Sunday, February 22, 2009

Culture and Conflict (II): Conceptions of God

Building on Anthropologist Phillip Carl Salzman's analysis discussed in my previous post, since God is the ultimate Authority, conceptions of God reflect the prevailing conceptions of authority. Thus, if authority is male, God is gendered as male: as He is in all the Middle Eastern monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and quasi-monotheism (Zoroastrianism). They are all very much God-the-Father religions. Judaism and Zoroastrianism are both particularist monotheisms lacking universalist aspirations. (Very Middle Eastern in a sense – our God is the God of the universe, but He is ours, so there.) The two universalist monotheisms – Christianity and Islam – arose in very different contexts with very different conceptions of authority and thus very different conceptions of God.

Christianity – growing up within a law-bound Roman Empire – was not originally concerned with political authority and social order (the Romans took care of those) but with moral order. But the legacy of Greek political thought and Roman order made it natural to think of God as law-bound, as a law-keeper. Otherwise He was a capricious and wilful tyrant. So the idea of God as a “constitutional monarch” who ruled over an ordered Creation, because a good ruler is law-bound, was natural to Christianity. In the words of Adelard of Bath in the C12th:
I do not detract from the power of God, for all that exists does so from him and by means of His power. However, this is not to say that nature itself is chaotic, irrational, or made up of discrete elements. Therefore it is possible for men to achieve an understanding of this rational order inherent in nature, an understanding as complete as the extent to which human knowledge progresses.
Even the conception of the Trinity creates a sense of God as being ordered.

Conversely, Islam grew up in a deeply tribal society where Muhammad created a political order as part of his new religious order. A tribal society based on balanced opposition with a radiating pattern of loyalties that get more intense the closer the kin connection. “Me against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and my brothers against the world” as the Arab proverb runs.

In tribal society, honour comes from winning, since one’s loyalties are entirely defined by connection and opposition. The more complete the victory, the greater the honour – for the greater the triumph over the defining opponent. So, the greater the domination, the greater the authority, for the greater the honour. Hence to suggest any limit on the absolute sovereignty of Allah is to impugn His honour. Even in suggesting that there is any ordering in His will. Contrast Adelard of Barth’s contemporary Al-Ghazali in his deeply influential The Incoherence of the Philosophers on precisely the same topic as Adelard was writing on above:

our opponent claims that the agent of the burning is the fire exclusively; this is a natural, not a voluntary agent, and cannot abstain from what is in its nature when it is brought into contact with a receptive substratum. This we deny, saying: The agent of the burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnexion of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent? Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God.

(Philosophers might note David Hume’s argument on causation being put several centuries before Hume.)

It is not hard to see which view is more conducive to the development of science. But not only the development of science. For if to suggest there are limits to the absolute sovereignty of Allah is to impugn His honour, then it is an easy step to the jihadi view that democracy is blasphemous because it intrudes on the sovereignty of Allah. Just as prevailing notions of authority affect the conception of God; conceptions of God, in turn, affect how the world is understood.

Al-Gazali’s view was contested within Islam – Ibn Rushd (Averroes) wrote his The Incoherence of the Incoherence in response. But al-Ghazali’s view won out because it resonated in Middle Eastern culture. Averroes was far more influential in the West, because his views resonated among the Christian heirs to Classical civilisation.

It is a great mistake to not acknowledge that Islam is a different civilisation, with different fundamental presumptions, than our own. Salzman’s book is deeply enlightening about those differences and from whence they arise.

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