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.