Thursday, January 03, 2008

Religion Within Reason

I would recommend this article only for those with a taste for some of the more intricate arcana of religious debate. Normally, my tolerance here is extremely limited, but the issue here thrust itself into our hearts, minds and/or faces in late 2006. It concerns the address given in Regensburg by Pope Benedict concerning the relative status in modern life of Faith and Reason. Most of his remarks were actually addressed to the West and to what he sees as our overly rigid division between the two which thus weakens both.

However, most of the attention went to his characterisation of Islam, or rather, to his quotation of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus. The point he was making was the different status Reason has in the two religions. He said,

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that 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 practise idolatry.
The Pope was, in fact, calling for dialogue on this, and other issues. Dialogue was not the initial reaction he got. However, later, some more sensible people (138 of them, to be precise) wrote the Pope an open letter called "A Common Word between Us and You", which began a correspondence, which will lead to a meeting this spring between the Pope and a delegation from among the writers of the Muslim open letter.

In any case, the article I am steering towards, "Religion Within Reason" by Mark Gould, discusses both the Pope's position and the response contained in the Muslim open letter. I won't try to summarise it; it's way too complex. However, it's worth the effort in order to understand the gap between a religion that has absorbed the Enlightenment and one that hasn't.

22 comments:

Riri said...

I think it is the other way round - enlightenment has absorbed religion.

NoolaBeulah said...

That was the Pope's point about Western Europe. For his own church, he can call on a very long rationalist tradition, which reached its height in the 13th Century with Thomas Aquinas, but which went into retreat in the reaction to the Englightenment itself. For him, it is matter of balance because the one should reinforce the other rather than one dominating entirely à la Dawkins.

Hazar Nesimi said...

I am actually not on the same view as Muslim Rationalists of 10th century- Mutazili were. MArk Gould wrong here - as they were FOR dominance of reason of revelation, even indicating that Qu'ran was created. I think that Revelation and Reason are in the balance but understanding of God is outside and beyond any reason and intellect. Understanding GOd with intellect is a futile exercise. BUT Reason has its place in its interpretations of reasonableness of actions from the Holy book and emply ijtihad to judge them, although I am not inclined to live by people's interpretations. I have sensed in this paper a disengenous responce, but I understand where it comes from.
Muslim rationalists do have a wide literature to refer to those said Mutazila and Falsafa including Averroes and Avicenna themselves who rationalize amongt the lines of Greek Philosophy.

Riri said...

I totally agree with Nazim on this, I don't know where the confusion stems from. Islam very much discourages any attempt to "understand" God because any attempt to do so is doomed to failure - God cannot be completely "grasped" by human reason alone. But that is fine, because we can apply our reasoning more effectively to other things that are fit to sustain this reasoning, things we directly experience or observe. The Qur'an on the other hand is a divine revelation according to Muslim belief, but some verses clearly beg human interpretation, that does not render them any less divine in source. Otherwise it wouldn't have been called Qur'an (meaning to be read). In addition, Muslims have the Prophet's life as a practical example of how a good Muslim should be. But again, this is historical knowledge and the significance of context when dealing with history cannot be over-emphasized. For me, and am sure for the many Muslims, Islam's message is astoundingly simple and clear - perhaps that is why people tend to over-complicate it, perhaps there is a presumption that a religion has to be complicated and mysterious with only a very few select being able to get to its divine depths - I don't know why some people think that but it sounds pagan, like those pre-historic people who wwhorshipped natural phenomena just because they could not understand them. I see no need for a clash to exist between Islam (or any religion revealed by God) and reason simply because reason is a major part of what makes us human.

Riri said...

Can I just add in response to Nazim's comment that he is "not inclined to live by people's interpretations" : it would be unreasonnable to refute a rationally-arrived at interpretation. It all depends on the evidence at hand and what facts support the interpretation, that is why you get many views from which Muslims are free to choose from. But it must be pointed out that there are fundamental tennets of Islam which nobody disagrees about, they are very unambiguously stated in the Qur'an, they are mainly to do with the fundamentals of Faith. Other specific which change with the times are the ones about which people have been disagreeing about - but that is fine, it does not mean Islam is at fault, on the contrary, it means it is a dynamic religion. Disagreement on specifics is not counter-Islamic - Muslims need to understand this as a matter of urgency.

Riri said...

I find de Chardin's attempts at reconciling faith with reason amongst the most poignant Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

NoolaBeulah said...

The Pope was not saying that we can understand God with reason. It was about the way God is viewed in Islam and in Catholicism, or rather, the relationship between God and Reason in the two faiths.

Put baldly, it goes like this. The Christian God is not going to act contrary to reason - man has the faculty of reason because it is part of the nature of God. The Islamic God, on the other hand, is "absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality". That is, God's will may well be contrary to man's rationality.

Why is this important? I think the Pope's point is that if you're trying to argue someone out of 'ultimate acts', the Christian will have, aside from the imperatives of the faith, the tools of reason, at one with the nature of God, to wield. Whereas, if this interpretation of Islam is correct, this tool is not available to Muslims, who must work only with the weapons granted by the Koran and the Hadith. If submission is the surrender of your will to that of another, no matter what that other will may impose, however 'unreseasonable', then you have a problem. You cannot argue even against the most unnatural act a living creature can commit (one always expressly forbidden by the Church): self-inflicted death.

As I understand it, that is the Pope's argument. If you replace the word 'science' with 'reason' in the following, it sums it up: "Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes." Pope John Paul II

This the Pope puts down to the Greek influence, which started early and remains.

Hazar Nesimi said...

I will have to agree with this definition for I do not see how God can be bound to a category of rationality, or in fact by any category at all. This is not my Definition of God - His Justice as it is said is God's Justice, unfathomable to Man.
Unfortunately for us, for Universe is neither moral or immoral in our sense, it just is. People die early, get killed - and again this is neither good or bad. It just is.

THat is all fine, but - as a practical man - you can say what application this has to combact unreasonableness of people's actions, if any. Given that both reason and senses are part of our gift, and both have to be employed to judge actions. But let me tell you, the people who commit worst crimes are those who apply logic and reason to a faulty premise, not those who accept fait accompli of Nature.To me Bin Laden and Lenin are in the same camp of cold blooded, calculating monsters. They value reason supremely above other things.

If you touched upon Ibn Hazm, - in your quote -he stressed the importance of sense perception as he realized that human reason can be flawed. While he recognized the importance of reason, since the Qur'an itself invites reflection, he argued that this reflection refers mainly to revelation and sense data, since the principles of reason are themselves derived entirely from sense experience. He concludes that reason is not a faculty for independent research or discovery, but that that sense perception should be used in its place, an idea that forms the basis of empiricism. This is what a mystic - or sufi if you wish is doing to live by God's Law.

Riri said...

Again, I agree with Nazim in the above. Except that I disagree about splitting Islam to different schools (Sufi, Sunni, Shi'a etc) I think Islam is fundamentally the same, we are all Muslims in all senses of the word. Now, God cannot be bound by human rationality, Islam is quite clear on this. But I don't see why this view is regarded as the cause for unreasonable behaviour to be permitted on Islamic grounds - we are not God, we are creatures of God who are endowed with reason, intuition and many perception tools. Why are we endowed with them - to use them to live our lives the best way we can following clear guidelines described in revelation. We have to make value judgements and pray for his guidance precisely because we surrender to the will of God, for he willed us to be humans, not aspiring-to-be-God or thinking-we-are-God creatures.

Islamic history is packed with people asking the prophet for all sorts of questions about the reason behind such and such ruling, although we accept the Qur'an as the revealed word of God, we are certainly not dicouraged from reflecting on the reasons behind some commands, especially those which deal with human interactions with their surroundings.

When Muslims are required to surrender to God no matter how unreasonable it may seem, it is certainly nothing to do with our actions, but rather to do with incomprehensible events and disasters which seem outside our control. It is common sense, otherwise I can go and commit the most horrendous crimes and say I was merely surrendering to the will of God. How stupid can you get? The idea is to surrender to the will of God simply by sincerely believing that he is the Almighty Creator and the all Powerful and Wise, everything is utlimately from Him and by decree from Him.

Sometimes I think Islam is a paradox, on your journey to faith, you have to try your best to reflect about the signs of God's greatness and wisdom, all phenomena you can sense and perceive, but equally you have to relentlessly restrain yourself from extrapolating your reasonning as a human being to try and unfathom "the reasonning of God". In the sense that, you can't ask questions like: "why do some children die at a young age, how could God allow that to happen?", because they imply that God is human-like and experiences human-like emotions. Here a Muslim simply says "I surrender to the will of God, He does as He sees Just and He is free to do what He intends in His creation". This is the pinnacle of faith and trust in God.

Riri said...

I sense that NoolaBeulah's argument is steering towards the phenomenon of suicide bombing and the jihad aspect of Islam. Are you saying that Muslims do not or cannot resort to reason to prevent young people from blowing themselves up simply because of the verses in the Qur'an which invite Muslims to fight unbelievers?

Riri said...

With regards to empiricism - can I just add to what Nazim mentioned that this is why Muslims of the 8th-16th century pioneered the empirical method of making sense of the world - it was clear for them that that is the best and "safest" way we could use and apply our reasonning. Anything outside our senses reach would be pointless to try and reason with because it is simply beyond the world we live in and experience.

Hazar Nesimi said...

Actually you have touched upon a subject where there is real discord between two frames of referece - not a division i have to stress;, and a reason I can not fully comprehend a bit of Christian theology - concerning God that is Loving, Unconditionally Good and Tender, like a meek lamb. It simply can not be - for in some ways that means anthropomorphing God. This creates difficulties for theologians - to explain disasters, death and generally bad things happening to good people. I know Christians who turned away from God, after witnessing destruction wrecked tsunami in Thailand.

I think we veering off the topic here - but in essense, herein lies a difference in emphasis...
Non-muslims who are not interested in eschatology are concerned with one thing here that Muslims do not or cannot resort to reason to prevent young suicide bombing and radicalism. I usually tend to think that this is impossible to stop, simply because . No amount of interpretation and ijtihad and will stop radicalism, of course you should continue emphasize- and Islamic thinkers, except few, have not yet reason to the occasion, being dormant, content, and too removed from reaities of today. What will stop it are two things - harsh laws concerning radicalism and good dynamic economy. It will weather away -when and if peope's basic concerns will be addressed = when prosperity, jobs and most of all - education catches up with population. It will also slow down, if Saudi Arabia - stops exporting its Salafi teachings outside the borders of the country - I am sorry but I have to say it. I am not the fan of Muslims subdivision, but it being a fact of life can not be denied.

NoolaBeulah said...

I cannot disagree with much that you say here.

“What will stop it are two things - harsh laws concerning radicalism and good dynamic economy.”

Exactly. I’m not sure what the practical consequences of the Pope’s view are supposed to be. He started off on the subject of coercion and conversion; I think he was placing this discourse on reason within the context of relations between religions, conversions, apostasy and the reactions to it.

"Anything outside our senses reach would be pointless to try and reason with because it is simply beyond the world we live in and experience."

But the whole point of the scientific method is that our senses are not trustworthy, which is why you must rely so much on quantification and verification by others. In fact, many of the greatest breakthroughs (eg Einstein), and, as far as I can see, most of modern Physics is worked out theoretically and/or imaginatively and subsequently confirmed by the method.

To reply how I think the Pope would.
"I do not see how God can be bound to a category of rationality, or in fact by any category at all."

God is not 'bound' by any category - it's just that Reason is part of his nature and this is one of the links between God and man. Nor does this mean that we can understand all of God's purposes. We clearly can't. Because he is far more that all our categories; but not 'unreasonable'.

- about the anthropomorphic God and bad things happening to good people"

This has always been a difficult area for just the reasons you give. But it may give a hint of what the Pope was getting at. The aspect of the 'loving' God is essential to Christianity; otherwise there’s no point in Christ. This God-Man sacrifice underlines the closeness of God to creation, both in his love of creation and the qualities that allow his creation to ascend to him, qualities, you might say, that the creation shares with the creator. The God-like part of man is not just his faith, but all his faculties, especially reason dedicated to the truth – the idea being that this path to the truth will lead as well to God. His creation is amenable to our faculties because his creation is part of him. (But I may be completely off target here – it’s so long since I concerned myself with these things.)

Riri said...

Yes- what I meant by our senses is to use them to take repeated observations of our surrounding then use induction to draw laws or theories out of them that describe and help us understand our world - empiricism.

I don't think the problem is radicalism - some radicalists have initiated positive change in human history. The problem is terrorism, or targetting innocent civilians to achieve political aims. This is an old problem, not a modern phenomena. Even suicide bombing is not a new phenomenon, it has been used in the past by rebels (Sri Lankan Tamil tigers for example).

How do you counter-act terrorism, which is in fact a cold, calculated, rational strategy to achieve an aim: there is nothing that pushes people to panic and agree to otherwise "unreasonable" things more than fear. It is an ancient strategy, used in all sorts of contexts, soft forms (propaganda, sensationalism) and hard forms (terrorism acts).

You say we have to provide education and a better economy for people, how come then there have never been any terrorists in times when 95% of the people were illeterate and slept in sheds? The problem is more complex and "global" than you seem to suggest.

NoolaBeulah said...

You're right that terrorism sometimes does work and that economic and social conditions do not explain its appearance.

But isn't that just what we have been discussing? Even though the Tamil Tigers were the pioneers of suicide bombing, outside Sri Lanka it is almost entirely a Muslim phenomenon and is the pointy end of the stick of Muslim unrest in many regions. The question naturally arises as to what the connection is between the unrest, the bombings and Islam itself.

I have thought for some time that, at least in part, it a rebellion against the secular and technological culture we call globalisation, and that there is a line of descent leading back to the Luddites of this country.

That might be one line of descent. What are the others, and which lead into the heart of Islam?

You're right also in saying that education and economic progress will not solve the problem by themselves. But those two words are just shorthand for the vast social and mental changes that need to take place before an economy can be successful.

Riri said...

I disaprove of the general insistance on linking terrorism to Islam, it is awfully unfair and am sure many people who insist on reinforcing that linkage in people's minds (especially those ignorant of Islam) know very well that it is a very unfair linkage to make. Either that or they do not have any knowledge of Islamic history.

The key is the Middle East happenings since many years - it has been a long accumulative phenomenon. All the frustration and the hopeless resentment has been building up gradually and guess what because Muslims are as human as any other people on Earth, there came a day where they blew up. Their governments did not help them, they never did anything of what they were supposed to be doing, just cashed in.

What is the link with Islam? Validation. These people being Muslim, they naturally turned to their religion to seek validation. Same with crusades, same with Nazis same with everyone who committed abhorent acts in the name of what they hold as sacrosanct.

If this was an inherent aspect of Islam, why have 14 centuries had to elapse before Muslims finally got it in a spectacular explosion (of fireworks)?

Hazar Nesimi said...

You see, most people in the West - hell in the East as well - would rarely go back centuries for explanations of current trends, they are ignorant of Islam, they rarely read (of course not Nooulabeulah - I am generalizing, guys, don't get me wrong) - they simplistically think if there is a problem then it requires a fast solution not to inconvenience them. I insist again that is completely useless to fight with terrorists by Islamic methods - renouncing them, discussing with them intricacies of this or that Quranic point =They have to be rounded up, arrested and the mosques they preach at, have to be closed. At the same time - Muslim countries have to stop being static, this is the main thing. I still think that, where education permeates all aspects of society - where society - starting with government - encourages independence, self-reliance, enteurprenership and innovation Islam specifically has nothing against this kind of self-expression, it is all for it. Take Egypt - it suffered so much being a half-modernized half-colony of Britain. After that it was plunged yet again into Nasserist populism for another 30 years. Or Algeria - 40 years of socialism did not make for a prosperous country. There was nothing Islamic in them - but there was inherent Eastern despotism. What has happened now - which was not so in the past- is that we have to adjust with complete and dominant domination of the West in all aspects of Life - questions and recriminations fly about - it makes some people think how to improve our lot, and others how spoil everything and self-destruct. THey are doomed, and Islam has doomed them to oblivion.

Riri said...

It is obvious that terrorists have to be fought and neutralised, no two would disagree about that.

My point was that the way to do that is not by reforming Islam, which is what external pressure is driving towards - the argument goes that terrorism is inherently islamic (as an aspect of jihad) and therefore Islam has to be reformed - miraculous solution to Muslim suicide bombers. I mean, come on, how naive can you get? Anyone who thinks along those lines is either ignorant or has as a major aim to fight Islam one way or another and is taking the terrorism phenomenon as an "excuse" to persuade the masses to turn against anything Islamic.

Riri said...

Did you know that the US demanded that any mention of jihad be banned from educational syllabi in Muslim countries?

Does that sound like a solution to you?

Imagine a young Muslim who has never heard of jihad at school or anywhere, then suddenly he hears about it at some point in his life, he feels betrayed and fooled, he picks up a gun and joins the "freedom fighters" - solution backfired.

The problem is that Muslims have put their religion on the shelf and forgot about it, when they came out of their shell and were confronted by the secular existentialist questions of the Godless West, they didn't know what foot to stand on, they were completely at loss, they realised they didn't have a clue about their religion. Some went back to basics and started reading for themselves, others went to mosques and started listening to bearded strangers.

Add to that the anxiety of an uncertain future and the desolation in Palestine, Iraq, the threat of an advancing neo-crusader-wave. It was a timed bomb waiting to go off, from the day Palestine fell. Maybe even before that.

Hazar Nesimi said...

"Add to that the anxiety of an uncertain future and the desolation in Palestine, Iraq, the threat of an advancing neo-crusader-wave. It was a timed bomb waiting to go off, from the day Palestine fell. Maybe even before that"

Solution - is to grind teeth and persevere in our faith, work on self-betterment in the life and in our religion. Come into balance between modernity and Tradition. Maintain the balance above all else...Work, work and work again. Do not pick up a fight, or you lose.

Riri said...

Yes, indeed.

You know what am thinking, am thinking it is funny that our initial comments were about the value of using reason in one's faith and religious beliefs. But in the end, it seems we need less reason and more compassion, empathy and emotion. Terrorist acts are cold blooded egoetical and rational endeavours, people going on about rationalising faith are barking up the wrong tree. The most elementary basis of faith is love for one another and all creation, compassion and empathy for the sake of and by way of glorifying God. That's the essence of all divinely revealed religions, it is very simple, so we have to make it complicated by seeking to apply "reason" to it. Isn't it funny.

Hazar Nesimi said...

Exactly what I was "preaching". In the Lives of Others - a great movie by the way - the protagonists exclaism that Lenin could not have been ALL bad if he listened to Beethoven, "he was so such a cultured European man". Hitler was vegan - he loved his pet dog Blondie. The same way Muslim ask - terrorists can not be really muslims and show no empathy, pray to God yet have no mercy. But they do and they coldly calculate all of their moves.