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Not what it was, but what it does

Regarding the cuisine of the southeastern United States, a local adage warns: "More important than what it is, is what it was." That applies to a stew that might include marsupials, but not to religion.

Critics of Islam quote the saber-rattling suras of the Koran and recount the history of Muslim violence, while apologists retort with peaceful-sounding suras and cite Christian misbehavior. Pope Benedict XVI's September 12 speech provoked a fruitless debate over the remarks of a 14th-century Byzantine emperor about the evils that Mohammed had brought to the world. Nothing ever will be learned, much less proved, by this tedious and sophomoric exercise. Gathering dust half-read on my desk are a number of books recounting the supposed evils of Islam - by Ba'at Yeor, Oriana Fallaci, Serge Trifkovic, and many others. There is not a speck of theological insight in the stack of them.

Western policy toward the Muslim world appears stupid and clumsy because its theological foundations are flawed. It is not what it is, nor what it was, but rather what it does that defines a religion: How does a faith address the paramount concern of human mortality, and what action does it require of its adherents? I addressed these issues under the title Jihad, the Lord's Supper, and eternal life (September 19), explaining that jihad does for Muslims precisely what Communion does for Christians. It is not a doctrine but a sacrament, that is, a holy act that transforms the actor.

Three years ago I reviewed in this space the only recent book on Islam that explained jihad within the religious life of the Muslim faith community, a collection of writings by the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig, who died in 1929. [1] It is available only in German. Rosenzweig's understanding of Islam, to be sure, can be culled from his English-language writings, but a new English translation of his principal work last year was ignored entirely. [2]

Oddly, the US left and the neo-conservative right agree on method as well as outcome, and produce quite similar drivel. Professor Martha Nussbaum, a classicist, has written a new book on Hindu religious violence, as she wrote, "not only to present a case study in the threat to democracy from religious tension, not only to engage Americans in an informed dialogue about India, but also to defuse the inaccurate and unhelpful assumption that Islam is a global monolith bent on violence". That is a silly premise, for violence by other religious groups does not bear upon the accusation that Islam is inherently violent.

The neo-conservative Max Boot, an enthusiast of imperial small wars, wrote last week, "Religions are not monolithic. They have no fixed, eternal identity. Until the 18th century, Christianity was a militant faith whose adherents did not hesitate to kill 'heathens'. Throughout the Middle Ages, Islamic states usually offered greater tolerance to religious minorities and were more open to secular learning than their Christian neighbors." [3] Really? Is Boot talking about the Almohad Dynasty that conquered Spain in 1148 and offered the Jews conversion or death? Were the Almohads "more open to secular learning" than the contemporary Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II? The fellow deserves a D-minus in a freshman history course.

Theological illiteracy is epidemic in the neo-conservative camp. The American Enterprise Institute's Iran expert, former US Central Intelligence Agency officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, thinks that "Islam is akin to biblical Judaism in accentuating the unnuanced, transcendent awe of God". Gerecht is ge-wrong. Worst of all is Norman Podhoretz of Commentary magazine, who insists that Islam takes even a stricter approach to idolatry than Judaism. [4] These are the blunders of secular intellectuals who approach religion from the outside. Because the neo-conservatives propose to democratize the Middle East, they also must insist that Islam can be twisted into the pretzel that they prefer.

From the left, Professor Juan Cole, a prominent Muslim apologist, summarized the problem as follows: "The problem with the pope's Regensburg lecture is that it laid out three intellectual traditions as unchanging, undifferentiated essences and then contrasted them with one another, to the edification of his own position. There aren't any essences." [5]

Islam, in Cole's post-modern view of things, has no "essence", and therefore means whatever anyone wants it to mean. He is quite right to object to the undergraduate exercise of cataloguing objectionable aspects of Islam and presenting them as an "essence", but to say that there "are no essences" is the same as saying that "there is no Professor Juan Cole". Such are the absurdities of the post-modern left.

So much for the Americans of the left and the right: they do not know, and they cannot learn. Irving Kristol, the "godfather of neo-conservatism", once told me that he had wanted to learn German so that he might read Rosenzweig. If Kristol, the best (and perhaps the only really keen) mind among the neo-conservatives, had done so, we all might have been spared a great deal of embarrassment. As things stand, the United States is condemned to trample about the Middle East until sufficient grief and loss wake them up. In all fairness to the Americans, it took World War I to awaken Karl Barth from the complacency of liberal Protestantism, or to shake Franz Rosenzweig out of the coma of Hegelian philosophy.

Pope Benedict XVI is a man of vast erudition and insight, but his September 12 speech fell far short of its purpose. Since then the pope has offered so many qualifications that it is difficult to know quite what he intended. It was an act of great personal and intellectual courage on the pope's part to state that Islam violates reason. "In the beginning was the Logos," the pope cited John 1:1, translating logos as "reason". But why was there a beginning at all? That is, why did God bother to create the world? The mainstream Islamic answer, going back to the 11th-century sage Muhammed al-Ghazali, is that Allah bloody well felt like it. He did not have to, and might as well not have. As Benedict observed, Allah is "absolutely transcendent", that is, absolutely capricious. It is this arbitrary and capricious God, the pope implied, who demands conversion by threat of violence.

At Regensburg Benedict sought to identify reason in Greek philosophy with the god of the Old Testament: "The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply declares 'I am,' already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates' attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy."

But the god of the Gospel of St John who "so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son" is quite different from Socrates' god. Although Socrates (in Timaeus) has clever things to say about how the world was created, he has little to say about why it was created. Christianity believes that God created the world in an act of love; the Jewish sages (as Franz Rosenzweig noted) debated whether God created the world out of lovingkindness or righteousness. Muslims through the ages have mocked the Judeo-Christian idea that the Creator of the Universe has a special love for the weak, the oppressed, the crippled, powerless: Allah rewards those who do great deeds in his name. He may have mercy on the miserable, but his favorites are those who fight in his name. You will find all of this in Rosenzweig.

In this respect the Muslims are quite right: the Christian idea in a fundamental respect is not a reasonable one at all. In fact, the Muslim concept of Allah is very close to the Greek notion of divinity. The Greeks loved the beautiful and the strong, and despised the weak and ugly. That was as true for Socrates as for the most depraved and effeminate Hellenistic tyrant. For all the wonders of Greek thought, there is not a jot or tittle in all the writings of the philosophers that suggests the slightest degree of sympathy for the cripples, prostitutes and publicans to whom Jesus ministered. That is the great gulf fixed between Islam on one hand, and Judaism and Christianity on the other.

In the beginning, therefore, was an act of love by God, an act that seems ridiculous within the world view of the Greeks. "In the beginning was the Logos," Johann Wolfgang von Goethe argued, should be rendered, "In the beginning was the Deed," the act of love. Allah's aversion to the embarrassing pathos of the Judeo-Christian god, who - incomprehensibly to Muslims - suffers along with the least of his creatures, resembles the god of the Greek philosophers, the Prime Mover who himself cannot be moved. It is easy to argue that Islamic medieval philosophy resembles that of the Greeks far more than its Christian counterpart.

The trouble is that Benedict is fighting a two-front war, an exercise in which Germans traditionally have done quite poorly. He wants to oppose a reasoned sort of Christianity to the irrationality of Islam. Benedict comes from a country that was undone by a perverse sort of voluntarism, namely the exaltation of the individual will by the German neo-pagans. [6] The notion that God began with an act of will, that is, an act of love, makes the pope deeply uncomfortable. In fact, he took a public swipe at Goethe's rendering, "In the beginning was the Deed," for just this reason.

In some ways Goethe was a much better theologian than Benedict. In another context I presented his Faust as the modern Book of Job. [7] Benedict comes to the Muslims attempting to argue philosophy and doctrine, and the Muslim world responds with an existential act: a jihad against the pope. Goethe was right: in the beginning was the deed, the act of love on the part of the Judeo-Christian god, as opposed to Allah's act of caprice. The pope's confusion and wrongfootedness during the past two weeks, sadly, are the result of flawed theology. He would do well to take a couple of days off with a copy of Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption.

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