When I began to read his recommendation, however, I found that I was not reading anything like the kind of history to which my university undergraduate training had accustomed me. Rather, it was as if I had asked a Christian about the origin of Christianity and been handed a modern rewriting based on the two volumes of St Luke, the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. What I read was the standard story of the origins of Islam, beginning with the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and with the revelation of the Qur’an to him by the Angel Gabriel in the cave outside Mecca. Then there was his pilgrimage to Medina, and his victorious return to conquer Mecca. Then, immediately following his death, in a single generation, there is the sudden and seemingly divinely countenanced conquest of the whole Middle East and most of North Africa.

Twelve years ago, when I was just starting out in interfaith dialogue, most of this story was relatively new to me; today, however, just about everyone knows it. And almost no one questions it. Even the worst anti-Muslim diatribes take their cue from it. Whenever anyone critiques aspects of the personal life of the Prophet, or claims that the “Angel” who revealed the Qur’an was really a demon, or says that Islam is a religion that “conquered by the sword”, they are assuming that the classic Muslim story of the origin of Islam is historically factual.

But, you know me. There is a contrariness about me that attracts me to revisionist histories. Still, as the Wikipedia entry for Historical Revisionism points out, “constant revision of history is part of the normal scholarly process of writing history”.

Ever since, as a first year Seminary student, I learned that the biblical account of the Exodus and conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews may not be precisely what “really happened” (despite a very excellent cinematic pedigree), I have been an eager student of Biblical and Christian history. I believe that the books of the Christian bible are historical documents, that is, they are a part of human history arising out of given and often identifiable historical contexts, and therefore can reveal a great deal about the times in which these books were written. I am (practically a priori) convinced that since the Christian faith is essentially incarnate and sacramental whatever is demonstrably historically true cannot be at odds with the core elements of Christianity. Thus I do not believe that there is anything in the slightest “blasphemous” about secular scholars in the academy studying, by their own lights of reason, the history of my faith and religion – including its origins.

The same cannot, however, be said in general of the way Muslims regard secular investigation into the historical origins of their religion. They do not, in general, look positively upon such endeavour. The central creed of Islam, for instance, is “There is no God but God” AND “Muhammad is his prophet”. Not, nota bene, “AND the Qur’an is His Word”. Thus, the historicity of Muhammad and his prophetic recitation as the origin of the Qur’an are not just sacrosanct articles of faith for Muslims, they are sacrosanct facts of history – in much the same way as the existence of Jesus of Nazareth and his Resurrection from the dead are both sacrosanct articles of faith and facts of history for Christians. Both religions claim an origin in an historical event. Yet it is for this very reason that the true believer should have nothing to fear from the scholarly, yea even secular, historical investigation of these historical events.

Personally, I believe that a better understanding of the historical origins of Islam would boost, rather than detract from, our overall understanding of its nature. It may, at the very least, reveal that the intention of the founder(s) of Islam was to effect an authentic restoration of the worship of the One, True God, rather than to maliciously foist a counterfeit monotheism upon the world. In what I am about to write from this point on, it is my conviction that good historical scholarship could not possibly reflect negatively upon true and authentic Islam, any more than good historical study into the origins of Christianity could do so (I am, please recall, a huge N.T. Wright fan). On the contrary, it could finally reveal “in the full light of history” (to quote Ernest Renan) what kind of religion Islam really is.

I am going to post this now, although I have some work yet to do before I can post the next part of this reflection. First I have to finish reading a book, and do a little more reflective thinking. So be patient. Give me a week or two.

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“Make a little space free for God”

Sounds like advice from the latest book in the spirituality section at the Central Catholic Bookshop, but in fact, it comes from the “Proslogion” of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the 11th/12th Centuries, and featured in this morning’s Office of Readings for Friday in the 1st Week of Advent. I was listening to it on the Divine Office App this morning. Here it is in English:

Little man, rise up! Flee your preoccupations for a little while. Hide yourself for a time from your turbulent thoughts. Cast aside, now, your heavy responsibilities and put off your burdensome business. Make a little space free for God; and rest for a little time in him.

Enter the inner chamber of your mind; shut out all thoughts. Keep only thought of God, and thoughts that can aid you in seeking him. Close your door and seek him. Speak now, my whole heart! Speak now to God, saying, I seek your face; your face, Lord, will I seek.

In Latin, it is even more beautiful:

Eia nunc, homúncio, fuge páululum occupatiónes tuas, abscónde te módicum a tumultuósis cogitatiónibus tuis. Abice nunc onerósas curas, et postpóne laboriósas distensiónes tuas. Vaca aliquántulum Deo, et requiésce aliquántulum in eo.

Intra in cubículum mentis tuæ; exclúde ómnia præter Deum et quæ te iuvent ad quæréndum eum, et, clauso óstio, quære eum. Dic nunc, totum cor meum, dic nunc Deo: Quæro vultum tuum; vultum tuum, Dómine, requíro.

I wasn’t shut inside my room, but out on my daily 6km walk with Tom Tom the Moodle at the Retarding Basin at The Basin by the foot of the Dandenongs. The hills were shrouded in mist this morning, everything very still and quiet.


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Archbishop Fisher Dreams a Dream of a Catholic Future for Sydney

There will be some will count this his “I have a dream” speech. There will be others who will want to “tell him he’s dreaming”. 

Either way, Anthony Fisher’s first talk to the young people of Sydney at “Theology on Tap” since becoming an their Archbishop sets the bar high.

He starts with where he ended his Installation homily:

What will this Archdiocese look like when, God willing, I retire in 2035? My hope is for a Church in which the Gospel is preached with joy, the wisdom of our tradition mined with fidelity, the sacraments celebrated with dignity and welcome, and the seminaries, convents and youth groups teeming with new life; a Church in which our parishes, chaplaincies and educational institutions are true centres of the new evangelisation, our laity theologically literate and spiritually well-formed, our outreach to the needy effective and growing, and God glorified above all.

Listen to find out where he goes from there

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Full bore revisionism: The Tudors and the Borgias

The Tudors The Borgias










I love revisionist history, almost as much as I am addicted to new ways of exegising biblical texts. Don’t tell me what I already know, I plead; tell me something I don’t know.

Completely satisfying my appetite, I have just finished listening (thanks to the marvels of a modern local library system that offers free borrowable and downloadable audiobooks to my iphone) to two works by journalist-cum-author G. J. Meyer: “The Tudors: the complete story of England’s most notorius dynastery” and “The Borgias: the hidden history”. Both histories are firmly in the ‘revisionist’ camp, and a good thing too. The Tudors needed taking down a peg – or twenty; and if what he reveals about the Borgias is historically true, then an apology is owed to the Catholic Church (if not to the Borgias themselves) for years of defamation on the basis of no evidence at all.

What he reveals is that 15th Century Italy and 16th Century England would both have been horrible places to live for the likes of such as you and me. But the Borgias (Popes Calixtus and Alexander, and perhaps even their relative Ceasare) appear to have done what they could not only to survive, but to make the Italy of their time a more secure place in which to live, while the Tudors, in order to survive, made England a hell hole for anyone of sincere faith, Catholic or Protestant.

Both books firmly squash the ‘Whig’ histories of both dynasties, intended as they were (and at which they were quite successful) to bolster the Protestant myth of a corrupt church that needed to be purified by the strong hand of the Reformation. At one point in “The Tudors”, Meyer makes positive and admiring reference to Eamon Duffy’s work “Stripping of the Altars” which covers much the same period. While not in quite the same league of historical scholarship, one gets the impression that Meyer is fully on Duffy’s side of history. For Catholic apologists, it might be worth knowing this side of history, next time your detractor mentions the Borgias or Bloody Mary along with the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades as infamous black marks against the Catholic Church. A friend at work recently lamented that one of her friends had named their daughter “Lucrezia” – fear not, as it turns out she was a virtuous and dutiful (if not necessarily loving – but with the husbands they chose for her, how could she have been?) wife.

As for reviews, here is one on “The Borgias” with which I solidly agree, and here is one that I came across about “The Tudors” which demonstrates exactly why this particular (verging on) popular history has been long required. If you have an intelligent, even if (like me) amateur, interest in these periods of history, you will get much out of these two books.

Now, for his history of World War I – although I don’t think they have done an audio version of that yet.

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