יום שבת, 2 בפברואר 2013

Religion and Relevancy: A Comparative Reading of Niebuhr, Shaltut and Leibowitz / Moriya Shacham

One recurring question in present-day discussions of religion is what does religion essentially have to offer to the contemporary world? That is, what relevant moral and practical knowledge can be derived from religion nowadays? It is this question, or rather, the way theologians tackle this question that I wish to explore in this essay. I have selected three articles in which a prominent theologian addresses a contemporary difficulty which faces his religion, and grapples with the question of the place of religion in modern life. The main issue that these three articles address is that of religion and war. These three articles are Muhmud Shaltut's "The Koran and Fighting" (2005), Reinhold Niebuhr's "Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist" (1986) and "After Kibiyeh" by Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1992).

The first article I shall discuss "The Koran and Fighting", was written by Mahmud Shaltut in 1940. The main objective of this essay is to prove that despite what many people may believe the Koran does not call for the forceful conversion of non-believers. In fact, according to Shaltut's interpretation of some/the relevant Koranic verses, the fundamental aspect of Islamic warfare is just the opposite: maintaining freedom of religion for all.

Shaltut starts his essay by mentioning two methods of interpreting the verses of the Koran. One method is in accordance with a traditional meticulous reading which makes use of abrogation – a principle which dictates that in the case of contradicting verses those which were uttered later may nullify the earlier ones. This method often leads the interpreter to disregard many critical verses and, according to Shaltut, causes him to miss the general message of the scripture. The second method is reading the Koran as a whole, while understanding the basic important elements conveyed by it. Shaltut's decision to decry the traditional methods of interpretation is significant. The reliance on the more general principles conveyed by the Koran results in a reading which is arguably more useful for one who wishes to incorporate Islam as a meaningful part of modern society. In this way believers may derive profound ideas and ideals from Islam, instead of focusing on pedantry. Shaltut stresses that he is writing his essay when warfare is "of practical importance in our times"(Shaltut, 61). By asserting Islam's relevancy on the topic of warfare he ultimately wishes to prove that the Koran is inarguably relevant as well as "an abundant source of knowledge, wisdom, legislation, politics, education and culture"(Ibid.).

With his reinterpretation, Shaltut is killing two birds with one stone; not only does he emphasize Islam's relevance by pointing out the superior morality of its teachings on a contemporary issue, but he also dispels the belief that Islamic tradition calls for immoral warfare and forceful military conversion.

One of the more interesting aspects of this article is the rhetorical technique which Shaltut uses in order to completely turn the tables regarding Islamic war ethic. By presenting the view opposed to his as a common 'misconception', he does much to ensure that Islamic teaching is seen as completely suitable to modern principles of morality and even superior to them. He mentions that "the lofty spirit of righteousness … that Islam cherishes with regard to its relations with non-Muslims … is a kind of relationship so magnificent that, compared with it the most modern principle known to the human mind in international relations wanes into insignificance" (Ibid. 80). Also, "If one studies these verses of God's Book, one will discover that they lay down general principles for the Muslims, constituting a handbook for warfare ranking very high among similar institutions of modern civilization" (Ibid.82). The way in which he employs modern-sounding ideas such as "religious freedom" (Ibid.74), "universal peace", "universal human laws" and "human solidarity" (Ibid.100) serves to emphasize the moral relevancy of Islam. Shaltut is turning an arguably outdated, unethical religious practice into the pinnacle of modern morality for those who had formerly opposed it.

The second article I wish to examine is Reinhold Niebuhr's "Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist", first published in 1940 during the Nazi regime when the subject of war was extremely pertinent. From the title alone it may seem that the two theologians are working towards opposite directions. Namely, Shaltut focuses on the minimization of warmongering within his religion while Niebuhr calls out against pacifism. Yet both writers set out to correct what they view as a widespread misconception about the apparent character of their religion with regards to war, adjusting it so that it may serve as a more practical guide in a contemporary state of affairs.

For Niebuhr, the subject of practicality is a substantial one. Astonishingly, for him religion has no value and is not binding if it does not live up to reality. Accordingly, if Christian pacifists expect that their practices allow for a functional just society, then they "hold a faith which no historic reality justifies" (Niebuhr, 105). Therefore, this simply cannot be the true Christian belief because "it is important to recognize this lack of conformity to the facts of experience as a criterion of heresy" (Ibid.). This assertion holds great importance with regards to the contemporary role of Christianity because by stating that adherence to a non-reasonable belief which does not prove to be pragmatically relevant constitutes heresy Niebuhr assures the timeless relevancy of the Christian faith by definition.

Niebuhr takes the notion of the practicality of the Christian faith one step further. According to him, not only must his religion stand up to the test of reality, but he further asserts that Christianity is the quintessential sensible religion because it possesses an understanding of human nature. More specifically, the Christian faith recognizes the inevitable reality of human sin. Niebuhr states that while "the pacifists do not know human nature" (Ibid.109), the true Christian faith recognizes "the fact of human sinfulness" (Ibid.113) and accordingly "sees human history involved in the contradictions of sin to the end" (Ibid.). He devotes much of his article to describing the 'true' nature of human existence and demonstrates how the Christian faith is fully attuned to it. Niebuhr uses phrases like "the facts of human existence" (Ibid.104), "the character of human existence" (Ibid.108), "inevitable sin" (Ibid.) to underline Christianity's clear perception of a human nature which cannot be denied. This is another way in which Niebuhr asserts both the universality and timelessness of the Christian faith.

The methods with which Shaltut and Niebuhr argue their points vary from one another, though some basic similarities may be noticed. For instance, while Shaltut puts greater emphasis on interpretation of the scriptures, Niebuhr prefers to anchor his arguments in a discussion of human nature. One further important difference between the two is that Shaltut focuses on the Islamic Mission as an "evident one, easy and uncomplicated, not obscure and abstruse" (Shaltut, 64), while Niebuhr conveys that "a simple Christian moralism is senseless and confusing" (Niebuhr, 118) and prefers to point out the overwhelming complexity of the Christian faith. It is interesting that both Shaltut and Niebuhr are combating a simple, absolutist notion, one being violent warmongering and the other complete pacifism, and yet one presents his alternate understanding as simple and the other as painfully complicated. Another intriguing point is that both Shaltut and Niebuhr accuse their rivals of considering only "part and parcel of a total ethic" (Ibid.108), and both allege to be conscious of "all the merits of the Divine Formulation" (Shaltut, 61) or the gospel. Both claim to represent the true faith, which has been temporarily obscured by pervading foreign elements.

Yeshayahu Liebowitz's "After Kibiyeh" examines a similar situation of a religion in the face of modernity. However, he alone addresses the challenge of a faith forced to face the test of reality regarding an issue which it had never encountered before. Unlike Niebuhr and Shaltut who are each broaching the subject from within an established system, Liebowitz must examine the very meaning of relevancy with regards to the Jewish faith. As he explains, the newly established state of Israel allowed the Jewish nation to realize their national-political tradition, which insofar had been purely theoretical, and to put it into action after nearly two thousand years of exile. This posed new questions regarding the teachings of Jewish texts on the topic of war ethic and the morality of a nation. After the Israeli attack on Kibiyeh in 1953, a response to the murder of a Jewish mother and her two children which resulted in the deaths of more than fifty inhabitants of the village, and the subsequent international outcry, these questions became particularly acute. Leibowitz contemplates the role of traditional Jewish teachings within the proper moral conduct of a nation in war, and if such a role exists.

Liebowitz begins his essay with a short contemplation of the status of Judaism in exile. He points out that during the two thousand years of Galuth, the Jewish people had no option of waging war. Therefore, "the impulse to communal murder" (Liebowitz, 185) was not manifested during this long period. This allowed the believers to comfortably surmise that Judaism was superior in its war ethic because no atrocities had been committed. "Exilic existence enabled us to evade the decisive test" (Ibid.), as Leibowitz aptly puts it. The question raised is what good is a moral code if it never faces reality? Leibowitz sees the importance of the Jewish state in that it forces the hitherto theoretical Jewish moral system to be put to the test. Only in this way will the system be of value. This is reminiscent of Niebuhr's claim that a faith which does not prove to be morally pragmatic is void of meaning. Judging from this, it would seem that both theologians understand political involvement as an inherent attribute of their religions.

However, it may be inferred from the rest of Leibowitz's article that this is not the case. Although Liebowitz asserts the importance that political freedom holds for the value of a moral system, he nonetheless does not advocate the incorporation of religious considerations within the political sphere. In fact, he strongly opposes it, and views the application of religious terminology to objects in the political sphere as deeply problematic. This, he says, would be inappropriately attributing the quality of holiness to something profane. While Niebuhr sees Christianity as naturally woven into the course of political history, Liebowitz detaches historic events from religious meaning. He states "All human values and all obligations and undertakings derived from them are profane and have no absolute validity"(Ibid.189), and therefore cannot be sacred. The attribution of sanctity to profane objects holds the danger of allowing people to act with no restraints; to commit atrocities in the name of religious faith when human morality would dictate otherwise.

Herein lies another divergence between Liebowitz and Niebuhr: The latter sees Christian morality as universal while the former sees morality itself as universal and thereby detached from any specific faith. "Morality does not admit a modifying attribute and cannot be 'Jewish' or 'not Jewish.'"(Ibid.) says Leibowitz. Furthermore, according to Liebowitz "'The morality of Judaism' is a most questionable concept" (Ibid.). He is not sure that Judaism even provides a coherent moral code. One might argue that Niebuhr claims the same of Christianity, as he also presents a complex vision of Christian morality. There is however an important difference: to Niebuhr the complex moral considerations take place within the realm of Christianity, whereas for Leibowitz this complexity is of the profane world and has little to do with religion.

Methodically, Liebowitz relies in his arguments predominately on his own intellect and unlike Niebuhr and Shaltut he spends little time trying to assert his religion's validity. It is clear that he does not claim or limit himself to representing the voice of 'the true religion' as Shaltut and Niebuhr do. Nevertheless, a similar methodic theme can be seen in all three articles: All three theologians must, in one way or another, assert the legitimization of using one's intellect with regards to understanding their religion and its place in modern society. This gives them all the much needed intellectual room to maneuver and present a new perspective more appropriate to modern times.

In conclusion, in this essay I have explored the writings of three major theologians each discussing a different religion. I have tried to understand what they think about the place of religion in modernity and how they convey their perspectives to believers and non-believers. All three grapple with a contemporary and problematic issue, pertaining specifically to the matter of war ethic. Their perspectives and methods diverge at critical points: Shaltut compares Islam to modern principles of morality and thus proves the relevancy of his religion, Niebuhr prefers to assert the universality of Christian morality by encapsulating these modern principles, along with any future ones, into Christianity and Leibowitz detaches religion from a practical system of morality altogether. Nevertheless, they all introduce modern modes of thought into the way that their religions are perceived and, hopefully, manifested.

Moriya Shacham is a third year student in the Amirim program and in the General and Comparative Literature department, and has started this year  her training as an MD. Moriya's paper was written for the course "Between Athens & Jerusalem: Religion & State" conducted in 2011 at the Oxeford university, by courtesy of the Tikvah Fund


  • Leibowitz, Yeshayahu. "After Kibiyeh" in Judaism, human values, and the Jewish state. USA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
  • Niebuhr, Reinhold. "Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist", in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
  • Shaltut, Mahmud. "A Modernist Interpretation of Jihad: Mahmud Shaltut’s Treatise" in "Koran and Fighting", in Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2005.

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