The Year That Religion Learned Humility

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Iraqis carry rubble as they clean up debris in the bombed Askariya holy Shiite shrine on February 23, 2006 in the city of Samarra, Iraq.

The great, first surprise of the 21st century was the re-emergence of religion. Not only did it arrive as the most powerful cultural force of the new millennium, it also came in a particular guise. It was a fundamentalist version of faith that was triumphant. Against the doubts and decadence of the West and amid the bewilderment and backwardness of the Middle East, an utterly uncompromising faith seemed the only answer to many prayers.

The forms varied, of course. There was the strain of Islamic Wahhabism incubated in Saudi Arabia, exported to Afghanistan and wreaking havoc in Iraq. There was Shi'ite theocracy, centered in Tehran, made more terrifying by the apocalyptic worldview of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the West, the dominant form of Christianity was Fundamentalist Protestantism, gaining new converts and, fused with the Republican Party, flexing powerful political muscles. And in the Vatican, the conservatism of John Paul II found its natural successor in the austere and more thoroughgoing orthodoxy of the new Pope, Benedict XVI. There seemed no stopping this cultural surge, just various attempts to adjust to it, restrain it from violence and temper its extremes.

And then in 2006, there was an unmistakable pause, a moment of self-examination, even the hint of a great humbling. The most absolutist visionaries found a limit to their certitude. Benedict XVI went in a matter of months from proclaiming an irreducible gulf between Christianity and Islam to visiting a mosque in Turkey with white slippers on his feet. He publicly called for Turkey, a secular state but a Muslim country, to be integrated into the European Union. In the U.S., the religious right saw its most enthusiastic repre sentative in the Senate, Rick Santorum, go down to defeat by a crushing 18 points. For the first time, a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage failed — in Arizona. State initiatives for embryonic-stem-cell research became a wedge issue for ... Democrats. Religion finally cut both ways in democratic discourse. For the first time since the evangelical revival began in the 1980s, too much rigidity began to cost politicians votes rather than win them more.

Evangelicalism also saw the beginnings of a political divide. A new head of the Christian Coalition was forced to resign after he wanted to expand the group's mission from abortion, marriage and stem cells to poverty and the environment. David Kuo, a former Bush Administration insider who helped run the faith-based social program, wrote a book decrying the cynical use of Evangelicals for political gain and regretting his enmeshment with the religious right. He called for devout Christians to take a two-year fast from politics. And in a remarkable sign of a new era, the orthodox Evangelical Rick Warren invited Democratic Senator Barack Obama to address a conference on AIDS. What was once a seemingly rigid and monolithic group was revealed to be actually more diverse, nuanced and open to debate than once seemed possible.

Within Islam, something also very profound occurred in 2006. Until earlier this year, Islam had found itself represented by essentially one faction in global politics and propaganda: the anti-Western vision of al-Qaeda's Wahhabist ideology. The power of its ability to marshall Arab and Muslim resentment against the West — and against non-Muslims more generally — drowned out milder, more moderate forms of Islam and masked deep divisions within Islam itself.

But in 2006, a messier reality emerged. What once appeared an extreme anti-Western monolith splintered into different factions. In Iraq, the ground zero of civilizational clash, the turning point was the bombing of the Samarra mosque, a site sacred to Shi'ite Muslims. From that horrifying moment onward, what had been a mainly Sunni insurgency against occupying infidel troops became a civil war between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims. The dynamic within Islam in the Middle East shifted from one that pitted Islam against the West to one that pitted Islam against itself. Evidence emerged of Iranian support for Shi'ite militias, alongside Saudi financing of Sunni terror. Suddenly, the monolith was over — and the old divisions within Islam became as important as Islam's differences with Christians and Jews and secularists. Islam was revealed as having no single answer — no more than Christianity has one single answer, no more than any faith has one simple answer to every question human beings ask.

In 2006, we came to see that even the most certain theological worldview has to grapple with that of others who differ and yet require coexistence, not obliteration. Certainty can be comforting in the abstract. In the real world, such certainty has to be accompanied by toleration if we are to live in any peace or resolve our politics in a civil and rational manner. And certainty itself may be an obstacle to real faith rather than its achievement. Doubt is as much a part of faith as human imperfection is a part of life. We have learned that the hard way in the new millennium — in our politics and in war. But we may have begun to grasp the deeper obligation — and that is not to turn our back on faith but to instill it with the humility that it demands and that all the great religious figures have exemplified.