How Catholic Is Of Gods and Men? Part 3

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Of Gods and Men concludes, very nearly, with excerpts from the real Dom Christian’s spiritual testament, a meditation in which the abbot of Tibhirine reflects on the possibility of his eventual murder. Here, in part, is how it is quoted in the film:

I could never desire such a death. I could never feel gladdened that these people I love be accused randomly of my murder. I know the contempt felt for people here indiscriminately. And I know how Islam is distorted by certain Islamism. This country, and Islam, for me are something different. They’re a body and a soul. My death, of course, will quickly vindicate those who called me naive or idealistic, but they must know that I will be freed of a burning curiosity and, God willing, will immerse my gaze in the Father’s and contemplate with him his children of Islam as he sees them. This thank-you, which encompasses my entire life, includes you, of course friends of yesterday and today and you too, friend of the last minute, who knew not what you were doing. Yes, to you as well I address this thank-you and this farewell which you envisaged. May we meet again, happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God the Father of us both. Amen. Insh’allah!

In this extraordinary document are an astonishing Christian spirit and an irenicism toward Islam that is startling and challenging. Is it too irenic—the “false irenicism” warned against by Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis and the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism?

Some Christians may be put off by Christian’s reference to God, at the end, as “Allah.” Allah is the standard Arabic name for God used by Arabic-speaking Christians from before Muhammad’s time to today. While it wouldn’t be appropriate for non-Arabic-speaking Christians to adopt “Allah” as a name for God, in the immediate context of Christian addressing his potential Muslim assassin as a brother whom he hopes to see in paradise, it seems appropriate enough.

Yet how can a Christian speak of a country and Islam as “a body and a soul”? What does he mean by God’s “children of Islam”? If anything in Of Gods and Men raises questions about indifferentism, it’s this meditation, which, again, comes from the real Christian.

Complicating matters, Christian’s comments have been abridged, and some helpful clarifying context has been omitted. Here are excerpts of some of the affected passages, taken from an online source (PDF) helpfully pointed out by Victor Morton in the last combox:

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul. I have proclaimed this often enough, I believe, in the sure knowledge of what I have received from it, finding there so often that true strand of the Gospel, learnt at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, already in Algeria itself, in the respect of believing Muslims … This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of His Passion, and filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences. … And also you, the friend of my final moment, who would not be aware of what you were doing. Yes, I also say this THANK YOU and this A-DIEU to you, in whom I see the face of God. And may we find each other, happy good thieves, in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both. Amen. In sha ‘Allah.

In unpacking these lines, a few things are worth bearing in mind. First, we are reading a translation of a handwritten document, and the author’s meaning may at times be unclear or obscured by translation issues. (For example, does Christian write that the Spirit’s secret joy is “to establish communion and to refashion the likeness” among different peoples while “playfully delighting in the differences”—or (following the translation in John Kiser’s book The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror) “to bring forth our common humanity amidst our differences”? The difference is not trivial.)

Ultimately, though, the critical question for the film is what the film presents, not what it doesn’t. If the filmmakers omitted something, then that choice to omit it may be more relevant than the fact that Christian wrote it in the first place.

Still, it helps to see that, for Christian, to be God’s children means to be “illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God’s Passion and of the Spirit,” and that even Muslims who reject God’s Passion may nevertheless unknowingly share in it. This seems to be consistent with the Church’s understanding regarding the possibility of non-Christians being saved through implicit baptism of desire expressed by the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith in the 1940s in response to Fr. Leonard Feeney, and by Lumen Gentium and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

It’s also helpful, at least to an extent, to see clearly that the image of Algeria and Islam as “a body and a soul” is connected, for Christian, with the goodness and “strand” of the Gospel that he has experienced among believing Muslims—and that it is pitted against the stereotype of Islam as a violent terrorist creed. In other words, he seems to be saying that Islam as he has experienced it among believing Algerians represents love of God and of neighbor, and that far from a force of death and hate, it is a force for life or goodness. While this isn’t language I can imagine myself using, Christian’s manner of life and death have earned him the right, as I see it, to challenge me, to push the limits of my comfort zone.

What about Christian’s comments about “the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages”? While I’m no Islamic scholar, I’m inclined to go along with the noted Egyptian Catholic Islamic scholar Samir Khalil Samir, S.J., author of 111 Questions on Islam: Samir Khalil Samir on Islam and the West, who contends that Islam is neither inherently a “religion of peace” nor inherently a “religion of hate.” Rather, the Quran and the tenets of Islam are sufficiently open to interpretation and dispute that Muslims of both violent and peaceable persuasions may reasonably find support for their views in the sacred texts. Neither interpretation of Islam is normative or a distortion of the other.

Thus, the common politically correct rhetoric about terrorists “hijacking Islam” seem to me dubious. On the other hand, just because Islam doesn’t have to be caricatured in order to be violent doesn’t mean that Islam can’t be caricatured at all, or that there are no distortions of Islam among terrorists. Radical Muslim clerics may hold violent views that they can credibly defend on the basis of the Quran and hadith, and may justify terrorist actions, but it’s hardly likely that the actual views of most or all suicide bombers and cave-dwelling al-Queda lackeys are as well-informed or critically defensible as those of the clerics. (The recent British black comedy Four Lions offers a scathingly satiric, cynical look at a cell of incredibly stupid, self-destructive jihadis in Britain; the content is so extreme that I can’t exactly recommend the film, but it’s an astonishingly brave and in some ways truthful film.) Very likely caricatured Islamic teaching is quite common among terrorists, even if it isn’t necessary to caricature Islam in order to affirm terrorism.

Does the film’s abridgment of Christian’s spiritual testament fundamentally change or water down his message? I don’t think it changes it. Even before I discovered the longer text in Kiser’s book, it seemed to me that the words in the film were probably meant to bear a sense like what I have explicated above. I’m grateful for the longer text, but I didn’t need it; in the context of the whole film the shorter text is clear enough to me.

Do the edits water down Christian’s message? They certainly leave out some helpful context. I see no reason to suppose ill will or bias. Viewed from the filmmakers’ perspective, it’s not hard to suppose that they made the edits basically for length, focusing on the bits they found most essential to their purpose. Their purpose is not what ours might have been, and the result is a text with less to challenge secular viewers and less to reaffirm Catholic viewers.

Even so, Of Gods and Men is such strong drink, and the challenge to secular viewers is already so substantial, that to me this is scarcely more than a footnote. Here is a critically acclaimed, award-winning film, not made by believers for believers, that asks audiences to deal with lines like “The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity” and “The apostle’s weakness is like Christ’s, rooted in the mystery of Easter and the strength of the Spirit,” just for starters. I have a hard time imagining many receptive indifferentists watching this film and being comfortably confirmed in their indifferentism. While I can imagine a version of the film more clearly opposed to indifferentism, I suspect such a version of the film, however much it would be preferred by the devout, would be of less or no interest to anyone else. This would be contrary to monks’ own self-understanding and mission, which was dedicated to reaching out in love across divisions.

G. K. Chesterton begins his brief volume on St. Francis of Assisi by noting that St. Francis is something of a paradox for moderns, partly appealing to modern liberal instincts and partly repelling them. Francis’s secular admirers, Chesterton says, are inclined to celebrate only the bits of Francis they instinctively admire and ignore or dismiss the rest, his religious admirers might be tempted to defiantly celebrate only his unfashionable religiosity while ignoring all that makes him appealing to the modern mind. Chesterton argued that neither approach was viable—that the only way forward was to begin with what was accessible in Francis and use that to cast some light on the unfashionable religious side, and try to offer some insight into how the two are not opposed but integrally related.

Of Gods and Men seems to me to do precisely this to a remarkable degree, in the process challenging both Christian and secular viewers. The monks here are not politically minded doves or syncretists, nor are they evangelists or critics of Islam. They are theologically specific Christians living a location of contemplative prayer, service and love of neighbor reaching across religious and cultural divisions. They are a sign of peace in a world of violence.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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