Not long after my furious round of posting when blogging through Allah, I developed severe pain in my neck and upper back. And my doctor said yeah, that’s what people get from working on computers day and night. I’ve been going through physical therapy, which has been helping, but recovery is slow and I’ve been trying to ease off the endless typing. Which means no blogging until either I get a different job, or my body somehow reconfigures itself, or we get to a Tony Stark-like state of computer technology where I can do it all by talking and gesturing. So for the few and the brave who are still reading, thank you, but the blog is going officially back on hiatus.
May 11, 2011
March 5, 2011
Scot McKnight and his brainy comment posse at Jesus Creed have started discussing Miroslav Volf’s Allah, with two posts so far. The JC crew have spent more time than I did discussing Volf’s contention that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Volf actually spent more of the book on this issue than you might have thought from my posts, because I got bored by the semantic nitpicking — what exactly does “same” mean? — and I didn’t see that it made a vast amount of difference. Scot also doesn’t seem to think it matters that much: “I’m not yet convinced of the Same God theory, but I am convinced that the follower of Jesus, the Christian, is to love God and to love the neighbor as himself. … This means whether Muslims agree or not, and I’m encouraged by those who have participated in these concerns, I am called to love Muslims as my neighbor.”
In his book, Volf emphasizes the common God as a source of harmony between Christians and Muslims. In the introduction he quotes Abraham Lincoln’s words about how Confederates and Unionists followed the same God, and believes this aided in healing the nation after the Civil War. (This is a rather poignant observation coming from a former Yugoslavian.) But thinking it over again, I wonder if Volf doesn’t have another motive: having a common God gives him grounds to critique certain Muslim beliefs and practices.
Ever since 9/11, there’s been a running debate in the West over identifying the “real Islam.” You know: is it the “religion of peace,” or at least something Americans can live with, or is it the radical version of Osama bin Laden? My own view is that, if you don’t believe in the religion and think it’s a man-made creation to start with, you can’t say it even has a “true self” — it will be whatever its followers think it is. But by positing that the God of Islam is real, Volf has some standing to say that some versions of Islam are truer than others. So he can tell certain Muslims they’re wrong about apostasy and church-state relations, and say that the suicide bomber is following the wrong god, without simply imposing a Christian framework on them.
Or is he? I complained before that Volf’s comments about church and state, in particular, seem far too embedded in modern Western assumptions. But I can definitely see why he wants to get past the lazy pluralism of “You believe this and I believe that, and that’s our right.” As we have seen, some difference of opinion have deadly consequences.
February 28, 2011
My post speculating about the relationship between honor and gay marriage was an attempt to articulate general social views, as I saw them, about what makes marriage honorable. But I’ve been thinking about Richard’s point about generations: the younger you are, it seems, the more likely you are to accept the idea of gay marriage. I wonder how many other people my age and younger share a certain gut feeling I have — that accepting the changes in marital norms actually comes from the conservative instinct to honor your parents.
Let me explain. All the non-religious arguments I’ve seen against gay marriage — and indeed many of the religious ones — aren’t about homosexuality so much as the importance of raising children with mothers and fathers. Usually this is supported with statistical evidence to the effect that children raised in two-parent homes turn out better, in the senses of education, emotional health, criminal records, etc., than those raised by single parents and other unconventional arrangements.
But of course, a large number of us born during what Francis Fukuyama called the Great Disruption — the boom of divorce and illegitimate births from the early ’60s onward — grew up in households like that, usually because our parents were divorced. And for all the press that teen rebellion gets, sociological data generally shows that most people stay pretty close to their parents. And so, even though some people angrily denounce their parents’ failures and vow to make things different, my own feelings are more ambivalent. Yeah, it sucked that my parents divorced, but I don’t want to try to say what they should have done differently. They’re both with other people now who seem to suit them better. And there is an inherent egotism in saying, “Yeah, you did all that for me, but you should have organized your life even MORE around me.”
In a past post — also inspired by a Richard Beck item, I see — I floated the idea that modern parents have to be more altruistic than their predecessors, because they can’t expect the same material rewards for their hard work. There does come a point when you have to ask how much sacrifice is worth it: not just sacrifice to keep from totally effing your kids up, but sacrifice in pursuit of an ideal when things could otherwise just turn out OK. And I think the older you get, the more you learn the value of OK-ness.
So even though a lot of people my age want to avoid putting their own kids through the same things they went through, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re shying away from the implied parental critique that says, “What my parents did is such a DISASTER that we must resist any signs and symptoms of it, even tangentially related things like gay marriage.” Which is also, of course, partly a defense of our own honor, since that seems to imply that we ourselves turned out awfully defective. The desire to make peace with your life is a strong and healthy instinct, I think, but it does tend to foil utopian dreams. And at this point, pushing back against a 200-year cultural drift that has brought us to the point of gay marriage does seem pretty utopian.
I also wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the experience of growing up in the Great Disruption amplified the honor code I described in my earlier post. Certainly, those of us who saw our parents divorce saw that marriage was hard. That no doubt drove some people away from it, perhaps including myself. But anything that’s difficult to do also acquires a certain cachet, which may be one reason why gay people are fighting for marriage so hard even as conservatives are declaring its imminent doom.
February 26, 2011
So, here we are near the end of my series on Miroslav Volf’s Allah, and you may be wondering what happened to the “money quote” I mentioned at the beginning — the one about how you can be a practicing Muslim and 100% Christian at the same time. So far, Volf has argued that the differences between Christianity and Islam aren’t as big as they’re often made out to be, but he’s also acknowledged that they’re important and meaningful. So how can someone be both without melting into a pluralist soup?
Volf looks at two real-life examples. One case I remember hitting the news a few years ago: Ann Redding, an American Episcopal priest who visited a mosque one day and, for reasons even she can’t logically explain, decided she had to become a Muslim. She continued her duties as a priest until she was eventually defrocked, but she was not excommunicated.
The other example I was unfamiliar with, but has apparently been going on since the ’80s: Muslims accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior while still remaining Muslim. An article in Christianity Today explained how this works:
Ibrahim was a well-respected scholar of the Qur’an, a hafiz. When he decided to follow Jesus, he closely examined the Qur’anic verses commonly understood as denying the Trinity, denying Jesus’ divine Sonship, denying Jesus’ atoning death, and denying the textual integrity of the Bible. He concluded that each of these verses was open to alternate interpretations, and that he could therefore follow Jesus as a Muslim. Soon members of his family and community came to share his faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Ibrahim was also imprisoned for his faith, but unlike Nabil, Ibrahim still wanted to follow Jesus as a Muslim.
This appears to be similar to the lifestyle of Messianic Jews, who retain their traditional diet and rituals and so on but accept Jesus as their Messiah.
Volf mentions elsewhere that his father was a Pentecostal minister, and his defense of these dual religionists rests heavily on his very low-Protestant definition of “Christian.” Here is his litmus test:
1. Were you baptized in the name of the triune God?
2. Do you confess that Jesus Christ, in whom God dwelled in human flesh, is the Lord?
3. Have you received the divine gift of a new life given freely through Christ?
If your answers are yes, than you are 100 percent Christian (or, if you prefer, a follower of Christ). … Now imagine that you also fasted on Ramadan, prayed five times a day by prostrating and saying Al Fatihah (the first surah of the Qur’an, the seven lines of which sum up the human relation to God in contemplation and prayer), and believe that Muhammad was a prophet (not “Seal of the Prophets”, but a prophet in the way we might designate Martin Luther King Jr. “a prophet”). If your answers are still yes to the three questions above, you would still be 100 percent Christian.
… Can you be 100 percent Muslim if you answered the three questions above with yes? That is not for Christians to answer. Muslims must answer it.
It is interesting to compare this with the reason the Episcopal Church gave for defrocking Redding: she “abandoned the Communion of the Episcopal Church by formal admission into a religious body not in communion with the Episcopal Church.” Communion, whether as a sacrament or a concept, is distinctly missing from Volf’s definition of Christianity in this entire book. This isn’t just because Pentecostals tend to be individualists, but because Volf is opposed to faith acting as a marker of group identity and loyalty. This was also a major theme in Exclusion & Embrace, and it’s not hard to see why a Yugoslavian would feel that way. The Yugoslav heartland consisted of people who look the same and speak the same language, but who are split by religion: Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims. Volf gives examples of childish behavior exacerbating this conflict, such as a Croat church building a giant cross over a largely Muslim town, and a Serbian sports team celebrating victory with the sign of the Orthodox cross.
In Volf’s view, what these people could use is some literal fear of God. “Bad people, with no intention of doing good, can think alike about God and still be at each other’s throats. But fear of that common God — the one who commands love of neighbor — would make a difference. Fear of that God will nudge Muslims and Christians to emulate God and therefore pursue the common good.” By “fear,” I should note, he’s not talking about petrification but allegiance and obedience. In that respect, I can see what he’s getting at. Though they may protest otherwise, many believers seem to think God is like a politician, whose power increases with the number and influence of his supporters. The idea that God is lord of all places and times, regardless of who’s worshipping him, counteracts the idea that you have to take extreme measures in his defense.
But I have the same problem with this that I pointed out near the end of part 2, regarding how Christians are supposed to care for apostates and dissenters from other faiths. Do community interests have any moral claims on Christians? Can you care for individuals while being indifferent to their community interests? My instinctive answer to the second question is “no,” and Volf isn’t really any help in answering either. He never really defines what the “common” in the common good is, but he seems to be invoking the Enlightenment ideal of treating everyone with equal benevolence regardless of their relationship to you, which is, among other things, physically impossible.
Another very Pentecostal assumption Volf seems to be making is that everyone has some kind of direct personal relationship with God that supersedes whatever scriptures, sacraments, traditions and histories they might have. But in my experience at least, those phenomena are precisely how many Christians know God. Most people don’t get to see Jesus, but they believe they see him in his works. I am reminded of Lesslie Newbigin’s The Household of God, which pointed out that the main legacy Jesus left on Earth was not an instruction book but a fellowship. Yep, he created yet another group.
I thought of Newbigin more than once while reading Volf’s book, actually. Back in my review of Household I said that Newbigin seemed to dispose of traditional church boundaries only to make up his own, and I see Volf doing the same thing here. Like Newbigin, he has a very broad definition of “Christian,” so he frequently points out that some of the differences between orthodox Christianity and orthodox Islam aren’t any greater than the differences between Christian sects. Yet he also has a clear idea of what he’s against. At one point, he considers a medieval Crusader and a modern Muslim suicide bomber, and declares that “They are naming God very differently, and yet they are, alas, worshipping the same god — a bloodthirsty god of power, not the God of justice and mercy of the normative Christian and Muslim religious traditions.”
I have seen this desire to rally the moderates against the extremes many times since 9/11. But I wonder what this does to Newbigin’s project of unifying the body of Christ. Volf is casting a wider net, but still ends up leaving some people out that Newbigin would probably leave in. Still, despite my carping I’m glad that I read this book. As in his earlier work, Volf is unafraid to tackle the hot issues, and he does it calmly and intelligently. I hope this leads others to follow his example.
February 25, 2011
Richard Beck also read The Honor Code recently, and is also applying it outside of Appiah’s subject matter: “(I wonder if) something like this is happening today in America regarding same sex marriage. Attitudes, particularly among younger Americans, have been liberalizing on this subject, signaling a shift in the honor/shame dynamics.”
I had the same thought. In some ways, the gay-marriage movement — and certainly its rhetoric — stems from the expansion of the honor peerage that Appiah called “dignity.” And it does relate to the idea of equality from birth, since most gay people believe they were born gay. On the other hand, it’s different from Appiah’s examples in some significant ways. There’s no reason to think that people kind of knew all along that denying marriage to gay couples was wrong. As I recall from Andrew Sullivan’s exploration of the history, at least, gay marriage seemed to never occur to anyone before the 20th century. Also, the current movement isn’t really about birth, it’s about attaining something: marriage. In fact, the most obvious way you can tell the gay-marriage movement is about honor is the insistence on using the word marriage to describe the union, even when a civil union has exactly the same benefits. The same word evidently denotes the same respect.
This suggests that the honor accorded to marriage is what Appiah calls competitive honor, which you have to earn. Certainly persuading someone to marry you has always been an honor; that’s why a man traditionally asked “for the honor of your hand,” and a lady thanked him for the honor of being asked, whether or not she actually accepted the offer. (Even in arranged marriages, families persuade and honor each other in a similar way.) Today, we tend not to use such language but getting married, or having any kind of successful relationship, is definitely seen as an achievement. After all, almost everybody tries it, and most of them fail a number of times before getting it right, if they ever get it right.
At the same time, the standard by which a relationship is judged is different from what it used to be. Back in the 19th century, when someone was said to have “made a good marriage,” it meant a marriage to someone of good wealth and social standing. Personal happiness was nice but largely a matter of luck. Since then, however, marrying for that reason has become shameful, and for that matter so has marrying for practically any reason other than romantic love. I expect that here, as with dueling, part of what happened is that a once-aristocratic practice became low-class. Social-climbing marriages are for the Anna Nicole Smiths and Heather Millses of the world, who can’t make their money with more respectable talents. Admitting that you need someone else in such basic material ways, whether to care for yourself or for your children, is admitting weakness, and weakness never sits well with honor.
The relationship between honor and romantic love could probably fill a whole book on its own, but it certainly seems to be ambivalent. Honor, as I said, is very concerned with control, so in many times and places being overwhelmed by a passion was embarrassing. It still can be, if the object of your passion is inappropriate or indifferent. But in our age it is, in a sense, a way of needing someone without exactly admitting you lack anything. A person can be rich, healthy, and endowed with friends and family, yet still fall in love. It’s how the successful people in our society pair up. And that, by itself, lends it honor.
February 23, 2011
I mentioned that Miroslav Volf avoids sexual and gender issues in his attempt to build a friendly relationship between Christianity and Islam. But there is one section that seems, at least, related. After admitting that the issue of missions is a tough one — both religions are evangelical, and they both want to convert each other — he considers whether there are any goals that Muslims and Christians can work toward together. There are many good causes out there, he acknowledges, but he singles out one that he thinks is particularly suited to both faiths. “For many human beings (not for all), the vision of the good life, the dream of flourishing as a human being, has shrunk to mere pleasure,” he writes. “Muslims and Christians can be allies in exposing the futility and destructiveness of the pursuit of mere pleasure as well as in making plausible that a life marked by love of God and neighbor is both deeply human and truly pleasurable.”
I must admit, my first reaction to this was that it was a really stupid idea. I mean, not that he’s wrong about the pursuit of empty pleasure, but that this could be turned into some kind of trans-religious public cause. He admits that Muslims and Christians don’t exactly agree on what that emptiness should be filled with, which leaves the cause better defined by what it’s against. And what it’s against is pleasure. That will go over well.
The thing is, there are really three parties in this confab. For some time now, western Christians have been sharing their society with atheists and spiritual freelancers who are suspicious of religion in general. Since 9/11 in particular, I have watched members of this group split between seeing Christians as fellow Westerners in the fight against radical Islam, and seeing Christians as just another bunch of wannabe theocrats. Sometimes, the latter view is taken by liberal Christians of their conservative brethren.
Christians themselves seem divided as to who they are more closely allied with. The Pope’s comments about Islam, which started the chain of events that led to this book, was one of a number of recent efforts by Christians to say, look, all this freedom and scientific progress you like about the West is built on the foundation we made. That never happened in the Muslim world, because Islam is different. On the other hand, a few years ago you had Dinesh D’Souza saying that conservatives should really rethink their attitudes toward Muslims because, among other things, they both hate the same things about modern American culture. I remember the latter sending Andrew Sullivan into one of his paroxysms because it supported what he’d been saying all along, that all fundies are alike.
I think Volf is trying to avoid that sort of thing, because he calls on secular sources to support his claims (including Freud, strangely enough), and because he keeps the actual action plan so vague. But I think secular readers could be forgiven for thinking that when religious types get together against pleasure, it means Prohibition, sodomy laws, media censorship, the war on drugs, etc. etc.
I’ve grown a bit more indulgent toward Volf’s idea since then, however. Such legislative efforts to end vice may have proved fruitless, but that only makes religion more important in countering the damage vices do. That’s especially true of addiction — empty pleasure taken to its ultimate — where “faith healing” seems to be at least as effective as medical science. I don’t know if Islam has an equivalent to AA, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Also, Appiah’s description of the role Christian missionaries played in ending footbinding got me to thinking about what makes Christian marriage, which seems so boring vanilla to Westerners, exceptional from a global standpoint. In my last post I talked about sex and family norms as if they were about nothing but reproductive control, which in strict honor terms is appropriate, since control is a central concern of honor. But of course Christians have a more exalted spiritual view of marriage, which at its best includes a level of trust that echoes the trust they put in God. That can stop a man from hobbling his wife to keep her from fleeing, or from resignedly writing up a prenuptial agreement for when she does flee. It is not rational to trust a fallible human to that degree, any more than it’s rational to trust God. But without it, things can get really ugly.
I don’t know what Islam would say about all this. Clearly it has taken a different view of marriage from the start. But the idea of putting everything in God’s hands — even your reproductive control, even your honor — seems inherent in its very name, submission. I do wish Volf had gone into this, but in one book you can’t have everything.
February 21, 2011
I will post more about Miroslav Volf’s Allah, but I wanted to try to fill a gap in Volf’s book by bringing in another book I just read, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. For all the differences Volf discusses between Muslims and Christians, he never mentions one that always comes up whenever people start debating the subject: women. Volf says in passing that he doesn’t much like the status of women under Islamic law, but he’s focusing on commonalities in the book, so he never goes at it directly. Yet some Christian sources he quotes make it apparent that the dispute isn’t just a product of modern feminism, but an older idea of how best to honor women. Medieval Christians disapproved of Muslims’ practice of polygamy and concubinage and their hope for carnal rewards in heaven; Martin Luther is also quoted as saying their freedom to divorce treats women disrespectfully. We don’t hear from the Muslim side about this, although the Quran does accuse Christians of worshipping the Virgin Mary.
I have, for a while now, been developing a theory that honor is actually an important part of feminism, and indeed American culture in general, despite the fact that we tend to think of honor codes as belonging to foreign cultures and older times. That’s why I was interested in Appiah’s book. Appiah is a philosopher of Ghanaian origin now at Princeton, which means I know practically nothing about him because my knowledge of philosophy is minimal. But he evidently writes for a mass audience, and in this case he argues more or less what I was thinking: that the desire for honor is an ingrained part of the human being, and that it still exists in the modern West but in an altered form. He argues that honor can, in fact, be employed in the service of liberal reforms. In the book, he describes three “moral revolutions” of the past — the end of dueling, footbinding, and the Atlantic slave trade — which fought traditional notions of honor with newer versions of honor. After that, he discusses how this process might be deployed to end honor killing.
As Appiah points out, honor killing is forbidden by Islamic law, so Volf was in that sense justified not to bring it up in his book. But Americans tend to place it among the alleged barbarisms of the Muslim world, both because of its fairly widespread practice there and because the actual Muslim laws on sexual behavior are nearly as harsh. Appiah acknowledges that as well, so he doesn’t entirely exonerate Islam from the issue.
But first, Appiah writes a very interesting elucidation of the meaning of honor. Honor codes, he says, are not the same as moral codes. That’s how you can get a situation like you have with honor killing, where law and religion say one thing and honor says another. In fact, that is true to some degree of the three other examples he gives. Dueling was always forbidden by the Christian churches and by civil laws, but was so entrenched in the aristocracy that almost nobody got convicted for it. Footbinding was long criticized by the literati and subject to an attempted ban by the Manchus when they took over China in the 1600s, but it persisted so hard the Manchus ended up adopting it themselves. The slave trade was legal, of course, but was never without controversy in both religious and secular quarters.
To help clear up what’s going on, Appiah distinguishes between several different types of honor. The one Americans are most familiar with is esteem, the honor accorded to somebody for doing something well, whether it be their job or their avocation. Such esteem is not necessarily related to morality, which is why people say things like, “He’s a scuzzy human being, but I love his music.” But the type of honor that was more relevant to his case studies is peer recognition. The duelists of early-modern Europe were landed aristocrats — “gentlemen” — and the dueling custom was based partly on their recognition of each other as peers. Being a gentleman, like other peer honors, is something you’re born with and don’t have to earn. But you can lose it, if you don’t behave in a way befitting the peer group. If a commoner insulted a gentleman, the proper response was to strike him with a horsewhip. If a gentleman insulted a commoner, the commoner couldn’t do much of anything. But if a gentleman insulted a gentleman, that called for a duel, a fight carefully designed to have a level playing field. Appiah points out that this equality was treasured partly because it ignored the internal rank-ordering among the gentry, ranging from royalty down to untitled landowners.
Dueling was about individual and family honor, but the other cases involved national honor. Appiah writes that footbinding was also an aristocratic custom among the Chinese, though it filtered down to the masses. The hobbling of women signified their chastity, since they presumably couldn’t get into much trouble if they could barely walk. In that sense, it reflected personal honor. But once China came into regular contact with the West, the Chinese realized that other countries were horrified by their sign of honorable chastity. This amplified the longstanding criticisms, shored up by Christian missionaries who not only preached against it but introduced the locals to unbound women who were nonetheless chaste.
The slave-trade episode brings peer recognition and national honor together. According to Appiah, what really made the movement effective was that the working classes organized against it. (This is in Britain he’s talking about; obviously the U.S. situation was different.) The movement ultimately reflected the push toward equality in Western societies, which theoretically treats all people as “honor peers.” Appiah says the word “honor” died out from this meaning precisely because it was associated with hierarchy, but the British gentry’s egalitarian peer-recognition system essentially became democratized. He prefers to use the term dignity for this, following the more recent language of human-rights activists. Describing the shift, he makes this observation:
A number of philosophers have recently argued that it is always a good idea, in discussions of equality, to ask first, “Equality of what?” This view has a great deal of merit as a philosophical proposal, but I think it is the wrong place to start historically. When equality became, with liberty and fraternity, one of the three great slogans of the French Revolution, it was not because people had a clear idea of what it was they wanted equality of. What they knew for sure was what they were against: treating people badly because they were not born into the nobility, looking down your nose at the common people. The ideal of equality in modern times begins, in short, with the thought that there are certain things that are not a proper basis for treating people unequally, and only gradually moves on to identify some things that are.
Appiah goes on to say that race and gender have joined the unacceptable bases for discrimination, in some quarters at least. As a result, his cure for honor killing isn’t especially different from other Western liberals’: promoting the advancing equality of women with men, and shaming those who resist. But what I got out of it is a lot more complicated.
Honor killing, like footbinding, is ultimately based on reproductive control. Just like Chinese families bound their daughters’ feet to make them look chaste, families in honor-killing societies are expected to police their daughters’ sexual behavior in a conspicuous way. This helps prevent illegitimate children from being born, and also gives some promise of fidelity to future husbands. This in turn boosts women’s chances of getting husbands of high status — or any husbands really — putting both the woman and her family in an honorable estate.
Unfortunately, Western women today aren’t exactly making like Chinese missionary wives and demonstrating how all this is unnecessary to create chaste spouses. In fact, defenders of honor killing — as well as female genital mutilation, which follows a very similar logic — often point to Western decadence as an example of exactly what they’re guarding against. Since the sexual revolution, a sizable contingent of Westerners, feminists not least among them, have sought to disconnect honor questions from chastity altogether. But there is one controversial, morally dubious practice that Westerners engage in that also ensures their reproductive control. The title of the post tipped you off: abortion.
Now, when I say abortion is a morally dubious practice, I am not talking about my personal opinion of it so much as what Americans at large think of it. Poll results are notoriously variable on this, but the overall gist of it is that a large number of Americans believe abortion is morally wrong, a killing even, and yet they are willing to allow it in some cases, especially rape. So that leads to the conclusion that a non-trivial number of Americans think it’s OK to end an innocent life to clean up after sexual misconduct.
Many activists don’t buy this. They think the inconsistent numbers mean Americans don’t really believe that abortion is wrong. But after reading Appiah’s book, I can completely believe they think both things at once. It is highly consistent with what happens when honor and morality conflict. The question is, if this is honor killing, what sort of honor is being defended here?
The pro-choice movement certainly uses honor language, especially of the variety that crops up in Appiah’s slave-trade chapter. They rally people who never had an abortion, and probably never will, by implying that the honor of women as a whole is at stake. Abortion laws are men, or government, looking down on you and saying they know better than you. They are violating your bodily integrity and your human dignity. And if you let them do that, God knows what they’ll do next, because they don’t see you as an honor peer and feel they could do anything to you.
On an individual level, there are other honor issues, which vary depending on where you are. One is the old-fashioned shame attached to an unwanted pregnancy, exposing a woman’s unchastity. Among more progressive types, there’s still a certain shame attached to the evident sign that you don’t have your life together. To not put to fine a point on it, where I come from uncontrolled reproduction is for the ghetto and the trailer park, not for people who want to achieve anything. Also, with the battle lines drawn over abortion, choosing to go through with the pregnancy will be respected by pro-choice friends but probably not hugely sympathized with. And that doesn’t create a real friendly environment for adoption, as a commenter on a previous post pointed out: “It’s also hard to figure out if the legalization of abortion created a counter-stigma on women who give up their children for adoption. After all, it means walking around for at least four or five months having everyone know you are pregnant, but also having to explain “Well, but I didn’t want to HAVE a baby.” When the father is a rapist or something similar, bearing his child seems to be letting him colonize your life — not to mention the world — more than he deserves. All this makes it more difficult for women trying to compete in the workplace and politics with men who don’t have these problems.
So in one sense, Americans probably understand Middle Eastern honor killing better than they think they do. But of course, in another way honor killing and abortion are polar opposites. One assumes that reproductive control is a collective project, with the woman herself only having one vote in the matter, and often not the most important vote either. The other has the woman take on nearly the entire responsibility herself, with everyone else around mainly to support whatever decisions she makes.
If you truly don’t believe abortion is wrong, the appeal of the latter position, especially combined with the abuses of the former, is undeniable. But a few cautions are in order. The old collective model of reproductive control never really went away, partly because individuals aren’t always great at making sexual decisions. Many a woman has found that their friends were right when they said, “I know that guy is hot, but he’s bad news.” Parents still rightly try to shape their kids’ behavior, schools educate them about birth control, and so on. Where the collective model goes wrong, it is because people put the woman’s interests behind their economic or political ambitions, or hiding their own failures, such as the fact that they didn’t protect their daughter from getting raped. But it’s not like economics and failure-hiding aren’t reasons for a lot of abortions.
Another problem with the woman-alone model is the position it puts men in. Some men have claimed that, since women have the right to abortion, they should be able to refuse to pay child support, if the pregnancy was not their intention. Women have generally objected on the basis that, if one person has to decide whether to have the baby it should be the woman, and anyway men have so many other privileges this isn’t such a big deal. But this is not exactly a long-term plan for equality. Feminists want to take away those other privileges in any case, and the whole structure creates a zero-sum game between the sexes: the more reproductive control the woman has, the less the man has, and vice versa. If reproductive control is such a point of honor as many feminists make it, it’s little wonder that men don’t particularly want to cede it.
Some time ago, I wrote a post objecting to a commenter’s claim that taking away birth control from women would turn them into “reproductive cattle.” I can see now that it offended my honor, because it sounded like I need the Pill to make me a full human being. You don’t have to earn peer honor, but you can lose it — even when your peer group supposedly includes all of humanity. You still have to behave in a manner befitting a free, rights-bearing individual. That does not always come naturally.
I don’t know what the solution to all this is. But I think this has some bearing in dialogues with members of other societies. Volf, writing some guidelines for dialogue between Christians and Muslims, quotes another scholar saying that in any such discussion there are four participants: you and me, and your image of me and my image of you. Volf adds another dyad to that equation: my image of myself, and your image of yourself. I know what he means: when I hear some Westerners talk about Islamic societies, they can definitely sound like they believe their own PR a bit too much. We haven’t solved the age-old problem of reproductive control through free thought and technological magic. We haven’t really figured out how to honor women while accommodating biological differences. We do things that morally we don’t believe in. That doesn’t mean we don’t have any wisdom on these subjects to offer Afghan tribes or whoever, but we shouldn’t act like we already have the answers. Perhaps we can go looking for them together.
February 18, 2011
If you read my first post on Miroslav Volf’s new book, you may have thought to yourself, “This Trinity stuff is all very interesting, but what about the things that Christians and Muslims really fight about?” Volf doesn’t get into all of those, but he does explore several issues.
One point that I have seen brought up, which Volf addresses, is the idea that Islam is a harshly legalist and moralist religion while Christianity is about love and grace. I had already suspected that was an overly schematic way of looking at things, because Christians themselves have such a hard time sorting out the Law and the Gospel. I would say from anecdotal experience that a non-trivial portion of American Christians have no idea why they don’t follow the detailed legal codes in the Pentateuch, or even that there are detailed legal codes in the Pentateuch. But even the more biblically literate have a tendency to think of grace and forgiveness as inventions of the New Testament, contrasted against a theoretical Judaism where people think they earn favor with God based on how strictly they follow the Law. More recently, that contrast has been applied to Islam.
Whether this is a fair assessment of Judaism is a subject for another day, but Volf does not think it’s a fair assessment of Christianity and Islam. Both religions believe God is both just and merciful, he says. And their moral standards for human beings also include both aspects. Both advocate the Golden Rule and loving your neighbor. Islam, he admits, is not big on loving enemies, but he tells a couple of Sufi stories that illustrate the general idea. One tells of a man who, after his clothes are stolen, chases after the thief and tells him he may have them. The idea is that since he’s given the thief the clothes as a gift, the thief will not have this crime on him at the Day of Judgment. The other tells of a tailor who knows a client is paying him with counterfeit money, but who simply throws it down a well and keeps doing business with him anyway.
These stories are indeed about doing good to those who do bad to you, but it’s interesting how they differ from the depictions of loving enemies in the New Testament. The Sufi tales are both about covering up sins; in fact, the first of them seems to presume a legalistic God who cares more about technicalities than intent. This is quite different from, say, the stoning of Stephen, where the dying saint appeals directly to God not to hold his killers’ sin against them. But, since such heroic martyrs are rare enough, I expect that Volf is right that the average Christian and the average Muslim live their daily lives according to similar principles. I think any society that can accommodate actual human life would have to combine justice, forgiveness, and just letting things slide. I don’t know of a society that doesn’t.
Volf uses these commonalities to argue that Christians and Muslims ought to be able to live together in a state of political pluralism. Monotheism, he says, decoupled religion from the state. He traces this all the way back to Moses taking the Hebrews out of Egypt, and setting up a state that came to be ruled by humans rather than god-kings. The Golden Rule, he says, argues against using the coercive powers of the state in matters of religion. Somewhat more stickily, this leads him to tell the Muslim majority that they’re just wrong to think that apostasy is a crime. He admits that historically most Christians thought this too, but says such behavior is “more appropriate to armies at war and how they treat defectors and spies than to religious communities committed to worshipping the one and common God who commands love of all human beings.”
This, in my humble opinion, is just way too facile. The relationship between church and state has been one of my pet interests for some years now, and I don’t think their historic entanglement came from people just kind of forgetting the Golden Rule. Raising Exodus as the point of decoupling religion and state is pretty strange, given that the new country operated by a set of laws handed down directly from God. I don’t know a lot about Shari’a, but it does seem to be pretty similar to Mosaic law, including in its prescribed punishments. In fact, elsewhere in the book Volf quotes the infamous bit about cutting the hands off thieves. But the draconian nature of the punishments isn’t my point so much as that the whole existence of the punishments assumes someone is using the coercive power of the state to enforce these laws. Even Americans with such casual acquaintance with Islam as myself know this. Yet the most assurance Volf can offer is that Muslim scholars have differing opinions on the subject.
This points to a larger problem with Volf’s argument. The behavior that he considers a sin for people to do as Christians, seem to be OK for them to do as citizens. The coercive powers of the state are pretty much assumed. That includes such basic matters as choosing to belong to it. No one asked me if I wanted to be an American, and if I wanted to stop being an American, it could get complicated. Unless you’re an anarchist, there’s no outrage in this, because you figure it’s good for people to be born into communities under the rule of law. It’s even a way of loving your neighbor. So why is that unfit for religion to do? There are Christian rejoinders to that, and Muslim ones too for all I know. But this throws into relief again how the current Western configuration of religion and state reflects a very particular standpoint on both religion and the state, and I felt that Volf didn’t acknowledge the fact.
The issue of apostasy also brings up a point about inter-communal relations that I wish Volf had explored. When I think of the controversies that flare up in the West over Islam, very often apostates, or at least dissenters, are involved. Volf mentions his opposition to threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but only vaguely alludes to the fact that she has been publicly supporting efforts to destroy her former religion. Some other immigrants, frequently abused women, have not gone that far but seek help from outside their communities, sparking arguments about the right of Western governments to intervene in Muslim affairs. This sort of thing is a repeating pattern not just in religion but in communal politics in general: a factional dispute leads the weaker party to seek an ally from outside, calling on some shared interest or moral imperative. It was an important factor leading to the U.S. civil war — all those slave narratives — and has factored into virtually every foreign entanglement the U.S. has got into in my lifetime. I was reminded of this again recently when an Iraqi defector admitted that he’d lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to get the U.S. to topple Saddam Hussein, but said that it was totally worth it.
It’s hard to blame any of these people for doing these things. Who wouldn’t be tempted to lie to get out from under Saddam? But it does present a conflict in the Golden Rule. If you were an oppressed, abused person, you’d certainly want somebody to rescue you. But on a communal level, you wouldn’t want other communities to come charging in because of every story one of your own malcontents went and told them. After all, some of the Muslim terrorists who’ve been arrested for attempted attacks were American converts. Every community with flaws produces apostates, which is to say, every community produces them.
Like I said, there’s nothing new in this phenomenon, but our age of media and mobility surely enables more apostates and dissenters to attract more attention. To react with, “That’s not in our national interest” is not a very Christian response (or a very humanist one, for that matter). Somehow this makes John Howard Yoder’s concept of “revolutionary subordination” seem almost practical; certainly more practical than trying to rectify all the world’s injustices. But I gather that what Volf is trying to do here is connect Christians to Muslims with sympathetic views, so that every dispute over the stoning of an adulteress doesn’t appear to turn into a West vs. Islam debate. And that would certainly be a good start.
February 16, 2011
I haven’t been reading much theology the last few years, but I got lured into Miroslav Volf’s brand-new Allah: A Christian Response when I heard about some of its more interesting claims, such as “A person can be both a practicing Muslim and 100 percent Christian without denying core convictions of belief and practice.” I read Volf’s greatly admired Exclusion & Embrace back during my 2007 blogging hiatus, so I never posted about it. But I could see that the new book continues some of the same themes. Volf grew up in Yugoslavia and watched his homeland disintegrate into violence. In E&E he contemplates at length how diverse peoples can live together peacefully, especially after they’ve committed horrendous crimes against each other.
Allah is preoccupied with similar questions, but with a particular focus on the relationship between the world’s two biggest religions. As Volf relates in the book, the whole thing got started back in 2006 when the Pope controversially made a speech insinuating that Islam was a violent and irrational religion. That led a group of Muslim scholars and leaders to issue a detailed open letter refuting the Pope’s points. Then a year later followed A Common Word, an offer to all Christians to live together in peace. Volf, who teaches at Yale, was party to the “Yale Response” to this document, and Allah is essentially a book-length elaboration of that response.
Volf first addresses the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. He starts off with some historical perspective, which, interestingly enough, begins exactly where Lost to the West leaves off: the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Muslim Turks. Though the Pope at the time was trying to organize another crusade to take it back, Volf is more interested in his associate, a cardinal named Nicholas of Cusa. Nicholas sounds like the kind of mega-optimist that the 18th and 19th centuries cranked out more often than the 15th. He wrote a treatise advocating a grand conference between Christian and Muslim leaders to reason their way towards the truth together. He believed that both religions worshipped the same God — indeed, that all religions in some way seek after the same God — although he believed that Christianity had the clearest view of him. He took a close look at Muslim differences with Christianity and tried to explain why they weren’t such big differences after all.
Volf is especially interested in Nicholas’ treatment of the Trinity. The Quran and other Muslim texts include several criticisms of this doctrine, on the grounds that it violates the principle of monotheism. Both Nicholas and Volf, however, argue that those criticisms are really knocking bastardized versions of the idea — such as that it describes three different gods, or envisions God begetting a son like a human or a beast, or displaces God with Jesus (and his mother!). Nicholas concedes that the language can make it sound like that, but the words are mere attempts to describe the ineffable. Christians speak of the three Persons for a reason, but not because there are three “things” to count. “When you begin to count the Trinity you depart from the truth,” he wrote.
All this might sound extremely theoretical, but for both Nicholas and Volf this has a bearing on how to think about God’s love. Muslims, Volf says, have debated whether to ascribe “love” to God at all, but that depends on the definition of the word. Volf takes Socrates’ definition of love as a starting point: “to desire something that one does not have and considers to be good.” But that can’t be God’s love, because “God lacks nothing that is good, and God has no needs.” So to speak of God’s love describes his giving, and on that Muslims agree. Volf also seems to agree with the medieval Muslim scholar Ahmad ibn Taymiyya that God doesn’t love creatures simply for their benefit, as that would subject him to the whims of their desires, and God’s love is supposed to be eternal and steadfast. But he depart from Ibn Taymiyya when he concludes that, therefore, God’s love for creatures is simply his own love for himself. Apparently, subsequent Sufi scholars took this to mean that creatures are unreal, in a theory that sounds like Hindu monism: the ultimate reality is the unity of God, or something like that. I admit I didn’t completely follow it. But anyway, Volf says that the triune God’s love is not self-oriented but other-oriented, because even before the world was created he had “others” within himself. Volf doesn’t draw any bold conclusions about the two religions from that, but leaves it hanging there suggestively.
You’re probably thinking, this is still extremely theoretical. I’ve thought about real-world connections to this doctrine, based on my experience among Christians. What divine Trinitarian love means to most Christians I know is a lot more concrete than Volf’s philosophizing. It says that God gave the world his only son, who suffered, died and rose again for us. And that is how we know God loves us.
The suffering God — such a central motif in Christian thought — never turns up in this book. That’s probably because Volf is stressing commonalities. But it also complicates the picture of an ineffable God who doesn’t want or need anything. I know it’s a Buddhist and not a Christian precept that all suffering stems from desire, but I still say it’s true. You suffer because of the lack of what you want or need, or the loss of what you have. In fact, in my experience among American Protestants, I am constantly encountering a God who desires and therefore suffers. He is the parent who has aspirations for us, which are often frustrated. He is the bridegroom who courts us, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
I am reminded of a discussion of divine impassibility over on Jesus Creed awhile back, which spells out the connections between suffering and love:
“An impassible God can never be described as love the way the apostle John described Him. … The lover has to risk the rejection of his beloved.”
“Does He not suffer along with those who suffer, react with anger at oppression, and rejoice with good? Please say ‘yes’ because I would hate to think I’ve been worshipping a false God.”
“God is love, and this requires that he suffers. It pains him to see his children not living right. You have to ignore essentially the entire OT if you accept this (impassibility).”
“Well, we’re told not ‘to grieve the Holy Spirit’ right? Are we being commanded to avoid something that is actually impossible to do? I really doubt it. So, that’s 2 of the three persons of the Trinity that suffer. Is the Father somehow sealed off from the suffering of both Jesus and the Spirit?”
Scot claimed that people misunderstood the doctrine of divine impassibility, but all this raised issues in my own mind that were never resolved. It’s true that a pain-free God isn’t very relatable, but a desiring, suffering God brings another set of problems. I can imagine that to Muslims, this looks like a mess. Worse, it might make God look like a bit of a sad sack, subject to human whims in the manner that Taymiyya rejected. It may be cool to think of the sovereign God voluntarily surrendering power — maybe especially to us obstreperous Americans — but as we’re seeing today in Egypt, that euphoric moment doesn’t take the place of actual governance.
Volf seems to agree, as he suggests Muslims might remind Christians of this. “Currently, for instance, ‘submission to God,’ Islam’s central theme, is not a favorite ‘melody’ of many Christians in the West; it runs counter to Western egalitarian cultural sensibilities,” he writes. “But it’s an essential and often performed part of the Christian repertoire. After all, Christians believe that God is the sovereign Lord.”
Certainly, it’s clear from Volf’s Quranic quotes that Muslims don’t think of God as the Trinity mashed together; they identify God with the Father. How do Christians feel about that God? This whole thing also reminds me of the section of Telford Work’s book about our debates over the character of God (which I see is available now on Google Books, though with a few pages missing because it’s in preview.) In that chapter he first describes getting to know the God of Wahhabi Islam, and says, “I decided I would proudly go to hell rather than submit to such a tyrant.” But that God does bear some notable similarities to the God of the Bible, a problem that becomes more apparent when I come into the storyline and start questioning everything. Eventually, Telford’s basic answer to our problem is Jesus. Jesus reveals the true character of the Father and brings us into communion with him via the Holy Spirit. “Every good answer to every question about God’s character appeals to God as triune,” he writes.
It wasn’t until I read Volf that it occurred to me consciously for the first time that, by answering this way, Telford implicitly conceded that if I were facing the Father alone, I might be justified in not trusting him. But the Bible makes clear that worship was due to God before Jesus came along. Jesus reiterates the point himself. So while Volf isn’t defending Wahhabism here — he relies mainly on Sufis — I wonder if he would answer me the same way.
I also might note that the de-emphasis on submission plays a role in Western Christianity’s ability to coexist with secular liberalism, and one way that Islam riles up the West is by messing with that coexistence. But that is a subject for a later post.
January 25, 2011
Lynn has been reading John Stuart Mill, and applying him to the question of whether there is such a thing as a right to rule out potential romantic partners for lame and shallow reasons. This is maybe a sign that I should read Mill myself — all I recall is some mostly-forgotten college text — but this reminds me of why I keep getting tangled in knots whenever I start thinking about rights outside of the legal context.
Lynn opens with Mill’s definition of a right:
When we call anything a person’s right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law, or by that of education or opinion. … If we desire to prove that anything does not belong to him by right, we think this done as soon as it is admitted that society ought not to take measures for securing it to him, but should leave it to change, or to his own exertions.
I assume that “change” there is supposed to be “chance.” But either way, here’s Lynn’s conclusion regarding sexual prejudices:
…though people, in my take, absolutely have the right to categorically exclude other people from their dating pool, they don’t have any particular right to have said excluded people feel warm and fuzzy about them, or continue to be their friends, buddies, and confidants, cheering them on when their love lives go well, and sympathizing with them when their love lives don’t go so well. … So, if Judith Warner’s friends should prefer to exclusively pursue hot, young babes, and if they should pursue said hot, young babes without either feeling entitled to more attention than the hot, young babes are willing to give them or actively insulting the women their own age that they don’t want to date, they have a right to be left alone in any mutual relationships they form.
One thing that strikes me about this is that Lynn specifies that the excluded people have a right not to support this behavior. But surely everyone else has that right too. If a man’s male friend disapproves of his chasing hot, young babes, he has a right not to be the wingman, doesn’t he? And if enough people voluntarily withdraw from a man’s life for this reason, they are effectively shunning him. I suppose Lynn is drawing a contrast here between leaving them alone and actively sabotaging the relationship somehow, but I don’t know if there’d be a more effective means of doing that than a mass defriending.
Of course, shunning isn’t as effective as it used to be, since many times people can just go out and find a new set of friends. This may be why, as Lynn points out, many people nowadays seem to think of rights entirely in terms of laws. But still, social norms do have power, so what is a person who finds himself generally despised, but saying, “I have a right!” actually claiming?
Let’s look at the particular argument that drew in Lynn, which was a debate between Hugo Schwyzer and a blogger named Miguel about male sexual entitlement. Miguel is arguing for, essentially, equal rights for men who are usually sexually discriminated against. “It follows from this that “women,” at least in theory, have an obligation to keep an open mind about having sexual relations with men who stand at different levels in the unspoken social hierarchy – that is, men who may be shy and not comport with traditional notions of masculinity – even if no individual woman ever has the obligation to reciprocate my sexual interest.”
To some extent, I follow his thinking here. Social taboos have previously ruled out certain people from sexual relations — because they’re disabled, or the wrong race, or some such thing — who are now generally accepted, and now, though they still might have difficulties, they are able to find partners. What if people got over their simplistic prejudices about age, looks, swagger, or whatever, and gave the low men a shot?
To some extent, bringing Mill into this is confusing matters because equal rights and male entitlement are two different things. Apart from maybe a few hippie communes, I don’t think there’s been a time in history when all men felt entitled to sex with all women. Rather, the sense of entitlement came from attaining some benchmark — high social class, wealth, victory in battle, or something like that. Or something less spectacular like taking a wedding vow, which up until quite recently was assumed to entitle you to sex. The point is that these weren’t human rights, but rights acquired by some particular actions or circumstances. The new feminist idea that underlies this argument, I think, is the concept that nobody ever owes anyone sex for any reason. The only good reason to have sex is desire.
Indeed, Miguel isn’t talking just about the right to perform the physical act with a member of the opposite sex. If that were the case, then we’d be debating whether prostitution should be legal (and, if we’re being really egalitarian, subsidized!), since that would be a much more efficient means of distributing sex to the sexless. I can only assume that what he wants is a greater equality of desire, or more specifically, an equality of being desired. That’s a cause most women can probably sympathize with, since, contrary to popular male belief, women can also go through droughts of feeling truly desired. But the thing about equality is that it has a way of making all people seem the same, when being desired is about feeling special. This seems to get us to the Lake Wobegon syndrome — everyone wants to be above average! But most people seem to manage to be special to at least a few people, even though they live in the fat part of the bell curve.
It’s getting really late, and I don’t have a good conclusion to this. But those are my thoughts. Good night!