October 3, 2006


Not what it was, but what it does (Spengler, 10/03/06, Asia Times)

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.

The Pope is fighting the wrong battle--trying to use Reason against Islam will leave him unable to oppose the damage Reason has done Europe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 3, 2006 12:00 AM

Reason, in the sense of it's compatibility with the western, faith-based concepts of natural law and ordered liberty, seems to have been Benedict's point. Faith, divorced from reason is a dead end while the absolute dependence on either is the problem.The Holy Father's concern is the unfolding tragedy of modern, secular Europe rejecting it's cultural foundation as traditional, coercive Islam rejects the good that comes from the human capacity for 'reasonability'. The pope is not recommending a reliance on 'Reason' in any absolutist sense.

Posted by: T at October 3, 2006 11:37 AM

If there's such a thing as natural law then it isn't reasonable--that would be a contradiction in terms.

Posted by: oj at October 3, 2006 11:41 AM

Spengler is wrong again.

Obvously, if you are founding a snake-oil operation, you will posit a God who acts arbitrarily. If someone asks, "Why would God decree that I should divorce my wife so that she might become a concubine of the maximum leader?", as maximum leader, you want to be able to say, "Shut up and sign here: God doesn't have to make sense!"

Please, let us not have to descend into confusion between freedom and arbitrariness.

Move on to Spengler's deeper error concerning the superior "rationality" of pagan thought over the Christian. The course of history should have put paid to this childish nonsense.

It turns out that the Christain way of thinking and acting is objectively superior to the pagan--it works better. This is because it maximizes the balance of freedom and order by means of internal rather that external restraints on human passions. From the standpoint of reason, it is unreasonable to forfeit the advantages of faith merely to enjoy the narcissistic (there's that word again!) satisfaction of feeling reasonable.

That puerile and limited conception of reason would make perfect sense to--Andrew Sullivan.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 3, 2006 11:56 AM

No, they're external. God even wrote them down.

Posted by: oj at October 3, 2006 12:03 PM

Is listening to the call of conscience 'reasonable'? Is there such a thing?

Posted by: T at October 3, 2006 12:24 PM

Conscience is just what we call doing what God told us is right.

Posted by: oj at October 3, 2006 12:58 PM

So, your faith is reasonable, I take it.

Posted by: T at October 3, 2006 1:30 PM

No, aesthetic.

The Reason vs Faith question is as simple as this: a baby lies before you, does it matter if you crush his skull with a hammer?

Reason answers, "No."

Faith answers, "Utterly."

The only basis for choosing between the two is that one is ugly and the other beautiful.

Posted by: oj at October 3, 2006 1:47 PM

A conscience detached from both faith AND reason is purely subjective and that of a sociopath. What's ugly to you is sublime to another. Reasonableness and reason are not the same. Reasonableness does not pretend to stand on it's own.

Posted by: T at October 3, 2006 3:43 PM

Yes, to have a conscience is just to take what God said on faith. You can easily reason your way there. And it's entirely reasonable to be faithful.

It doesn't much matter how you arrive at accepting the objective standards that God laid out as long as you get there. Subjectivity is just departure from that path in reliance on the self. You can reason your way there and it's reasonable to do so. All you have to do is reject faith and embrace ugliness.

Posted by: oj at October 3, 2006 3:53 PM

The belief in 'reason' as the highest good, among other 'faiths', has produced quite a bit of ugliness. Faith with reason is required. That was Benedict's point.

Posted by: T at October 3, 2006 4:17 PM

Reason is merely a function of faith. He spoke as a European instead of a believer.

Posted by: oj at October 3, 2006 4:27 PM