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Category Archives: Rationalism
Posted: March 24, 2020 at 5:23 am
Actress Gal Gadot recorded a video in which she and a bunch of celebrity friends like Natalie Portman and Mark Ruffalo sang an inspirational song to cheer people up during the coronavirus pandemic and associated social isolation and economic collapse. Many critics quickly rushed to mock Gadot's off-key rendition. I'd like to take a minute to dump on the song she chose. John Lennon's "Imagine" has always been terrible.
"Imagine" was originally released in 1971, with full overblown Phil Spector muzak production and Lennon's voice drenched in unnecessary echo effects. The repetitive keyboard hook is as ostentatiously glib as the worst work of Lennon's Beatle co-writer Paul McCartney, and the string section saws away with sententious sentimentality. The tune is simultaneously pompous and simplistic. It's no accident that Gadot decided this was the song that would best project her irritating smugness to the world.
And then there are the lyrics. Inspired by his wife Yoko Ono's poetry, Lennon wrote a paean to the liberating and pacifist potential of atheism. "Imagine there's no heaven/Its easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky/Imagine all the people living for today," he warbled.
As an atheist, I appreciate the mildly subversive provocation here; gloppy pop isn't usually forthrightly anti-Christian. But it's depressing to see the bland Christmas-song faith in a God wholl set everything right replaced with a bland anti-Christmas-song faith in a lack of a God wholl set everything right.
I'm aware that Christians, and proponents of other religions, have done terrible things to each other over the centuries. The Inquisition, the Crusades, the genocide of native peoples in the name of conversion, and the white Christian evangelical nationalist fervor that helped elect Trump so he could set up concentration camps at the border. If you were an atheist and committed to puffing yourself up, you could look at the sins of religion and convince yourself that without heaven we'd all be at peace.
But the record of actual atheists who don't believe in heaven isnt great either. Stalin's atheism didnt make him non-violent. The new atheist rationalism led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens is characterized by rabid, militarist Islamophobia and enthusiastic support for various wars in the Middle East. And John Lennon was not the shining icon of anti-saintly virtue his song suggests. He was a negligent father and an unfaithful and abusive husband to his first wife. And though she inspired his anti-war activism and embrace of social and political causes, he didn't treat Yoko Ono especially well either.
Lennon's song "God" from his Plastic Ono Band album is a much more effective anthem. The music is raw and trudging, and Lennon sounds like each word is being torn from him as he hoarsely sing/screams that he doesn't believe in Jesus, Kennedy, yoga, Elvis, or the Beatles. "I just believe in me/Yoko and me." The song is a personal assault on his own idols and gods, in an effort to strip away the inessential and find what actually matters to him. It's solipsistic, in the way of all confessional art. But it's also abrasive, off-putting and mean. If you're going to go after God, the least you can do is bring a little hellfire.
"Imagine," though, has no hellfire. It congratulates its audience on their snug (lack of) beliefs. It asks people to imagine a better world, but does so without demanding either rigor or much imagination. If "Imagine" really challenged the comfortable, as it pretends, the comfortable wouldn't be so eager to sing it, off-key or otherwise.
Posted: February 27, 2020 at 2:03 am
The start of the sixteenth century broughtabout a commercial boom in Europe. It was the Golden Age of Exploration. Traderoutes opened to the New World and expanded to the East, bringing unprecedentedtrade and wealth to Europe. To fund this trade, to supply credit for commerceand the beginnings of industry, banks were established throughout Europe.Genoese and German bankers funded Spanish and Portuguese exploration and theimportation of New World gold and silver. Part of what made this financialactivity possible was the new tolerance, in some cities, of usury.
The Italian city of Genoa, for example, had arelatively relaxed attitude toward usury, and moneylenders created many ways tocircumvent the existing prohibitions. It was clear to the citys leaders thatthe financial activities of its merchants were crucial to Genoas prosperity,and the local courts regularly turned a blind eye to the usurious activities ofits merchants and bankers. Although the Church often complained about theseactivities, Genoas political importance prevented the Church from actingagainst the city.
The Catholic Churchs official view toward usury remained unchanged until the nineteenth century, but the Reformation which occurred principally in northern Europe brought about a mild acceptance of usury. (This is likely one reason why southern Europe, which was heavily Catholic, lagged behind the rest of Europe economically from the seventeenth century onward.) Martin Luther (14831546), a leader of the Reformation, believed that usury was inevitable and should be permitted to some extent by civil law. Luther believed in the separation of civil law and Christian ethics. This view, however, resulted not from a belief in the separation of state and religion, but from his belief that the world and man were too corrupt to be guided by Christianity. Christian ethics and the Old Testament commandments, he argued, are utopian dreams, unconnected with political or economic reality. He deemed usury unpreventable and thus a matter for the secular authorities, who should permit the practice and control it.
However, Luther still considered usury a grave sin, and in his later years wrote:
In other words, usury should be allowed bycivil authorities (as in Genoa) because it is inevitable (men will be men), butit should be condemned in the harshest terms by the moral authority. This isthe moral-practical dichotomy in action, sanctioned by an extremely malevolentview of man and the universe.
John Calvin, (15091564), another Reformation theologian, had a more lenient view than Luther. He rejected the notion that usury is actually banned in the Bible. Since Jews are allowed to charge interest from strangers, God cannot be against usury. It would be fantastic, Calvin thought, to imagine that by strangers God meant the enemies of the Jews; and it would be most unchristian to legalize discrimination. According to Calvin, usury does not always conflict with Gods law, so not all usurers need to be damned. There is a difference, he believed, between taking usury in the course of business and setting up business as a usurer. If a person collects interest on only one occasion, he is not a usurer. The crucial issue, Calvin thought, is the motive. If the motive is to help others, usury is good, but if the motive is personal profit, usury is evil.
Calvin claimed that the moral status of usury should be determined by the golden rule. It should be allowed only insofar as it does not run counter to Christian fairness and charity. Interest should never be charged to a man in urgent need, or to a poor man; the welfare of the state should always be considered. But it could be charged in cases where the borrower is wealthy and the interest will be used for Christian good. Thus he concluded that interest could neither be universally condemned nor universally permitted but that, to protect the poor, a maximum rate should be set by law and never exceeded.2
Although the religious authorities did little to free usury from the taint of immorality, other thinkers were significantly furthering the economic understanding of the practice. In a book titled Treatise on Contracts and Usury, Molinaeus, a French jurist, made important contributions to liberate usury from Scholastic rationalism.3 By this time, there was sufficient evidence for a logical thinker to see the merits of moneylending. Against the argument that money is barren, Molinaeus (15001566) observed that everyday experience of business life showed that the use of any considerable sum of money yields a service of importance. He argued, by reference to observation and logic, that money, assisted by human effort, does bear fruit in the form of new wealth; the money enables the borrower to create goods that he otherwise would not have been able to create. Just as Galileo would later apply Aristotles method of observation and logic in refuting Aristotles specific ideas in physics, so Molinaeus used Aristotles method in refuting Aristotles basic objection to usury. Unfortunately, like Galileo, Molinaeus was to suffer for his ideas: The Church forced him into exile and banned his book. Nevertheless, his ideas on usury spread throughout Europe and had a significant impact on future discussions of moneylending.4
The prevailing view that emerged in the latesixteenth century (and that, to a large extent, is still with us today) is thatmoney is not barren and that usury plays a productive role in the economy.Usury, however, is unchristian; it is motivated by a desire for profit and canbe used to exploit the poor. It can be practical, but it is not moral;therefore, it should be controlled by the state and subjected to regulation inorder to restrain the rich and protect the poor.
This Christian view has influenced almostall attitudes about usury since. In a sense, Luther and Calvin areresponsible for todays so-called capitalism. They are responsible for theguilt many people feel from making money and the guilt that causes people toeagerly regulate the functions of capitalists. Moreover, the Protestants werethe first to explicitly assert and sanction the moral-practical dichotomy theidea that the moral and the practical are necessarily at odds. Because oforiginal sin, the Protestants argued, men are incapable of being good, and thusconcessions must be made in accordance with their wicked nature. Men must bepermitted to some extent to engage in practical matters such as usury, eventhough such practices are immoral.
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In spite of its horrific view of man, life,and reality, Luther and Calvins brand of Christianity allowed individuals whowere not intimidated by Christian theology to practice moneylending to someextent without legal persecution. Although still limited by governmentconstraints, the chains were loosened, and this enabled economic progressthrough the periodic establishment of legal rates of interest.
The first country to establish a legal rate of interest was England in 1545 during the reign of Henry VIII. The rate was set at 10 percent. However, seven years later it was repealed, and usury was again completely banned. In an argument in 1571 to reinstate the bill, Mr. Molley, a lawyer representing the business interests in London, said before the House of Commons:
Since to take reasonably, or so that both parties might do good, was not hurtful; . . . God did not so hate it, that he did utterly forbid it, but to the Jews amongst themselves only, for that he willed they should lend as Brethren together; for unto all others they were at large; and therefore to this day they are the greatest Usurers in the World. But be it, as indeed it is, evil, and that men are men, no Saints, to do all these things perfectly, uprightly and Brotherly; . . . and better may it be born to permit a little, than utterly to take away and prohibit Traffick; which hardly may be maintained generally without this.
But it may be said, it is contrary to the direct word of God, and therefore an ill Law; if it were to appoint men to take Usury, it were to be disliked; but the difference is great between that and permitting or allowing, or suffering a matter to be unpunished.5
Observe that while pleading for a bill permitting usury on the grounds that it is necessary (Traffick . . . hardly may be maintained generally without [it]) Molley concedes that it is evil. This is the moral-practical dichotomy stated openly and in black-and-white terms, and it illustrates the general attitude of the era. The practice was now widely accepted as practical but still regarded as immoral, and the thinkers of the day grappled with this new context.
One of Englands most significant seventeenth-century intellectuals, Francis Bacon (15611626), realized the benefits that moneylending offered to merchants and traders by providing them with capital. He also recognized the usurers value in providing liquidity to consumers and businesses. And, although Bacon believed that the moral ideal would be lending at 0 percent interest, as the Bible requires, he, like Luther, saw this as utopian and held that it is better to mitigate usury by declaration than suffer it to rage by connivance. Bacon therefore proposed two rates of usury: one set at a maximum of 5 percent and allowable to everyone; and a second rate, higher than 5 percent, allowable only to certain licensed persons and lent only to known merchants. The license was to be sold by the state for a fee.6
Again, interest and usury were pitted against morality. But Bacon saw moneylending as so important to commerce that the legal rate of interest had to offer sufficient incentive to attract lenders. Bacon recognized that a higher rate of interest is economically justified by the nature of certain loans.7
The economic debate had shifted from whether usury should be legal to whether and at what level government should set the interest rate (a debate that, of course, continues to this day, with the Fed setting certain interest rates). As one scholar put it: The legal toleration of interest marked a revolutionary change in public opinion and gave a clear indication of the divorce of ethics from economics under the pressure of an expanding economic system.8
In spite of this progress, artists continued to compare usurers to idle drones, spiders, and bloodsuckers, and playwrights personified the moneygrubbing usurers in characters such as Sir Giles Overreach, Messrs. Mammon, Lucre, Hoard, Gripe, and Bloodhound. Probably the greatest work of art vilifying the usurer was written during this period The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare (15641616), which immortalized the character of the evil Jewish usurer, Shylock.
In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio, a poor nobleman, needs cash in order to court the heiress, Portia. Bassanio goes to a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, for a loan, bringing his wealthy friend, Antonio, to stand as surety for it. Shylock, who has suffered great rudeness from Antonio in business, demands as security for the loan not Antonios property, which he identifies as being at risk, but a pound of his flesh.9
The conflict between Shylock and Antonio incorporates all the elements of the arguments against usury. Antonio, the Christian, lends money and demands no interest. As Shylock describes him:
Shylock: [Aside.] How like a fawning publican he looks!
I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe,
If I forgive him!10
Shylock takes usury. He is portrayed as the lowly, angry, vengeful, and greedy Jew. When his daughter elopes and takes her fathers money with her, he cries, My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!11 not sure for which he cares more.
It is clear that Shakespeare understood the issues involved in usury. Note Shylocks (legitimate) hostility toward Antonio because Antonio loaned money without charging interest and thus brought down the market rate of interest in Venice. Even Aristotles barren money argument is present. Antonio, provoking Shylock, says:
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends, for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy:
Who if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.12
Friends do not take breed for barren metal from friends; usury is something one takes only from an enemy.
Great art plays a crucial role in shapingpopular attitudes, and Shakespeares depiction of Shylock, like Dantesdepiction of usurers, concretized for generations the dichotomous view ofmoneylending and thus helped entrench the alleged link between usury and evil.As late as 1600, medieval moral and economic theories were alive and well, evenif they were increasingly out of step with the economic practice of the time.
During the Enlightenment, the Europeaneconomy continued to grow, culminating with the Industrial Revolution. Thisgrowth involved increased activity in every sector of the economy. Bankinghouses were established to provide credit to a wide array of economicendeavors. The Baring Brothers and the House of Rothschild were just thelargest of the many banks that would ultimately help fuel the IndustrialRevolution, funding railroads, factories, ports, and industry in general.
Economic understanding of the important productive role of usury continued to improve over the next four hundred years. Yet, the moral evaluation of usury would change very little. The morality of altruism the notion that self-sacrifice is moral and that self-interest is evil was embraced and defended by many Enlightenment intellectuals and continued to hamper the acceptability of usury. After all, usury is a naked example of the pursuit of profit which is patently self-interested. Further, it still seemed to the thinkers of the time that usury could be a zero-sum transaction that a rich lender might profit at the expense of a poor borrower. Even a better conception of usury let alone the misconception of it being a zero-sum transaction is anathema to altruism, which demands the opposite of personal profit: self-sacrifice for the sake of others. In the mid-seventeenth century, northern Europe was home to a new generation of scholars who recognized that usury served an essential economic purpose, and that it should be allowed freely. Three men made significant contributions in this regard.
Claudius Salmasius (15881653), a French scholar teaching in Holland, thoroughly refuted the claims about the barrenness of moneylending; he showed the important productive function of usury and even suggested that there should be more usurers, since competition between them would reduce the rate of interest. Other Dutch scholars agreed with him, and, partially as a result of this, Holland became especially tolerant of usury, making it legal at times. Consequently, the leading banks of the era were found in Holland, and it became the worlds commercial and financial center, the wealthiest state in Europe, and the envy of the world.13
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (17271781), a French economist, was the first to identify usurys connection to property rights. He argued that a creditor has the right to dispose of his money in any way he wishes and at whatever rate the market will bear, because it is his property. Turgot was also the first economist to fully understand that the passing of time changes the value of money. He saw the difference between the present value and the future value of money concepts that are at the heart of any modern financial analysis. According to Turgot: If . . . two gentlemen suppose that a sum of 1000 Francs and a promise of 1000 Francs possess exactly the same value, they put forward a still more absurd supposition; for if these two things were of equal value, why should any one borrow at all?14 Turgot even repudiated the medieval notion that time belonged to God. Time, he argued, belongs to the individual who uses it and therefore time could be sold.15
During the same period, the Britishphilosopher Jeremy Bentham (17481832) wrote a treatise entitled A Defenseof Usury. Bentham argued that any restrictions on interest rates wereeconomically harmful because they restricted an innovators ability to raisecapital. Since innovative trades inherently involved high risk, they could onlybe funded at high interest rates. Limits on permissible interest rates, he argued,would kill innovation the engine of growth. Correcting another medievalerror, Bentham also showed that restrictive usury laws actually harmed theborrowers. Such restrictions cause the credit markets to shrink while demandfor credit remains the same or goes up; thus, potential borrowers have to seekloans in an illegal market where they would have to pay a premium for theadditional risk of illegal trading.
Benthams most important contribution was his advocacy of contractual freedom:
My neighbours, being at liberty, have happened to concur among themselves in dealing at a certain rate of interest. I, who have money to lend, and Titus, who wants to borrow it of me, would be glad, the one of us to accept, the other to give, an interest somewhat higher than theirs: Why is the liberty they exercise to be made a pretence for depriving me and Titus of ours.16
This was perhaps the first attempt at a moral defense of usury.
Unfortunately, Bentham and his followers undercut this effort with their philosophy of utilitarianism, according to which rights, liberty, and therefore moneylending, were valuable only insofar as they increased social utility: the greatest good for the greatest number. Bentham famously dismissed individual rights the idea that each person should be free to act on his own judgment as nonsense upon stilts.17 He embraced the idea that the individual has a duty to serve the well-being of the collective, or, as he put it, the general mass of felicity.18 Thus, in addition to undercutting Turgots major achievement, Bentham also doomed the first effort at a moral defense of usury which he himself had proposed.
An explicitly utilitarian attempt at a moral defense of usury was launched in 1774 in the anonymously published Letters on Usury and Interest. The goal of the book was to explain why usury should be accepted in England of the eighteenth century, and why this acceptance did not contradict the Churchs teachings. The ultimate reason, the author argued, is one of utility:
Here, then, is a sure and infallible rule to judge of the lawfulness of a practice. Is it useful to the State? Is it beneficial to the individuals that compose it? Either of these is sufficient to obtain a tolerance; but both together vest it with a character of justice and equity. . . . In fact, if we look into the laws of different nations concerning usury, we shall find that they are all formed on the principle of public utility. In those states where usury was found hurtful to society, it was prohibited. In those where it was neither hurtful nor very beneficial, it was tolerated. In those where it was useful, it was authorized. In ours, it is absolutely necessary.19
Although the utilitarian argument in defense of usury contains some economic truth, it is morally bankrupt. Utilitarian moral reasoning for the propriety of usury depends on the perceived benefits of the practice to the collective or the nation. But what happens, for example, when usury in the form of subprime mortgage loans creates distress for a significant number of people and financial turmoil in some markets? How can it be justified? Indeed, it cannot. The utilitarian argument collapses in the face of any such economic problem, leaving moneylenders exposed to the wrath of the public and to the whips and chains of politicians seeking a scapegoat for the crisis.
Although Salmasius, Turgot, and Bentham made significant progress in understanding the economic and political value of usury, not all their fellow intellectuals followed suit. The father of economics, Adam Smith (17231790), wrote: As something can everywhere be made by the use of money, something ought everywhere to be paid for the use of it.21 Simple and elegant. Yet, Smith also believed that the government must control the rate of interest. He believed that unfettered markets would create excessively high interest rates, which would hurt the economy which, in turn, would harm society.22 Because Smith thought that societys welfare was the only justification for usury, he held that the government must intervene to correct the errors of the invisible hand.
Although Smith was a great innovator ineconomics, philosophically, he was a follower. He accepted the commonphilosophical ideas of his time, including altruism, of which utilitarianism isa form. Like Bentham, he justified capitalism only through its social benefits.If his projections of what would come to pass in a fully free market amountedto a less-than-optimal solution for society, then he advocated governmentintervention. Government intervention is the logical outcome of any utilitariandefense of usury.
(Smiths idea that there need be a perfectlegal interest rate remains with us to this day. His notion of such a rate wasthat it should be slightly higher than the market rate what he called thegolden mean. The chairman of the Federal Reserve is todays very visiblehand, constantly searching for the perfect rate or golden mean byalternately establishing artificially low and artificially high rates.)
Following Bentham and Smith, all significant nineteenth-century economists such as David Ricardo, Jean Baptiste Say, and John Stuart Mill considered the economic importance of usury to be obvious and argued that interest rates should be determined by freely contracting individuals. These economists, followed later by the Austrians especially Carl Menger, Eugen von Bhm-Bawerk, and Ludwig von Mises developed sound theories of the productivity of interest and gained a significant economic understanding of its practical role. But the moral-practical dichotomy inherent in their altruistic, utilitarian, social justification for usury remained in play, and the practice continued to be morally condemned and thus heavily regulated if not outlawed.
End of Part 2.
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Posted: February 19, 2020 at 3:45 am
This indirect approach didnt work well. We gave our bankers and business people greater freedom from government regulation, but they abused our trust. The lenience of regulators has seen business become remarkably lawless. Too much of the extra income the economy has generated has gone to the very highest income-earners, leaving too little going to middle and lower income-earners.
This era of economic rationalism and microeconomic reform has ended, leaving Scott Morrison with much damage to clean up. Meanwhile, many voters are disillusioned and distrustful of both main parties, and are turning elsewhere to populists such as Pauline Hanson, who not only have no answers to the problems that bother us, but also seek our support by blaming our troubles on unpopular scapegoats Muslims, city-slickers etc.
The economic rationalists solution to misbehaving businesses, caveat emptor let the buyer beware is good advice but, in the modern complex world, its impractical. There arent enough leisure hours in the day for us to spend most of them checking that all the businesses we deal with arent overcharging us or taking advantage of us in some way, and our employer isnt underpaying us.
So why dont governments cut to the chase and simply make treating us in such ways illegal? And when doing so is already illegal as it usually is why dont they resume adequately policing those laws?
Something almost everyone craves in their lives, but politicians and economists long ago lost sight of, is a high degree of security. We want the security of owning our own homes and we want security in our employment.
And yet weve allowed home ownership to become unaffordable to an increasing proportion of young people. Why? Because weve put the interests of existing home owners ahead of would-be home owners. We could fix the unaffordability problem if we were prepared to put the interests of the young ahead of the old.
Some degree of flexibility in the job market is a good thing provided it works both ways. Under economic rationalism, the goal was more flexibility for employers without any concern about what this did to the lives of casual workers mucked about by selfish and capricious employers.Its good that part-time jobs are now available for those who want one students, parents of young children, the semi-retired but we could do more to make part-time jobs permanent rather than casual.
Many young people worry that were moving to a gig economy in which most jobs are non-jobs: short-lived, for only a few hours a week and badly paid, with few if any benefits.
I dont believe we are moving to such a dystopia, mainly because I doubt it would suit most employers interests to treat most of their employees so shabbily. But, in any case, the way to avoid such a world is obvious: governments should make it illegal to employ people on such an unacceptable basis.
And governments will do that as soon as its the case that not to do so would cost them too many votes. That is, we have to make democracy work for the masses, not just the rich and powerful.Of course, the security many of us would like is to live in a world where nothing changes. Sorry, not possible. Economies, and the mix of industries within them, have always changed and always will often for reasons that, though they disrupt the lives of some people, end up making most of us better off.
New technologies are a major source of disruptive, but usually beneficial, change. Another source of disruptive change is the realisation that certain activities are bad for our health (smoking, for instance) or for the natural environment (excessive irrigation and land clearing, burning fossil fuels) and must be curtailed.
Adversely affected interest groups will always tempt governments to try to resist such change at the ultimate expense of the rest of us. The right answer usually is for change to go ahead, but for governments to help the adversely affected adjust. Just what we havent been doing.
Ross Gittins is the Heralds economics editor.
Ross Gittins is the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
Posted: at 3:45 am
History and Eschatology:Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theologyby n. t. wrightbaylor, 365 pages, $34.95
In the broadest sense, natural theology attempts to describe God and his relation to the world by attending to nature or natural revelation, without taking special revelation or supernatural truth into consideration. For several centuries, natural theology has ignored historyspecifically the history of Jesus. So argues N. T. Wright in his Gifford Lectures, published by Baylor Press as History and Eschatology. Wright proposes to fill this gap. Even on the premises of natural theology, Jesus deserves a place. Jesus and the church he founded, after all, exist within the natural world. Natural theology can and should be evangelized.
Wright blames the truncated state of natural theology on the modern revival of Epicureanism. Epicureanism is popularly known as a hedonist philosophy of Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. But the Epicurean lifestyle is founded on a metaphysics and physics that proved attractive to secularizing elites in the early modern period. God or gods may exist in an Epicurean universe, but he or they are too distant and indifferent to be relevant to us. Religion offers private comfort, but the enlightened know its merely a human invention to pacify the masses. Epicureanism is materialist atomism; the world hums along on its own steam as atoms combine, separate, and recombine. Death is the end, so theres nothing to worry about.
On Wrights account, Epicureanism splits reality and human experience. It forces us to choose between a godless world and a worldless god. The supernatural, if it exists at all, occupies a realm apart from nature. Orthodox Christians often unwittingly accept this dualistic framework, clinging to the supernatural and to faith but skirting the risky task of understanding history and the natural world. Gotthold Lessing spoke of a great ugly ditch between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason. Secularists settled comfortably on the history side of the ditch, the orthodox on the other.
Wright has long described himself as an historian rather than as a theologian. He has been criticized for constructing a historical Jesus behind the Jesus of the Gospels, a fifth Gospel to measure the canonical four. In History and Eschatology, he dismisses the charge, claiming he only aims to understand the canonical sources more accurately and deeply. More broadly, Wrights goal is to formulate a non-Epicurean mode of historical study and historical writing. He rejects rationalism in favor of a critically realist epistemology in which love is the primary posture of knowing. Taking up his task of historian, hes open to the possibility that, by using the tools of historical investigation, we can study real-world events as signs of heavens presence and power.
An Epicurean framework inevitably distorts the ancient Jewish and biblical view that heaven and earth overlap. In the temple, heaven takes an earthly address. Sabbath is a temple of time, when we may taste the future day of Gods eternal rest. As images of God, human beings mediate between heaven and earth. God works through us to spread his order and wisdom in the world and to construct a cosmic temple where glory dwells.
Modern Christians have abandoned this worldview, and so have replaced the biblical hope for new creation with what Wright calls a Platonic hope for heaven. A similar error led Albert Schweitzer to conclude Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who expected the end of the world and died in despair when it didnt happen. (Wright cleverly suggests that Schweitzer picked up his obsession with the end not from patient study of ancient sources but from the collapse of Valhalla in Wagners Ring cycle.) Much modern scholarship explains the New Testament and early church as a massive adjustment to unrealized hope. The mythology here, Wright rightly argues, is entirely that of modern scholarship. No ancient Jews expected the end of the world in the sense Schweitzer suggested. Jesus hoped for and prophesied the end of a disjointed world order, not the end of the space-time universe. Schweitzers eschatological mistake has massive implications for natural theology. If Jesus expected the end of nature, he wont have much to say about nature.
What happens when Jesus is reintegrated into natural theology? Wright sketches a natural theology by expounding on seven universal human aspirations: justice, beauty, truth, power, freedom, spirituality, relationships. Each stands under a paradox. We know, for instance, that justice and beauty are necessary to a fully realized human life, but we also know justice is partial and beauty is broken. All seven signposts, Wright suggests, converge on Jesuss cross, the broken signpost to which all other broken signposts point.
Yet Christians confess a meta-paradox: This broken signpost is where God reveals himself, where heaven is present on earth. Here God suffers the ultimate injustice, his beauty effaced. Here the God who is love is crushed by brute force. Here Truth is drowned out by Pilates scoffing question and the shouts of the mob. Because Jesus rose from the dead, though, this broken signpost becomes the source of universal renewal: fresh springs of justice, new depths of beauty, a kind of powerless power, a freedom that isnt limited by chains or imprisonment, a social body of mutual edification. New creation emerges out of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, as the ordinary lives of ordinary followers of Jesus become a natural revelation of the presence and power of God.
The churchs confession is contestable and contested, and Wright wont permit a retreat into fideism. Once we refuse to foreclose the possibility of resurrection and new creation from the outset, we can treat Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, Pentecost, and the churchs history as historical phenomena, subject to historical investigation and confirmation. Jesus the rejected stone becomes the chief cornerstone of a renewed natural theology.
Wrights wide-ranging book is primarily about the two topics of his title, history and eschatology. On both, his central arguments are convincing. Natural theology should attend to history, and since Jesus is a historical figure, it needs to attend to him. Wright is also correct that New Testament eschatology is about the renovation, not the removal, of creation. Jesus, Wright knows, shakes natural theologians, and every other sort of theologian, out of our slumbers. Once we admit the Gospels into the historical record and really grasp Jesuss apocalyptic prophecies, well see more than weve dreamt of, a strange world where the sky cracks, veils tear, and gravestones roll away.
Peter J. Leithart is President ofTheopolis Institute.
Posted: at 3:45 am
Welcome to Elements of Story, a biweekly column about narrative tropes, what they mean, and why they just wont go away.
For the inaugural installment of Elements of Story, and just in time for Valentines day, Im going to dissect an archetype that has been causing a stir and setting hearts aflutter for centuries: the Byronic hero.
Definitions of the Byronic hero vary by source, but the basic gist is that hes an arrogant yet emotionally sensitive rebel who rages against societal norms, is usually haunted by a dark and mysterious past, and has been a staple of romantic storylines for hundreds of years. You could literally write a book about the history of the Byronic Heroindeed, multiple people already haveso for the sake of concision and also my continued sanity, were going to investigate the Byronic hero through the specific example of one of his most recent appearances: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Ever since The Force Awakens first premiered, Darth Vaders grandson and #1 fan has been a point of contention within the Star Wars fandom, particularly with regards to his dynamic with protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley). While things have calmed down somewhat following the underwhelming finale that was The Rise of Skywalker, if you want to start a fight online about a galaxy far, far away, mention Reylo and see what happens.
One of the most genuinely befuddling things about the discourse surrounding Reylo is the frequently held opinion that its allure is anyway inexplicable or unforeseeable. Similarly, the common, lazy narrative that its popularity can be explained away as Adam Drivers thirst-club projecting their desire onto the Star Wars universe reeks of ignorance. Whether borne of conscious intent or sheer coincidence, Kylo Ren is a villain who also fits a centuries-old romantic archetype like a glove in ways that are hinted towards in The Force Awakens and laid increasingly bare in each subsequent installment. That some viewers picked up on the Byronic subtext early while others did not simply speaks to the variance in media consumption habits and tastes between audience members. If youre familiar with an archetype, youre going to spot its likeness, and view said likeness through the lens of the implications baked in with that lineage. If youre not, you wont.
So, who is this Byronic Hero guy, anyway? Well, the tl;dr version is that hes basically Satan and his origins predate Lord Byron by at least a few hundred years.
In truth, the Byronic Hero is so old that tracing his origins gets quite speculative. Theres not a singular definitive answer so much as a collection of theories. To give a relatively cohesive explanation of who this guy is and how he got here without writing a novel, Im going to things down into two key questions:
To address the first question, lets start by talking about the Devil. Im not going to say that John Milton was the first storyteller to make Satan cool, but he sure did make such a characterization mainstream with Paradise Lost. The most beautiful of Gods angels, Lucifer chafes at Gods omnipotence, convinces a number of his brethren to join him in a rebellion that ultimately fails, is banished to Hell and eternally damned, but stubbornly stands by his choices because, better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven. Miltons Satan was, to use modern parlance, a beautiful trash firea handsome, passionate dreamer whose quick-tempered fervor proves self-destructive in spite of his considerable intellect. He is, in other words, smart enough to know that his hubris will be his downfall, but too in thrall to his passions for that knowledge to save himself from such a fate. He is a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle, an inherently sympathetic figure not as much in spite of his flaws as because of them.
Lets stop for a second so I can convince you Kylo Ren fits this pattern, in case you arent convinced already. With his journey from Ben too much Vader in him Solo to Kylo Ren, his rejection of his heritage and violent rebellion against Luke Skywalker, he follows the same basic trajectory of Miltons Lucifer. And as far as personality is concerned, Ben didnt gel well with the there is no passion Jedi code, and unlike Anakin Skywalker, it didnt even take the development of a particular relationship for things to reach a breaking point.
Now, as far as how Satan became a romantic figure, we need to make a stopover with the Romantics because the journey from Romantic to romantic is really just semantics. Romanticism was a prominent intellectual and artistic movement in Western culture that took place in the late 18th and 19th centuries and encompassed everything from literature and painting to architecture and music. It emphasized emotion, spontaneity, irrationality, and the individual with a particular focus on subjectivity, and is generally regarded as a reactionary movementa rebuttal against the rationalism that defined the Enlightenment.
Romantics loved Miltons Satan. My favorite hero, Miltons Satan, Robert Burns gushed, lauding Satans intrepid, unyielding independence, desperate daring, and noble defiance of hardship. That Byron, one of his contemporaries, would channel his admiration for the same figure into a series of mercurial protagonists that would codify an archetype is hardly surprising. While crediting Byron with inventing the Byronic hero is a significant stretch considering the archetype is really just Satan rebranded, there is one key component of this character that Byron did add to the equation, and that is a particular kind of longing that a number of commentators have likened to homesickness. Love is homesickness, Sigmund Freud wrote in his seminal essay on the Uncanny. In terms of understanding the human mind, Freud is one small step above total quack, but as far as narrative theory is concerned he made some compelling arguments, this being one of them. As Deborah Lutz says in her essay Love as Homesickness: Longing for a Transcendental Home in Byron and the Dangerous Lover Narrative, the Byronic hero often is a criminal, an outlaw who is not only self-exiled, but actively, hatefully, works against society as a murderous pirate, yet also often feels, pains of remorse, not only for his crime but also for his self-inflicted homelessness. Kylo Ren, with his laments of Im being torn apart, and let the past die, kill it if you have to rhetoric interspersed with explosive bouts of self-loathing, could not be more emblematic of this facet of the Byronic hero if he tried.
All of this helps explain what makes this archetype emotionally engaging, but not how self-hating emotional clusterfuck became sexy. In order to get to the bottom of that, we actually need to go back quite a bit. In Western culture, sexuality, death, and evil have been birds of a feather since the nascence of Christianity, which took vague correlations between these concepts already present in several Greek mythological figures and ran with them. While the Devil is often depicted as a hideous beast, the concept that he might also take the form of a manspecifically, an attractive onedates back centuries (Lucifer was the prettiest, remember), and is apparent in a number of surviving records of witch trial confessions detailing demonic encounters. But taking on a handsome face is not the only attribute frequently bestowed upon Satan and his kin. As Toni Reed writes in her book Demon Lovers and their Victims in British Fiction, identifying Satan and other demons with sexuality, especially with huge phalluses, may well trace back to Greek mythology.
Thats right. Satan has serious BDE. Do with that information what you will.
Its worth noting that the Byronic hero is ultimately a beloved romantic fantasy not because it represents something many people want in real life, but precisely the opposite, much like how enjoying seeing the lions at the zoo doesnt mean you want one in your house. Hes a darkly tempting, narratively intriguing prospect that is enjoyable to experience vicariously through fiction, a Pandoras box that can be opened and then closed again without repercussion. Times and tastes change and the Byronic hero evolves to suit themdevil, tempestuous gentleman, wannabe Sithbut his defining characteristics and their guilty pleasure appeal are eternal.
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Posted: at 3:45 am
(Mosaica Press, 2019), by Shmuel PhillipsReviewed by: Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
In this outstanding book, Shmuel Phillips examines various facets of Torah and Judaism from the so-called rationalist viewpoint. He puts that approach to Judaism in perspective by offering an uncensored presentation of Maimonides views without cherry-picking passages to match a certain preconceived notion of what Jewish rationalism ought to be. In doing so, Phillips offers a fair and open-minded analysis of Maimonidean thought.
Many critics of mainstream contemporary Judaism have misappropriated rationalism to support their own whims. As Rabbi Micha Berger so eloquently put it, The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached. In his work, Shmuel Phillips shows that rationalism does not necessarily entail rejecting traditional Judaism and actually dovetails nicely with it. He demonstrates how even Maimonidesthe hero of so-called Rational Judaismdid not endorse free-standing rationalism, but rather a rationalism grounded in certain immutable truths, which the mature scholar can only absorb through rigorous character development and the study of both the Written and Oral Torah.
This heavy book (both in terms of its physical weight and the weighty nature of its discussions) calmly provides the reader with a rationalist view of the Torahs attitude to such sensitive topics as homosexuality, polygamy, rape, eshet yefat toar(comfort women in war zones), and gender roles.. He tackles raging controversial topics like slavery and genocide (i.e. wiping out Amalek) in the Torah, and the ubiquitous questions of objective morality and how to reconcile Torah and Science. Phillips also gives logical and rational justifications for such occurrences as halachic loopholes, ritual law, anti-Semitism, miracles, and prophecy.
Phillips takes on Biblical criticism by citing such scholars as Prof. Joshua Berman who explain away linguisticand even thematicsimilarities between the Bible and other ancient writings by invoking the notion that the Torah writes in the way that people spoke and could be most easily understood and internalized by its original audience. While following this approach, Phillips convincingly argues that this approach is entirely in line with Maimonidean thought. In doing so, Phillips tone remains authoritative and non-apologetic, and his arguments are conservative, yet cogent. Phillips invokes Rav Hirsch to quell the concerns of Bible Critics by characterizing the Written Torah as written in a sort of code that can only be deciphered through the Oral Torah. This, of course, accounts for all sorts of stylistic and thematic inconsistencies and redundancies.
Phillips also expounds on the Torahs Universalist message by following Rav Hirsch in characterizing the struggle between Noahs three sons as an allusion to the fight between unbridled violence (Ham), the culture of aesthetics (Japheth), and spiritual enlightenment through Godliness and morality (Shem). The ramifications of this three-way conflict continue to reverberate throughout the world as it stands as the basis for the contemporary clash of cultures.
This book also broaches the topic of how to view Aggadic Midrashim. More Kabbalistically-inclined authorities tend to take theseaggadotat face value and understand them as the intended meaning of the texts which they interpret. However, rationalists in the mold of Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, andto some extentRadak beg to differ. They maintain that the tradition ofaggadotought to be treated separately from the texts upon which they nominally expound, and said texts should only be understood in their simplest, literal sense. While some have understood that the rationalistsreject aggadot, Phillips demonstrates that they simply compartmentalizeaggadotand create a clear barrier between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, without rejecting the latter. Moreover, Phillips demonstrates that even some of the Kabbalists, like Maharal and possibly Rashi, maintain that while all exegeses are connected to the Torahs text (which must contain the totality of all truths), they can sometimes be interpreted as referring to the spiritual dynamics which underpin the plain meaning.
Each chapter takes the reader on a masterfully-written journey through the rationalistic perspective on a different topic. Truth is, you can probably write an entire book for each chapter, but given the framework, this exceptional work does an excellent job at concisely treating each issue with much erudition.
Phillips has a knack for turning a phrase in a way that clarifies complex ideas in just a few words. His skilled use of subtle humor and witty alliteration make the subtitles in each chapter almost as fun as reading the content itself. He is clearly a talented writer who has the ability to write up complicated philosophical/theological arguments in an easy-to-read English, without sacrificing accuracy or complexity.
This reviewer respectfully disagrees with Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks approbation which characterizes Philips book as providing a remarkable new philosophical approach to Torah and Jewish faith In this reviewers opinion, Phillips has offered the reader nothing new other than an unbiased presentation of the theosophies of Rambam, R. Yehuda HaLevi, Rav Hirsch, and R. Meir Simcha of Dvinskessentially allowing the timeless words of these great luminaries to speak for themselves. Phillip does update the presentation of those philosophies in order to express them in more contemporary terms, but he is certainly not offering anything radically new. He essentially presents the ideas behind the rationalist stream of traditional Judaism in a sophisticated and contemporary way, and for this alone he deserves to be commended.
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is the author of the book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry and of the book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew. He is a member of the RCA, and currently serves as an editor for the VeromemanuFoundations new edition of Machberes Menachem. He resides in Beitar Illit, Israel and can be reached via email at[emailprotected].
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Posted: February 2, 2020 at 6:45 pm
Were living in an age where public trust in the media is at an all-time low. Just 21% of Americans say they have a lot of trust in the information from national news organizations.
In my community, its probably much lower. Routinely, Orthodox and haredi Jews are forced to read news reports about us that have very little correlation to reality. A perfect example of this happened this past Tuesday, when Attorney General William P. Barr visited Borough Park for a meeting with Orthodox Jewish community leaders. It was a small meeting, just a minyan sitting around a table in a tiny room, discussing the issues. It was just Attorney General Barr, the Orthodox stakeholders, a handful of DOJ staff and several members of the media (the Forward was not among them).
I was there too. So I can tell you that the story I read about in the media was not the one that transpired in that room.
If you read most of the reporting about the event, you would think what took place was a politics-driven conversation dominated by New Yorks recent bail reform law and the Orthodox Jews and Trump Administration representatives devoted to crushing it. Part of this is about the fact that Barrs office has announced it will be bringing federal charges against Tiffany Harris, a woman who was arrested for targeting and slapping multiple Orthodox women, who was released without bail thanks to the new law. But mostly, its about the fact that when it comes to the Orthodox, we just cant get a fair hearing in the media.
Take The New York Times story, which was a perfect example of this misreporting: The Times framed the entire visit through the lens of bail reform, with a headline proclaiming Barr was inserting himself into the bail reform fray.
And yet, in their very own story which was entirely about bail reform even they had to concede that Mr. Barr did not specifically mention bail reform during the meeting.
That was certainly true. Not a single person in the room even brought up bail reform, and for good reason: The federal charges against Harris were not about that. They were, to quote Barr, about lowering the level of tolerance for violence against the Jewish community by using the federal government to plant its flag and show zero tolerance.
The Times, however, was not alone. Over at JTA, Ben Sales, who was in the room during the meeting, filed a brief with an opening paragraph representing Barr as blaming the rise of anti-Semitism on what he called mutant progressivism. Of course, Barr never said that. The actual words which Sales ended up correcting after being called out on Twitter were words anyone with any familiarity with the subject matter would have recognized, were militant progressivism.
Barrs point, which was well taken, was that militant progressivism embodies a drive to reorganize society based on rationalism and animated with a passion you usually expect among religious people, casting those who oppose them as not just wrong but evil. That, Barr said, is part of the cause of the hatreds and the antipathy toward traditional communities such as the Orthodox. It has seeped into our politics, and is a cause of toxic tribalism as well as the anti-Semitism some communities are now struggling with.
It was an intelligent reading of a situation we are struggling desperately to understand and contain. How ironic that it was mutated by the words of the liberal media.
But that was not the only misrepresentation in that exchange alone. If you read the news reports, Barr reportedly attempted to push back on the idea that President Donald Trump bore any of the blame for the national rise in anti-Semitism, a notion raised by one of the participants.
This, too, did not happen. What one participant, while bemoaning the extra difficulties he sees in our polarized moment when attempting to engage in inter-community relations, did say was that he sees so many people [who] are eager to blame, frankly, the president on the change of tone in the country but I think that those people have to look into themselves to see, what am I doing to tone down the conversation?
Hardly the same thing.
The distressing thing here is that I only know all of this because I was in the room when all of this occurred. If I had not been there, I would likely have also trusted the false narrative which was being concocted by the media.
Am I really to believe things are different when Im not in the room?
So why does this keep happening to my community? People tend to lean back on things they recognize, on things that are familiar to them, and reporters are no different. Especially when reporting about Hasidic Jews, reporters are prone to misrepresent, build connections where none exists, hear things which never happened, and make incorrect assumptions all because of what fits the frame for the story they recognize and are most comfortable telling.
Even if it isnt the story that happened.
But the job of the media is to tell the story that happened even if it isnt easy for them to tell it. And the reason so many people distrust them now is that theyve been failing miserably at doing this.
Eli Steinberg lives in New Jersey with his wife and five children. They are not responsible for his opinions, which he has been putting into words over the last decade, and which have been published across Jewish and general media. You can tweet the hottest of your takes at him @HaMeturgeman.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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Posted: at 6:45 pm
Abu Hamid Muhammad Al-Ghazali in one of his famous works Al-Iqtisad Fil Ittiqad elucidated at length the role of systematic theology in Islamic scholasticism. He maintained that theologians were responsible for responding to religious innovations, combatting the insidious heresies, and presenting the creedal formulations of Islam in a philosophic idiom. To this end, Ghazali himself contributed his masterpiece Tahafa-tul-Falasafa. An expert of Ghazali, Frank Griffel in his book Ghazalis Philosophical Theology held that the Tahafat of Ghazali was a work of systematic theology couched in a philosophical idiom with an aim to defend the creedal formulation(s) of Islam.
Three centurieslater, Ibn-e-Khaldun in his famous Muqaddimah argued that theology as an independent stream of thought had outlived its utility. He held that philosophical reasoning and illuminative epistemologyhad replaced the role of theology in developing rational Islamic discourse. In agreement with the assessment of Ibn-e-Khaldun, Halverson in his book Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam proceeded further and held that theology as a creative discipline had already died by 12th century and was replaced by a series of doctrinaire creedal formulations. Did Islamic speculative theology cease to continue as a thriving intellectual force by 12th century?
The answer to this intriguing question lies in the origins of theology as an independent strand of rigorous scholarship. Muslim scholars after their encounter with the Hellenic philosophical literature, Judeo-Christian religious corpus, and the Iranian gnostic illumination felt the urge to explain their religious rituals, norms, and doctrines in a scholarly language in line with the contemporary systems of epistemology. Their attempt at elucidating the religious doctrinal system of Islam in an idiom of contemporary epistemologies led to a wide range of disagreements and paved the way for the crystallization of guilds. These guilds came into being and transformed into different independent schools by late 9th century. The emergence of theology as a stream of organized scholarly tradition can be attributed to the intellectually vibrant environment of intellectual exchange between Islam and other civilizations.
These schools or guilds of theology based their argumentative reasoning on different epistemologies. On the far right were the Hanbalites. They held that the only source of Truth was the repository of the scriptural text and the Prophetic normative practice. Closer to them were the Asharites and the Maturidites. They maintained that reason could also be invoked in the formulation of religious discourse. Even though the Quran and normative practice of the Prophet were the main sources for the guidance, the exercise of reason could only be granted as an accessory toolkit. Reason was always subservient to the tradition, according to them. On the far left were the Mutazilites. Contrary to the Hanbalites, Asharites, and Maturidites, Mutazilites postulated that the sole exercise of reason was enough for the systemization of religious doctrinal system. They held that only reason as an epistemological tool could be used in order to ascertain the validity of the Truth.
The Mutazilites laid down the foundations of rationalism in Islam, according to Abdul Karem Soroush. Central to their intellectual outlook was the exercise of reason. They maintained that tradition should be interpreted against the yardstick of rational tools. The Mutazilites eclectically summoned into use the Greek syllogism, Alexandrian sapiential disciplines, and Syriac noetic rationalism to demonstrate that a fortified Islamic edifice of rational sciences could be erected on the foundations of rationalism. The school of Mutazilites was rooted firmly in the rational grounds and was committed to the cause of rational interpretation of Islam. Islam was a rational religion with its own sense of philosophy and world-view, according to the school of Mutazilites.
Unfortunately, the school of Mutazilites lost its constituency and ceased to exist by 11th century. Even worse, the Asharites and Maturidites lost their earlier rigor and absorbed the illuminative gnosticism. Philosophy as a creative strand of intellectual inquiry soon after Ibn-e-Tufayl and Ibn-e-Rushd had already died out. Islamic theology after 12th century expressed itself either in traditionalist idiom by producing formulaic tracts on creed or in theosophic treatises geared towards spiritual illumination, Dr Fazlur Rehman reflected in his work Islam and Modernity.
In sum, Islamic theology was a rigorous exercise of reason and intellect for three centuries in the writings of Mutazilites. This particular form of theology rooted firmly in reason and sapiential systems of knowledge was characterized as speculative theology for it explored new intellectual horizons. On the contrary, the theology that came into being after the 12th century was called dialectical theology for it was nothing but a regurgitation of creeds, doctrines, and theosophic disclosures articulated in unoriginal tracts either for the defense of religion or for spiritual illumination.
This dialectical theology dominated the intellectual landscape of Islamic scholasticism for more than five centuries. Even scholars as eminent as Ibn-e- Taymiyah, Ibn-e-Qayyim, Shatibi, and Ibn-e-Khaldun were the exponents of dialectical theology. The great Iranian scholars like Mir Fendereski, Mulla Sadra, and Baqir al-Majlisi were also of the same opinion. The first scholar to have revived reason in Islamic theology was Shah Wali-ullah in the 18th century. His magnum opus The Conclusive Argument from God was the first liberal attempt at erecting the edifice of Islamic theology on rationalist grounds, Charles Kurzman argued in Liberal Islam. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan continued in the footsteps of Shah Wali-ullah and granted more room for the exercise of reason.
But it was the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam by Allama Muhammad Iqbal that gave a definitive shape to Modern Islamic Speculative Theology. Iqbal in this classic work employed the epistemology of reason to elucidate the rationale of Islamic principles. Like the Mutazilites of medieval times, Iqbal used the modern philosophical reasoning of the West to construct a modernist interpretation of Islam. The intuitive theosophy, normative traditionalism, and gnostic illumination were subservient to reason, according to Iqbalian interpretive system of thought.
Bringing into use his innovative model(s) of reasoning, Iqbal reinterpreted the classic concepts of Ijtihad, Ijma, ahya, and Islah with an aim to invest them with modern notions of progression, continuity, and authenticity. This analytic framework, reminiscent of Mutazilite school, established a firm foundation for the school of rationalism as an epistemological source to revive and thrive. Reason, in this reconceptualization of theology and formulation of scholasticism, is not only a source, but the main source of exploratory endeavours. Hence, Iqbal in his quest for the rediscovery of innovative models of reasoning transformed the dialectical theology bereft of any creative impulse into speculative theology that was once the telltale feature of classic Islamic theology in its heydays.
In philosophical parlance, this speculative theology is a modern manifestation of medieval Mutazilism. Is Iqbal the founder of Neo-mutazilism in Islam? On perusing the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, one gets convinced that the emergence of Neo-Mutazilism is attributable to the intellectual oeuvre of Allama Muhammad Iqbal.
*Rehan Khan is a prospective candidate for the Ph.D. program at NYU.
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Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas:…
Posted: at 6:45 pm
Exegesis, the critical interpretation of scripture, is not an Islamic tradition, and for Orthodox Muslims like Shaheen, the Quran is the uncreated, eternal, inviolate word of God. Nasr, meanwhile, was the author of books titled Critique of Islamic Discourse and Rationalism in Exegesis: A Study of the Problem of Metaphor in the Writing of the Mutazilah.
The socially timid, bespectacled scholar was a freethinker who challenged the orthodox tradition in Islam and argued that the Quran had to be understood both metaphorically and in its historical context. He was a man of his time, eager to help his fellow Muslims apply the teachings of the Quran to the modern world. To do that, he believed that the human dimension of the Quran needs to be reconsidered. So although the Quran was indeed the word of God, Nasrs argument was that it had been revealed to the prophet Muhammad through the use of a language, a local dialect even, rooted in a specific context: the Arabic language of the Arabian Peninsula of the seventh century. If the word of God had not been embodied in human language, how could anyone understand it?
Nasr was not starting from scratch: he was building on a great inheritance that went back to the eighth century. His masters thesis had been about the Mutazilah, the rationalist Islamic movement drawing on Greek philosophy that had first stirred a big debate between reason and dogma barely two hundred years after the founding of Islam.
The Mutazilah first emerged in the eighth century, in Basra, in todays southern Iraq. They believed that while Gods speech was uncreated and revealed to the prophet, the writing of the Quran was an earthly phenomenon: words, ink, paper. Furthermore, the writing had happened well after the revelation and the death of the prophet. The Mutazilah applied reason to the study of the holy book and believed in free will. Their movement reflected the times they were living in the Abbasid era was the golden age of Islam, the time of science and philosophy, of Abu Nuwass libertine poetry about love and wine, the thousand and one days and nights of Scheherazade, and the Abbasid caliph Haroun al Rashid. Baghdads famed library, the House of Wisdom, became the repository of world knowledge, overflowing with original and translated works. At the same time in Baghdad, also under the Abbasid caliphate, was Ahmad ibn Hanbal, founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence: resolutely orthodox, literalist, and opposed to the Mutazilah doctrine, which had become state doctrine. His opposition landed him in jail, and his following surged. Hanbalis believed Muslims had lost their way, and as the Abbasid caliphate weakened, the followers of Ibn Hanbal became more organized, leading the fight against rationalism and anything that could distract from the purest form of the original faith, including music. They set up in fact a kind of Sunni inquisition.
[ Return to the review of Black Wave. ]
As the four major schools of jurisprudence slowly crystallized, orthodoxy also settled in. Some Sunni religious leaders believed most major religious matters had been settled and began to restrict the gates of ijtihad, independent reasoning, to give precedence to emulation. Reading, understanding, and explaining the Quran would have to rely on the body of knowledge accumulated up until thenthe Mutazilah period was over. Hanbalism would later soar and spread to Persia and the area around Palestine, where Ibn Taymiyyah was one of its stars, before declining again during the Ottoman era, under the weight of its own rigidity and intolerance. Its geographical influence would slowly be reduced to the austere interior of the Arabian Peninsula, the arid plateau of Najd, home of the first Saudi kingdomwhere Muhammad ibn Abdelwahhab took it to another level.
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Posted: at 6:45 pm
The United Kingdoms departure from the European Union is like a boat setting out to sea.
First, the rope is slung off the mooring. Next, the vessel manoeuvres through the harbour, its progress delayed by engine failure, a mutinous crew, and other boats getting in the way. The sky darkens. Is sailing still wise? The captain says yes and after a final tack, the boat rounds the breakwater, leaving safety behind and confronting the open ocean.
Why use a nautical metaphor for Brexit? Because the UK is an island, and sometimes geography can help explain politics.
The UK has always thought itself to be apart from Europe, despite its formal union over the past fifty years and its shared history for the last thousand. Its sense of difference of solipsism, even is wittily expressed in an apocryphal old newspaper headline: Fog in Channel: Continent cut off.
But why does the UK feel separate?
The limitations of any island are set by the sea, but the sea also presents possibilities. It washes through national mythology and, more prosaically, defines its economy. Britain is a trading nation, in which mercantile interests have often subordinated manufacturing. The French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville linked the sea to economic liberalism. After all, island nations have an interest in free exchange and open markets. (Abu Dhabi, the island emirate, has long been a trading hub too, with a character molded as much by saltwater as by sand). It is logical that free trade theory was first developed in Britain. Risk is the raison detre of the City of London.
The sea has also bred a peculiarly liberal political tradition in Britain. For much of history, Britain has had a bigger navy than army. Water, not land, underwrote its security. Britain hasnt been ransacked by a foreign force since the Norman conquest of 1066. Britains kings and queens have rarely kept large standing armies capable of imposing absolute domestic control. A state with these characteristics is usually likely to be less centralised and more plural than one whose troops menace its streets.
Economic and political liberalism are not uniquely British. But they are entrenched sensibilities, and they derive at least in part from the curious psychology of living on a small rock in a big ocean.
That same psychology translates into an intellectual tradition predicated on doubt. Unlike much of the earths landmass, the sea is contingent, fickle, unknowable. If you depend on the sea then, to a certain extent, you forfeit power and comprehension. The people on its shores must take the world with a pinch of salt.
Consider the "empiricism" of David Hume, Britains most luminous philosopher. Hume argued that we know for certain only that which we can ourselves see, hear or touch. Until the sun rises tomorrow, I cannot be sure that it will. If someone claims something that you cannot experience yourself, then you shouldnt necessarily believe them.
The general effect of this skeptical thinking is to weaken the basis for absolute authority. If nothing can be known for sure, and if knowledge is ultimately a matter of common sense or guesswork, then anyone asserting an absolutist vision whether of destiny, revolution, or progress is suspect.
For example, the French Revolution provoked revulsion in Britain. Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish polemicist and arch-critic of the revolution, wrote that the destruction of the "ancien regime" by fire and sword was dangerous not just because of its output in blood, but because it reflected an unjustified faith in universal principles.
Burkes view - that it is better to trust the independent thought of ordinary people than the fever-dreams of visionaries - was influential. Subsequent British thinkers, from John Stuart Mill to Isaiah Berlin, and from George Orwell to JG Ballard, have preached the perils of totalitarianism. Britain arguably has a heightened immunity to ideology and demagogues.
So how might this explain Brexit?
The European Union was conceived to establish permanent peace in Europe. It has a providential narrative and reflects a spirit of planning and design of grand, lasting solutions which on some level challenges Britains more piecemeal approach to social organisation. And it has been driven, among others, by France and Germany.
Unlike Britains sceptics and empiricists, the greatest French and German thinkers believe that reason can illuminate timeless truths. The rationalism of Descartes holds that logic alone can supply a full understanding of the universe. Germanys most outstanding figures Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche also, in different ways, sought perfect certainty: in metaphysics, history, law or morality. These thinkers offered systematic accounts of who man really is, deep down, and what he must do to become himself.
To some in Britain, the EU resembles this sort of enterprise and that is what makes it so troubling. The EUs pursuit of harmony is its original sin. On this analysis, Britain has a freewheeling personality, while the EU yearns after order. Britain cherishes open markets and minimal government, while the EU erects "dirigiste" institutions. Britain views man as fallible, the EU sees him as perfectible.
This perceived dichotomy is, of course, false.
First, for all its regulations, the chief purpose and effect of the EU is to enable trade. The EU is the worlds biggest single market and its precepts of free movement in people, goods and services are cosmopolitan by any standard.
Second, if the EU is supposed to represent a steady march towards utopia, then it is doing badly. Most steps towards greater integration are resisted or even reversed, and many members (including the UK) benefit from significant opt-outs. EU rules sometimes seem to be honoured more in the breach than in the observance.
Finally, Britain is not as much of a breezy outlier as it thinks. Other European states (notably the Netherlands and Denmark) have similar liberal traditions, while Britains own commitment to the doctrine of laissez-faire has never been entirely pure. Moreover, the discourse behind Brexit has sometimes displayed the very dogmatism which its votaries purport to oppose. The "us vs them" narrative is flawed.
But it is nonetheless unsurprising that the first country to decisively reject the EU is the UK, the rain-swept island off its north-west coast. Britains sense of difference, inspired by its specific place in the world, has led, eventually, to its departure from the European harbour.
The country must now embrace the future alone, charting its own course on the open ocean. How well it does remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: to succeed, Britain will need to catch a fair wind and reach deep into its seafaring soul.
Sam Williams is a writer in Abu Dhabi
Updated: January 30, 2020 07:05 PM
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