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A Pox on Doctrine

Islamic architecture

While Arab-Nomadic culture lacked a grand imperial art, their aesthetic tastes contributed essential elements to Islamic art. Nomads treasured the minor arts of textiles and weapons, and lavished them with geometrical decoration. Life under the stars, in the infinitude of the desert, endowed them with a love of surfaces filled with radiant, boundless patterns, and lush visions of paradise and vines. Along with architecture, decoration is a core element in Islamic art. —dartmouth.edu

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For this they kill each other?

I am listening to Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose discussing the possible reconciliation, in the distant future, of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. The two bodies are having “ongoing discussions,” but there are of course some pesky differences, such as their dissimilar views on married priests and birth control.

What the Anglican Communion is, it’s basically the Church of England (with its marvelous ancient Canterbury Cathedral, “the Mother Church”) in association with Anglican churches throughout the world— and who knew there were so many and so far-flung? And, however, one of them is the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA), not being far-flung, at least not from our perspective here in Hilltop.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral, photo by Hans Musil. I'm not clear on exactly how old this structure is. St. Augustine built a cathedral on the site early in the 7th century, but the Saxons rebuilt it four centuries later or so. Augustine's church is still there, under the nave. Wow.

A royal whim

Father Dooley is saying that the Anglicans like to pretend that their church’s origin is not owed to King Henry VIII’s desire to marry Anne Boleyn, with whom he was besotted, and who, everyone hoped, would bear sons to inherit the crown. Well, the establishment of the Church of England was indeed a direct result of Henry’s infatuation and his desire for a male heir, says Father Dooley. The wiley Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, plotted with Henry for years and in the end came up with the strategy that gave Henry “royal supremacy” and made him “the only supreme head on earth of the church in England.”

Montage of English royalty and distinguished citizens in the time of Henry VIIIBut they did that only as a last resort, after the pope refused to annul Henry’s marriage to poor Catherine of Aragon… and Henry didn’t particularly want to change the church, he just wanted to control it so that he could have his way. Plus he wanted the wealth and the property that the Catholic Church had amassed, so he turned the monks out of their monasteries, which he then handed out like party favors (the monasteries, I mean, not the monks) to his friends and supporters, who converted them to grand houses. And many monks were executed for defying the Act of Succession.

And do you know that in the end, after they were married, after hundreds died so they could be married, Henry and Anne didn’t like each other very much, and she didn’t give Henry the sons he wanted, only the one little girl who would become Queen Elizabeth I, and I know this because I have read just about every book about Anne Boleyn that was ever written, even though there is no suspense about the ending.

So, under Henry’s reign, people were executed for not signing a document agreeing that Henry was the Supreme Head of the Church, and blah blah blah, and one of the people who was executed was the scholar and statesman, and onetime close friend of Henry, Sir Thomas More (now, Saint Thomas More).

This is not to say that the Protestant Reformation was unknown in England. There were Protestants in England, but most of them kept rather quiet about it, not as in Germany, where Martin Luther had already converted much of the country to Protestantism.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

When Henry died, his nine-year-old son (by his third wife, Jane Seymour) became king — he was called Edward VI — and he was a zealous Protestant. But he ruled for only six years, and then he died, and there was some scrabbling, much of which involved the Protestant claimant to the throne, Lady Jane Grey, who actually was queen for a few days.

Edward’s half-sister Mary overthrew Jane with ease — there were still many Catholics in England, and Mary’s mother, Catherine, had been beloved. When Mary became queen, she restored Catholicism as the state religion, ordered her cousin Lady Jane Grey beheaded, and had nearly three hundred dissenters burned right there on the street corners of London.

King Philip II of Spain

King Philip II of Spain

For this and a bunch of other reasons, including her wayward husband, Philip II of Spain, who wore hats that looked like upside-down flowerpots, Mary was not a success as queen, and she died unloved and unhappy five years after her coronation. Finally, destiny had its way, as Mary’s brilliant and charismatic half-sister Elizabeth was crowned. Defying those who called her a bastard with no right to the throne, and those who said that she must marry because a woman could not rule, Elizabeth I reigned forty-four years and brought a measure of stability and religious tolerance to England.

And what does any of this have to do with God? I ask Father Dooley. If I believe in God and you believe in God and we both pray to God but the nitty-gritty details of our religious practice are different, don’t we begin with what we have in common? Don’t we start by honoring the one God, who gave us life and who holds our lives in his hands?

Servants of God

The name "Muhammad" in traditional Thuluth calligraphy by the hand of Hattat Aziz Efendi

Sunnis and Shi’a, major Islamic denominations, are mortal enemies. In 2005, al-Qaida‘s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi called for a jihad on Shi’a. The situation in Iraq was degenerating into a civil war between the two sects. And what is it that each finds so intolerable about the other?

Sunnis believe that the first four caliphs were the rightful successors to Muhammad; since God did not specify any particular leaders to succeed him, those leaders had to be elected….

The Shi’a, who constitute the second-largest branch of Islam, believe in the political and religious leadership of Imams from the progeny of Ali ibn Abi Talib, who according to most Shi’a are in a state of ismah, meaning infallibility. They believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib, as the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was his rightful successor, and they call him the first Imam (leader), rejecting the legitimacy of the previous Muslim caliphs.Wikipedia

Omigosh! You have got to be kidding. This is why you murder someone (but first you have to ask his name, because you can’t tell by looking or even talking with him whether he is a Sunni or a Shi’a, but you can probably tell by his name)?

I try to understand. It seems important for me to understand such a big thing about the world. So I make a little speech.

“I don’t mean to sound pious,” I say, “or naive, or… ingenuous?” (not sure I’m using the word correctly; it’s a new one I picked up the other day).

Father Dooley nods, and I go on.

Muhammad And Companions Advancing On Mecca

An anonymous artist's 16th-century illustration of Muhammad and his companions advancing on Mecca. The angels Gabriel, Michael, Israfil, and Azrail are also shown

“I just don’t understand why everybody wouldn’t rather sit under a tree on a lovely day and read a good book. That sounds to me like a much better way to spend an afternoon than strapping on a bunch of explosives and then trying to blend at a wedding party, where, chances are, nobody else is wearing explosives, and where a large number of ‘the bad guys’ are gathered, and then detonating my explosives, thereby making paste of myself and several dozen wedding attendees, and some of them just little kids. In what way does that serve God? How can it be twisted into seeming to serve God?”

“Honey, I hope y’all never have to understand,” Sister Alma Rose says, suffocating me in a Sister Alma Rose hug because I am about to cry. “I hope y’all will never be so poor and desperate, and angry, because maybe the other side has killed someone dear to y’all, that y’all have to blame and punish someone. But no, y’all are right. It does not glorify God.”

Then I think of the Muslims born in the U.S. or the U.K. to middle-class families, the affluent young men who want to go to the Middle East and fight in the holy war, and I know that not all the killers are poor and desperate, maybe some are just bored, and Sister Alma Rose knows that too, and we will talk about it one of these winter afternoons as we warm our feet at Sister Alma Rose’s fireplace.

The Alhambra

At the Alhambra, the magnificent palace and fortress built by Muslim rulers during the 14th century in southern Spain

Father Dooley and Sister Alma Rose and I go into Sister Alma Rose’s lovely white chapel and sit side by side, me in the middle, and we pray silently, except for Sister Alma Rose, who is whispering. And then Father Dooley prays out loud, fervently, for all who suffer enmity “in the name of God,” for those who die needlessly, and for an anxious, restless, seething world.  We sit quietly, and I feel the holy presence of peace, like the early rays of dawn, in Sister Alma Rose’s chapel.

And then Father Dooley takes Sister Alma Rose and me to the Dairy Cream, and Father Dooley drinks two large strawberry-cheesecake malts and belches a world-class belch, on purpose.

“Better to urp a burp and bear the shame than squelch a belch and die in pain,” he says, grinning like a kid; and what can I do but agree?

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