01: If Pope John Paul II’s death and funeral demonstrated the impact and respect the papal chair can still elicit, the election of Benedict XVI showed the Catholic Church’s concern to preserve and consolidate the conservative gains made by the former pontiff.
But in the months since his election, Benedict has frustrated some conservative activists (for instance, his appointment of a moderate to fill his former post as doctrinal watchdog) and intrigued liberals (having a discussion with famous dissident Hans Kung). It proves once again that one cannot predict the turn of a papacy. The first encyclical of Benedict, which should be made public in January, will draw much interest. (April RW)
02: Intelligent Design entered the vocabulary of most Americans as well as the media last year thanks to highly publicized court cases, even though it has existed as a movement for over a decade.
And it is as a movement more than as a “wedge” strategy for challenging Darwinism in the public schools, that Intelligent Design may have the most effect. That is not only because of the recent ruling against teaching the concept in Pennsylvania (though the battle in Kansas over the issue is still heating up), but also because of the way Intelligent Design has changed evangelical thinking. With its recent founding of an Intelligent Design research institute, the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, which a decade ago was a firm supporter of the seven-day literalist creationist approach, has now accepted a modified version of evolution.
In Time magazine (Oct. 24) Futurist Malcolm Gladwell compared Intelligent Design to Christian rock. “[Evangelicals] are not resisting outside culture, they’re embracing it and kind of making it their own. It’s about taking up form from the outside and trying to Christianize it.“
03: Both the Tsunami (although it took place in late 2004) and hurricane Katrina forced religious organizations in different parts of the world and of different religious traditions to serve new and important social roles.
Dire necessity brought Buddhist groups that had little experience with relief work into this new arena. Whether this is a lasting change remains to be seen, though Buddhist relief organizations have been founded since the disaster. The “engaged” social activist Buddhists (mostly converts) in the West may find new connections with their formerly more quietistic counterparts in the East.
Meanwhile, Katrina brought into view American congregations’ roles as “first providers” when city, state and national structures broke down or were gridlocked. Many congregations and religious leaders are seeking to sustain (and enlarge) this role through renewed support for faith-based social services (June and November RW)
04: After almost a decade of tolerating reform-minded Islam, Iran may be changing again under its new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Analysts have compared Ahmadinejad to the late Ayatollah Khomeini for his Islamist vision. But Ahmadinejad was brought to power because he was seen as more honest than his competitors, and it is far from certain that he will manage to bring Iran back to the time of Khomeini. As much as on the international scene, Ahmadinejad’s election creates tensions in Iran itself, where some of the political leadership is aware of the potential problems this is creating for the nation’s image and is trying to figure out how to conduct damage-control.
Unlike the case for Khomeini, the religious views of Ahmadinejad are receiving full attention by the media and foreign affairs analysts. His stated commitments to the ideals of “Islamic justice,” the messianic belief in the Hidden Imam and martyrdom may have domestic and international implications, especially concerning relations with Israel (which he has called to be destroyed), Iraq, and the U.S.
05: In 2005, Islamic groups and leaders made several attempts to come to terms with the challenges and problems of competing sources of authority and a vocal minority of radical activism.
In July, the new mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun, expressed deep concern about the chaotic issuing of fatwas (legal opinions) in Muslim countries and advocated the need for collective fatwas in order to solve the problem: “We should avoid issuing individual fatwas.” Leaders gathered at the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) summit in Mecca (Dec. 7-8) deplored the discord and disunity among Muslims and brought this issue in relation to the fight against radical forms of Islam: it “requires our scholars and experts of jurisprudence to unify their stand on exposing …the falsehood of their claims.”
While attacks within Muslim countries themselves — such as the ones in Ammann, Jordan, in November – may have somewhat weakened the attraction of jihadi groups, the continuing wars in Iraq and other sensitive issues continue to fuel extremist propaganda. In the West, the attacks in London in July and the first suicide attack by a (Belgian female) convert in Iraq in November have strengthened the resolve to fight radical forms or Islam and to help to promote moderate forms of the religion.
— This review was written with Contributing Editor Jean-Francois Mayer, founder of the website Religioscope (http://www.religion.info)