Sunday, November 29, 2009

Remi Brague on Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Middle Ages

A h/t to David for this, The Myth that Muslims Saved Civilization. That post led to this article, The Legend of the Middle Ages, examining the work of French scholar Remi Brague, author of The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism and Islam. This article is well worth reading in itself, but also contains links to two interviews with Remi, here and here. I highly recommend the interviews, particularly the latter. Some excerpts, below:

(From the first interview)

But at that point we see that the expression conceals a second trap, symmetrical to the first: it implies that in these three religions, which do, in fact, have a book—as do other religions—the contents of revelation would be that book. As it happens, however, in Judaism that content is the history of God with his people, whom he liberates and guides by giving them his Teaching (torah); In Christianity, it is the person of Christ, who, for Christians, is a concentrate of the previous experience of Israel. The written texts record that history, or, in the case of the Talmud, gather together the discussions of the scholars regarding the interpretation and application of the divine commandments. But in no way do those books constitute the actual message of God to humankind. It is only in Islam that the revealed object is the Book. In the final analysis, the only religion of the book is Islam!

Why does this matter? Because the very way in which the god speaks, the very style of his logos, decides how that logos can be elaborated. If the divine word is a law, it has to be explicated and applied with maximum precision. But that law says nothing about its source. If that divine word is a person—and, inversely, if that person is a word stating who is its emitter—that is one step toward a certain knowledge of God.

As for the problem of the basis for coexistence, you have put your finger on a fundamental difficulty. It contains a paradox: what is troublesome is not that any one religion finds another strange, but rather a certain manner of interpreting a real proximity. What exasperates Jews is that Christians claim to understand “their” book better than they do themselves. In similar fashion, what perplexes Christians—and why they often refuse to recognize Islam—is that Islam sees itself as a post-Christianity destined to replace that religion.

For Islam, the survival of the Christian religion is an anachronism. Islam presents itself even as the true Christianity, given that, according to Islamic thought, Christians have disfigured the authentic Gospel, just as the Jews, for their part, have sold out the authentic Torah. Thus it is out of the question to appeal to common Scripture. This means that, from the Muslim point of view, the “Islamo-Christian dialogue” is a dialogue between true Christians (that is, the Muslims themselves) and people who imagine themselves to be true Christians but are not. This is why dialogue interests Christians more than it does Muslims.

The (very relative) success of my book on Europe, with its translations, continues to amaze me. But I sometimes wonder, when my morale is low, if I might not have done better to use the time I spent writing it to learn Egyptian or Akkadian. The civilizations that used those languages offer the advantage of being thoroughly dead. But are Europeans really living? Do they want to continue to live? Or are they zombies frantically agitating their limbs so as to pass for being truly alive?

Question: One last and perhaps more personal question: What place can someone who believes in one religion make for other religions?

Brague: A place where? In his library: in his quality as a cultivated man, he will give their documents shelf space, and he will strive to know something about them in order to keep himself from saying really stupid things about religions that are not his own. He may eventually discover fine expressions of religious sentiment in authors who profess other religions than his own and piously make them his own.

Can he respect those religions? Properly speaking, no. Not because he is or is not a believer, and not because he adheres to religion A rather than to religion B, but quite simply because he values the meaning of words. Religions are only things, and one can only respect persons. One can no more respect a thing than listen to a painting. I respect no religion, not even my own. I respect those who believe in all religions, not because they are believers, but inasmuch as they are human beings.

More specifically, I have no esteem for belief in and of itself. I detest the recent habit of considering the act of belief as having a value in itself, independent of its content. And I mistrust those who attempt to discover connections between “believers,” even to lump them together, without asking themselves what they believe in. One can believe in flying saucers, after all! There were sincere Nazis and convinced Leninites. And the Carthaginian fathers who had their sons burned alive as a sacrifice to the god Moloch (the scene is narrated by Flaubert, but the facts are true) must have “believed in it” strongly. For me, a belief is as good as its object, neither more nor less.

To speak of the Christian heritage of Europe bothers me. And for even greater reason, speaking of “Christian civilization.” Christianity was founded by people who could not have cared less about “Christian civilization.” What interested them was Christ, and the reverberations of his coming on the whole of human existence. Christians believed in Christ, not in Christianity itself; they were Christians, not “Christianists.”

(From the second interview)
Could you give any examples of frequently occurring errors, which you feel compelled to correct from your particular expertise in medieval Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophy?

Yes. For example: people keep on referring to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the three monotheistic religions, as the three “religions of the book”, and the three religions of Abraham. This is three times nonsense. To speak of the three monotheistic religions is incorrect, because there are more than three. More importantly, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are monotheistic in very different ways. In the Jewish tradition, God is the God who is loyal in history, and frees his people from slavery in Egypt. In Christianity, God consists of the mutual love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For Muslims on the other hand, God is a one solid block.

The second misunderstanding is the idea that there are “three religions of the book”. That is misleading, because the meaning of the book is very different in each religion. In Judaism, the Tenakh is a written history of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, almost a kind of contract. In Christianity, the New Testament is the history of one person, Jesus, who is the incarnate Word of God. In Islam, the Koran is "uncreated" and has descended from the heavens in perfect form. Only in Islam is the book itself what is revealed by God. In Judaism God is revealed in the history of the Jewish people. In Christianity God is revealed as love in the person of Jesus. Judaism and Christianity are not religions of the book, but religions with a book.

The third misconception is to speak of “the three Abrahamic religions”. Christians usually refer to Abraham as a person who binds these three religions together, and who is shared by them. In Judaism, he is the “founding father”. But in the Koran it is written: “Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian.” (III, 67). To Muslims, Abraham was a Muslim, as was the first man, Adam. According to Islam, the first prophets received the same revelation as Mohammed, but the message was subsequently forgotten. Or it was tampered with, with evil intent. So according to Islam, the Torah and the Gospels are fakes. All in all it must be said, that the religions cannot easily be compared. There are fundamental differences. Yet they are constantly discussed as if they were essentially the same thing.

Some would say that there are many fundamental differences even within Christianity or Islam. Are you ever rebuked for speaking of Islam as if it were a singular whole, whereas in reality there are many different forms of Islam in the world?

...I am an “essentialist”. I cannot say very much about individual Muslims, but I know some things about Islam’s basic claims, that each and every Muslim shares: the Koran as dictated by God, Mohammed as the “beautiful example”, Mecca as the direction of prayer, etc. I don’t know how Europe should integrate its Muslim immigrants, and I’m not saying that theology can provide all the answers. But social sciences and statistics don’t either. To understand Islam however, you must be willing to take the Islamic interpretation of Islam seriously. You must study its theology, the way it understands itself.

What are your views on moderate forms of Islam?

A moderate Islam would be a very good idea. There are moderate Muslims, but Islam has its inner logic, as do other religions.

What about the Islamic societies in Moorish Andalusia in Southern Spain, in the Middle Ages? Much is said about them being quite tolerant.

Many well-meaning myths circulate about Islamic Spain. The Muslims there were indeed quite tolerant towards each other. But in the oft-romanticized city of Cordoba, the family of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was banished, Averroes was exiled, and many Christians martyred. If there was indeed some form of Islamic enlightenment in the tenth century under the influence of thinkers such as al-Farabi, it was buried in the eleventh. Philosophy never reached mainstream Islam. An “enlightened” thinker such as Averro√ęs was completely forgotten in the Arabic-speaking world; but his works were widely studied in Hebrew and Latin. And the original texts were republished in Europe from the mid-nineteenth century on.

Incidentally, in one of his books Averro√ęs emphasized that heretics should be killed (see Incoherence of the Incoherence, XVII, 17).

Why did philosophy play such an important role in Europe but not in the Arab world, when many classical (Western) philosophical texts were only preserved as Arabic translations?

Philosophy has always been marginal in the Islamic world, but it blossomed in Europe. Why? Well, it was not because of a difference in the sources: both had Aristotle and some Neo-Platonist texts. Although Europe had to put up with only the beginning of Aristotle’s logical works and waited till the 12th Century for the rest to be available in Latin. Also, there was no difference in the genius of their philosophers. Thomas Aquinas was no more brilliant than al-Farabi. The big difference was that philosophy was never institutionalized in the Islamic world, as it was in Europe, thanks to the universities. All great Islamic philosophers were amateurs. They practiced law or worked as doctors, because philosophy didn’t exist as a profession. Therefore, philosophy remained an army with only generals; whereas in Europe it was taught at universities, where the philosophers also trained lawyers, physicians, and theologians.

By the way, nearly all texts translated from Greek in the Middle East were translated by Christians. There is only one example of an early Islamic thinker who studied a non-Islamic language: al-Biruni. That is another difference: Islamic scholars read the classical works in Arabic translations; whereas in Europe, some people in the Middle Ages—and the whole intellectual elite from the 15th Century on—learned the classical languages. They did this to read the originals.

You frequently emphasize the importance of learning classical languages. Why?

Learning classical languages is essential to European civilization....Europe’s luck was its initial poverty. For a very long time, Europe remained far removed from the existing cultural centers in Asia. Europeans were barbarians, inhabiting distant, freezing northern shores. And they knew this about themselves. Studying classical languages, and thereby imbibing a civilization wholly different from their own, made them conscious of the fact that they were stinking barbarians, who needed to wash themselves with the soap of higher civilizations. The Romans were well aware that they were culturally inferior to the Greeks. But they also had the courage to admit it. And that is precisely what gave them the strength to absorb the Hellenic civilization, and spread it to the lands they conquered. The essential characteristic of European culture is that it is ex-centric. Not in the sense of an Englishman who takes a bath wearing his bowler hat, but in the sense that the two sources of her civilization, Athens and Jerusalem, lie outside the geographical area of Europe itself. European culture is based on the recognition that we are barbarians who civilized ourselves by internalizing ‘strange’ cultural sources.

And that’s unique to Europe?

Yes, Western civilization is something very strange and unusual. Most civilizations have only one centre. Islam has Mecca. Ancient Egypt had Memphis. Babylon had Babylon. But Western civilization had two sources, Athens and Jerusalem—the Jewish and later Christian tradition and that of pagan antiquity—often described as being in dynamic conflict. This opposition is founded on the opposition of Jew and Greek, borrowed from Saint Paul, which was then systemized in different ways: Hellenism versus Hebraism, the religion of beauty versus the religion of obedience, reason versus faith, aesthetics versus ethics, etc. The curious thing is that one was never swallowed by the other. Europe is neither Jewish nor Greek. In “Rome” in Christianity (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church), Jerusalem and Athens are simultaneously joined and kept apart.

With the coming of Christianity the preceding cultures were not destroyed, but a new civilization was formed. As the Romans recognized that their culture was "secondary" to that of the Greeks, the Christians recognized that Judaism preceded Christianity. This understanding gave European civilization a unique openness and humility towards the enormous cultural achievements of the past. This humility has been a great strength. It fosters the awareness that you cannot simply inherit a civilizing tradition, but that you must work very hard to obtain it—to control the barbarian inside. This has given European culture the possibility of renaissances: a renewed appreciation of the sources of our culture, to correct what has gone wrong.

This becomes apparent in the different ways in which Islam and Christianity approached their older Greek and Jewish sources. The difference could be described by the words “digestion” and “inclusion”. In Islam, the original Jewish and Christian texts were digested, changed into something completely new, purely authentic to Islam itself. In Europe on the other hand, the original texts were left in their original state. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Tenakh are almost exactly the same; and Christians recognize the Jewish origins of the books of the Old Testament. Similarly, the Church Fathers took up classical philosophy, and Thomas Aquinas studied Aristotle and included Aristotelian notions in his theology. Yet scholars have never stopped reading the works of Aristotle himself. Do you think there is a threat that Europe may lose this unique openness? Is the West becoming ‘normal’?

With the decline of Christianity and classical education, the West is indeed becoming less and less interested in the classical sources of our civilization. Knowing less about our own civilization also seems to make us lose the ability to listen carefully to what we could learn from others. The Chinese show us that to survive you must work. And what do we do? We call them “yellow ants”. Muslims show us that to survive, you must procreate. We call them “fundamentalists”. Americans could teach us that you must not blind yourself to the fact that you have enemies. And what do we do? We call them “cowboys”.

Why are we allowing this to happen?

Perhaps we have become victims of our own success. It seems Europeans have eaten the carrot of civilization that used to spur them onwards. To survive, we must learn to remain humble, in spite of our successes.


James the Thickheaded said...

Thanks for posting this. Very interesting read.

The Scylding said...


Milton T. Burton said...

Anyone wanting to understand the totality of the Carthaginians sacrifice to Molech and what it meant should read Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man."

aalimsha said...