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In the catacombs of Rome in the third century, Christians sculpted statues and frescoes that depicted Jesus as a young man carrying a lamb around his neck – expressing in art the parable told in the Gospel of John: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." It is an eloquent metaphor, this good shepherd, but not sufficient by itself. How far physically can the shepherd go in defence of his flock? The statues and the frescoes don't say.

Twenty-five years ago, in the Italian city of Assisi, John Paul II led worshippers from many flocks – the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury, native American Indians smoking peace pipes – in a day of prayer, an unprecedented truce, however brief, in the long and gory history of religious violence in the Western world.

Pope Benedict XVI held another day of prayer last month, again in Assisi, but with a still more inclusive cast of worshippers: Christians, Jews and Muslims, of course, but also Hindus, Taoists, Buddhists, Shintoists, Zoroastrians – and, another first, atheists. For his part, Benedict publicly apologized for the Roman Catholic Church's use of force throughout Christendom.

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"As a Christian, I want to say at this point: Yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge this with great shame." He pledged: "Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again!"

Benedict broke no new ground with these words – John Paul apologized for the church's historical mistakes when he toured the Holy Land in 2000. But Julia Kristeva did break new ground. The controversial Bulgarian-born French philosopher, feminist, author (30 books) and atheist delivered a speech at Assisi that could mark a turning point in the culture wars of the last century. In essence, Ms. Kristeva defined secular humanism, her own faith, as an integral part of "European, Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition" – and hence inseparable, in other words, from the church itself.

You don't have to delve deeply into this text to identify the absent Abrahamic religion. It's not that Ms. Kristeva doesn't respect the Koran. She explicitly does. But she wasn't referring to Islamic scriptures when she asserted that "the moment has come" for Western civilization to embrace unequivocally the moral codes that produced it – and doing so "without weakening them." Her atheism notwithstanding, Ms. Kristeva explicitly aligned secular humanism with Christian humanism, Renaissance humanism and Enlightenment humanism.

In the dark, demented days of the past, the church imagined that heresy was its primary threat – and killed as many heretics as it could. But the intellectual construct was false. Heretics, as Ms. Kristeva demonstrated, are nevertheless believers. In this context, atheists are believers, too – if only when defined as people civilly engaged in an honest search of truth. As the Assisi pilgrimage demonstrated, Benedict (i.e., the church) can work with Ms. Kristeva (i.e., the secular state) in defence of the West's spiritual legacy. This is the intellectual consensus to which Benedict has consistently aspired.

When Urban II proclaimed the first of the Crusades, on Nov. 27, 1095, Christian iconography turned to military, not pastoral, imagery (especially the holy warriors now epitomized by the Knights Templar). Christian art would retain its military imagery for hundreds of years – and hasn't completely shed it yet. In the 1960s and 1970s, liberation theology portrayed Christ as Marxist revolutionary, complete – see Cuban artist Alfredo Rostgaard's Christ Guerrilla – with rifle.

John Milton, the great 17th-century English poet, contributed a crucial component of the "European, Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition" in Paradise Regained, a Socratic dialogue in which Satan tempts Christ – first with wealth, then successively with military power, political achievement and intellectual glory. Christ responds by defining his ambition, and the limits he proposes to place on it. He will seek to end "brute violence and proud tyrannic power," but through reason, not force – "by winning words to conquer willing hearts, and make persuasion do the work of fear."

This renunciation of theocratic force embodies the principle of the separation of church and state, of course – the secular principle that ended religious warfare in Christendom. No preacher or priest has said it more eloquently or more persuasively – although Benedict now says it, once again, more strategically.

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