A stunning amount of what I think is wrong with the world is poetically captured in a recent article in First Things, commenting on the relationship between faith and reason on the one hand, and Christianity and Islam on the other. Unfortunately, the author captures these problems unintentionally. The difference between his perspective and mine is both fascinating and discouraging. Hope remains, however, so hang on . . .
In his article, “Benedict Face to Face with Islam,” Andrew Doran portrays Pope Benedict XVI as a rational Christian who has the (supposed) insight to see Islam as irrational, and who defends true religion as a harmonious blend of faith and reason. Doran then traces this supposed irrationalism of Islam to the Muslim thinker Al-Ghazali, who may be the most influential voice in Islam next to Mohammed the Prophet. Doran suggests that this irrationalism is a fundamental cause of the violent extremism we have seen flare up in the Muslim world in recent years. Based on this diagnosis, he argues that “the West’s secular approaches to end religiously based violence by means of war, democracy, foreign aid, or other policies are doomed to failure before they begin.” Rather than such efforts, “the true basis for peace,” he argues, is “philosophical reengagement.”
Wow, where does one start with an article like this? What is most disturbing about it is that a perspective like this seems so natural for many Christians today, as evidenced by the fact that this piece appeared in First Things, normally one of the most estimable sources of intelligent religious thought today. Ironically, Doran’s message is not only unfair to Islam, but also a complete betrayal of Benedict’s message at Regensburg, as I understand it. Benedict’s message is fundamentally not about a criticism of Islam, but rather a criticism of the secular West.
Not knowing where else to start, I will start with a simple list of some of the major things wrong here:
- Doran perpetuates an unfair and divisive caricature of Islam as fundamentally irrationalistic.
- In so doing, he seems to legitimate those who most betray Islam by committing atrocities in its name, suggesting that irrational, violent extremism is a manifestation of Islam’s true nature.
- He directly compares Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address to Pope Urban’s baneful call for a crusade, surely the last comparison Benedict would want.
- He reinforces misinterpretations of the Regensburg address that angered and offended Muslims and led to violence.
- He mischaracterizes Al-Ghazali as an irrationalist and the ultimate cause both of today’s violent extremism and of the decline of the Muslim world from its medieval preeminence in both intellectual and political realms.
- He presents Al-Ghazali as opposing the harmonizing of faith and reason for which Thomas Aquinas is revered, when in fact Al-Ghazali was one of Aquinas’ role models for just this harmonization.
- Perhaps worst of all, Doran’s interpretation obscures the true message of Benedict’s Regensburg address, which despite serious flaws in its composition, reflects deep insight into the dysfunction of the modern world, its causes, and the potential for overcoming that dysfunction.
I know Al-Ghazali’s work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, fairly well and teach a course in which we study his influence on Thomas Aquinas, so before talking about the Regensburg address, let me clear up a few things about Al-Ghazali.
Al-Ghazali’s intent in the Incoherence is actually rather close to one of the major goals of Thomas Aquinas’ work: both argued that where reason appears to contradict faith, this is because the reasoning is faulty—sound and reliable reasoning does not contradict faith. In Al-Ghazali’s time, an influential school of thought argued that key teachings of Islam were disproved by rational argument, tracing much of their reasoning to ancient Greek sources. Al-Ghazali responded by arguing, like Aquinas, that reason is not capable of reaching a decisive conclusion on some rather important questions of faith, such as whether the world has always existed, or whether there will be a resurrection, and rationally refutes those arguments that contradict key faith claims. He therefore frees the reader to rely on revelation for these questions instead. So Al-Ghazali actually preserves faith as a rational path and simultaneously redeems reason from those who abuse its authority by claiming rational proof in matters where there is none. In this he set an admirable precedent for Maimonides and Aquinas, both of whom acknowledged Al-Ghazali as an intellectual benefactor.
I make some of these points about Al-Ghazali in a comment on the First Things site (pending moderation).
Of course, Al-Ghazali is so successful in intellectually destroying his opponents that it does cast the hellenizers (those who were promoting Greek, or hellenic ideas) in a rather bad light. Doran sees this de-hellenization as the source of major problems both for the Muslim world and for the modern West. The fact is, however, Greek cosmology was very problematic and deserved to be resisted. Al-Ghazali was right to defend Muslim teachings on creation against Greek speculations, which their originators realized were only speculative. Similarly, in the opening developments of the Enlightenment, Galileo, Kepler, and others refuted major Aristotelian ideas about the heavens, not just rationally but empirically. If this discrediting of Aristotle’s ideas on cosmology led Europeans to discard Aristotle’s profoundly insightful moral thought as well, and the Aristotelian moral thought of Aquinas with it, that is unfortunate, but we can hardly blame Galileo for that. If Enlightenment rationalism and secularism leads to a decline in the West, it will be partly due to imperfections in the defenders of religious truth, as well as the foolishness and ignorance of those who reject it. Similarly, if Al-Ghazali did lead later Muslims to take a pessimistic view of reason, that is not his fault, but the fault of those who made excessive claims in the name of reason, which he had to refute in order to defend his faith.
I have a lot more to say about this, but this is long enough for one post. Next time: faith, reason, and dehellenization in Islam and the West.