Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Islam, Reformation, and Philosophy

I don't really follow blogs - creating an irony in that I have decided to start writing one. But I do periodically check in on the Washington Post's comments boards for interesting tidbits. Here's one I'ld like to share:

In it, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and a Protestant, argues briefly that what Islam needs is a Protestant Reformation of its own. One Mr. Chase makes a briefer argument against him, in effect saying (1) there is no superstructure or hierarchy to reform against; and (2) the Islamic equivalent to a Reformation has already happened.

I decided to chime in and expand upon Mr. Chase's second point by looking at the philosophical underpinnings of the Reformation, and how those underpinnings are already in place in Islam, but have played out in a way that makes the Middle East a sort of photographic-negative from Europe. I have copied my argument below.

One of Martin Luther's fundamental gripes against the Catholic Church was its use of Greek
philosophy to structure its understanding of the Christian Gospel. That is at the heart of his idea of "Sola Scriptura" demand: don't try to 'figure out' all this stuff - just read the Bible and do what it says, he insisted. The corollary was that religion did not "fit in" with the rest of reality as an integrated whole, but rather was a separate thing, a separate reality. Thus Luther's interpretation of the command to render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. The secular sphere and the religious had, in Luther's thinking, no real interaction (let alone integration). This disconnection is why Protestantism and secularism get along so nicely - each is content to let the other do its own thing without trying to connect between the two.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, has always insisted that there is just one reality, one universe, and that its different facets have ordered relationships with each other. The most important facets of reality are those that pertain to eternal destiny, it argues, which are the same facets about which the Church speaks. Thus the Church takes for itself a sort of overarching supervisory position: not in charge of anything in particular, except religious life, but with a certain oversight of everything in general, even things like politics and scientific research. Naturally, politicians and scientists chafe at this ordering, and prefer a separation. A secularization, made possible by the Protestant Reformation, is what they looked for.

The problem with a Muslim Reformation is that it has already happened, and failed. In the 11th and 12th centuries AD, Islam saw its philosophical hayday. Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Ibn Farabi among a host of others labored to integrate their Koranic religious convictions with systematic thought in a way that could give a "big picture" of the whole world, sustain scientific discoveries, and help address questions not obviously answered in the Koran. They were in pursuit of the same project that the Catholic Scholastic philosophers (Thomas Aquinas, et al.) undertook about a century later (and mostly in light of the progress made by the Muslim philosophers first!). It was the same project that Martin Luther rejected in Catholic Europe. In Muslim Persia the project was torn down by Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, a theologian and cleric, like Luther, who was convinced that thinking about religion and faith somehow undid them. He wrote oodles of volumes, but his most significant is also one of his latest. It is most significant because it is a reversal of the earlier. "The Incoherence of the Philosophers" is a proposal of epistemological skepticism that would make Descartes or Hume blush. It denies any real ability to know anything outside of one's own mind, cutting off the subjective from the objective, the religious from the material universe.

So if this division of religious from secular has occured in both the Western world (in the 16-17th centuries) and in the Muslim world (in the 12th-13th centuries), why they both look so different from each other?

Simply put, the West has tended toward interest in the material and thus become more secular, while the Muslim world has tended toward interest in the religious and thus become more 'fundamentalist'. It was the same basic philosophical thrust to separate religion and the secular from each other that has allowed each to become unbalanced. If we separate the two so completely, we are left to chose between (on the one hand) a secularized scientism with no room for human values and transcendence, without wonder and awe; and (on the other hand) a detached religiosity with no room for inquiry or reasonability, nothing to prevent it from becoming unhinged in its own little mental universe, nothing to prevent it from becoming fanatical.

The two worlds we have thus face face each other in gaping incomprehension, each thinking of the other, "How can you be so obtuse?"

What is needed in both the Western world and in the Muslim world is a philosophical understanding in which there is one reality, and each thing has its proper place and can be understood analytically (in its parts and in itself) and comprehensively (as part of the bigger picture) - so that science is not closed to the transcendent and religion is not hostile to reason and thought. What is emphatically NOT needed in either the Western world or the Muslim world is a new Reformation, a new division of this-world from that-world. We've had quite enough of that already. Maybe, what is really needed is a new scholasticism.

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