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.
Tolstoy and the Last Station of Modernity
August 15, 2010
After seeing several months ago the movie “The Last Station,” by the director Michael Hoffman, based on Leo Tolstoy’s final year of life and his death at the train station of Astapovo in 1910, I found my thoughts often turning to him. I’ve had a long interest in Tolstoy and his work, having spent considerable time as a student reading large swaths of his journals and other more obscure books during the early 1970s and repeatedly going back to him during intervening years. While the acting of Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer was superb, the latter of whom I admire having seen Plummer perform live a couple of times at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, the movie left me with an uneasy feeling regarding the interpretation of Tolstoy. The film script was based on Jay Parini’s novel, The Last Station, which may be part of the problem, in turn perhaps tracing back to the unsympathetic biographies by Henry Troyat and R. N. Wilson, both derisively presenting Tolstoy as a religious crank and fanatic. Neither biography understands the full weight of who Tolstoy was and what he actually believed and why. Touching on the problem, fearing other biographers would repeat the errors of Troyat, Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra wrote in 1968, in The Real Tolstoy, that “Troyat . . . shows no respect for Tolstoy’s inner life. He speaks about it in vulgar, cynical expressions…. I fear that the errors in Troyat’s book will be repeated in other works.” Beyond the biographies, skewing also the movie, lies the pervasive nihilism and cynicism of modernity that has no respect or appreciation for any spiritual vision of life, including even a highly universal one, such as Tolstoy’s, for he had embraced, by the last decade of his life, the universal principles and teachings, not only of Christianity, but of all the great religions. To see or set him in a more limited context is to fail to understand him within his own stated terms and the plenitude and scope of his work.
Born of aristocratic lineage, Tolstoy inherited his elite position in Russian society, along with the enormous estate of Yasnaya Polyana, south of Moscow. At thirty-four in 1862, he married Sophia Behrs, when she was eighteen years old. By all accounts they lived a happy domestic life together for many years. After his crisis of faith, discussed in My Confessions (1878), while he found the answers for his spiritual and intellectual struggles in his religious studies and books, they began to experienced an increasingly strained relationship. Sophia’s personality was much given, as she described herself, to the lightness of the social world she had been born into, growing up in Moscow in the circles of the Tsar’s court. By her own recognition, Tolstoy had a much deeper inner life of the mind and sensibility. Their relationship was often strained for the rest of their lives. Torn between love and gratitude to her and a desire to bring his life and ideals in line with his beliefs, he and Sophia struggled on together. In a letter dated June 8, 1897, found concealed in his study after his death, published in Paris in Figaro, December 27, 1910, which Tolstoy apparently had never sent to Sophia, Tolstoy dreamed about leaving her and explained his motives better than he eventually did when he actually left her more than a decade later:
For a long time, dear Sophie, I have been suffering from the discord between my life and my beliefs. I cannot force you to change your life or your habits. Neither have I hitherto been able to leave you, for I felt that by my departure I should deprive the children, still very young, of the little influence I might be able to exert over them, and also that I should cause you all a great deal of pain. But I cannot continue to live as I have lived, during these last sixteen years, now struggling against you and irritating you, now succumbing myself to the influences and the seductions to which I am accustomed and which surround me. I have resolved now to do what I have wished to do for a long time: to go away. . . . Just as the Hindoos, when they arrive at the sixtieth year, go away into the forest; just as every aged and religious man, wishes to consecrate the last years of hislife to God and not to jesting, punning, family tittletattle, and lawn-tennis, so do I with all my strength desire peace and solitude, and if not an absolute harmony at least not this crying discord between my whole life and my conscience. (Tolstoy, Romain Rolland, p. 181)
Tolstoy similarly once wrote to his sister, who was a nun in the Russian Orthodox Church, “How fine for the Buddhist when he grows old—he goes off to the desert.” It was to his sister and the Shamardino monastery that Tolstoy first fled in 1910, though he quickly gave up on the notion of staying there and headed south towards his summer home in the Crimea. What is often lost sight of in our disbelieving age is that religious retreat in advanced years was an ideal that Tolstoy respected and wished to honor in fact and deed. Sophia, it should be noted, was diagnosed by more than one doctor as mentally ill, a fact recognized by his son Sergei in a letter to his father, after his flight in 1910, acknowledging that it would have been better had they separated many years earlier. The movie fails to do justice to this complexity, presenting Sophia as far too much the victimized realist of an impractical zealot of a husband. What has come to be a common interpretation of Tolstoy is completely false. That Tolstoy could continue to study and write under such conditions is a testament to the strength and integrity of his character and soul.
Like many writers, Tolstoy anguished, for years, over his inability to bring his life into balance with his ideals. Alexandra quotes from his private diary the following passage:
If I heard about myself from the outside, as of a person, living in luxury, with police guards, grabbing all he could from the peasants, putting them in the lockup, and professing and preaching Christianity, and handing out small coins, and hiding behind a sweet wife while I did all these base things—I could not but call him a scoundrel! And that is what I have had to submit to, so that I could free myself from human fame and live for the sake of my soul. (Tolstoy: A Life of My Father, 1953, p. 466)
On another occasion, he writes, “Help me, O Lord. Again I yearn to go away, and I dare not. Nor can I give up.” These passages demonstrate the extent to which he fought for years with the dilemmas of his own existence, seeking resolution, some way out and forward. His inheriting great wealth and position became for him a burden and contradiction of the sincerity of his religious beliefs, as they developed and evolved, and weighed heavily upon him. Eventually, seeking to free himself, he legally passed ownership of his estate and holdings to Sophia and the family. All his religious writings, several books and many pamphlets, plays, and short stories can be properly understood only when approached in the light of this struggle. It explains why he lived in such a simple way that many visitors to Yasnaya Polyana recorded their surprise upon actually meeting him and witnessing it for themselves. The only solution for Tolstoy was what it was and is for all great writers. He had to write his way through his dilemmas, create for himself the role and persona that resolved his deepest conflicts, and those of his time. That is what all the religious works are about. By the end of his last decade, he’s achieved it, and then, finally, he’s ready, to follow the way of the ancients, set an example, remind the world, in deed as well as word, of the spiritual journey of life, round out the fullness of his own life.
By Tolstoy’s own testimony, after the years of happiness with Sophia, after writing his early novels and stories, including War and Peace and most of Anna Karenina, he experienced a searing spiritual crisis, feeling his life had become meaningless, which impelled him on a search for meaning and purpose. As recounted in My Confessions(1878), during his early years prior to his marriage, he states,
I killed people in war and challenged to duels to kill; I lost money at cards, wasting the labour of the peasants ; I punished them, fornicated, and cheated. Lying, stealing, acts of lust of every description, drunkenness, violence, murder — There was not a crime which I did not commit, and for all that I was praised, and my contemporaries have regarded me as a comparatively moral man.
He further emphasizes that he reached a point where “life had no meaning at all.” Overwhelmed by the emptiness of his existence, he turned to the study of philosophy, but eventually came to believe that there must be more than reason:
From the beginning of the human race, wherever there is life, there is the faith which makes life possible and everywhere the leading characteristics of that faith are the same.
From his study of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, as early as 1879, Tolstoy arrives at the understanding that he is “a part of the infinite whole” and in “the answers given by faith was to be found the deepest source of human wisdom,” while rejecting “the unnecessary and unreasonable doctrines” that had crept into all of the great religions. Initially, he returns to the Russian Orthodox Church, but soon finds it suffered from many irrational doctrines, what he would call after his 1901 excommunication “sorcery,” leading to his quest for the truth of Christianity, and all religions, that lasted until the end of his life in 1910.
A hundred years later, part of the difficulty many people may have in understanding Tolstoy involves today the pervasive nihilism of the academic and cultural establishment, which since Tolstoy’s death, has continued to drain away all spiritual import and nuance, not merely from Tolstoy’s work, but from literature and life. Western civilization itself has become suffused with nihilism, identified with it, the ruling myth celebrated everywhere has become the ascendance and triumphalism of a gloriously secular nihilism, passing the disease around the world, to all countries and cultures, so that the remedy can now only be found and administered in a truly global context. Far beyond the confines of the literary, intellectual, academic milieu, East or West, the ethos of nihilism, inculcated into the young and the general culture, pervades, in its local variants, every region of the globe. Tolstoy himself was highly aware that the general direction of culture was set in a direction away from religious belief and understood his efforts as a response to it, as when he said of Nietzsche, “What savagery! It is terrible, so to drag down Christianity!” Similarly, Tolstoy rejected the applicability of a solely materialistic understanding of the human being, whether by Marx or Thomas Henry Huxley’s defense of Charles Darwin in his Romanes Lectures of 1894. Tolstoy states, “the law of evolution runs counter to the moral law: This was known to the ancient Greeks and Hindus. The philosophy and religion of both those peoples brought them to the doctrine of self-renunciation.” It was often against the decline of a spiritual and moral understanding of the human being that Tolstoy understood himself as writing and working, though even he underestimated the force of nihilism as manifested in 1917. In a preface to Tolstoy’s short novels, Philip Rahv observed, “Tolstoy resisted the catastrophic ruin of the traditional order by straining all the powers of his reason to discover a way out.”
As recorded in an often-cited journal entry, the idea had already occurred to Tolstoy when he was twenty-seven years old that the world needed a new religion, one purged of the false doctrines of organized Christianity:
A new religion corresponding with the present state of mankind; the religion of Christ but purged of dogmas and mysticism–a practical religion, not promising future bliss but giving bliss on earth.
After his religious crisis, as early as 1884, he took note of his intention of compiling the sayings of religious sages and thinkers into a single volume. During the last decade of his life, he finally began the compilation in earnest, resulting in several different versions of it, variously titled, Thoughts of Wise Men, A Calendar of Wisdom, A Circle of Reading, with the final edition in 1910, The Path of Life. Tolstoy spent much of his energy on the book, compiling and refining. He himself considered it as the most important work of his life, as he once wrote, “If it is granted me to finish this work, it will be a complete statement of my world outlook.” He continually simplified and revised the quotations and passages to the point that he advised translators not to look for the original pieces in Confucius, Buddhism, or wherever, but to base their translations on his own free-renderings. Near the end of his life, far ahead of his time, he couldn’t understand why people didn’t use The Circle of Reading more. While he understood that a writer cannot create his own religion, he was caught in the dilemma of finding all the existing forms unfulfilling.
Throughout the last thirty years of his life, Tolstoy was opposed to the violence in Russia advanced by the radicals, Marxists, and socialists of his time. In a journal entry he writes,
Socialists will never destroy poverty and the injustice of the inequality of capacities. The strongest and more intelligent will always make use of the weaker and the more stupid. Justice and equality in the good things of life will never be achieved by anything less than Christianity, i.e., by negating oneself and recognizing the meaning of one’s life in service to others.
His background in and experience of the ruling aristocratic class and ethos provided Tolstoy with an acute understanding of power and its endless corruptions. Far from being naive about power in society, he understood that human beings had to have a change of heart to influence society at the deepest level. The bombs and bullets of the revolutionaries were anathema to him and would produce only another tyranny, as they indeed did, one of the most horrible and blood-thirsty tyrannies in the history of humanity. Elsewhere, Tolstoy observed, “The object of socialism is the satisfaction of the lowest needs of man: his material well being. And it cannot attain even this end by the means it recommends.” Similarly, in “An Appeal,” “Even if that should happen which Marx predicted, then the only thing that will happen is that despotism will be passed on. Now the capitalists are ruling, but then the directors of the working class will rule.” In 1905 in “The End of the Age,” he wrote, “Nothing demonstrates so clearly the increasing enslavement of nations as the growth, spread, and success of socialistic theories.” By the last decade of his life, he had long since concluded that only a deep spiritual change could truly ameliorate the condition of humanity.
Arguing always against the violence of socialism and the Marxists, Tolstoy, unfortunately, interpreted the New Testament in such a way that non-resistance to violence prevented him from being sufficiently practical enough to recognize the value of a more democratic order, causing him to advocate a type of Christian anarchism and to repudiate Russian efforts to create a democratic body, the Duma, in the early years of the twentieth century. He also, unfortunately, aligned himself with much of the thinking of the anarchist Peter Kropotkin and the anti-tax thinker Henry George. Like Dostoyevsky, he really didn’t understand the West. As others have remarked, a few trips to Europe and England failed to take him deep enough into the social and political culture. Both he and Dostoevsky were too quick to resort to Catholicism as a whipping boy to explain every flaw of the West. I cannot but feel, given the subsequently bloody Soviet history, the country and people would have been better off had Tolstoy been more moderate and realistic about the necessities of life and government. Still, the Christian anarchism of Tolstoy was infinitely more gentle than what Lenin instituted in 1917. In the end, Russia has come full circle back to most of the issues that Tolstoy struggled with, as has the 21st Century.
Tolstoy significantly located what he believed the only way forward in universality—the recognition that the human being is a spiritual being, grounded in the necessity of moral choice and growth toward perfection, as in all the great religions. Our global, pluralistic age lives this truth even as it fails sufficiently to recognize and articulate it to the level required to help understand the nature of life in our time. Perhaps more than any other piece he wrote, published in 1902, Tolstoy explains the religious philosophy he came to hold in What Is Religion, and Wherein Lies Its Essence?
Religions differ in their external forms, but they are all alike in their fundamental principles. And it is these principles, that are fundamental to all religions, that form the true religion which alone at the present time is suitable for us all, and the adoption of which alone can save men from their ills….
Having by this time written several major books and numerous articles on religion, struggling with Christian history and doctrine, his own excommunication in 1901 by the Orthodox Church, Tolstoy was uniquely qualified by fiery experience and study to set forth his increasingly universal beliefs:
The principles of this true religion are so natural to men, that as soon as they are put before them they are accepted as something quite familiar and self-evident. For us the true religion is Christianity in those of its principles in which it agrees, not with the external forms, but with the basic principles of Brahmanism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hebraism, Buddhism, and even Mohammedanism. And just in the same way, for those who profess Brahmanism, Confucianism, etc.—true religion is that of which the basic principles agree with those of all other religions. And these principles are very simple, intelligible and clear.
In this sense, referring to the thinking of Tolstoy, as is often done, as Christian anarchism is a distortion of what the man really believed —spiritual universality, or Christianity universalized, might be better terms, represented best by the same universal spirit he labored to articulate in A Calendar of Wisdom (tr. Peter Sekirin, 1997). Defining universally held principles, he states,
These principles are that there is a God, the origin of all things; that in man dwells a spark from that Divine Origin, which man, by his way of living, can increase or decrease in himself; that to increase this divine spark man must suppress his passions and increase love in himself; and that the practical means to attain this result is to do to others as you would they should do to you. All these principles are common to Brahmanism, Hebraism, Confucianism, and Mohammedanism. (If Buddhism supplies no definition of God, it nevertheless acknowledges That with which man commingles, and into Which he is absorbed when he attains to Nirvana. So, That with which man commingles, or into Which he is absorbed in Nirvana, is the same Origin that is called God in Hebraism, Christianity, and Mohammedanism.)
Repeatedly and everywhere in Tolstoy’s writing, clearing away the debris of such ephemera as anarchism, one finds his emphasis on the Golden Rule as the essential teaching of all wisdom traditions and religions. Just as lucidly and consistently, Tolstoy understood the importance of reason and that true religion does not subvert it to “sorcery” and other irrationalities:
Religion is not a belief, settled once for all, in certain supernatural occurrences supposed to have taken place once upon a time, nor in the necessity for certain prayers and ceremonies; nor is it, as the scientists suppose, a survival of the superstitions of ancient ignorance, which in our time has no meaning or application to life ; but religion is a certain relation of man to eternal life and to God, a relation accordant with reason and contemporary knowledge, and it is the one thing that alone moves humanity forward towards its destined aim.
Tolstoy utterly opposed the caricatures of faith and religion by modern scientism, believing as Ernest J. Simmons remarked that “one of the main calamities of modern life” was “the tendency to replace moral and spiritual progress by technical progress.” His trust in and search for rational truth enabled him to see through both the irrationalities and blind-faith of organized religion and of modern science to the universality of the human spirit. He was, in a sense, an early modern seeker of the spiritual unity of the great religions, preceding and akin to the Perennial philosophy of Aldous Huxley and others, but less given to the esoteric, closer to the approach of Huston Smith, superior even to him, I would say, though admittedly their gifts are different.
When I think of Tolstoy’s spiritual journey and of earlier times and cultures, of writers struggling with what is universal in the human being, I think of Dara Shikoh in Mughal India, seeking unity of Hinduism and Islam, as in hisThe Mingling of the Two Oceans (1657), the universality of the Sufi poets, or of the Dali Lama’s recent book Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together (2010). As reported by Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra, almost his last gasping words were “To seek, always to seek.” In the sense of the psychiatrist Victor Frankl in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he was one who never ceased searching for truth. Far from a religious organization and all that that implies, Tolstoy conceived of religious belief in rational, reasonable terms, opposed to organized Christianity, as when he wrote, “Men of our modern world who profess this perverted form of Christianity really believe in nothing at all. And that is the peculiar character of our time.” That is why he relentlessly argued against the distortions that he believed had come to exist in the doctrines of institutional Christianity, in favor of a more humanistic, open conception of faith. In “The End of the World,” putting aside “false Christianity,” Tolstoy looked forward to “true Christianity,” one freed from “sorcery,” universal in scope and outlook:
I think that at present—at this very time—the life of the Christian nations is near to the limit dividing the old epoch which is ending from the new which is beginning. I think that now at this very time that great revolution has begun which for almost 2000 years has been preparing in all Christendom; a revolution consisting in the replacing of false Christianity and the consequent power of one portion of mankind and the slavery of another, —by true Christianity and the consequent recognition of that equality and true liberty which are natural to all rational beings.
All the more reason why the caricature of Tolstoy in “The Last Station” jarred so incongruously against my understanding of who the man actually was, in and of himself, as articulated in his own writings, over the entire last half of his life, especially the last decade. It was also the real Tolstoy who meant so much to Ghandi, the one who emphasized spirituality, love, peace, and non-resistance to evil. “His secret is that he is the last of the unalienated artists,” Philip Rahv insightfully observed. Similarly, Saul Bellow remarked on the extent to which Tolstoy was “healthy,” far from the “adversarial” writers of Lionel Trilling.
Now more than ever, after centuries of falling down into the bottomless pit of nihilism, the world needs to recover the vision of universality, what the great religions and people of the various countries and cultures have in common. For all too long, humanity has been obsessed with what distinguishes and separates, what divides people from one another, setting up our little racial, nationalistic gods and idols. Tolstoy was interested in what we have in common, what unifies our vision, hoping thereby to elevate and improve, to whatever degree possible, our actions. It is long past time that the world re-affirm human unity. Tolstoy provides a significant part of the perspective required to achieve it.
Alexandra reports in her book Tolstoy: A Life of My Father (1953) that he had a visitor in February of 1909 who was a Bahai, a member of a faith that emphasizes what is universal in all religions:
“Actually, when you think of it,” Father said, “you are always astonished that such a simple argument does not come to your mind. Take an Orthodox Christian, a Catholic, a Buddhist—all of them believing in what they hold to be the truth. Yet if I cross a certain boundary—I think that the one is a lie, the other the truth. What doubts that arouses, what need to search out the religion which would be common to all!” (472)
Alexandra continues that her father had worked unrelentingly on The Circle of Reading precisely because he was seeking “what was basic to all religions,” trying “to lay the foundation for one religion.” It is important to stress that the Bahai faith that Tolstoy responded to was not what is known to many people today as the Baha’i Faith, the highly organized hierarchy located in Haifa, Israel, merely one of several Bahai denominations, which has become exactly the kind of exclusive religious organization that Tolstoy vehemently condemned in all his writings. Rather, Tolstoy responded to the open and inclusive association and movement that existed under Abdul-Baha, the son of the founder of the Bahai faith, Baha’u’llah, who died in 1892 in present-day Israel. Until his own death in 1921, Abdul-Baha brought his father’s vision into the Western, modern world, showing the way beyond its Islamic and Sufi heritage, emphasizing universality, “spiritual democracy,” the “oneness of religion,” and the freedom of the individual soul in self-less love and service to humanity, as in other persuasions. Tolstoy’s papers establish that as early as 1894, he had heard of the Bahai movement, which traces its origin to 1863, with many Bahai contacts extending until the end of his life, including his receipt of books, letters, articles, and visitors familiar with the Bahai teachings, along with the droves of other people visiting Yasnaya Polyana. Reported by Tolstoy’s personal physician, Dushan Makovitsky, in his diary, for May 15, 1910, Tolstoy observed in his presence that the Bahai movement was “Very profound. I know of no other so profound” (Vol. 4, p. 255). Honesty makes it incumbent on all trying to enlist him under their banner to recognize as well that Tolstoy is on record as writing, “I know the Bahai Teachings, and I am in agreement with its basic principles, except for the belief in the infallibility of its founders, and a few other details” (Polnoe Sobranie Sochinenii, Vol 81, p. 77).
Many people today still commonly think in terms of “your” religion, and “my” religion, as in “the” religion, “the” exclusive truth, while the deepest meaning of universality is “our” religion, not, to be clear, even “my” own personal Bahai persuasion, which is but one form of universality, conceived of as neutral territory, or “yours,” whether any type of transcendence, atheism, nihilism or whatever. Universality embraces all persuasions. That is its great challenge. And it is not relativism. The tendency always is to think of religion in terms of organized or institutional religion, which isn’t religion at all. True religion can only be personal, and as pluralistic as the Golden Rule. Take the person out of it and it is no longer religion. In the modern world, even throughout human history, true religion has never been organized. It is not the nature of spirituality to take over and dominate the communal, collective space. And it definitely can not ever be organized. For it is, as Tolstoy understood so well, about the individual soul and his or her inmost relation to the Divine. The astonishing development of religious history, I want to say revelation, is that it is the Will of God that religion not be organized. Everywhere people are against organized religion for countless good reasons, as was Tolstoy. He and most people, if interested in religion, not the falsities and sophistries of exclusive institutional doctrine, want the true thing of the heart. That doesn’t mean oppressively organized religion, anathema to the soul.
The deepest insight of human experience remains, “Truth is One; sages call it by many names.” The Divine Being transcends all human conceptions. We truly need every human attempt to understand Him, Her, It, yet even then, in all humility, have the dimmest hope of fully understanding. It is precisely the defense-reaction of the cynicism of modernity, as Victor Frankl insightfully observes, that rejects the meaningfulness of life, believing all religions are false, delusional, contemptible fantasies. From Freud, Marx, sundry sociologists and many others, science debased to the substitute religion of scientism, the verdict and message is almost invariably condescension and contempt. As Julien Benda observed in The Betrayal of the Clerks (1927), modernity derides any spiritual vision, including Tolstoy’s. Benda, though, remained limited by the exclusivism of his own Catholic universalism, a limited form of universality. Far from such a limitation, Tolstoy arrived at the last station of modernity, universality, long before he arrived at the station of Astapovo, long before the rest of humanity began to catch up. Though we may still first blow up much of the world, global modernity is increasingly catching up with Tolstoy, however unknowingly, pulling into the last station of humanity.
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.