Monday, March 19, 2007

Sunday reading: History of the Crusades

Depending on the style of prose, history books are fun in the past two weeks, I borrowed books on the medieval age. From the library, I borrowed books on the Crusades. Christopher Tyerman's
God's war : a new history of the Crusades is the latest opus (1023 pages) on the subject. The book has a new view on the significance of the crusades on the West, now that it has to face the challenge of Islamic militancy. The new interpretations shoot down the post-colonial view that the Crusades were Europe's first colonial enterprise. Post WWII Crusade historiography downplayed the religious impulse that drove this movement.

Tyerman's book is a literal and academic heavy read. Robert Payne's "The Dream and the Tomb" is a more novel-like treatment of history. Payne's historical works include biographies of Stalin. Mussolini and Hitler as well as histories of Islam and the medieval Catholic Church . His Hitler biography is acclaimed. You may ask why Payne dwelt on dictators. Having served in the intelligence community in WWII, he probably wanted to explore the psychology of these tyrants.

Hilaire Belloc's "Crusades" does not pretend to be impartial. His thesis is that if the Crusaders had secured the eastern road of Syria, then Islam may have been stopped. While this may sound intolerant to us today, we have to recall that Islam literally had knocked at the gates of Christian Europe. Belloc maintained that Islam is the greatest threat to the West.

Aside from this, Belloc claims that Catholicism and Islam had much similarity as a culture-religion. He paints a chivalrous Catholic King of Jerusalem Baldwin IV and Muslim Saladin (whereas they wouldn't bat an eyelash and kill their infidels). Belloc sums up the major difference between Islam and Christianity in these words

" [Islam's] denial of the Incarnation and all the sacramental life of the Church that followed from it"

This is also the theme of John Paul II's controversial chapter about Islam in his book "Crossing the Threshold of Hope". According to the late Pontiff, Islam is a religion where God is majesty and not Immanuel.

Nonetheless theological topics aside, Belloc wrote something that is very true for us today. He writes that Islam has not lost its spiritual core, while the Christian West has. Belloc writes this on the eve of WWII, in 1937. Seventy years later, it still rings true. And this is not due to atheistic Communism but to secularism. In fact in Europe, there are major moves to remove reference to Christianity in its history. This secular revisionism is strongly opposed by the present Pope Benedict XVI.

This is something to think about in the dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Many Muslims have a high regard for belief and religious practice and its role in society . In the West, regard for religious practice has been downplayed as a mere right (that is legally protected) at best expressed in private as possible. However in recent months, some laws in Western countries that have a secular basis have invaded the right of individuals to hold the inviolability of their private conscience. This shows that belief has no role in society.

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