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Our political masters need to get this: theological problems can only have theological solutions

The Woolwich murderers were motivated by a particular brand of theology

By on Friday, 24 May 2013

British newspapers report on the Woolwich attack (Yui Mok/PA Wire)

British newspapers report on the Woolwich attack (Yui Mok/PA Wire)

In a thought-provoking piece over at Telegraph blogs, Alan Johnson tells us that we need to talk about Islamism. In this, he is completely correct. We need, among other things, to try and understand the theology (or better anti-theology) of the Woolwich murderers.

Two things happened at Woolwich: a man was cruelly hacked to death in the street, and the perpetrators shouted out “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as they carried out their deed. But these two things are, to Christians, in clear opposition.

To proclaim the greatness of God is to reverence His creation. To desecrate the work of God’s hands, which is what murder is, is tantamount to blasphemy. Indeed, to murder a human being is the worst of sins, as all people are in the image and likeness of God. Thus to destroy God’s image and proclaim God is great as you do so is plainly contradictory. Well, at least to Christians.

In the above paragraph I have used a theological concept, namely “Creation”, and in so doing I am showing, I think, that this is the a concept that the Woolwich murderers reject. For them the world is clearly not God’s creation. If it were, it would be of value. But they reject the world in favour of a vision of God that is utterly transcendent. The world does not matter; only God matters.

The idea of God as utterly transcendent, which is something that Catholics must reject (though some Christians, Catholics included, have flirted with it), is a dangerous idea as well as a completely wrong one.

An utterly transcendent God only speaks in his own language. He is not concerned with the world and does not love the world, because the world is material, and how could he love something so very below himself in value? His Word is what counts; our words are useless. He certainly does not speak to us through nature, or through human reasoning, or through human experience. All goodness is to be found in him alone, not in the things of this world. The things that are of this world are not paths to God, but barriers between us and him; you have to overcome the world and spurn the world to find him.

And, above all, when his supposed Word contradicts the world, then the world must be wrong. In the competition between sacred text and world, sacred text wins each and every time, and is never to be submitted to the indignity of human interpretation – for what has the puny human mind to add to the greatness of God?

Now, there might be some fundamentalist Protestants, and some Orthodox and a few Catholics who would go along with the above, but the real – and, indeed, only – workable theology is one that sees God as both transcendent and immanent. God sent His Son, His Word made flesh, into the world to speak to us. In Christ we experience a conversation with God, who is so much greater than us, yet on our level too. In Christ, God has sanctified all flesh and all human experience in the flesh. This does not mean all human activity is holy. But it does mean human activity can become holy, and can become the locus for discovering truth, and the truth about God. Nothing in this world is to be rejected, apart from sin, which is the wrong use of God’s Creation, for this world is the work of God, a work that does not demean God, but which glorifies Him.

One cannot sum up the whole of theology in a few paragraphs, but I hope the above helps to show that a fundamental theological error is dangerous and needs to be dealt with. For such a theological error can lead to dreadful results.

One last thought about the victim of the Woolwich murderers: he was an ordinary and average young man, just like the rest of us. He had done what so many of us do: he had got a job, worked, married his wife, had a child. All very usual, and yet each of these acts was filled, one hopes, with the grace of God, which made these ordinary everyday acts extraordinary. His everyday life was, one hopes, suffused with love. His, like every life, was a life worth living, because this life is one in which we find an opening to meaning and truth and love. And because of this, his life was to be treasured; and now it has ended, to be mourned.

May his soul, created by God, and thus of infinite value, now rest with God, our heavenly Father.