Love for God, neighbour, antidote to fundamentalism

  • October 30, 2008
{mosimage}The first decade of the 21st century will be remembered as a good one for the sacred books of the West’s great religions, but not so good for those getting the Book thrown at them.

Women in the sheikdoms and Islamic republics, for example, beat up by Qur’an-quoting police for accidentally flashing an inch of ankle, and moderate Muslims having their TV sets snatched away and destroyed by their more righteous brethren. Arabs thrown off their land by Jews obsessed by some pages in the Old Testament promising their ancestors most of the known world. These, and myriad others, have been victims of militants mouthing the same justification for wreaking holy terror: The Book told them to do it.
The majority of believers — Christian, Muslim, Jewish — regard such use of their sacred texts as vile. Even if they can’t always deliver rigourous explanations for feeling as they do, thoughtful people in all religions sense the ignorant literalism underlying such actions as something foreign, a crank phenomenon out on the fundamentalist fringes, a misunderstanding that violates the laws of charity and justice at the heart of all venerable religious systems.

The most ringing rebuttal I have heard from any Christian leader to such fundamentalist misinterpretation of Holy Scripture came a couple of weeks ago in a homily delivered by Pope Benedict XVI.

At the final Mass for the world Synod of Bishops, meeting in Rome this fall to discuss “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church,” Benedict recalled the passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel where some learned Pharisees decided to test the orthodoxy of Jesus. “Master,” they asked the Lord, “which is the greatest commandment of the Law?”

“The question,” Benedict says, “allows one to see the worry, present in ancient Hebrew tradition, of finding a unifying principle for the various formulations of the will of God. This was not an easy question, considering that in the Law of Moses, 613 precepts and prohibitions are contemplated. How to find which is the most important one among these?”

But Jesus answers in His characteristically forthright, prompt way: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” Then Jesus adds something that was not part of the original question: “The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the prophets too.”

Benedict comments: “(T)he fullness of the law, as of all the divine Scriptures, is love. Therefore, anyone who believes they have understood the Scriptures, or at least a part of them, without undertaking to build, by means of their intelligence, the twofold love of God and neighbour, demonstrates that in reality they are still a long way from having grasped its deeper meaning. The words of Christ, the divine teacher, transmitted through one of His faithful disciples. . . . (L)ove for the neighbour is born from the docile listening to the divine Word and accepts also hardships for the truth of the divine Word and thus true love grows and truth shines. It is so important to listen to the Word and incarnate it in personal and community existence.”

There is no room for fanaticism or literalism in the vision of biblical faith enunciated by the Pope. Indeed, an absolute love of God and of one’s neighbour is the antidote for the fundamentalism that mars the life of Christianity at this hour. Benedict declares that the “church’s principal task, at the start of this new millennium, is above all to nourish ourselves on the Word of God, in order to make more effective new evangelization, the announcement of our times. . . . What this requires first of all is a more intimate knowledge of Christ and an ever-more docile acceptance of His Word.”

For Catholics, the most important context for hearing and accepting God’s word is the sacred liturgy of the Mass. But we should also study holy Scripture on our own, in a spirit of love and anticipation, allowing God to speak to us in the concrete circumstances of everyday life. The task can be initially difficult — the Bible was composed in cultural circumstances different, in many ways, from our own — but the rewards of Bible study are immense.

“Dear brothers and sisters,” Benedict concludes (in words I warmly second), “let us pray that from this renewed listening to the Word of God, guided by the action of the Holy Spirit, an authentic renewal of the universal church may spring forth, as well as of every Christian community.”

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