Maps have border lines. The earth itself does not. Human life demands drawing boundaries, but God’s life knows none. While we live, we constantly claim what we consider to be our own, and we define ourselves both by who we are—and who we are not. If religion were entirely divinely wrought, it would show no seams. But as the place where human life opens to the divine, it bears the mark of our humanity. It is divided. That we speak of “religions” rather than “religion” is not an indictment of belief, as the clever undergraduate sometimes suggests. — “How can any religion be true if there are so many of them?” — It’s rather a fundamental feature of human life. We cannot encompass the whole; we must always content ourselves with the portion. Humans could no more produce a single religion than they could sing a solitary song, write only one poem, tell only one epic. Our paths to truth are always partial.
The gospels themselves testify to our paradox. There are four of them, but only one Christ. And as a son of Israel, Jesus himself acknowledges the reality of human division. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”(Mt 15: 24). And yet Israel’s own eyes had been taught to look towards a divine horizon “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56: 7).
In 1219, Francesco di Bernadone, St. Francis of Assisi, had an experience that came to most Americans only on 9-11. He stood face to face with Muslims, as uncomprehending of them as they of him. As one of his earliest biographers, Thomas of Celano, tells it, like the perpetrators of 9-11, Francis had left Italy “burning with desire for holy martyrdom...to preach the Christian faith and repentance to the Saracens and other unbelievers” (XX). Of course, unlike the criminals of 9-11, St. Francis wanted to offer his own life as a testament to God. He did not desire to take the lives of others. The Poverello could hardly continence the killing of animals, much less of humans. But, as Thomas of Celano records,
Before he reached the Sultan, he was captured by soldiers, insulted and beaten, but was not afraid. He did not flinch at threats of torture, nor was he shaken by death threats. Although he was ill-treated by many with a hostile spirit and a harsh attitude, he was received very graciously by the Sultan. The Sultan honored him as much as he could, offering him many gifts, trying to turn his mind to worldly riches. But when he saw that he resolutely scorned all these things like dung, the Sultan was overflowing with admiration and recognized him as a man unlike any other. He was moved by his words and and listened to him very willingly.
And then Thomas of Celano abruptly concludes his tale, writing only, “In all this, however, the Lord did not fulfill his desire reserving for him the prerogative of a unique grace.”
Clearly Francis did not convert his Muslim interlocutors, and God sent him back to Italy, withholding the grace of martyrdom. What is the modern person to learn from the story?
As Socrates taught, sometimes the only way to get an answer to a question that big is to start by rejecting the wrong conclusions. Some would surmise that firm and resolute adherence to a faith should be a thing of the past: either all faiths are human illusions, or something stands beyond all of them, and that alone should receive our allegiance. But humans can’t give themselves to that which stands beyond the human. Try making love in your mind alone. If you find that sufficient, something is deficient in your humanity.
Looking for the divine that stands beyond religions is a bit like refusing to sing or dance because the final song has not yet been played. The one who smugly claims to embrace the mystery beyond religion has simply banished the divine from human consciousness, and pursuing the least common denominator of religions is akin to ripping a page from every book that one ever enjoyed in order to create the ultimate reading experience. You produce only a pile of paper, not a masterpiece.
Those who have faith cannot forego giving themselves over to faith, and they do so with all the confidence of one who falls in love. No one can prove why another is desperately loved, why he or she is worthy of our love, and yet no lover can doubt the surety of love.
The future of faith is not some coming world-religion. Then what does the future hold for the Gospel? Are we not to preach it to the ends of the earth? Most assuredly we are. In faith, we’re asked to witness to our faith. In faith, we are asked to encounter those of other faiths. Like Francis, like Jesus, we must confidently do what we have been told to do, and leave the result in the hands of God. Pretending that we know the outcome is nothing less than the blasphemous presumption that the ways of God are transparent to us. When the divine is transparent, it is no longer the divine.
St. Francis wasn’t given the grace of martyrdom. He didn’t die for his faith, but the word “martyr” means “witness.” Early Christians who died for their faith were called martyrs, because they had offered the supreme witness. It would take the Church some time to realize that how one lives one’s life can be as much of a testament as how one lays it down. Francis shared the love of his God with Muslims, and do we have any reason to believe that he left Egypt, seeing nothing of their own?
Cross posted with "The Good Word."
Terrance W. Klein