Pluriform Blasphemy

Blasphemy in heart and in deed


Atheism Justice

We’re used to “in your face” demonstrations, and so are Swedes. But now Sweden is dealing with something more, the public burning of the Quran. Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is furious: “The insult to the Holy Quran in Sweden is a bitter, conspiratorial, dangerous event. It is the opinion of all Islamic scholars that those who have insulted the Holy Quran deserve the severest punishment.” Death?

Salwan Momika, a Christian turned atheist, is an Iraqi refugee. He first burned the Quran outside a mosque in Stockholm. Some weeks later, at the Iraqi embassy in Stockholm, he stomped on the Quran and the Iraqi flag. Widespread outrage in Iraq led to the storming of the Swedish embassy in Baghdad.

Pope Francis, for his part, commented that he was “disgusted at such deeds” and added that “Any book considered sacred by its people must be respected out of respect for those who believe in it. The freedom of expression should never be used as an excuse to offend others.”

A Christian Democrat friend in Sweden, Maria Marić, told me that she’s worried about the safety of Swedes in the Muslim world as well as the “soft targets” in Sweden. She shares some helpful context: In “one of the world’s most secular countries, even though the Christian traditions are apparent in society, there is very little understanding of the concept of holding an item, like a book, holy.”

Any hope for dialogue? Threats have curtailed discussion. “[W]ith the threats that are being made against Sweden, Swedish citizens and the Swedish government, from Erdogan, Khamenei and others there’s more resistance against having such a discussion…If we would have been ‘left alone’ to discuss the issue there might have been a change of the laws making burning the Quran an act of disturbing the peace or agitation against ethnic group, but faced with threats the stubbornness kicks in and many are inclined to hold to our old way of thinking about freedom of speech as absolute.”

But for Christians “shutting down dialogue” isn’t an option. We can at least pursue a clarification of thought. For a start, we could consider just what blasphemy is. St. Thomas Aquinas offers some starters. He begins by citing St. Paul. “The Apostle says (1 Timothy 1:12-13) ‘I . . . before was a blasphemer and a persecutor’ and afterwards, ‘I did it ignorantly in’ my ‘unbelief.’ So it seems that blasphemy pertains to unbelief.”

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that for an atheist blasphemy is by no means unthinkable. But what’s involved in an act of blasphemy? Thomas writes, “The word blasphemy seems to denote the disparagement of some surpassing goodness, especially that of God.” But God is the essence of goodness. So, Thomas continues, “whatever befits God, pertains to His goodness, and whatever does not befit Him, is far removed from the perfection of goodness. Consequently whoever either denies anything befitting God, or affirms anything unbefitting Him, disparages the Divine goodness.”

And how might this disparagement come about? A distinction is in order. Thomas writes that “this disparagement of the Divine goodness is either in the intellect alone, or in the affections also. If it is in thought only, it is blasphemy of the heart, whereas if it betrays itself outwardly in speech it is blasphemy opposed to confession of faith.”

Pope Benedict spoke tellingly of the tendency to live as if God did not exist (etsi Deus non daretur.) When we give way to this tendency in our everyday consciousness, we fall into a blasphemy of the heart. And The Public Square, insofar as it disallows the profession of belief, becomes a sphere of blasphemy. So, too, is much of our pop culture. (My informal polling of TV and film shows that most references to God put Him at an extra-long arm’s length.) Indeed, the drift from what we might term “soft blasphemy” to “soft persecution” threatens to vitiate the professions of medicine and education. Conscience, rooted in faith, is something to be “kept to oneself.”

And what about the blasphemy that betrays itself in speech and opposes the confession of the faith? Such blasphemy seems to invite, in various forms, idolatry. Two examples come to mind, and the nation-state is prone to both.

Consider, first, the insistence on national sovereignty. Is there even a single nation that does not insist on its absolute sovereignty? Even the acceptance of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights is tailored by its State adherents to honor national sovereignty, no matter that these sovereignties come into conflict. The confession of faith turns into a confession of the primacy of the State. Idolatry carries the day.

In its most blatant form, this idolatry demands the subservience of the Christian (and the Muslim) faith. The demands of “Sinicization” are wholly unacceptable. The Holy See’s wrongheaded acquiescence to them is, simply put, a scandal. So, too, is silence in face of China’s direct attacks on the Muslim Uighur people.

Yes, the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. Tertullian is right. And it is a blood, as history tells us, that idols demand and in which blasphemy, sometimes our own, is often complicit.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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