Analytic Theology

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Israelite, Christian and Islamic Theology of Self

March 7th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: The most significant event in the development of Western Civilization is 573 CE. That’s the birth date of the Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. Over the next several centuries, Islam overran the Christian world, sweeping out of Arabia into Southern Europe. Jerusalem fell. So did Alexandria, home to many early Church figures, and all of those little towns to which Paul had written his letters. In 756 CE the Moors conquered Spain. They were not completely evicted until 1616 CE – almost a millennium later. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE to the (Islamic) Ottoman Empire crowded Europe to the west. And, it wasn’t until the Battle of Vienna in 1683 CE that Islam was checked, as it expanded towards the north. Hedged in on all sides, Catholicism had little choice but to set sail and migrate to the New World.

Today, Islam increasingly permeates Western society. The U.S. Department of State estimates that 10% of France’s population is Muslim, “Background Note: France,” U.S. Dep’t of State (Jan. 2008). The Muslim birthrate far exceeds that of the non-Muslim population. Muslims are immigrating to Western Europe in record numbers. “Europe’s Muslim population has tripled over the last 30 years, to about 23 million. The Muslim birth rate in Europe is three times higher than the non-Muslim one,” Melvin, D., “Europe works to assimilate Muslims,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Dec. 17, 2004). If current trends continue, the Muslim population of Europe will nearly double by 2015, while the non-Muslim population will shrink by 3.5 percent,” “Europe’s Muslim Street,” Brookings Institution (Mar. 4, 2008). By 2050, one in five Europeans will likely be Muslim, Pan E., “Europe: Integrating Islam,” Council on Foreign Relations (Jul. 13, 2005). Perhaps Islam will be able to achieve by accretion, what it wasn’t successful in capturing by direct frontal attack.

Given this history, the question isn’t so much why Western Europe ascended. Rather, it’s why Islam didn’t defeat it.

A.  The Desert

The ecology of the Arabian Desert is harsh and foreboding. Because of its latitude, it is subject to extreme heat, and receives little rainfall. These conditions are adverse to life. It is amazing Bedouin tribes ever survived, much less developed a formidable culture.

The only way they were able to do so was by agglomerating themselves into small tribal units. Like the goats and sheep they tended, individuals clumped together. It was the outliers that fell by the wayside, not the core of the herd.

Tribes were widely dispersed, which made it difficult to communicate. Because natural resources were scarce, they had to be mobile. They adopted a nomadic life-style, peregrinating from water-hole to water-hole. These destinations might not have been that far apart, in terms of miles, or kilometers. However, from the perspective of the tribe’s existential space, the distances must have been vast.

Each tribe in turn became responsible for its individual members’ basic personal needs, such as food, clothing and shelter. The accomplishment of these objectives (to the extent they were accomplished) required an extraordinary level of internal cohesion. Each tribe was a coherent entity only to the extent its individual members successfully coordinated group activity. “The only way to survive in a community in which movement was the norm and material accumulation impractical was to maintain a strong sense of tribal solidarity by evenly sharing all available resources,” Aslan, R., No god but God – The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam 29 (2006 ed.). What was real “tended to be local: a tribe, a clan, a sect, or a town was the true political unit to which loyalties adhered,” Fromkin, D., A Peace to End All Peace 36 (1989).

Under these circumstances, the will of the “individual” necessarily became subordinate to that of the common weal. It was the tribe that provided “a common social and religious identity,” Aslan 58. There was no distinction between public and private matters, because anything affected everybody. Such an organizing principle was not particularly conducive to the development of a robust concept of “self.” An individual who strongly asserted his own self-identity, in juxtaposition to that of the tribe’s collective identity, failed (on margin) to maximize the latter’s utility. Nobody was particularly sorrowful when he rode his camel off into the desert sunset.

B.  Polytheism

Prior to Muhammad, Arabic tribes were polytheists. Their gods were elusive desert jinns, represented by or incarnate within idolatric figurines. One of the advantages of an idol is that it’s portable. It may not have power or recognition outside of its circumscribed geographic territory, but at least you can transport it with you from place to place.

A second advantage of a portable god is that its efficacy can be tested immediately by discerning whether it can solve practical, real-world problems. Consider, for example, two situations that surely must have confronted the Bedouin tribe: food and security. If a crop fails, or a hunt is unsuccessful, it is considerably less likely that whatever god within whose realm responsibility for the event lies will compel belief. It simply isn’t efficacious. Tribal members either will devise or adopt a new “god of the crops,” or a new “god of the hunt,” or expand the scope of responsibilities of an existing god who has proven to be more sympathetic to their needs and requirements. For Bedouin tribes, the main questions were: “Which god can lead us to water? Which god can heal our illnesses?”, Aslan 6.

The same principle pertains to inter-tribal conflict. If your tribe prevails in battle, then you have every reason for retaining your “god of war.” On the other hand, if you are defeated, and the other tribe is victorious, then likely as not you’ll start worshipping their “god of war” (if you’re still alive). It proved to be more successful, as evidenced by the fact your tribe has been exterminated, and you have been enslaved.

C.  Tribal Unity

Muhammad introduced a new paradigm. He declared, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is God’s Messenger.” He destroyed the polytheistic idols that had come to be collected within the Ka’ba, a religious sanctuary that even today is the site of the Haaj, Aslan 106.

Muhammad’s primary accomplishment was introjecting the abstract concept of a single God into what formerly had been a confederation of pluralistic theologies. He extrapolated a divine revelation he had received personally into a culturally-resonant ethos.

His subtler accomplishment was expanding the concept of tribal unity. Even as he collapsed the cultural-theological beliefs underlying each tribe’s unique polytheistic world, he reamalgamated adherents into a single, much larger group. He continued sharp focus on the coherency of “tribe” as the basic unit of social and economic organization, but brought to it contextual scalability.

Even though its reach now is global, Islam still is “based on the traditional Arab tribal paradigm,” Aslan 57 – 59. Instead of a myriad of tribes, traditionally understood, there is a greater Muslim community comprehending a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. “And because neither ethnicity nor culture nor race nor kinship had any significance to Muhammad,” his followers, “unlike a traditional tribe, had an almost unlimited capacity for growth through conversion,” Aslan 58.

Reciprocally, no Muslim would consider “his or her religion to be rooted in the personal confessional experiences of individuals. Quite the contrary. Your religion was your ethnicity, your culture, and your social identity; it defined your politics, your economics, your ethics,” Aslan 80. Put simply, “Islam is a communal religion. It abhors radical and reclusive individualism,” Aslan 200.  Islamic religious ceremonies are designed to “convey a perspective that individual selves are part of a large congregation of persons, residing on a small planet within a nearly unfathomable universe,” Frank Johnson, “The Western Concept of Self” in Marsella, A., Devos, G. & Hsu, F. (eds.) Culture and Self – Asian and Western Perspectives 91 (1985).  Contrastingly, Western theology “has long concerned itself with the self … Augustine found God not without, but within. … [only God can be the source for revelatory truth or imperative claim] “which one can personally affirm and make one’s own,” Buss, M., “Self-Theory and Theology,” 45 The Journal of Religion 49, 50 (Jan. 1965).

The importance of community is illustrated by the Fourth Pillar of the Muslim Faith, which is the Hajj. “The Hajj is the supreme communal event in Islam,” Aslan 147. The believer circumambulates the Ka’ba seven times, blending in and intermingling with all others. He relinquishes his self-identity. He becomes like a fish immersed in water, caught up in the instinctual act of swimming with the rest of the school. The Hajj is to the devout Muslim like the water is to the fish – a pervasive, all-encompassing medium that makes life itself possible.

D.  The Levant

The experiences of the ancient Israelites after they escaped from Egypt must have been similar in many respects to those of the Bedouin tribes as they wandered through North Africa. They were subject to the same dynamics of heat, lack of water, flatness of terrain, and constant movement. This in turn facilitated their adoption of pragmatic, localized deities.

The Bible gives us no indication of what Moses expected to find when he first ascended Mt. Sinai. God made his initial appearance as nothing more than a burning bush – hardly an awe-inspiring manifestation. It would not have been out-of-character, though, for a god whom, at the time, simply was one of a number of other regional deities, competing for the attention of whatever tribes may have meandered into its vicinity. Moses’ genius was to transform the divine revelation he received personally into “God,” an omniscient, omnipotent, monotheistic deity.

The ancient Israelites were a migrant people. Even after they left Egypt, they retained their polytheistic beliefs. While Moses was communing with God on Mt. Sinai, they constructed the Golden Calf, as recounted at Exodus 3:24. Upon discovering it, Moses destroyed the stone tablets he so laboriously had carried down the mountain. God engaged in an episode of smoting, exterminating many of the idolaters. Moses then reascended Mt. Sinai, returning with the Ten Commandments as we know them today.

It is not clear why Moses had to make these multiple excursions up Mt. Sinai. The author of Exodus just as easily could have collapsed Moses’ journey into a single trip, with no loss of impact, and possibly achieving greater impact. It would have been interesting to know what the original Commandments were; if they were different than their successor Commandments; and if so, why. It is not clear why there are Ten Commandments instead of (say) eight, or twelve. Several of them seem superficial or redundant, and a variety of indisputably appropriate injunctions are not mentioned at all.

E.  Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy

The Ten Commandments are rules. They set forth prohibitions – thou shalt do thus-and-such, thou shalt not do thus-and-such. In this respect, they are orthopraxic – that is, it doesn’t matter what one actually “believes,” so long as one obeys them. In principle, one could comply with each of the Ten Commandments, and disagree with them, or not have any opinion about them at all.

Christianity inverted this equation. It is orthodoxic, in that it requires sincere individual belief, regardless of what the law might say. Contrast the Ten Commandments with the Sermon on the Mount, where personal conviction is paramount. At Matthew 5:27, Jesus preached: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery” [a reference to either the Sixth Commandment or the Seventh Commandment, depending on how you count them]: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” [he might have said, “with her already in his mind].

Whether one actually consummates the adulterous act is irrelevant. For the true Christian, simply thinking about adultery is the functional equivalent of being an adulterer. Key to the Catholic penitential rite is that one has sinned through one’s own fault in one’s thoughts. There can be no sin without a sinner, and sinning itself is a form of defective relational attitude towards the world. In principle, a Catholic and a non-Catholic both could commit the same reprehensible act; but only the Catholic would have “sinned.” The reason why is that only the Catholic has a “self,” understood as a cognitive being, potentially in dissonance with the world.

By way of comparison, the Fourth Commandment exhorts the Jews to “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,” Exodus 20:8 – 10. “Remembrance” in this context does not imply an act of cognition. Rather, it simply means not to forget that one isn’t supposed to work. On the Sabbath, even the most devout Jew is free to think whatever thoughts he wants. This juxtaposition of thought versus deed is what gave rise to the predicament that eventually led Jesus to his crucifixion. He violated the Fourth Commandment by healing people on the Sabbath, which (although ethically commendable) was a form of labor, see, e.g., Luke 13:10 – 17.  Later, St. Paul said: “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested … Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” Romans 3:21, 28 (emphasis added).  No Jew possibly could assent to this proposition.

Jesus sacrificed himself for the sins of the whole world, Catechism of the Catholic Church §606; 1 John 2:2. He did not sacrifice a lamb, or a goat, nor was anybody else sacrificed on his behalf. When close to death, he cried out, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34. Setting aside considerations of Jesus’ divinity vis-à-vis his mortality, only a reflexive “me” would have been capable of such an utterance.

Jesus was not “self”-ish, in the sense of being primarily concerned with his own personal welfare. Far from it, he was one of the most self-“less” personages in recorded history, in that his fundamental orientation was towards others, not himself. He was, one might say, completely transparent, in that he did not interpose a “self” as a mediator between his actions, and the world. His accomplishment, or rather that of the emerging Pauline Church, primarily was epistemological in nature. Christianity hypothesized a dissonance between man and the world – one that only Jesus could bridge.

This lack of sympathetic resonance dates back to Adam, whose Eve took advice from a snake. Snakes don’t have “selves.” They are poikilothermal, striving only to reach a steady state of adaptation to their environment. There is no more reason for a sentient creature (such as man) to listen to what they are “saying,” than to sprout wings and fly. No Muslim ever would consider recommendations from a snake as setting forth a prudent course for future action. Even if the snake sounded knowledgeable and authoritative, Muslims don’t need their advice. Muslims don’t have “selves” to advise to begin with, because they are members of closely-knit tribal societies, tightly integrating the secular with the spiritual. There would be no point in considering the snake’s opinion, to begin with.

Modern Christians, on the other hand, live in a condition of opacity. Lack of clarity, exacerbated by the fog of pop culture and the media, results in a sharp juxtaposition between the individual believer and the social world. The “self” is not simply a permeable membrane. Rather, it is vigorous and assertive, with a panoply of unconscious motivations, instinctual drives, points of cultural reference, and conventions of the social world.

For this reason, it has required considerable ingenuity to transform Jesus’ message into one that is intelligible by modern culture. While there are several worthy examples from which to choose, particularly illustrative is Paul Tillich. Says Tillich, it is “the individual who, as an individual, is a unique representative of the universe,” The Courage to Be 105 (1952) (emphasis added). The individual is an autonomous, self-contained unit. It is an “individual self without regard to its participation in the world,” 113 (emphasis added).

Although Tillich may not have been thinking specifically about Islam, he goes on to state that there is a basic “contrast in the valuation of the individual on the part of ancient and modern humanism. While the ancient world valued the individual not as an individual but as a representative of something universal, e.g. a virtue, the rebirth of antiquity saw in the individual as an individual a unique expression of the universe, incomparable, irreplaceable, and of infinite significance,” 19 (emphasis added).

The basic premise of Christianity, then, “concerns the individual,” 131, not the tribe or society collectively. For this reason, the theological crisis for the individual in contemporary society is to gain traction in the midst of ideological inconsistency, spiritual confusion, and the background noise of pop culture, 120. There is no tribe to which to turn. “Twentieth-century man has lost a meaningful world and a self which lives in meanings out of a spiritual center,” 139. Belief (and, particularly, Christianity) enables individuals to confront both the essential ungroundedness of life, and the reality of death, 180. God becomes “nearer to the I than the I is to itself,” 187.

Historically, the precise ideological contours of the pathway to salvation are fraught with controversy. No matter what species, however, all Christians agree that God bestows his grace directly on an individual person, or as mediated through Jesus. He does not bestow it on a tribe, or a community. Salvation is personal; it is not a group, or the tribe, that is being saved. Only the Hebrew Nation is “God’s chosen people,” Deuteronomy 7:6 – not the early Church, the Church as described by Dante, or the Church of today.

F.  The Spiritual and the Secular

Islam presents a similar tension. “The single most important factor in the performance of any Muslim ritual is the believer’s intention, which must be consciously proclaimed before the ritual can begin.” The primary purpose of that proclamation “is to assist the believer in articulating, through actions, his or her membership in the Muslim community,” Aslan 145. There still remains, however, an impassable gulf between thought and deed. It would be a simple task for an apostate Muslim simply to articulate the correct words as a pseudo-profession of faith, then go through the physical movements of the required action, all the while believing the contrary, or believing nothing at all.

Illustrative is the evolution of Shariah, which interprets the Qu’ran. Shariah is “a comprehensive body of rules guiding the life of all Muslims.” It is, however, “meant to regulate one’s external actions; it has little to do with inner spirituality,” Aslan 162 (emphasis added). “Islamic law is concerned with the external (zahir) nature of faith: it is quantitative; it can be regulated. But the internal (batin) cannot,” Aslan 202. In this respect, Shariah is similar to the Torah, which sets forth a body of law governing the right conduct of the Jews.

The thematic underpinning of Shariah (as well as the Torah) is that external salvation does not depend upon individual belief. Rather, it is a result or consequence of tribal membership and compliance with tribal law, Aslan 133. Over time, this collision facilitated the conflation of secular and spiritual authority. “Religion and the state were one unified entity,” Aslan 80, and “questions of theology are impossible to separate from questions of law,” Aslan 144. Apostasy became a political crime, just as treason became a theological one (both punishable by death, Aslan 119). The same relationship pertains, though less drastically, between Judaism and the State of Israel.

In this manner, Islam and Judaism have accomplished what eluded the Catholic Church. The Holy Roman Empire dissolved into separate nation-states. The Pope became a central religious authority, not a temporal leader. In 1533, Henry VIII beheaded St. Thomas More for treason, even though More’s real crime was his belief that “no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality.”

Self-governing European states in turn had a propensity to go to war against each other. Sometimes, ostensibly, this was on religious grounds. More likely, the real purpose was to seize territory, dispute succession to a throne, or achieve economic gains. This constant turmoil promoted a lack of individual loyalty to state, particularly as the boundaries of one’s country were susceptible to constant and unpredictable change due to war, or shifting political alliances. In place of state, individuals became far more loyal to smaller operating units, such as family, guild or parish. In those instances where the state successfully indoctrinated its citizens with a sense of political identity, it primarily was based on defining them in juxtaposition to the threat of an “other,” prepared to wreak havoc in their lives.

In this manner, European states came to comprise a heterogeneous collection of diverse ethnic, religious and cultural groups. In contrast, Islam successfully homogenized theology and ideology. “The split between temporal and spiritual authority, that in medieval Europe pitted pope against emperor, did not appear in Islam,” Fromkin 104.

Pope Urban II did not comprehend this dynamic when he launched the First Crusade. Nor did the Allied Powers at the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the modern Middle East. Nor did the Bush administration when the United States invaded Iraq in Spring 2003. Underlying all of these political peradventures is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of “tribe” in Middle Eastern culture, as opposed to that of “self” in the West.

More recently, the media has played an important role in both creating and capitalizing on this tension. In September 1988, the British author Salman Rushdie published a novel “The Satanic Verses.” The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a fatwa, meaning devout Muslims anywhere had religious sanction (if not a duty) to kill him. The state – Iran – did not just call for the book’s censorship. Rather, it condemned a private individual in a foreign country, Rule, S., “Khomeini Urges Muslims to Kill Author of Novel,” New York Times (Feb. 15, 1989). In September 2005, a Danish newspaper published twelve editorial cartoons satirically depicting the prophet Muhammed, igniting another international controversy, Fattah, H., “Caricature of Muhammad Leads to Boycott of Danish Goods,” New York Times (Jan. 31, 2006).

The ultimate paradox of the Islamic suicide bomber is that, by blowing himself up, he extirpates the very self (the only self he has) who would be able to participate in, and thereby fortify, the spiritual-cutural background from which it originates.