Interesting Times: Faith and reason

The Pope's calculated challenge is welcome if it marks a willingness to confront militant Islamism.

September 21, 2006 12:22
4 minute read.
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saul singer 88. (photo credit: )


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The headline of the current spat could be, "Pope calls Islam violent, Muslims riot." The irony here presumably escapes no one except the rioters themselves. Torching churches would seem to be a poor method of disproving the Pope's delicate suggestion that Islam is a religion of the sword. Militant Islamism - as represented by Iran, al-Qaida, Hizbullah, and Hamas - raises the Islamic concepts jihad (holy war) and shehada (martyrdom) to ultimate prominence. The Pope's calculated challenge is welcome if it marks a belated willingness to confront this particular branch of Islam and its lionization of war and death over peace and life. The Catholic Church, for example, should have been at Israel's side as suicide bombers blew themselves up in our streets, buses and cafes. The Church's pro forma condemnations, often directed equally toward Israel and our attackers, amounted to acquiescence to acts that should have sparked directed moral outrage. But let us not look a gift horse in the mouth. We are all in this together, so we can only say to Benedict, welcome to the fight. We would serve the rioters' purpose, however, were we to ignore the subject of the Pope's erudite speech: the presumed clash between faith and reason. To add to the irony, the Pope and the rioters were largely on the same side of this question, namely arguing for the place of faith in the modern world. Though hardly given as a Rosh Hashana sermon, his discourse could well serveus as we collectively contemplate our relationship with God. BENEDICT ARGUES against a modern rationalism that separates faith from reason, and against Protestantism and Islam, which he suggests separate reason from faith. His defense of reason's place in religion could not be stronger: "The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvelous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind... The scientific ethos, moreover, is the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity." In his seminal God in Search of Man, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described this same faith-reason bond even more sharply: Without reason faith becomes blind. Without reason we would not know how to apply the insights of faith to the concrete issues of living. The worship of reason is arrogance and betrays a lack of intelligence. The rejection of reason is cowardice and betrays a lack of faith. Yet in another irony, Judaism and Islam perhaps have more in common with each other regarding the role of reason than they do with Christianity. As Anas Altikriti noted in the Guardian, Christians were mired in barbarism of the Dark Ages when Muslims were "busy writing literature, philosophy, art, architecture, medicine, chemistry, physics, biology, algebra and music." It is arguably no coincidence that Maimonides, who perhaps epitomized the Jewish reverence for science and rationality, was expelled from Spain and settled in Cairo. In her History of God, Karen Armstrong writes "[Muhammad preached] no obligatory doctrines about God: indeed the Koran is highly suspicious of theological speculation, dismissing it as zanna, self-indulgent guesswork about things that no one could possibly know or prove. The Christian doctrines of Incarnation and the Trinity seemed prime examples of zanna and, not surprisingly, the Muslims found these notions blasphemous. Instead, as in Judaism, God was experienced as a moral imperative." The truth is that neither Judaism, Christianity nor Islam can claim a monopoly over the harmonious melding of faith and reason. Each have fundamentalist strains that spurn rationality and modernity, yet each also have strong traditions that can be tapped to peacefully and productively reconcile both. There is, however, a difference in the balance Judaism strikes between faith and reason that sets it apart from both Christianity and Islam. Faith is central to all three, but Judaism, again ironically, leaves the greatest space for doubt and lapses of faith. The Talmud attributes this thought to God: "Better that they [the Jews] abandon Me, but follow my laws" because by practicing those laws Jews will return to God. The name of the Jewish people, Israel, means "to struggle with God." As Elie Wiesel put it, "the Jew may love God, or he may fight with God, but he may not ignore God." Jesus and his disciples scrupulously observed Jewish law, the New Testament says. "The man who infringes even the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven," Jesus said in Matthew. Later on Christians came to interpret obedience to the law more narrowly, essentially defining their new religion in terms of liberation from such strictures. In Galatians, for example, Paul states, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law," and in Romans, "we conclude that a man is put right with God only through faith and not by doing what the law commands." Christians and Muslims (for different reasons) do not believe in salvation through human actions, Jews do. All three religions make no sense without God, but Judaism is most content with the faith-challenged, assuming an attempt to live life within the framework of the commandments. Judging by numbers of adherents, the Jewish approach is not particularly popular. Perhaps not surprisingly, those inclined toward religion prefer faith- over action-centeredness, and therefore prefer either Christianity or Islam over Judaism. It would seem that the intense Jewish dialogue with reason, tolerance for a questioning form of faith, and argumentative relationship with God (see Abraham, Moses, and Job) is most compatible with the modern world. Yet within all three religions, it seems the more fundamentalist strains are growing fastest. Speaking of the clash between religion and modernity, Benedict said that we need for "reason and faith [to] come together in a new way." Winning the current war is necessary to help moderate forces compel such a reformation within Islam; the clash with secularity requires such a reformation within Christianity; and the struggle for survival requires it within Judaism.

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