April 6, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

John Paul’s Final Victory

The threat posed by Islamist extremism was not widely recognized prior to September 11, 2001. And, after 9/11, Pope John Paul II was too frail to energetically address it.

But what the Pontiff did not manage in life, he is perhaps accomplishing in death: In recent days there has been an unprecedented outpouring of affection and respect for this Pontiff – and not just by Roman Catholics.

Consider how radical that is. By recognizing the Pope as a great spiritual leader – even if he is not their spiritual leader – Protestants, Jews and moderate Muslims are implicitly rejecting the notion that there is only one true religion, and that all others are, by definition, false.

Instead, they are embracing the idea that different religions may approach God in different ways. They are saying, in effect, that while all mountains may not be equally tall, beautiful or smooth, all point in the general direction of the heavens.

Such a concept is a stunning refutation of bin Ladenism and related ideologies that regard non-Muslims (as well as Muslims who interpret Islam more liberally than they do) as “infidels” — unbelievers whose practices are not just wrong but blasphemous. The justification for the Islamist idea of “jihad” is that it is the duty of those who adhere to the only “true” religion, the Islamist version of Islam, to defeat and destroy the others: the “enemies of God” who dwell in the Dar al Harb (the “House of War”). As the Iranian revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stated a quarter century ago:  “Our struggle is not about land or water… It is about bringing, by force if necessary, the whole of mankind onto the right path.”

Religious tolerance is a very American idea but it was not an originally American idea. Contrary to popular belief, early European settlers did not come to the New World for religious freedom. They came to escape religious persecution – not at all the same thing. The Puritans, for example, had little interest in the “rights” of those of other religious persuasions.

Eventually, however, it became clear that Americans would face continual and debilitating strife – unless, that is, they accepted a pragmatic version of “tolerance,” adopting a live-and-let-live philosophy, allowing others to make their own choices and, perhaps, their own mistakes. Nothing wrong with converting your neighbor, but henceforth the mechanism would have to be persuasion, not coercion and violence.

Slowly, over time, Americans came to see tolerance not as grudging endurance of others, but as a virtue. Indeed, for many, if not most, Americans tolerance of other religions gradually transformed into genuine respect. 

In contemporary America, it is not unusual for Christians and Jews to study the teachings of the Dali Lama, for rabbis to counsel Christians (I'm thinking not only of Madonna and Michael Jackson) and for Muslims to celebrate Eid, the end of the Ramadan fast, by dining with a Christian president at the White House.

Interestingly, it was a Roman Catholic who may have provided the earliest theological rationale for such relations. Nicolaus of Cusa, a cardinal in the15th Century, came to what was then a revolutionary conclusion: that while one can approach the truth, one can never reach it completely. He disagreed with the religious authorities of the era who, as scholar and former priest James Carroll wrote, “spoke of God as if they understood God fully, and …sought to enforce a uniformity of thought that left no room for mystery, ambiguity, or paradox.”

Nicolaus, by contrast, argued “not that God is unknowable, but that God's unknowability is the most profound and illuminating thing humans can know about God.”

Carroll called this idea “the theological equivalent of the Copernican insight into the cosmos – that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa.”  

In practical terms, this caused Nicolaus to view differently from his contemporaries the most traumatic event of that period (one might even say that era's 9/11): the Muslim conquest, in 1453, of the ancient Christian capital of Constantinople (today's Istanbul), a conquest accompanied by terrible slaughter, pillaging and rape.

Eschewing anger, he wrote of the need for peace and reconciliation among the world's great religions. As Carroll put it: “What stung Nicolaus was the image of human beings savaging each other because of their opposing ideas of God – God who was, to him, unknowable. If that was so, how could men kill one another in the name of what they claimed to know of God? He began by asking the question of Muslims, but, no doubt with an eye on history, he addressed it equally to Christians and those of other religions.”

Nicolaus' humanist and ecumenical vision was centuries ahead of its time. He died in 1464. Fourteen years later the Spanish Inquisition would begin — a long orgy of violent intolerance.  But it's possible to see Nicolaus' spirit revived in the 21st Century, not least in the historic response to the life and death of John Paul II.

That response emphatically refutes the premise of the unholy war being waged against all those – Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim alike – who are committed to pluralism and to defending their inalienable right to think, speak and worship in freedom.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.