09/28/2012 12:16 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

The Judge's Tears

It's an old saw that the real work of history is to tell us about the times in which we live. Sometimes it's even true. Here's an example. In his "Memorial of the Saints," Eulogius of Cordoba*, a ninth-century author, recounts the recent execution of the martyr Isaac. While they did not have all the rights enjoyed by Muslims, Christians were not actively persecuted by the Islamic governments of Spain, and it was possible for them to lead fairly comfortable lives there. Well-educated, fluent in Arabic, Isaac became a high-ranking official at the emir's court. He seems the perfect example of a cosmopolitan Christian living in a pluralistic society.

Yet at some point Isaac became deeply dissatisfied with that life. He left government service and entered a Christian monastery. Three years later, he returned to Cordoba, and asked for an audience with a high government official, a judge. He said he wished to hear an exposition of the Muslim faith, because he was very interested in converting. The official set forth a detailed account of the history and teachings of Islam, and Isaac responded with a virulent, insult-laden attack upon the Prophet Muhammad and the entire religion. "Why do you not renounce the ulcer of this pestilential doctrine and choose the eternal safety of the Christian faith?" he asked.

We are told that the judge, "like someone driven mad, is said to have wept copiously." I always point to this line when teaching Isaac's story. More advanced students might want to talk about the complexities of ninth-century Spain, while others want to get to the "big questions" of religious tolerance, fanaticism, freedom of speech and laws against blasphemy. But before they can talk about any of these things, they need to linger over the judge's tears.

Tears indicate one thing alone: pain. The Memorial goes on to describe the painful execution of Isaac, but the author cannot speak of the suffering martyr without also mentioning the suffering judge. The judge's tears are at the very heart of Isaac's story. Whatever Isaac hoped to accomplish by his actions, he could only do it by wounding the judge.

And while there's plenty of room for speculation, it seems clear that beneath the judge's pain was love. He might have known Isaac before the latter entered the monastery, while he was still working for the government. Perhaps Isaac's feigned interest in conversion aroused hope that an old friendship, strained and lost, might be renewed and deepened. Perhaps the judge felt humiliated. Perhaps he felt betrayed. But whatever their relationship, when he laid out the teaching of Islam, the judge made himself vulnerable, and Isaac took advantage of that vulnerability. The judge shared with Isaac the thing that he loved. And that love was ridiculed.

Love seems to be missing from the media accounts of the fury unleashed by an anti-Islamic video. There's something frustratingly abstract and cerebral about conversations that pit American "freedom of speech" against Islamic anti-blasphemy laws. For example, while David S. Kirkpatrick's recent article for the New York Times does a good job of capturing the pain felt by many Muslims at the video, the way he talks about "religious identity" misses the point of love. Augustine famously argued that a people is "an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love." The same might be said about a religious community -- it is not simply an abstract "identity," but it manifests a shared love. For the first chapter of his book, "On Religion," John Caputo chose the provocative title "Religion is for Lovers," and later he takes up the Augustinian question, "What do I love when I love my God?" All this talk of love might seem strange in a media culture where discussion of religion has largely reverted to a 19th-century fixation on positivism, science and "reason." But the judge's tears suggest that people might be averse to talking about love when they talk about religion precisely because love leaves us vulnerable to pain.

You can find a good example of this fear of love and pain in a cartoon meme I saw on Facebook. It shows two "Islamic Extremists" eager to blow up embassies, and two "Christian Extremists" happy to bomb an abortion clinic. In contrast, two "Atheist Extremists" want to go drink micro-brews and talk about outer space. Compared to their Christian and Muslim counterparts, the atheists in the cartoon look perfectly reasonable and benevolent. In fact, their fantasy is the most violent one of all. They long for outer space, where there are no human beings, no one to love, and thus, no danger of tears.

This cartoon might tempt me to believe that atheists and secularists simply fear, or lack a capacity for love except that I know too many of them who love better than I do. A gift from God, no doubt, and a lesson in humility for me. But even If I can't convince you that love is an effect of God, I can at least point out that when we experience love, we are experiencing the same feelings -- and the same vulnerability to pain -- that others feel when they practice their religion.

I am not looking for some nice sentimental moment when we all throw our arms around each other and sing "Kumbaya." We are genuinely disturbed by other people's loves. As a gay man, my love has disturbed plenty of fellow Christians, and as a practicing Catholic, my love of God disturbs a lot of my gay friends. And as someone with an abiding fondness for Augustinian theology, I am painfully aware that human love is mixed with a lot of other things -- selfishness, greed, the desire to dominate others -- and fear.

But fear will teach us more about living in a religiously plural world than any appeal to reason or law. I am not talking about the fear of reprisal and violence. I am talking about the fear of losing what we love, the vulnerability to pain that love always brings with it. If we think about the judge's tears and ask, "What would move me to weep like this?" we might be a little slower to move others to weep as well -- even if we do so in the name of reason -- or love.

*To my knowledge, the Memorial has never been translated into English. The quotations below are my own translation taken from the edition in Migne's Patrologia Latina 115. An English-language discussion of Isaac and the other martyrs of Cordoba can be found on-line in Chapter Two of Kenneth Baxter Wolf's "Christian Martyrs in Muslim Spain."