Monday, May 18, 2009

Cardinal Lehmann puts borders on religious dialogue.

German original here

A German Tragedy

In December of last year, it was reported that the Hessen Cultural Award of 2009 would be awarded on March 22nd. The decision of the jury rejoiced in the spirit of religious dialogue. A Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew and a Muslim should be honoured; Peter Steinacker, former President of the Protestant Church in Hessen and Nassau, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, Salomon Korn, the Vice President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and Fuat Sezgin. 

Sezgin teaches and researches, even after his retirement, at the Frankfurt Institute for the History of Science, and is the successor to the legendary Willy Hartner. Hartner was an expert on the Arabic and Chinese astronomy. Sezgin has made unending contributions to the study of academic sources in the Arab and Islamic world. Very rightly so, the Hessen Minister President Koch could claim "the outstanding commitment of the four winners to inter-faith dialogue in Germany. For many years, they have worked for the peaceful coexistence of the three great Abrahamic religions - Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Their commitment to a respectful and tolerant relationship between faith communities is an encouraging example that can serve as a model far beyond our national borders." 

22nd March came and went without any further news of the 45,000 euros prize. Fuat Sezgin had in the meantime decided against being among the prize winners, as reported by the Board of Trustees, because he had reservations about Salomon Korn: during the war between Israel and the Palestinians, “he publically so commented that it was not acceptable for him to receive the prize given his political beliefs and his cultural understanding " 

In this situation, the Board of Trustees turned to Navid Kermani and told him that he was now to receive the Hessen Culture Award. Also this was a gratifying decision. The writer and journalist was born in 1967 in Germany as the son of Iranian parents and combines a high literary and artistic sensibility with an excellent and dedicated knowledge of the Koran and Islamic tradition. In 1999, his book appeared "God is beautiful. The aesthetic experience of the Koran. " He is a member of the German Academy for Language and Literature. Last year, he was a guest at the Villa Massimo in Rome. In the first instance, the decision for Kermani had the consent of the other winners. 

Against the Theology of the Cross 

From Rome however Kermani wrote an essay for the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" which appeared on 14 March and which should have incalculable consequences. He meditated on a picture by Guido Reni, the "Crucifixion" in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Lucina. Kermani as a devout Muslim had deep reservations about the Cross which he expressed in very clear language: "I'm basically negative about crosses." Indeed, he was even sharper: "For me, I dramatically formulate the rejection of the theology of the Cross: idolatry and blasphemy. " 

But if you read Kermani correctly , then it was only the starting point to further formulate ideas – leading to a very different view of the Cross. Guido Reni took "the suffering from the physical to the metaphysical. His Jesus has no wounds. He looks into the sky, the iris from the white of the eye has nearly disappeared: Look here, he seems to call. Not only: Look at me, but: Look at the earth, look at us. Jesus does not suffer, as the Christian ideology maintains that God is relieved of a burden. Jesus accuses, not why have you forsaken me, no, rather why have you forsaken us? "Before the altar painting, wrote Kermani further, he found the sight of so charming, so full of blessing, he no longer rise from his place. For the first time,I thought: I – and not only me, but everyone, could believe in a Cross. " 

Implacably attacked 

This bold, dramatic consequence of Kermani’s thought which for a Muslim must lie on the threshold of heresy, was not understood by Peter Steinacker and Cardinal Karl Lehmann. These leaders of a liberal theology of inter-church and interreligious "dialogue" objected to the newly envisaged prize winner - precisely because of the Cross. Both would not accept the prize if Navid Kermani received it at the same time 'because of such a fundamental and implacable attack on the Cross as the central symbol of Christian faith". The Board then asked Kermani for an "explanation" of his thoughts - this was rejected: as far as the person who is responsible is concerned, the texts speak for themselves. 

Now the award will go on 5 July to Salomon Korn, Steinacker and Cardinal Lehmann. Kermani learnt of his exclusion by the way, in a call yesterday to this newspaper - an additional tactlessness. As a consolation prize, he is invited together with Fuat Sezgin and the three prize winners to a panel discussion which seeks(of course!) "to trigger public debate”. The formulation can only be mocked, that they wanted “to reach a point that even such large differences can be reconciled not by talking against each other, but talking with each other." The Board of Trustees of the Hessen Culture Prize includes Frank Schirrmacher, publisher of this newspaper. He was not involved due to absence in the decisions on this year’s prize. 

Rapid decision

Why did the Board, after Lehmann and Steinacker refused their agreement to Kermani decide also not to award it at least to these two intended recipients? The Board of Trustees deems it "unacceptable", to withdraw the "already publicly expressed honour for their undisputed major life's work in the interaction of religion and culture to the personalities of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, Peter Steinacker and Salomon Korn." The Regional Government is obviously striving to accept Lehmann and Steinacker’s interpretation of Kermani’s understanding of the image and to make the evil verdict of irreconcilability their own. But the latest contribution of the two clerics to the interaction of religion and culture is for the time being the most striking part of their life’s work. 

One is amazed by the sudden determination of the ecclesiastical figures. Not least because even last Easter, the terms used by both churches for the death on the Cross was distant from a conception of sacrificial reparation: it was only as a sign of "solidarity" of Christ with humanity which makes the Cross still important. And one should remember a few years ago: The Bishop of the Northern Regional Church, Maria Jepsen suggested instead of showing the Crucified as the Cross has been envisaged for 2000 small children at play should be substituted. 

Record of failed attempts 

Lehmann, Steinacker and Korn receive the award "in recognition of their life’s work for inter-religious cooperation and the creation of a culture of respect." The State of Hessen "plans with the prize to point out that religion is a crucial part of the cultural life of a free society." For the record, there have been "two failed attempts to honour a Muslim citizen for cultural exchange on the basis of religious belief." On 5 July, now just two Christians and a Jew will be honoured. A Muslim apostle of tolerance with a life’s work worthy of honour as one will read at a later time in the list of winners has not been found in 2009. It is obvious who has been lacking respect. 

Where the greater disrespect of the Cross lies - in Kermani’s heretical ideas or in the newer cosy interchurch religion is a theological question, on which the last word probably has not yet spoken. Dialogue as some say after this demonstration is only possible where it actually makes sense. When things get serious, where one must start, one breaks off. From the faraway world of the noisy sixty-eighters, a phrase comes which well describes this case- "repressive tolerance". The farce around the Hessen Culture Prize is an invaluable image of German manners. Dialogue in this country offers at the same time an invitation to make ready a padded cell for the proceedings as you certainly cannot get hurt there.

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