Martin Marty – Blasphemy


Those [of us] who are expected to monitor religious trends have reason to find talk of blasphemy a complex challenge to commentators and responsible citizens.

Islam is an international supplier of reasons for pondering and arguing themes associated with blasphemy. Most terrorism by factions in or at the edges of the Islamic world(s) is usually occasioned by fanatics who act in defense of Allah against heretics, the religious “other,” and “infidels” who are seen or claimed to be blasphemers.

Is it time to rethink blasphemy?

The dictionary can be succinct: blasphemy is radical irreverence or disrespect shown to that which is sacred, holy—especially when deity is involved. But the borderline between hard-core blasphemy and mere irreverence is blurry, and often seen by “the eyes of the beholder.”

This week’s New Yorker prompted reflection on the borderline. Was it crossed or only tip-toed-toward in Simon Rich’s piece, “Day of Judgment” (January 8), illustrated by a Jesus-looking figure gesturing past a score of microphones to an unseen audience.

Irreverent to the core, yes: but was it blasphemous? The star of the article is named “the Messiah,” a proper name in Judaism and Christianity alike. Continue reading “Martin Marty – Blasphemy”


Matthew Kapstein – Another Take on “After ‘Charlie Hebdo,’ Islam Must Critique Itself”

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Despite my agreement with my esteemed colleagues Professors Bruce Lincoln and Anthony Yu in most aspects of their response in last week’s Sightings to an earlier  Sightings piece, “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre: Islam Must Open Itself To Critique,” by a third distinguished colleague, Professor Jean-Luc Marion, their conclusions strike me as ignoring important dimensions of the issues at hand.

The terrible events of January 7-9 in Paris were not, as they aver, the symptoms of social and economic disadvantage, or similar factors. Symptoms of such problems manifest themselves in France, as in many other countries, in increased petty crime, gang activity, drug use, elevated unemployment, occasional car-jackings, arson and riot, and the like.

Among these symptoms, I do not see fit to include targeted, cold-blooded murder, which is what took place in Paris. Continue reading “Matthew Kapstein – Another Take on “After ‘Charlie Hebdo,’ Islam Must Critique Itself””

Pierre Berthoud – Are There Any Limits to Freedom of Speech and Caricature?

After the tragic events in Paris on the 7th of January, the director of a major weekly magazine declared that democracy gives the right to blasphemy. Such a radical statement of freedom of speech may seem shocking, but is a long-standing practice within the French culture going back to the Enlightenment, Voltaire being the emblematic figure. Tolerated under the Ancien Regime, it was adopted as a principle in the Declaration of human rights and became effective with the abolition of the blasphemy law in 1830; it was confirmed in 1905 in the legislation on the separation of Church and State.

Of course we are all in favour of freedom of conscience (thus freedom of religion) and of speech, whether in words or caricatures. Minorities in France such as Jews and Protestants have paid a very heavy tribute because of its absence. Though double-edged, satire even with regards to religious matters can be healthy and thought-provoking! But ‘one cannot scoff at everything and deride what is left’ without measuring the consequences of one’s action. Contempt, scorn and disrespect towards someone and their belief or world and life view is to be regarded as irresponsible behaviour and reveals a total lack of consideration for one’s neighbour. This of course doesn’t imply that we should avoid challenging one another nor should we shy away from a healthy debate. Ideas matter and are of paramount importance. We are what we think. But the principle of the love and respect of one’s neighbour implies that we consider carefully both the content and the form of our speech and caricature.

In fact, French law establishes limits to freedom of speech. One can for example be sued for abuse and slander, for discrimination and racism as well as anti-Semitism and revisionism. Why then such complacency in French culture and legislation towards offences against religious belief? Since the Enlightenment, divine transcendence has gradually been excluded from the public sphere. A contemporary thinker recently said that one of the major differences between the American and French Revolutions was that the latter lacked any reference to God. Conceived on a purely horizontal level, it was an expression of humanism. As a consequence, religious belief is incompatible with a man-centred world and life view and its present resurgence creates perplexity and hostility among many of our contemporaries. Since the sense of sacredness is considered as unreal at best, as a speech event and as fiction it should have disappeared from the cultural and social environment by now! Apparently humanism doesn’t account for an essential aspect of reality, the invisible world with God as its apex. The freedom of blasphemy can thus be seen as an illusory attempt to negate and even to eradicate it!

That’s why beyond the question of freedom of conscience and of speech (however important they may be) the real issue at hand is related to what constitutes the foundation of a civilization. As André Malraux said prophetically many years ago: ‘The nature of a civilization is made up of the sum of what is brought together by a religion. Our civilization is unable to build either temple or tomb. It has the obligation to find an ultimate value or to decline and fall into decadence.’ If we are to meet the challenge of the Islamic religious world and life view and its drifts towards violence and terror, humanism with its rejection of the supernatural reality, so well illustrated in the ideology underlying CHARLIE HEBDO, will not suffice. It is thus of paramount importance for the French and European cultures to rediscover their Judeo-Christian roots and to place the infinite and personal God who has not kept silent at the centre of its value system, including the key notion of the separation of religious communities and State.

Pierre Berthoud

Pierre Berthoud
Professor Emeritus, Faculté Jean Calvin
Chair of the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians

(Source, HERE)




A Reply to Jean-Luc Marion’s “After Charlie Hebdo, Islam Must Critique Itself”

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Our University of Chicago colleague, Jean-Luc Marion, Andrew Thomas Greely and Grace McNichols Greeley Professor of Catholic Studies, wrote a passionate response to the horrific attacks in Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris this past January (see Sightings in References below). The final toll: 16 dead and 22 injuries.

Marion’s outrage and grief are not only understandable but also shared by countless individuals and communities around the world. We are grateful that in face of such repugnant atrocities, our colleague throughout his brief essay has emphasized setting aside “the emotion of the moment,” “to not confuse or stigmatize,” and that “our fellow citizens of Muslim faith . . . suffer from a terrible situation.”

Despite deep sympathy for our esteemed colleague and the French people at large, we also feel compelled to address some troubling aspects of Marion’s statements concerning religion, because our common profession is defined by its attempted study and understanding.

Announcing clearly from the beginning that “France is at war,” Marion’s essay proceeds to define the homicides committed by three militants, all of whom were French citizens, as an act of war, followed by a second point that such an act will more closely unite the nation to resist with greater courage and resolve.

Marion’s prediction that the homicides would “unite the nation” was largely fulfilled as subsequent events have unfolded, although one must note the young Muslims who refused a moment of silence for the victims. Even so, construing the situation as “war”—something usually understood as armed hostility between nation states—is dangerous hyperbole or, worse yet, a self-fulfilling act of performative speech that initially misconstrues, then dramatically expands both the problem and conflict.

Such hyperbole is also evident in Marion’s assertion that “the danger posed by Islam is not new—it is familiar to France since the Seventeenth-Century… The recent history of Europe confirms democracies eventually vanquish totalitarianism and fascism.” We wonder what evidence there is for so characterizing the entire faith of Islam as one endangering France for so long.

The implied equation of Islam with totalitarianism and fascism is even more inflammatory and disturbing. Western civilization, after all, owes an immense debt to Islam and to Arabic communities for helping to preserve and transmit the priceless intellectual legacy of antiquity, without which the modern West would have been immeasurably impoverished. There would have been no Descartes without Plato’s and Aristotle’s works, which were recovered and translated by medieval Arabic philosophers. The Arabic bequest not only benefitted Westerners, but, for example, Chinese and other Asian people also, who profited (in mathematics, astronomy, and medical knowledge, to name three forms coming to mind) from contact with Islam.

We do not disagree entirely with Marion’s earnest plea for Muslims to engage in “self-critique,” but he seems to be unfamiliar with the cogent essays Talal Asad has addressed to this issue, demonstrating that “Islam” (if one must, for the sake of convenience, reduce a complex and diverse tradition to a simple monad), constantly reflects on itself, cultivates internal debate and critique, and identifies problems and shortcomings, which it then struggles to address.

Once this is recognized, Marion’s point becomes more problematic, for he is urging “Islam” to engage in the same kind of self-examination and revision that “Christianity” experienced during the Reformation and Enlightenment. What was an internal critique for one tradition thus becomes an imperative that one tradition would impose on another, something the latter experiences as alien to its own history, precepts, and sense of integrity; something it associates, moreover, with European claims of cultural superiority and a history of colonial aggression.

Even if “Islam” were to follow Marion’s prescription, we wonder what criteria he would recommend that “they” follow to “test their religious validity?” Does a secular state have the final say in defining what is “religious validity,” much as the People’s Republic of China avers in its constitution that only those who practice “normal religion” will be tolerated by the state?  The question of how to make all religions equally acceptable to a secular Republic of the French sort is not identical to—nor easily reconciled with—the question of how to create a society fully tolerant of religious difference.

Marion justly urges us to avoid “a facile rallying to the banner of ‘culture wars,’ or lack of integration, or discrimination.” Noble as that counsel may be, one needs to say more about the social and cultural ground for breeding hatred and violence, i.e. the sharply disadvantaged situation of Muslims in France (and not just France) with regard to employment, education, housing, protection under law, and simple dignity.

It is one thing for Charlie Hebdo to mock the Pope, and quite another to mock Muhammad. To poke fun at the icons revered by the powerful is a courageous act of iconoclasm; to ridicule those of the weak is cheap bullying, as it subjects people who already suffer abuse of multiple sorts to public humiliation, making sport of their (perceived) inability to defend the things they hold sacred.

We understand the need to rally in defense of liberté and we also understand that free speech includes forms of critical speech that may be cruel and offensive, such as iconoclasm, blasphemy, ridicule and derision. But one also has to realize that when those who enjoy the full benefits of citizenship use their liberté to mock others to whom basic rights are abridged or denied, something has gone badly amiss.

The most important front on which France needs to wage a sustained struggle today is precisely the one Marion ignores: the struggle to extend égalité and fraternité to its Muslim population.  Here, progress depends on understanding the criminal events in Paris not as salvos that open a new front or new phase in a long-running war, but as symptoms that follow on—and point to—sustained failures of socio-cultural integration, socioeconomic equity, moral sensibility, political accountability, and human understanding.

France may be the flashpoint of the moment, but the issues extend far beyond.


Marion, Jean-Luc. “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre, Islam Must Open Itself to Critique.” Sightings, January 29, 2015.

Asad, Talal. “The Limits of Religious Criticism in the Middle East: Notes on Islamic Public Argument.” Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Image: Torsten Rowekamp / flickr creative commons.
To read previous issues of Sightings, visit

Author, Bruce Lincoln, (Ph.D. University of Chicago) is Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, Middle Eastern Studies and Medieval Studies. He is also Associate Faculty in the Departments of Anthropology and Classics. Lincoln emphasizes critical approaches to the study of religion and is particularly interested in issues of discourse, practice, power, conflict, and the violent reconstruction of social borders. His research includes the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran. His two most recent books (2014) are Between History and Myth: Stories of Harald Fairhair and The Founding of the State, and Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification, 2nd edition.

Author, Anthony C. Yu, (Ph.D. University of Chicago) is Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and Professor Emeritus of Religion and Literature, Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, English Language and Literature, and the Committee on Social Thought. Yu’s research focuses on the comparative study of both literary and religious traditions. He also reinterprets classical Chinese narratives and poetry in light of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. His publications include comparisons of Chinese and Western texts, literary and religious histories, and issues of theory and criticism. In 2012, he published revised editions, with new Notes, of all four volumes of his translation of The Journey to the West. To comment, email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at



Jean-Luc Marion – After the Charlie Hebdo Massacre: Islam Must Open Itself To Critique

Charlie Hebdo

This article was originally published in French in Le Point. It was translated by Myriam Renaud.

France is at war; we can no longer doubt that this is the case. But this war has at least three fronts.

The first front is obvious: an act of war occurred in Paris, against a magazine, leaving more than a dozen dead. The government and the nation have started to respond. The government is taking up its principal role—the protection of citizens, handling the security concerns with which it has been entrusted. It is acting as quickly and as well as it can.

As for the nation, we have already witnessed that, far from crumbling and yielding to fear, it is uniting. A republican reflex will bolster this coming together, and extremists will not benefit in the slightest from the crisis. Continue reading “Jean-Luc Marion – After the Charlie Hebdo Massacre: Islam Must Open Itself To Critique”

Martin Marty – Blasphemy and Freedom

Blasphemy and Freedom.

Martin Marty writes about the tragedy in Paris. And, like always he is worth reading.

Andrei Plesu – Crima, libertate, religie

Andrei Plesu

Cred că aproape nimic n-a rămas nespus cu privire la tragedia petrecută zilele trecute la Paris. Lucrurile sunt, mai mult decît în alte cazuri, deopotrivă simple și greu sistematizabile. Confuzia vine din faptul că (cel puțin) trei probleme distincte au fost aduse de desfășurarea evenimentelor în același plan, cînd, de fapt, țin de planuri diferite. Prin contaminare reciprocă, cele trei probleme își pierd contururile, ceea ce suspendă înțelegerea corectă a fiecăreia în parte. Continue reading “Andrei Plesu – Crima, libertate, religie”

Vlad Mixich – Cea mai buna zi din an pentru rasistul din mine

E greu sa nu caut vinovati pentru masacrul de la Charlie Hebdo. Valul emotional a fost atat de mare, incat doar trei criminali nu-mi ajung. Vreau mai mult. Vreau sa dau vina pe jurnalistii care critica prea mult. Vreau sa dau vina pe musulmani. Vreau sa dau vina pe religii.

12 oameni au fost executati cu sange rece, in toiul zilei, in cea mai frumoasa capitala a Europei. Acolo unde ma duc sa ma indragostesc. Sa ma imbrac bine. Sa ma visez frumos.

E prea grotesc. E prea enorm pentru ca doar trei criminali sa fie de vina. E sigur vorba de ceva mai mult. De o ciocnire mai apocaliptica. De o revolta. De inceputul unui razboi.

Asa am simtit in ultimele 24 de ore. Si in continuare tot asa sunt ispitit sa simt. Ispita periculoasa, greu de respins dupa ce-l vezi pe Abu Musab, un lider ISIS, spunand mandru ca “Leii nostri au comis atacul. Curg doar primele picaturi de sange. Cruciatii trebuie sa se teama, pentru ca o merita”. Continue reading “Vlad Mixich – Cea mai buna zi din an pentru rasistul din mine”

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