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Warring with God

I KNEW that my God was bigger than his," Lieutenant General William G. Boykin said of his Muslim opponent. "I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol." That and other remarks derogatory of Islam caused a stir last week, especially because the general holds a key position in the war on terrorism. Awkward memories surfaced of President Bush's inadvertent use of the term "crusade" to define that war, and fears broke into the open that the war was, despite disclaimers, a religious war after all.

Boykin's Pentagon superiors did not seem to take offense, but Muslim leaders did, and so did members of Congress. Boykin's remarks can only inflame Arab perceptions. On Friday the general offered a sort of apology.

"I am neither a zealot nor an extremist," he said, "only a soldier who has an abiding faith."

The general's critics are right to deplore the denigration of the faith of Muslims, but the problem goes deeper than a crudely expressed religious chauvinism. In point of fact, the general's remarks do not make him an extremist. It was unfashionable of him to speak aloud the implications of his "abiding faith," but exclusivist claims made for Jesus Christ by most Christians, from Vatican corridors to evangelical revival tents, implicitly insult the religion of others. When Catholics speak of "salvation" only through Jesus, or when Protestants limit "justification" to faith in Jesus, aspersions are cast on the entire non-Christian world.

In the past, the step from such exclusivist theology to contempt for those excluded has been small indeed, and the step from such contempt to open violence has been even smaller. Especially in relation to Islam. Last week's response to General Boykin, however, suggests a new sensitivity to the links between intolerant theology and intolerant behavior.

The danger of religious war is real. And religious war follows less from conscious intentions of warriors than from the beliefs that inspire them. Boykin makes the question urgent: What kind of God does this general -- and the nation he serves -- believe in? Boykin describes a "bigger" God in conflict with smaller gods, vanquishing them. Idols get smashed. The soldier's faith is braced by the assumption that God, too, can have recourse to violence, and foundational texts of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions posit just that.

"The Lord is a man of war," says Exodus (15:3). As violence is one of the notes of the human condition, religions often attribute it to God, and then divine violence cycles back to justify the human propensity to act violently. The omnipotent warrior God is so firmly entrenched in the human imagination that even atheists affirm it in the very act of denying that such a God exists.

The ethical dilemma facing all religions today, but perhaps especially religions of revelation, is laid bare here: How to affirm one's own faith without denigrating the faith of others? The problem can seem unsolvable if religion is understood as inherently dialectic -- reality defined as oppositions between earth and heaven, the natural and the supernatural, knowledge and revelation, atheism and theism, secularism and faith, evil and good. If the religious imagination is necessarily structured on such polarities, then religion is inevitably a source of conflict, contempt, violence. My faith is true, yours is idolatry. My God is bigger than your god. My God is a warrior, and so am I.

But there can be such a thing as an inclusivist religious faith that rejects this way of thinking. Instead of polarity, this other way of being religious assumes unity -- unity between God and God's creation, which serves in turn as a source of unity among God's creatures. This reconciling truth is what all the great religions -- certainly the three Abrahamic religions -- assert when they identify God, most basically, not with conflict but with love.

General Boykin says that his God is "real" because his God brings him victory in battle. But the first standard against which the reality of God is measured, even in Boykin's own Christian tradition, is not "bigness" or power but empathetic love. God is love, and the only way to honor God is by loving the neighbor. This is not a minor theme but the essential affirmation.

Therefore Boykin has it wrong -- but so do legions of his fellow believers, from the Vatican to those revival tents to the Oval Office. The general's offense was to speak aloud the implication of a still broadly held theology.

But that theology is dangerous now. A respectful religious pluralism is no longer just a liberal hope but an urgent precondition of justice and peace.

In the 21st century, exclusivist religion, no matter how "mainstream" and no matter how muted the anathemas that follow from its absolutes, is a sure way to religious war.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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