Saudi Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel on Women’s Rights, Islam & Giving Back
While Saudi Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, in her interview with the Wall Street Journal, seems and may be modern and headed in the right direction, some of her thinking and comments are still based on or influenced by takfir, taqiyya, and the fanatical exclusivism of Wahhabi Islam. Real tolerance and interfaith understanding cannot be built on any of that. Evading or equivocating about such things won’t help, since “certain individuals” reflected quite well the worst in Islamic history and thinking, which is both in the Quran and the culture. Dawa, proselytizing, along these lines, isn’t going to fool any informed person in the West no matter how young, cultured, and pretty the spokeswoman.
Change needs to happen “within the Muslim society.” Is it? I myself have studied Islam throughout my entire adult life, including as a young student with professors from Al-Azhar University and elsewhere in the Middle East, and have been very involved in interfaith activities in the greater Detroit area for years, including at a number of mosques. I’ve known many Muslims, both Saudi and Iranian Shia. I myself have been slandered as an “apostate” by members of the Haifan Baha’i Faith, who practice takfir, including in a leading academic journal in the UK, Religion, without going into further detail. So I’m talking from experience. Pretty faces up front don’t mean much to me when they say things like “Islam is about love and peace.”
The Quran (9:29) says, “Fight those who do not believe in Allah, nor in the latter day, nor do they prohibit what Allah and His Messenger have prohibited, nor follow the religion of truth, out of those who have been given the Book, until they pay the tax in acknowledgment of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” I won’t cite all the many other similar verses. They’re well known to anyone who actually reads the Quran. For the fanatics, and many supposedly moderate Muslims, that’s Islam. And it cannot be soft-pedaled. The great jurists who developed and practiced the principles of “ijtihad,” a moderately balanced interpretation of the Quran, did, have, and would condemn a one-sided reading of the Quran. Others in the world have the right to their own consciences. They don’t love Muhammad; they don’t want to; and they have every right to say so. Fanatical Muslims need to get over it. As far as many in the West are concerned, even many Muslims around the world, Wahhabi ideology is pernicious. It’s Wahhabi fanaticism that needs to change. It’s a corrupt, fanatical interpretation of Islam. In the 21st Century, it’s pathetic that Saudi Arabia is so backward that the Princess has to draw analogies with women riding camels during Muhammad’s life in hope of being allowed someday to drive a car. Dawa with a pretty face doesn’t change anything.
Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel’s chanting the usual excuses about loving Muhammad and being offended when someone expresses other views about him and Islam doesn’t demonstrate any genuine respect for freedom of speech and conscience, nor, despite her claim, that she’s truly a global citizen. Nor does a little social uplift in Africa and elsewhere. Saudi propaganda institutes in the US and other countries are often deceitful and dishonest forms of dawa. Nothing she says proves otherwise. Dragging out pieces of art from centuries ago is just as meaningless to the serious issues involved. Is she concerned about the extreme and vehement hatred that pours out in Saudi Arabi towards Jews who love Moses? Christians who love Jesus? Westerners who love freedom and liberty, secular or otherwise? Her reasoning, such as it is, is one sided and unconvincing, and won’t lead to “love and peace.”
That her husband owns the Wall Street Journal through a shell company doesn’t impress me but raises serious questions of conflict of interest and using ignorant, half-educated Western journalists as dupes and puppets.
If the Saudis and Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel are serious, all that kind of thing needs to change. Nothing she says in her Wall Street Journal video interview demonstrates that it has. The world needs real love and peace, not Wahhabi ideology and violence.
Church and State: A Postmodern Political Theology. Sen McGlinn. University of Leiden, 2005. 432 pages.
Reviewed December 19, 2007.
In light of the Haifan Universal House of Justice having declared Sen McGlinn a “kafir,” infidel, shortly after the 2005 publication of Church and State, the book resonates with many unintended ironies and contradictions. Written in hope of “recasting,” “reformulating,” “reinterpreting,” “refocusing,” and “rethinking” the contemporary popular Baha’i understanding of Baha’u’llah’s Teachings, Sen McGlinn has been thrown into the role of heretical Bahai theologian, denounced and excommunicated, tossed out of the church he had hoped to save from its own gross ignorance, Philistinism, anti-intellectualism, and fanaticism.
It will be interesting to see if McGlinn learns from the experience or is crushed by it. No greater test can be given an intelligent soul. It either calls out of one’s being an even deeper engagement with evil and truth, a struggle for clarity and understanding, or it destroys the fragile foundations of the self, exposing the shallowness of the structure one has built on. If I am not wrong, McGlinn has resources he has only begun to call upon. Nothing could prove his thesis more than the reactionary attack of the corrupt, decadent, and fraudulent universal house of justice.
Setting aside what he himself realizes is a tedious academic literature review of Islamic and Bahai sources on the relations of church and state and blind belief in theocracy, giving the benighted sources way too much attention, McGlinn presents, as a Bahai theologian, not a historian or apologist, the first glimmer of a deeply considered vision of Baha’u’llah’s Faith in the post-modern world. Far from a simplistic fanatical rejection of Enlightenment values, McGlinn defends their worth and realizes that, on the deepest spiritual level, so did Baha’u’llah—He Himself teaches that the separation of church and state is the way things should be, is God’s Will, and not something to be overturned and supplanted with a despicable theocracy of one sort or another—Christian, Islamic, Baha’i, or whatever—worldly power and coercion should be in the hands of those pragmatists who live with two feet on the ground and are not tempted by religious visions of spiritual utopias and New Jerusalems descending upon the earth at any cost. No wonder the organization based upon a spurious will and testament has pronounced his ideas and book “takfir,” anathema. He has gone deeper into Baha’u’llah’s Teachings than they can ever hope to reach.
In a key passage of the book, McGlinn writes,
“What is needed is not simply to recast Bahai thought in contemporary terms, or to hold the theological thinking of the Bahais up for critical examination in the light of Bahai scripture . . . but rather to drag Bahai thinking bodily from one world-view into the next. We can scarcely understand, now, the extent to which the Christians of the second and third centuries saw their religion in terms set by the shape of Roman society and the Roman state. If we do focus on that, we also see the magnitude of the transition initiated by Augustine’s theology, in disentangling the Christian religion from outdated suppositions about society” (10).
The historical sweep of McGlinn’s vision is truly awe-inspiring. He alludes elsewhere to Plato and Ibn Farabi. I wish he would have discussed Ibn Khaldun, instead of merely relegating him to the bibliography, since he understood so profoundly the extent to which Islam had departed from its early beginnings and had been transformed into a separation of the practical control of the state under royal princes. Ibn Khaldun is the locus classicus of that realization about Islam. Analogously, McGlinn sets his entire discussion in a context and at a level that addresses the postmodern dilemmas that confront world civilization in our age and articulates a persuasive argument that Baha’u’llah can only be properly understood from such a vantage point, as a prophet of post-modernity, laying the foundation and rationale for a new stage of human evolution and civilization, material, political, and spiritual. Elsewhere, in his article “Baha’i Meets Globalisation,” McGlinn states it quite directly, “Baha’u’llah must be re-envisioned as the prophet of post-modernity” (14).
McGlinn’s discussion of Postmodernism is unsatisfyingly brief, perhaps a reflection of the paucity of his own knowledge and omnipresent Bahai Philistinism, but, in a sketchy way, demonstrates his understanding of the issues involved, including the literary and philosophical dimensions of the underlying spiritual and religious disruptions and upheavals. Reading a book written by a Bahai scholar, one can’t expect much when it comes to culture. I’m accustomed to and prefer Postmodernism in literary terms, its most consciously articulate and allusive form.
Part of his discussion draws from sociological studies of globalization and technology, which emphasize the “differentiation” and “individualization” of modern life, producing, in Enlightenment terms, pluralism and relativism, all of which gives a much needed fresh, intelligent context for discussions of the Bahai Teachings, and a vastly more compelling framework within which to understand “the world we live in,” of “lasting pluralism,” contrasted with the current unthinking fundamentalism of the current Haifan denomination, for whom Baha’u’llah’s writings have become a static, literal, unchanging fossil that they seek to cram into the “now empty socket where ‘religion’ belongs,” the socket of their antiquated conception of a new world order, merely imitating past dispensations, imagining their assumed “infallibility” enables them to know better than Baha’u’llah.
Nothing could prove how wrong such benighted doctrinaire fanaticism is than its treatment of such an intelligent, outstanding mind as Sen McGlinn. One only need recall the similar witch hunts and expulsions of Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, Linda and John Walbridge of Indiana University, Denis MacEoin of England, and other gifted scholars and writers. The corruption runs, though, much deeper than McGlinn even realizes. There’s a naivete to many of his comments. His courting a particularly bigoted and fanatical Bahai pseudo-scholar, a few times in the book, cannot appear as anything but ridiculously misconceived, all the more so given her subsequent hatchet job on his work, the only thing she’s capable of writing.
From such a perspective, Church and State presents a sad spectacle. He clearly is trying to reform and renew the intellectual and spiritual stagnation the Baha’i Faith has fallen into, but it is while courting Torquemada, without having the courage to confront the inquisitor and tyrant. Torquemada demonstrates no such scruples about Sen McGlinn. Many souls died on the rack. Few, like Martin Luther, understood that the unmitigated corruption revealed a disease so evil as to require a more profound engagement with the issues involved, a return to, and renewal of, its deepest principles, to truly “re-invent itself.” McGlinn has rightly understood those principles, as Baha’u’llah did, “in terms of globablisation, to offer itself as a means of giving meaning to a post-modern society.” Similarly, McGlinn realizes the theocratic interpretation is wrong and a complete departure from Baha’u’llah. Whether he will have the strength to allow himself to acknowledge that the root of the problem is the fraudulent will and testament of Abdu’l-Baha, and almost everything produced by it, remains to be seen. His many quotations of Shoghi Effendi may indicate he’ll never be able to regain an independent Bahai perspective that would allow him to search out the truth for himself and to return to the actual writings and teachings of Abdu’l-Baha and His 1912 Authentic Covenant, as well as acknowledge Abdu’l-Baha repeatedly taught, in a sense difficult to understand, that “The Bahai Movement is not an organization.”
Souls can be crushed by suffering, by coming up against challenges to their inmost beliefs and sense of being, of identity. Some cravenly kiss the hand that whipped them, the dream of every tyrant. Many, if not most, go down or walk away from such ultimate confrontations and struggles for understanding and belief. Whatever the outcome for McGlinn’s own personal spiritual battles, and whether he breaks through to new and deeper insights, he has broken new ground for Bahais who have already learned from their experiences and have moved on to truly Reform and renew Baha’u’llah’s Faith in the globalized world of post-modernity.
I agree with McGlinn’s evaluation of the ecumenical role of the Mashriqu’l-Adkar or Bahai House of Worship, in this book and his articles. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha teach that it should be open to all people for prayer and worship, not merely Bahais, and the social, educational, medical, and economic dependencies and charities related to it are crucial to both community growth and the transformation of global society. McGlinn explains, quoting Abdu’l-Baha:
Religious and cultural pluralism is here to stay and will increase, because of mobility, individual choice, and the fact that successful modern states cannot have a religious policy. The project of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is to create an ecumenical devotional sphere, not bound to a particular doctrinal system, and open to a variety of popular devotion: “In brief, the purpose of places of worship . . . is simply that of unity . . . that is why His Holiness Baha’u’llah has commanded that a place be built for all the religionists of the world; that all religions and races and sects may gather together; that the Oneness of the human world may be proclaimed.”
. . . In the modern world, the progression from a sectarian role to a religion informing society and providing religious services to all society—a ‘church’ in the Weberian sense—can be achieved not by winning state patronage but by developing devotional, aesthetic and intellectual forms that sustain and are sustained by the diversity of popular religious feeling in a pluralist society (143).
Much has been damaged and lost by setting aside Abdu’l-Baha’s unifying vision for the theocratic temptation, relegating people to the paternalism of the derisive “rank and file” and “popular devotion.”
God creates both the individual and the community, and neither truly exists without the other, especially in a globalized society:
Globalisation is a dynamic package in which individualisation is the underlying drive, and functional differentiation (including the separation of church and state), feminisation, global integration, pluralism and relativism are the results. This is in effect a new world, entailing a new principle of individual identity, and the transition places great demands on individuals’ capacity to adapt (144).
The House of Worship is more than a Bahai mosque or church. A whole new conception of sacred, religious space is required to understand it. After God, the individual stands at its center, independently seeking truth, in unity with humanity, not merely other “believers.”
McGlinn rightly argues it is the role of religion, in Baha’u’llah’s postmodern conception of the relation of church and state, that carries the responsibility for inculcating morality and virtue into the individual and community. The problem of how to instill altruism to resist extremely self-serving individualism and license stems from the very beginning of the Enlightenment and modernity, with the separation of the state from the church in the late 1700s, with the philosophes, Voltaire, Rousseau, and other writers. The best social thinkers of our own time have struggled with the reverberations of that problem, Christopher Lasch, Robert Bellah, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, to name a few. Baha’u’llah preserves that separation as the Will of God, making it a religious duty to support and participate in a just government, delegating the cultivation of virtue into the “hearts of men” to his followers and to all religions. Religion and state complement one another in an unprecedented balance in human religious history, instead of a destructive contest convulsing society, though religion retains the duty to critique government, in service to virtue, humanity, and God. It is not enough for religion to say all this; it must prove it. The currently dominant interpretation of the Bahai Faith hasn’t done too well in this regard. Mirza Ahmad Sohrab realized in his courageous book Broken Silence that the Baha’i organization under Shoghi Effendi had become corrupt and destructive of the spiritual life and independence of the individual, seeking to strip the soul of the freedom of conscience and the gift of the will with which God has endowed human beings. Shades of Dostoyevsky.
McGlinn’s Church and State might have benefitted from his pondering this passage from Ibn Khaldun’s An Introduction to History, of 1377, echoing, I would say, Plato’s Republic:
All this has its origin in group feeling…. Luxury wears out royal authority and overthrows it. …Eventually, a great change takes place in the world, such as the transformation of a religion, or the disappearance of a civilization, or something else willed by the power of God. Then, royal authority is transferred from one group to another—to the one God permits to effect that change.
Such a “transformation of a religion” has been long under way for the Bahai Faith, not only postmodern society and Western civilization. The dominant “group-feeling” of the Haifans began to sink into “luxury” with the passing of Abdu’l-Baha and the imposition of the falsified will and testament, leading to many mistakes and excesses, not the least of which was the inhuman destruction of families by requiring husbands and wives and children to shun one another over doctrinal absurdities. Many tens of thousands of Bahais realize there is something extremely unloving and wrong about the naked royal emperor; many have been driven out like McGlinn, for possessing a brain and soul; many others are waiting, looking, searching for the Will of God, for the Bahai theologian who can help them understand His Will. Sen McGlinn has earned the honor of possibly being the first Bahai worthy of the role. As has often been observed, intellectual, spiritual, and cultural history is strewn with examples of scholars and writers merely laying a brick or two in the foundation of the next generation. No small achievement in itself, but not the lofty edifice.
McGlinn’s intelligent though flawed book should help seeking souls in their quest for a world beyond the postmodern, offering a way to understand Baha’u’llah’s “lasting pluralism” in a global world of multiplicity, where religion is the mirror of “individual distinctiveness, not of collective identity.”
The Bahai Faith in America. William Garlington. Praeger. 2005.
The American Bahai Mixture …. July 23, 2006
After becoming a Bahai in the 1960s, William Garlington moved to Australia, where he wrote his dissertation on Bahai mass teaching in Malwa, India, eventually returning to the United States. For over twenty-five years, he taught religious studies in Australia and the US. In the 1980s he withdrew his membership in the Bahai Faith, essentially he says over doctrinal issues relating to revelation and the infallibility of Bahai institutions.
Since the majority of available books on the Bahai Faith are written by members and must be officially “reviewed” and approved by Bahai institutions, Garlington’s book is important as a rare attempt at an objective appraisal of the Bahai Faith and its actual history and practice. Life as it is lived, versus theory. The last few decades have been crucial years for revealing much that has hitherto been largely kept hidden from public knowledge. Garlington’s experience as both a believer and a scholar of religion serves him well in his often insightful treatment of the major conflicts and disagreements over theological issues.
More than any other book to date, Garlington reveals the extent to which people have been harassed and hounded out of the Bahai Faith for the slightest deviation of thought and belief, even to the extent of having to spurn their own family, with the roots of such treatment extending back into the earliest years of Bahai history in the United States. While he discusses or mentions the incidents surrounding Ruth White, Ahmad Sohrab, Julie Chanler, and Mason Remey, among others, I do believe he fails to adequately investigate the circumstances of their individual beliefs and basically repeats the usual official line that dismisses all of them as heretics or “covenant breakers.” For instance, Lewis Chanler was the Lieutenant Governor of the State of New York, a fact always conveniently left out of “reviewed” Bahai publications. Neither he nor his wife were fringe elements as they are so often portrayed. Ruth White has routinely been falsely discredited as the later devotee of an Indian guru, as though nothing more need be said, playing on both Islamic and Western prejudices, which nevertheless entirely evades answering her charge that the leading British handwriting expert of the day, Charles Ainsworth Mitchell, judged Abdu’l-Baha’s will and testament a fraud. Garlington brings no new material, archival or documentary, to the understanding of such incidents of excommunication (takfir). Sohrab’s own book Broken Silence raises many profound issues that neither Garlington nor any other researcher has made sufficient effort to address or understand. Other scholars might very well want to start by independently examining what actually happened in such cases.
Of even more interest to me is Garlington’s discussion of the many incidents that have developed in connection with the rise of the Internet during the mid and late ‘90s since I participated in the long battle to create what is still the only uncensored forum for the discussion of the Bahai Faith, talk.religion.bahai on Usenet. As with China, the Bahai Faith found itself confronted for the first time with a means of communication it couldn’t entirely control and silence. Like China, the Bahai Faith has developed an apologetical cadre for monitoring, influencing and controlling discussion on the Internet. Yet the early atmosphere of the talisman mailing list, as with other online forums, was euphoric with new found liberty and freedom for Bahais to speak honestly about the Bahai Faith, setting off paroxysms of outrage and self-righteous allegations by fundamentalists that others were “tending toward covenant breaking,” “divisive,” “not Bahai,” and so on. Much of it, along with other incidents touching on religious freedom, can still be found documented on the Internet through University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole’s website, my own, www.fglaysher.com/bahaicensorship, and the Google archive for talk.religion.bahai.
Another shortcoming in Garlington’s book is that while his Conclusion acknowledges that “vocal and liberal Bahais” are becoming “an ever-decreasing minority,” he fails to examine sufficiently why that is, namely, the extreme and alarming tactics used to drive liberals out of the Bahai Faith, exemplified in the attacks on Ruth White and Ahmad Sohrab–the most vicious shunning and slandering techniques used by perhaps any religion in America today. Official Bahai sources and the Internet abound with examples. Garlington barely scratches the surface of the extent to which “hikmat,” so-called wisdom, operates in Bahai history, as do “taqlid,” blind obedience, and “takfir,” excommunication. Much more needs to be said in this regard.
The real test of any religious ethic is not the treatment of those who keep their mouths closed, never thinking or questioning anything (taqlid), but rather the treatment of those writers and scholars of capacity, deeply grounded in the intellectual history and traditions of their culture. The Bahai Faith has so thoroughly failed that test, especially during the last few decades, that no individual or country should take its claims at face value without reading and reflecting on such books as William Garlington’s. It should be noted that the December 2005 Library Journal review of Garlington’s book, by William P. Collins, a conservative apologist for Bahai orthodoxy, employs the usual Bahai tactic of discrediting and slandering any dissident opinion, while recommending books that have passed “Bahai review,” in reality, censorship. The reader might want to reflect on the fact that William P. Collins is a librarian at the Library of Congress, yet readily uses his position to defend a system of administration regularly attacking the liberal values that make a library worthy of the name possible and to discourage acquisition librarians from ordering Garlington’s book.
In his closing paragraph Garlington urges the Bahai leadership to manifest a higher degree of wisdom, echoing all too much for me the practices of “hikmat” that resulted, in the Western world, often in the most cynical manipulation of the “rank and file.” Rather, I would say, what’s required is a higher level of normal decency, humility, and respect for the individual’s freedom and liberty of conscience, along the lines of Isaiah Berlin. It doesn’t take much wisdom to realize what kind of world the present arrogant and utopian Baha’i administration would create. One needs only to look at American Bahai history and the abuse of now countless individuals and families.
In addition to Garlington’s book, the serious student of Bahai history should also read Professor Juan Cole’s Modernity and the Millennium, and Peter Smith’s Babi and Bahai Religions. The few Christian polemical writers, who have bothered to write anything, can’t hold a match to those who have been burned by the shunning and slander of Bahai fundamentalism. Yet all three authors merely touch the surface of too many incidents that raise serious questions for any American concerned about preserving religious freedom and liberty. There is a very real need for fresh research and excavation of any surviving original material that might throw more light on the major conflicts of American Bahai history. While Garlington seldom moves very far beyond the received version of American Bahai history, his book is at least the first written by a scholar trying to discover essentially what Edward Gibbon called the “inevitable mixture of error and corruption” that a religion contracts “in a long residence upon earth,” versus the predictably self-serving propaganda of the converted. The publisher Praeger is to be applauded for its commitment to free speech and discussion.
Modernity and the Millennium : The Genesis of the Baha’i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East. Columbia University Press, 1998.
Respecting the Conscience of Man…. June 27, 2000
In his conclusion, which would never have passed the system of censorship, “Bahai review,” that the Haifan Baha’i governing body imposes on all publications brought out under its tight control, Professor Cole, of the Department of History at the University of Michigan, quite accurately identifies the distortions that have been wreaked upon Baha’u’llah’s Teachings:
“Some contemporary leaders of the Baha’i Faith have given answers increasingly similar to those of fundamentalists, stressing scriptural literalism, patriarchy, theocracy, censorship, intellectual intolerance, and denying key democratic values. While the values of the nineteenth-century Baha’i movement, which was far more tolerant, continue to exist as a minority view, by the late 1990s a different set of emphases prevailed” (196).
Cole himself and many others have suffered at the hands of the fundamentalists who have taken control of the religion:
“The rise of academic Baha’i scholarship has caused tension in the community, whose present-day leadership tends to be fundamentalist and antiliberal in orientation, and this has led to pressure on a number of prominent academics to resign or dissociate themselves from the movement” (201).
These same forces of fundamentalist orthodoxy are evident on talk.religion.bahai and alt.religion.bahai on Usenet for impartial viewers to witness. They will be evident to all perceptive observers of whatever forum Bahais may be trying to control and influence. Both my and Cole’s websites provide essential documentation along these lines. It should be noted that the Universal House of Justice has actively worked through the BCCA (Bahai Computer and Communications Association) to suppress all links to websites with other than its own “comprehensive” point of view on such major portals as Yahoo.com, Excite.com, and other search engines. The UHJ has reportedly gone even further by advising Bahais to remove any link whatsoever to Professor Cole’s website.
As a Bahai since 1976, I myself have always found especially repulsive the manner in which Bahai fundamentalists attempt to manipulate the institutions and leaders of government, the United Nations, and public opinion, while pretending to values they deride in private or at Bahai-only meetings.
Ultimately, it is the Bahai Universal House of Justice that is responsible for the perversion and corruption of such clear and elevating teachings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha as the following:
“These are effectual and sufficient proofs that the conscience of man is sacred and to be respected; and that liberty thereof produces widening of ideas, amendment of morals, improvement of conduct, disclosure of the secrets of the contingent world” (Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveler’s Narrative, 91).
The Universal House of Justice, in Haifa, Israel, is also in the end responsible for inciting Baha’i fanatics and fundamentalists to attack other Bahais and non-Bahais merely for their views expressed on and off line in free forums of public discussion.
Professor Cole’s Modernity and the Millennium will remain, for many years to come, the most important book available on the Baha’i Faith. His discussion of its historical development within the intellectual milieu of progressive 19th Century thought is particularly brilliant and insightful.
For further documentation of Bahai censorship, see
The Baha’i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience
Leszek Kolakowski and the Children of Abraham
September 1, 2010
(I wrote this review in 1983 but never published it. I’ve decided to publish it now for a friend in Africa since it discusses the three major monotheistic religions stemming from Abraham. For a more recent piece on some of the same issues, also see, Tolstoy and the Last Station of Modernity.)
A Review of (1) F. E. Peter, Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam. Princeton University Press, 1982; and (2) Leszek Kolakowski, Religion: If there is no God. . . On God, the Devil, Sin and other Worries of the so-called Philosophy of Religion. Oxford University Press, 1982.
F. E. Peter’s book Children of Abraham offers an interesting and systematic treatment of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions that demonstrates their essential unity. Professor Peters achieves this by concentrating on six areas that are outlined by his chapter titles: “Community and Hierarchy,” “The Law,” “Scripture and Tradition,” “The Liturgy,” “Asceticism and Mysticism,” and “Theology.” His intent is, as he states, “to illuminate how these affiliated religions approached common issues.” His perspective is one that holds the monotheistic religions as sharing the same source, attested by the opening paragraph of his book:
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all scriptural religions, that is, they affirm the existence of a divine revelation in written form. “The Sacred Writings,” “The Scripture” or “The Book” are practically interchangeable terms among the three, and their adherents can all be identified as “People of the Book,” as the Muslims in fact call them. More, these revelations from on high represent God’s intervention in history; and, indeed, the same God: the Jew’s Yahweh, the Christians’ God the Father who is in Heaven, and the Muslims’ Allah is one and the same deity, with the same history, the same attributes and, in fact, the same name.
This statement of their shared origin informs much of the discussion of Professor Peter’s book and enables him to cut through, as it were, the malignant growths of countless sectarian debates, animosities, and misperceptions.
His perception of their oneness surfaces again during his discussion of Islam:
What was understood to have happened was that a new prophet had appeared in the Judeo-Christian tradition and had promulgated a new revelation, or rather a new version of revelation, which had as its object not the abrogation of the old Law but its restoration to its original vigor.
Here his analysis probes the common origin, which Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity, and shows that, far from an entirely new revelation, Islam, as Christianity before it, marks the “restoration” of the “old Law” to its pristine purity. Conversely, his perspective aids him to discern common absurdities that mar the historical development of each religion:
And each community lived in the conviction that God had spoken to it for the last time: the Jews, for the first and final times; the Christians, for the second and final time; the Muslims, for the third and final time.
Although Peters does not expand on the illogicality of this conviction, such an idea is implicit in his work, given his emphasis on their shared origin.
The progressive universality of each dispensation is developed in his chapter “The Law”:
Moses was given the Law to modify pagan custom for the better, and so provide a bridge from idolatry to a belief in the unique God. . . . The Law appears, then—and most clearly in its cultic and sacrificial aspects—to be a transitional and ameliorative instrument rather than final and perfect, at least when viewed from a historical perspective.
Certainly this progressive bridge suffuses the Torah—the covenant code and the Book of the Kings document precisely the struggle with the “cultic and sacrificial aspects”—as well as the books of the prophets. But what is noteworthy here is Peter’s realization that the Law was not final and perfect but a transitional and ameliorative instrument—one that guided and directed the Jewish covenant community to belief in one God. Later, Peters also suggests that Muhammad provided this bridge for the pre-Islamic peoples by preserving “within the hajj [pilgrimage] a treasure-trove of early Semitic cult practice,” much as Christ had preserved aspects of the Jewish cultural background of his day.
Although the strongest point of Peter’s book is his demonstration of the shared origin of the revealed religions, it is also, paradoxically, the most conspicuous weakness. For Professor Peters, all religions are pretty much the same. There is a sense in which he never takes any issue seriously. His tone itself exudes skepticism, and one wonders if “common” in his vocabulary does not often carry a pejorative nuance. And although he claims objectivity and rationality, his biases are those of what he calls a “secular historican,” one who believes categorically that all religions ultimately and merely amount to a struggle for political power.
Leszek Kolakowski’s book Religion concentrates on exactly the issue that Peters refuses to consider, whether or not God exists. By quickly surveying the history of the philosophy of religion, Professor Kolakowski covers both the major critiques of religious belief and the major counter-arguments of such philosophers as Descartes, Leibniz, and Pascal. He also discusses theodicy, skepticism and mysticism, eternity and inevitable human failure, reason and eros, the relationship of knowledge and language, and the link between belief in God and death. Despite the expansive sweep of his discussion, his concerns find their center in his oft-repeated thesis:
I take the act of worship as unremovable and instrinsic to any description of the phenomenon of religion. The socially established worship of the eternal reality: this formulation comes perhaps closest to what I have in mind when talking of religion.
Though he marshalls what Abdul-Baha calls in Some Answered Questions the “proofs and demonstrations of the existence of God,” Kolakowski believes the act of worship to be superior to all such arguments—as Abdul-Baha put it, “When man feels the indwelling spirit, he is in no need of arguments for its existence.” But to stop at this observation would be to ignore much of what is of value in Kolakowski’s book. For one thing, his definition of religion as “the socially established worship of the eternal reality” refutes the conception of an individual faith that can be separated from the communal matrix. Religion, by its very nature, presupposes social cohesion—albeit a cohesion enigmatically based on individual worship.
Kolakowski further elaborates his definition in the following passage:
Religion is not a set of propositions, it is the realm of worship wherein understanding, knowledge, the feeling of participation in the ultimate reality . . . and moral commitment appear as a single act, whose subsequent segregation into separate classes of metaphysical, moral and other assertions might be useful but is bound to distort the essense of the original act of worship.
He convincingly makes the case that religion is not merely a “set of propositions” or rational constructs; rather, it is, as he states elsewhere, “a way of life.” And although the human mind is capable of analyzing its act of worship, of separating it into metaphysical, moral, social, and rational elements, of looking at the mountain, the mind cannot comprehend either itself or the mystery it contemplates. Far from constituting a flight into vague irrationality, Kolakowski’s position asserts the fundamental difference between religious and empirical or scientific truth. This difference is basically one of validation: “The only reliable access to religious truth is by way of a private experience which cannot be satisfactorily rendered in intersubjective discourse.” Yet modern science asserts its now “fanatical rationalism” by affirming self-assuredly “what is or is not knowledge.”
Kolakowski’s position, like that of all Christian apologists of the 20th Century, is an embattled one. He himself recognizes the fact and acknowledges at length the decline of religious belief over the last century or so. His emphasis throughout the book on “two irreconcilable ways of accepting the world and our position in it” would largely concede defeat were he not correct that historically the two “colliding” viewpoints have at least forced one another to be consistent in their reasoning about their respective beliefs. Still, there is something wistful about his thinking. Against the vast panorama of the century, Kolakowski’s attempt to breath new life into Christianity possesses a certain amount of wishful thinking that is similar to W. H. Auden’s quixotic call at the end of hisEnchafed Flood to renew “the ruined walls of the city,” because Baha’u’llah revealed no man can renew the city: “Once in about a thousand years shall this City be renewed and re-adorned. . . .That city is none other than the Word of God revealed in every age and dispensation.” T. S. Eliot’s comments on The Waste Land indicate at least an honest confrontation with modernity: “Now there is nothing in which to believe . . . Belief itself is dead . . . therefore my poem is the first to respond properly to the modern situation and not call upon Make-Believe.”
In all fairness to Kolakowski, perhaps he is honestly thinking of Christianity when he writes,
A religous worship reduced to its secular utility and oblivious of its original function can survive for a time, no doubt, yet sooner or later its emptiness is bound to be exposed, the irrelevance of its form to its content will become apparent, its ambiguous life sustained by credit from a non-existent bank will come to end and the forgotten links with the Sacred will be resumed in another place, by other forms of religiosity.
Coming as this excerpt does a few pages from the end of the book, it cannot be read (however he may have intended it) as anything other than a requiem for all Christianity and particularly for Catholicism, which he focuses on and which has undeniably been reduced to its secular and political utility in a few countries that readily come to mind.
We now live in a time of transition, the interregnum, between the decaying of old cities and the renewing and re-adorning of the ancient one. And while many observers are refusing to take any religion seriously, while many are choosing to “call upon Make-Believe” to shore up their swiftly eroding position, religious and secular, the major and minor plans of God to renew the ruined walls proceed.
It was as a young student in high school that I first encountered the scriptures of other peoples, in a class on world religions, which used The Portable World Bible. Instead of historicism, I believe I got the real message, since I did the reading, of the writings themselves, the universalism at their core. And it may have been that I was fortunate in the teacher of the class, who may have introduced me to a new style and way of manhood. Looking back, I see an intellectual man, more sophisticated and nuanced in sensibility.
And then, a year or two later, after more and wider reading, I took a college class that included Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man. That book opened new vistas, ordered things in a new way for me, even as I couldn’t really relate to the instructor, dropping the course before the end. But I had the book. And read it. And re-read it. It was true to my experience. For soon, I had “gone off hiking into Baha’i.” But it was not “too quickly” of a decision. I had spent a few years reading and thinking about virtually every Baha’i book that had been published up until that time, 1976. I searched through several libraries from the suburbs to downtown Detroit to find them, and thought and prayed, prayed and thought, while continuing to read widely in the poets and literature.
It was more than a decade later that I heard of Joseph Campbell, through Bill Moyers’ The Power of Myth on PBS, another powerful influence, one I immediately recognized as true to my experience, re-watching it many times, reading some of his books. By 1982, while I was still in Japan, I had already begun to make notes for The Parliament of Poets. Campbell’s work was startlingly congruent with where I already found myself to be, confirmed me in the direction I would take. But it wasn’t until about 1993 that I had written down, perhaps, I think now, as a result of his interview with Moyers, where I would travel.