Thursday, September 21, 2006

Reasoning With the Pope

Keywords: Pope Benedict; George Friedman; Muslims; Vatican; immigration; rationality; Greek philosophy; Islam; transcendence; Chinese horse story; Richard Handler; European culture; Al Gore; Monica Lewinsky; Iraq; causality.

I keep getting into debates about theology lately that all boil down to the same issue: whether God ever makes mistakes. Maybe I’d better work on this question here, for it came up again Tuesday night.

It happened at the Peace Magazine editorial meeting after I mentioned an article by analyzing ’s recent speech. In it the pope (see photo) had quoted a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor, who had asserted that had introduced only “evil and inhuman teachings,” such as commanding his followers to spread the faith by the sword.

As half the world knows now, this speech provoked a public outcry from , as indeed, Friedman maintains, the pope had expected and probably even intended. (Some other commentators think not. They say that, unlike his predecessor, this new pope lacks a staff who read and bluntly criticize his speeches in advance. Hence he may have been surprised by the reception of his academic lecture.)

Friedman attempts to explain Benedict’s ulterior motives, offering two possible political accounts. The first one involves the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel’s fight against Hezbollah. In all of these, the US has been on the losing side lately. Though the Church opposed Bush’s attack on Iraq from the onset, Friedman thinks the Vatican would not want the US actually to lose that war now; too many Catholics in the Middle East would be adversely affected. Hence, according to this explanation, Benedict’s harsh quotations about Islam were meant to buttress Bush’s argument that the West is involved in a “clash of civilizations” that may last for generations.

Friedman’s other explanation for the pope’s apparent blooper had to do with the ongoing wave of Muslim immigration to Europe. Pope John Paul II had been exceedingly tolerant toward Islam, extending courtesies with exceptional generosity. Many Europeans, on the other hand, were becoming frustrated by the militancy of the Muslim immigrants. As Friedman writes,

“The Vatican was becoming increasingly estranged from the church body — particularly working and middle class Catholics — and its fears….Thus, with his remarks, he moved toward closer alignment with those who are uneasy about Europe’s Muslim community — without adopting their own, more extreme, sentiments. That move increases his political strength among these groups and could cause them to rally around the church. At the same time, the pope has not locked himself into any particular position. And he has delivered his own warning to Europe’s Muslims about the limits of tolerance.”

Well, from that perspective, maybe Friedman is right: the pope did not actually blunder, but made an astute speech, while leaving room to disavow it, should he need to, on the grounds that he was quoting someone whose views he did not personally share.

But the speech was really a theological commentary – a fact that Friedman does not mention. I had read the whole speech because , a member of the editorial board of Peace Magazine, had e-mailed it to me, commenting that she liked it a lot. There are two different ways in which Muslims might plausibly answer the pope’s critique. I'll explore both.

Of the two replies, probably the most persuasive to the average reader is the one from Oxford Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan in today’s Globe and Mail. He rightly notes that most readers who took offense at the pope’s speech seem not to understand his main argument. He was attempting to show Europeans that they possess a common cultural identity that unites two great, compatible traditions: Christian theology and rational . This European identity sets them apart from Muslims, who accept neither the Christian faith nor Greek and whose culture therefore is fundamentally un-European. It is this claim that, to Ramadan’s mind, Muslims must refute, especially since already, and perhaps other societies later, demand to be admitted formally to the European Union. Ramadan admits that the street demonstrations seem to prove the pope’s very point. As he writes, what we are witnessing is

“mass protest characterized by an uncontrollable outpouring of emotion that, in the process, ends up providing living proof that Muslims cannot engage in reasonable debate, and that verbal aggression and violence are more the rule than the exception.”

It is up to Islamic intellectuals to prove the contrary, he says, reminding us that Benedict’s interpretation of history if remarkably biased, omitting as it does the great contributions of rationalist Islamic thinkers such as “Al-Farabi (10th century), Avicenna (11th), Averroes (12th), al-Ghazali (12th), Ash-Shatibi (12th), and Ibn Khaldun (14th).”

I have to admit that I have read none of these Islamic scholars except (barely) Still, I accept Ramadan’s argument and heartily join his aspiration for an inclusive resolution of this estrangement on the following basis: “Muslims must show that they share the core values on which Europe and the West are founded.”

Still, it seems to me that Ramadan has himself omitted a significant element from the pope’s argument – one that should be confronted. I don’t know enough to take a position concerning Islamic theology, but Joan Montgomerie has some training in this area and was right, I think, to single out the pope’s significant point.

In his speech, Benedict claims that there’s a reason why Muslims, far more than Christians, can employ violent methods of converting others to their faith. It has to do with a dispute concerning the nature of God. Benedict depicts the Christian notion in this way:

“The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature….
“But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up in any of our categories, even that of rationality… [Islamic scholar Ibn Hazn] went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.”

Ramadan did not mention this argument – that Christians believe God is rational (which is why they think human beings should try to be rational), but that Muslims do not expect God to be rational. His or her mind is utterly beyond anything we can imagine and we should not even try to fathom the logic behind his or her decisions.

Well, all right. I can respect that . As Joan pointed out, Muslims are not the only ones who regard God as totally transcendent; Orthodox Christians take the same position. And I feel a certain attraction to that viewpoint myself, mainly because it is the only theology that would offer any answer to the .

Only a week ago I was conversing with about this very problem. Zeitlin is a long-time colleague of mine in the University of Toronto department. He has written a book about , and I too wrote a bit about Job in my own recent book, but we disagreed in the end. According to Zeitlin, the book of Job is utterly unlike any other book of the Bible. Its account of God is scandalous. The Lord makes a bet with Satan that Job has so much faith that nothing can shake him. Satan is allowed to do terrible things to torment Job, who eventually does challenge God to give a rational account of his cruel mistreatment. The Lord cannot do so. To Irving, this is an appalling story that could only shake the faith of any fair-minded reader. Why should we accept a malevolent, capricious, irrational deity of that sort? We should not!

My reply to Irving was simply to acknowledge the appropriateness of the explanation offered by the voice from the whirlwind. Basically, God said (as I paraphrase it in my own mind): You were not around when I created the universe, You have an extremely partial understanding of reality. If I did explain it, you would be unable to comprehend anyhow. So you have no better option than to accept — on the basis of faith alone — that I am good.

Job does. Irving does not, but Job does. And I do too. I believe that there’s an intelligence in the universe. If I could understand it, I think I’d be satisfied. But I can’t understand it and neither can you.

However, that particular acknowledgment — my acceptance of the vast superiority of God over human rationality — does not clarify anything about the Muslim’s position on the use of violence rather than rationality to convert others to Islam. Violence should be rejected just because it is irrational. One does not need to believe that God is rational in order to believe that human disputes should be managed nonviolently.

Besides, I don’t necessarily believe God is “irrational” — but only that I am incapable of seeing her reasons for what is going on. This is because every chain of causality stretches infinitely far into the past and future. Who am I to judge the present situation, anyhow?

Consider, for example, the famous Chinese story about the horse. A farmer has only one horse and it gets loose one day and runs away. (You’re unlucky, commiserate the neighbors. The farmer says, “Maybe.”) But soon the horse returns, leading a string of wild ponies. *You’re lucky, say the neighbors. “Maybe,” says the farmer.) In trying to tame the wild ponies, the farmer’s son is tossed off and breaks his leg. (You’ve unlucky, say the neighbors. “Maybe,” says the farmer.) Then the local warlord decides to go to war and conscripts all the able-bodied young men to fight for him. Because of his broken leg, the farmer’s son is exempted. (*You’re lucky,” say the neighbors. “Maybe,” replies the farmer.)

Suppose there’s a God who’s making all these things happen, Is he rational or irrational? Is he working for us or against us? You and I can see it either way. So could the farmer. So could Job. I choose to see this as a benign process, but there can never be any proof. So don’t base your commitment to rationality on this flimsy type of evidence.

Along the same logical lines, my friend Richard Handler wrote a witty essay recently arguing that Monica Lewinsky was responsible for the war in Iraq. He wrote that

“people today talk of ‘Bush’s War,’ meaning Iraq. But let’s rewind the tape of history and se whose war it really is.

“If had not run for president against George W. Bush in 2000 (as many of his admirers pleaded) it is very likely that , the Democrat, would have been elected.

“Gore might well have invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. But, as a more cautious man, more steeped in Washington’s ways, it’s highly unlikely Gore would have made that Bush leap of faith and invaded Iraq as well.

“So it’s ‘Nader’s War.’ Not Bush’s. But let’s unroll that tape even further.

If Gore had not been so puritanical and not disowned after the affair, thereby keeping his former boss from much of the campaign trail, it’s likely Clinton would have brought in a bigger African-American vote to offset Nader.

“So we could call this ‘Gore’s War.’ Or is it Clinton’s, or maybe Lewinsky’s. That’s my favorite.”

It’s my favorite too. But it leaves me wondering: How would Benedict or the 14th century Byzantine fellow explain either the Chinese farmer’s story or Lewinsky’s Iraq War as plots constructed by a rational creator of the universe? (Beats me.)

I have faith too, but that’s not the same thing as a belief in any particular theology. And, although I believe in rationality (more or less), it has little or nothing to do with faith.


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