In the wake of Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader calling for the destruction of all churches in the Arabian peninsula, Walter Russell Mead draws on his experience talking with both Christian and Muslim religious figures to explain why it is so difficult to have meaningful Muslim-Christian interreligious dialogue. It’s a pretty interesting read. For example:

Christians, especially in countries like the United States where the ideal of religious liberty has been an important element of Christian teaching for centuries, believe that the rise of religious tolerance in the Christian world is one of the signs that Christianity is true: believers are becoming more like Christ in his infinite compassion and profound respect and love of every human soul despite error and sin. Moreover they see the spread of tolerance and the repudiation of false ideals like “holy wars” (such as the Crusades, fought not only against Muslims but against heretics inside the Christian world) as signs that God is working in human history to bring us to a greater light and deeper understanding.

For many Muslims, however, the rise of tolerance in Christianity looks less like maturity and self confidence than like the senescence of a religion in decline. Christianity, these critics say, is losing its hold on the western mind. The rise in religious tolerance is the result of necessity — the churches are weak, the believers indifferent, and so Christians no longer have the inner conviction to stand up for their faith. Just as Christian countries tolerate a range of vices and practices that in the past, when their faith was stronger, they opposed (homosexuality, abortion, sexual immorality of all kinds, blasphemy and obscenity), so now they also don’t care very much about what religion people profess because their own faith doesn’t mean all that much to the shrinking minority that still has one.

Islam, these Muslims say, is a stronger faith, less subject to erosion by the forces of modernity and the neo-paganism of consumer culture. Islamic intolerance of religious error reflects a faith that feels itself to be true and is not ashamed or embarrassed to insist on its core values and its historic ideas.

Don’t hold up your flabby faith and your immoral, secular societies to us as examples to imitate, these Muslim critics say. You are tolerant because you are decadent, open because you have lost the will and the strength to defend yourselves and your ideas.

 He goes on like this. It’s an important exercise in trying to see the world through the eyes of the other. Mead says that most interreligious dialogue takes place between the most liberal members of the respective faiths, whose representatives walk on eggshells not to say anything offensive — and who therefore rarely say anything interesting or important. Though I of course take the Christian side (mostly) here, Mead makes it easy to understand why a pious Muslim would find many of the things modern Christians consider to be strengths of our faith, and our approach to faith, as weaknesses to be avoided. Reading his list, I was reminded of studying Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist ideologue, a few years ago, and concluding that his radical critique of modernity, and the threat it poses to Islamic faith and practice, struck me as startlingly insightful, even if it led him to militantly intolerant, even totalitarian, conclusions. It was a good thing to have read, because it helped me understand why so many in the Arab Muslim world resisted the classical liberalism/globalism championed by the West.  (Roger Scruton’s slim volume “The West and the Rest” was helpful along these lines too.)Mead makes it clear that he’s not speaking of all Christians and all Muslims, only outlining some general contrasts he sees from his years talking with people on both sides. I appreciated too how Mead, who is a practicing Christian, pointed out that until basically the day before yesterday, historically speaking, Christian churches were every bit as severe in their treatment of those they considered heretics and infidels as Muslim religious establishments are today. Just the other night I was reading some pages from the life of the schismatic Russian Orthodox priest Avvakum, who led a sect of 17th century Christians who resisted the reforms of Patriarch Nikon. He and his followers, called Old Believers, were terribly persecuted by the church and the state. The tortures Avvakum endured were utterly horrifying. He was eventually burned at the stake.  Of course, we all know what many churches and their state allies did with schismatics and heretics in Christian Europe in the same general era.

As a Christian, reading this part of our religion’s history mystifies me, because it run so absolutely counter to the text of the Bible New Testament, which is to say, the teachings of Jesus Christ. (You cannot say the same thing for the Prophet’s teachings in the Koran, alas.) There is something about human nature that cannot tolerate a heretic. If you think it’s only religion, I invite you to look at 20th century communism, especially the Soviet and Maoist varieties,  and how its leaders constantly policed the movement for factionalism, and viciously — even murderously — purged those it considered to be heretics. This is part of our evolutionary heritage, an instinct that developed to protect the tribe from threats.

Having said that, it’s worth considering the Muslim point of view, as articulated by Mead, on religion and modernity. For all modernity’s problems and challenges, many of which I write about all the time on this blog, I would rather live in the world of modernity, even with its relatively flaccid Christianity, than in an Islamic world. However, I have a suspicion that modernity, as a mode of living, is not sustainable because it does not conform to human nature, at least not as much as a consciously anti-modern religion like Islam. I could be wrong.

Read Mead’s piece. What do you think?