20 September 2011

The Hand of God and the Will of Allah

One of the standard questions I'm asked by people who are curious about how such an otherwise apparently sane and reasonably intelligent person can be a Catholic is generally along the lines of 'But there are lots of other religions that don't believe in your god -- how can you say they're all wrong?'

The answer, when you get down to it, is that I say no such thing. I don't think the situation is polarised such that Catholics are right and everyone else is wrong. I talk of degrees of truth, and aspects of the transcendent, and intimations of the numinous in the collective imagination of mankind, and in talking of all of this I think in the language of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council's declaration on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions. Deep down, though, I think I'm really just offering a developed, more Scriptural, and more sophisticated version of of a couple of things I read as a child, one penned by C.S. Lewis, and one in a Doctor Who novel.

Yes, I'm still talking about Doctor Who. Three days in now.

The Lewis passage is well known, of course, and comes from the end of The Last Battle, the final Narnia book, when Lewis describes Aslan meeting Emeth, Lewis' good Calormene, and welcoming him into Heaven.
'"Son, thou art welcome." But I said, "Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash." He answered, "Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me." Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, "Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?" The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, "It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites -- I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man does a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?" I said, "Lord, thou knowest how much I understand." But I said also (for the truth constrained me), "Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days." "Beloved," said the Glorious One, "unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."'
The other passage comes from a rather less well-known work, Doctor Who and the Crusaders, David Whittaker's novelisation of the 1965 story, 'The Crusade'. The book is rather more substantial than the TV programme, and features a memorable scene -- well, memorable for me, anyway -- where Ian Chesterton, one of the Doctor's companions, meets with Saladin.
'"I give you these passes," he told Ian, "because I admire your bravery and courage, Sir Ian. Secondly, the lady Barbara had believed she was under my protection and I would have that belief honoured. Lastly, El Akir has presumed upon my situation in this war, and his value to me in it, and I would have that rectified. His main army, of four thousand men, it is true, is placed with the body of my fighting men in front of Jerusalem, but he has a personal guard in Lydda of several hundred. One thing and one thing alone can bring success to your enterprise... the Will of Allah." He smiled at Ian wryly."But of course, you are a Christian, and my words mean nothing to you."
"On the contrary, Your Highness, if you will forgive my contradicting you, the names and the phrases differ but the purpose is the same in all races of intellect and culture. You say 'the Will of Allah' where we would say 'the Hand of God'."
"I see you have made some study of the subject, young man," murmured Saladin approvingly, "but surely the conflict still remains? The gulf between our separate faiths is too wide to be bridged by such a simple explanation."
"I have a friend, a very wise, well-travelled man who spoke to me on the  subject of religions once. In the West, three main streams dominate: Mohammedanism, Judaism and Christianity. In the East, the Hindu, the Buddhist and the Moslem rival Janism, Sikhism, Parsee and Shinto. But what is the sum total? That all people, everywhere, believe there is something mightier than themselves. Call it Brahma, Allah or God – only the name changes. The little Negro child will say his prayers and imagine his God to be in his colour. The French child hopes his prayers will be answered – in French. We are all children in this matter still, and will always be – until colours, languages, custom, rule and fashion find a meeting ground."
"Then why do we fight? Throw away Life, mass great continents of men and struggle for opposing beliefs?"
Neither could provide an answer so Ian took his leave as decently as he could, although Saladin was now keen for him to Hay and hear the arguments put forward by the many wise men and philosophers who filled his court. Ian’s only regret was that he had had to speak for the Doctor and knew that his friend would eternally regret not meeting the great Sultan.'
I'm not saying that religious truth doesn't matter; on the contrary, I think it may matter more than anything, not least because what we believe dictates how we live, and I doubt there's a more important question out there than 'how should we live?', itself resting upon the deeper question of 'why are we here?' 

I'm merely saying that we're all in this together, and  the challenge of secularism is to be a meeting place where we can wrestle out this question in our lives. It should be an open space, where those of all faiths and none are free to live their lives in accord with their beliefs. It should be a space where the civil authorities seek neither to serve nor to suppress any religious -- or irreligious -- grouping. It should be about the separation of Church and State, but not about the separation of religion and politics, something which I believe to be neither reasonable nor pratical, neither desirable nor just.

But that's a discussion for another day.

* The others, of course, include, 'but how could a loving God have created a world like this?', 'why do you even think Jesus existed?', 'do you really believe the world was created in six days?', 'you don't really believe the Bible, do you?', 'do you think you can't be moral unless you believe in God?' and 'seriously?'


Anonymous said...

Hmm. You may not have read Feuerbach, but one feels your thinking is inflected with his philosophical debasements.
If there are degrees of truth then there are degrees of falsehood, and the false can only be truly measured as such by that which is eminently true.
The trouble with your outlook is that you set man as the measure, not God; you, or rather the cultural and intellectual milieu of your time and your place, set up a standard that will judge Catholicism, and Buddhism and Mohammedanism and Atheistic Humanism, and all the rest; a standard by which you presume to discern and acknowledge an essence that is common to them all, and by which you further judge that all that individually belongs to each, over and above this essence, is to be tolerated only in so far as it does not offend against the essence. In other words, the essence is essential to abide by but the full truth of Catholicism, say, is not essential to abide by. When Jesus claimed to be the Light, the Way, the Truth, and held that no man comes to the Father unless he comes through the Son, what do you think he meant? When he said he came with a sword and that he would cause dissention between brother and brother, what do you think he meant?
Take the case of the 16 year-old Muslim girl who was born and bred in Toronto but was killed by her family for refusing, through her adoption of a modern, western teenage lifestyle, to honour her family’s South Asian Muslim tradition. Her tradition calls her murder an honour killing and it is acceptable within that tradition. And take the case of Catholic adoption agencies in Britain who lost their licenses to operate because they refused o obey a law that would oblige them to place children with homosexual couples. Do you acknowledge the state’s right to prosecute the girl’s family for murder? On what grounds? Do you acknowledge the state’s right to withdraw licenses from Catholic Agencies for their refusal to place children with homosexual couples? On what grounds?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I don't think I do. I believe in a hierarchy of truth, and I think the Catholicism is at the top of that. Something like Peter Kreeft's ranking of religions makes sense to me, and I think it tallies with what Paul says.

I just don't believe in theocratic states; they have to act in accord with the will of the people, as I don't see how they can claim legitimacy otherwise.

On the issue of adoption licenses, I believe the State most definitely has that right, and I believe it was deeply wrong to exercise it.

Anonymous said...

“I just don't believe in theocratic states; they have to act in accord with the will of the people, as I don't see how they can claim legitimacy otherwise”

Exactly, you believe man (the will of the people) is the measure, not God. (1) If the will of the people is to exterminate Jews, is that legitimate then? And (2) if it is or isn’t, on what grounds is it or is it not?

“On the issue of adoption licenses, I believe the State most definitely has that right, and I believe it was deeply wrong to exercise it.”

(3) On what grounds does it have the right? (4) On what grounds is it wrong to exercise it? (5) Are they the same grounds? (6) Or are you operating at two distinct hierarchical levels of truth? And if so, (7) what third level of “truth” allows you to do this? And (8) would not this third level comprehend the two others and so in practice result in the application of just one level of truth?

There you go, eight questions. I know it is an imposition, but I would love to hear your answers.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

It is an imposition, I'm afraid, and it's one that strays into the territory I'd labelled as being a discussion for another day. And, for what it's worth, one I'm none too pushed about answering, especially given that I'm very busy, very tired, and don't know who you are.


I don't think I have in any sense set up man as the measure of anything, and I don't think it's true or fair to infer that by identifying myself as a democrat rather than a theocrat I'm doing so.

In democracy power lies with the demos, the citizen body; in theocracy, however, power does not lie with the theos, with God. What we call theocracy we should perhaps more accurately call ecclesiocracy, or hierocracy. And I have no doubt you're aware of this.

So, with that said, and quickly, as it's late and I must sleep, and cautiously, as it's late and I'm thinking off the hoof and won't be held to any of this...

1. I would probably say that it is democratically legitimate but that there is a higher law that forbids such wickedness. (Also, Godwin's Law?)

2. What is a state if not the sum total of its citizens? I think there's a distinction between democratic and moral legitimacy, and believe, with Augustine, that a State without justice is no more than a pirate writ large.

3. If we accept that something is to be licensed, then we accepted that there must be a licensing body. That body must have criteria. As such, the body -- in this case the State -- has the right to determine what those criteria are.

4. I believe the decision was wrong on moral grounds. More specifically, I think several errors were made. First, the argument on equal provision of goods and services was flawed: the role of adoption agencies should be far less about providing a child for adults than it about providing a child with parents and a nurturing home; the focus of the debate was the wrong way around. Second, given how legal same-sex relationships are a novelty in human history, I don't think it's right to use young children as the subjects of a social experiment. Third, given the unlikelihood of same-sex couples turning to Catholic adoption agencies, the law was unnecessary, and by effectively forcing Catholic agencies to close will have had the effect of depriving lots of children of adoptive parents.

(And indeed, the statistics show this: adoption rates have dropped significantly over the last few years, with adoptions by same-sex couples not even coming close to compensating for this shortfall.)

5.I freely admit that these are different grounds. I believe there's a difference between democratic and moral legitimacy.

6. I am not operating at different hierarchical levels of truth. Moral legitimacy is a matter of truth. Democratic legitimacy is a matter of mass opinion.

7. Given that I've answered no to your previous question, this doesn't require an answer.

8. Again, this needs no answer. I don't believe I'm operating on two levels of truth, let alone one; I'm merely distinguishing between democratic and moral legitimacy.

You'll note two things:

First, that I believe citizens are obliged to vote in conscience, and in accord with their moral principles, in an attempt to have the State act in a way they believe to be right.

Second, that I've not said anything about whether citizens are obliged to obey the law of the land. I don't believe they are; they are obliged to obey their state as long as the law of the land is not itself immoral. In situations where the law is immoral, citizens should be prepared, in conscience, to break it, and should be prepared to face the punishment the State lays down for those who break its laws.

Anonymous said...

I’m afraid that because of length I have to submit this in two parts.
This is the first part:

Thank you very much for your indulgence. It is most helpful. Allow me to reciprocate somewhat.

You were the one to use the word theocracy, not me, and I was not inferring that you set man up as the measure because you identified yourself as a democrat and not a theocrat.
To understand where I am coming from in claiming you set man, or more correctly “man without God”, as the measure, one must look at how the notion of demos differs in its classical and modern conception. For Plato, man is the measure of the order of the polis, but God is the measure of the order of man, and the polis operates correctly (justly) only insofar as man operates in accordance with the order of God. So the proper order of the polis cannot be divorced from the proper order of man under God. The “legitimacy” of the polis is derived from its being in harmony with God’s order.
For Plato, and for Christian thought that followed him, reality does not simply consist of the natural, social and political realms in which any individual participates, it also consists of a transcendent realm that comprehends and orders these lower realms. Man naturally possesses a telos that is open to these ordering transcendent truths and may apprehend them through noetic reflection. As Paul says, “The knowledge of God is clear to their minds; God himself has made it clear to them; from the foundation of the world men have caught sight of his invisible nature, his eternal power and his divineness, as they are known through his creatures. Thus there is no excuse for them…”

Within the polis men together may choose, democratically, who is to frame the laws and to enforce the laws. But it is not men who “choose” the justice and the truth that will be reflected in the laws. There is no hierarchy of truth, it is objective and indivisible, but there is a hierarchy, or differentiation, of form that may express the truth. The “legitimacy” of form is measured by whether, and to what degree, it expresses truth. One cannot say that something is democratically (formally) legitimate if what it expresses is repugnant to truth.

The modern conception of demos is different because modern man denies that there is an objective transcendent reality by which man and the world is ordered. For the modern, man alone projects forward, and through his own creative will shapes the truth by which he is to live. In the classical and Christian view, man seeks to conform to reality; in the modern view, man seeks to transform reality to his own image.
In the classical view, God–>Man–>Polis equates to the development Truth–>Form->Order. In the modern view, which eclipses God, Truth collapses into, and becomes indistinguishable from Form. And just as Form is variable, so now Truth becomes variable. In the modern demos, Truth is subordinate to Form. Men choose not just who will frame and enforce laws, but also choose what it is that constitutes the “truth” and “justice” and “goodness” of the laws without reference to Truth, Justice and Goodness.

I am not saying that this choosing of “truth”, “justice” and “goodness” is today yet totally without reference to “Truth”, “Justice” and “Goodness”, for the classical and Christian understandings are not yet totally eliminated from our inherited tradition. But the tendency has long been present, and seems inexorable. Truth is being dissolved into Form.

Anonymous said...

Here’s the second part:

Let me try this way. You ask, what is the state if not the sum total of its citizens? How very modern of you! Classically, that is the definition of a mob. And a mob is all form and no substance (which is not to say it isn’t real). The only difference between one mob and another mob is a formal one, such as its size: the sum total of its “citizens.” If you try to draw substantive distinctions, then it ceases to be a mob and becomes something other: an ordered body such as a community, or society or club. Orderings which embody purposes and, precisely because of this, the totality is greater than the sum of its parts. When Truth is dissolved into Form, the whole never exceeds the sum of its parts.

Look at what you say:

“I'm merely saying that we're all in this together, and the challenge of secularism is to be a meeting place where we can wrestle out this question (how should one live one’s life) in our lives. It should be an open space, where those of all faiths and none are free to live their lives in accord with their beliefs. It should be a space where the civil authorities seek neither to serve nor to suppress any religious -- or irreligious -- grouping. It should be about the separation of Church and State, but not about the separation of religion and politics, something which I believe to be neither reasonable nor pratical, neither desirable nor just.”

All you are offering here is a purely formal space with NO substantive features by which anyone can get their bearings or against which they can measure truth over falsehood, beauty over ugliness, goodness over evil. It is a place with no standard of discernment because all standards are equal. But this does not mean that it is not a real place. On the contrary, it is a totally devouring place, like hell.

Allow me to recommend this short article to you. It is written by a Pole (and devout Roman Catholic) who lived under an Eastern Communist regime and who belongs to a political party that, I believe, is or was affiliated with the British Conservatives in the European parliament, and about whom Nick Clegg, whom I regard with as much loathing as most of your friends would regard George Bush, referred to as a nutter.


The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I'm intrigued by your reference to most of my friends. Do you know them? Do you know anything about them? How many can you name? Because if you don't know them, I'm not sure you're in any position to claim anything about their beliefs.

That aside, I think you might be missing my point.

When you say that all I am offering is a purely formal space with no substantive features against which people can get their bearings, etc, I'd say two things.

First, I'm not offering anything. It's not for me to decide. It's for the citizenry. And I'm not sure what you seem to be suggesting as an alternative. What would you propose, and what would you do if the majority of the citizens of a state rejected your idea?

Second, do you think it's the job of the State to provide such bearings for its citizens? Do you take your bearings from the State? Or do you take them from, say, religion, philosophy, history, art, and your experience? I'm in the latter camp.

One of the fundamental problems in your argument lies in your claim that the legitimacy of the State is derived from it being in harmony with God's order. I am quite confident that there are huge numbers of people who would disagree with you, either because they would disagree on what God's order entails, or because they do not accept the idea of God. Unless you'd plan on removing such people from your ideal state, how would you accommodate them in your arrangement?

Because without an answer to that, it seems to me that your arguments are just hot air.


The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

An ahistorical view of Classical political theory
I think it's deeply simplistic to say that there was 'a classical view' of how the State should be ordered, which stands in sharp contrast to 'the' modern view. Plato's view of the State changed over time, and differed from that of Aristotle, say, which differed in turn from that of Thucydides, which differed yet again from that of Polybius. You won't find a whiff of classical idea of a divinely-rooted and ordered state in Polybius, who was rather more pragmatic than Plato, and less inclined to engage in fanciful 'if I were king' scenarios.

The claim that the classical view was one based on the idea of God is, frankly, bizarre. The Greeks of the archaic and classical periods were not monotheists. Rather than believing in 'God' they tended to believe in all manner of local gods and local variants of national gods, and because they weren't stupid, they tended not to live their lives in the ways the gods supposedly lived theirs. Indeed, that idea is central to the Iliad; that the gods' lives are almost without meaning, because they hardly face consequences, but that ours are deeply meaningful, because we die.

I don't accept that 'the sum total of the citizens' is the classical definition of a mob. I've spent too many years studying Polybius to do that. For him, there wasn't a real formal diffence between democracy and ochlocracy; the two terms were simply positive and negative ways of describing the same thing, the latter being a case of the former corrupted by demagoguery.

As for the Legutko article
On that article, I disagree with the definition of liberalism.
I find absurd the idea that liberalism's not interesting, as such boredom reveals more about the author than the topic, and think the entirety of the first argument dependent on subjective and mobile claims.
The second argument is similarly dependent on definitions that are easily shifted and sweeping claims unsupported by any evidence.
The third argument is better, though it depends in no small part on the dubious definition of liberalism advanced at the start.
The fourth argument, in criticizing Berlin rather glosses over how 'freedom to' cannot really exist unless you first have 'freedom from', makes an unsupportable claim about Socrates, and accuses liberals of the same tendency to generalisation that so plagues this essay.
I find it odd to see homosexual activists or feminists branded as 'radical' in the fifth argument; there are radicals in both movements, of course, but overlap and equivalence should not be confused.
More than that I cannot say without spending time I lack on the article, but it seems a slight and silly piece.

Anonymous said...

When I say classical I mean roughly the period of the 5th and 4th centuries. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about Thucydides’ theoretical conception of the nature of polities to comment, but despite any differences between Plato and Aristotle I am sure both judged the value and purpose of any polity in the positive terms of its ability to embody and instill moral virtues in its members. Like the Sophists, Polybius may well have conceived polities in the negative terms of power relations and “pragmatic” self-interest, but I don’t see him or the Sophists as at all explicating the classical conception of the nature of political order. That distinction belongs to the two political philosophers par excellence. The history of Greek thought from Hesiod to Plato and Aristotle saw a movement in significance from myth to philosophy and with it the resulting classical philosophical acknowledgement of the God beyond the mythical intra-cosmic gods. “Now it is God who is, for you and for me, of a truth ‘the measure of all things’, much more truly than, as they say, ‘man’.” Laws 716.
Monotheism or polytheism is not the issue here. What matters is that both Plato and Aristotle view authentic political order as having its source and measure in the divine.


Anonymous said...

I am sorry you found Legutko’s piece slight and silly. I thought his definition of liberalism as thinness quite good. I wonder how you would disagree with it? It seems to me that the thinness of liberalism is on a par with the thinness of positivism. Neither can move beyond their starting point, and any movement is invariably a turning back on itself. You say the first argument depends entirely on subjective and “mobile” claims. I am not altogether sure what you mean by mobile, but still I don’t see what is wrong with this as a first approach?

You say the second argument is similarly based on easily shifted definitions and sweeping, unsupported claims. But it seems to me that this is the most apposite argument when it comes to criticism of the secularist meeting place you offer, excuse me, propose.

“Liberalism's purpose is merely to create a framework within which people can function as acting, thinking, and creating beings. Liberals want to construct a model of public order spacious enough to secure maximum freedom for everyone, including the Aristotelians, the Hegelians, the Thomists, as well as their opponents—in short, to anyone, regardless of the priority or the profundity of his problems.”

Isn’t that what you propose? A framework, a secular meeting place? A place, a state that is neutral with respect to offering “bearings”? This is what you challenge me with: “Second, do you think it's the job of the State to provide such bearings for its citizens? Do you take your bearings from the State? Or do you take them from, say, religion, philosophy, history, art, and your experience? I'm in the latter camp.”
And the second argument criticizes this on the basis that there “such "neutrality" is impossible to maintain; one cannot be an organizer of everything while at the same time refraining from imposing substantively in specific cases.”
And this to me is spot on. You cannot provide a space where everyone in their differences can freely move without clashing. If you try, eventually you have to end up removing the differences that cause the clashing so that everyone can continue to move freely. Catholic adoption agency policy clashes with homosexual couples right to adopt. Then either change the policy or eliminate it. And it is the state that determines and acts on that, not your realm of religion or philosophy or history or wherever it is you think you take your bearings from. The state is more than the sum total of its “citizens”; it is that which organizes all citizens and communities and meaningful associations of citizens for action in time and with each other. But instead of having the state do this responsibly, i.e. actively in accordance with the nature and destiny of man, recognizing that it works to a divine economy, the liberal works to achieve a formal efficiency, one that flattens and smoothes uniformly.


Anonymous said...


Your criticism of the fourth argument is that it glosses over how you cannot have “freedom for” without first having “freedom from.” This put me in mind of Von Balthasar’s notion of gestalt and dialogical drama, which I think he got from Goethe. Each step in the development of an organism involves “choice”, or the assuming of one direction rather than another. Once a choice is made then all the other choices that were available up to then but not taken are no longer available. The taking of the step constitutes a diminishment of the freedom-from on one level, but may now open up an increased freedom-for on a new level. Finitude is a positive. It is through an increasing definition, an increasing qualification, that we become increasingly free-for. And the increasing definition to which man as a creature of God is called is one that operates not just at an individual level, but also on the level where man’s social and political being is expressed.

After Socrates had been condemned to death and while he awaited execution he had the chance to flee and save his life. He chose not to do so. What liberal notion of self-interest would account for that action?