Tuesday, February 10, 2015

On Judgment

I wanted a picture for this, but given where I ended up, this video is the best representation of what I'm talking about here.

This is the problem of getting your information from secondary sources.

According to Religion Dispatches, this is what Jean-Luc Marion wrote:

In a piece published in Le Point on January 12th (translated and reprinted in Sightings on January 30th) eminent philosopher-theologian Jean-Luc Marion declared, “France is at war; we can no longer doubt that this is the case.”

This war, according to Marion, has three fronts: first, the defense against terrorist attack; second, the war to defend secularism (laïcité); and third, the urgent need for Islam to “open itself to critique.”
Well, at least on the latter point:  close, but not a cigar:

The situation can be summed up in this way: the religions demonstrate their excellence only by allowing—and even better, by choosing, for themselves, to undergo the ordeal of self-critique—tests of their religious validity. Religions that do not do this either disappear or degrade ideologically.

Islam has not yet opened itself up to a close analysis (including philological analysis to understand how its texts came into being, an assessment of the interpretations of these texts, in-depth research into their actual religious history, etc.) for historic reasons which themselves would be worthwhile to examine.  
To be fair, what Marion is calling for there is a Western critical analysis of Islam such as Christianity has been undergoing for the past 150 years.  It is an analysis which lead to the creation of Christian fundamentalism, so I'm not as anxious to see it applied to Islam as the French theologian.  There's a cart before the horse feel to the argument, in other words.  The kind of analysis being argued for is what prompted fundamentalism in the world.  Islam, at least in the Middle East, has a surfeit of modernism to deal with; hair of the dog is not the cure for the hangover Islam is currently suffering.

But what he doesn't say is that Islam is not open to critique; my first response to that line was to think that, neither is Christianity, if the reaction to President Obama's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast is any indication ("verbal rape"?  Really?)

Then again, American Christians are not the entirety of worldwide Christianity, any more than Islam as pronounced by ISIS or any imam in the Arab countries is Islam in Africa or Asia.  Where, indeed, are the Boko Harams and ISIS's of the Pacific Rim, where the majority of the world's Muslims live?  Then again, Mr. Marion is more interesting in what he says, than in the reduction of what he says:

However, “French-style secularism” has too often tended to understand itself and to comport itself like an army fending off the religions (especially Catholicism), behaving as if it were another religion, substituting itself, in the name of Reason, for the historical religions. Today, this tendency reveals itself in so-called “social” reforms, more or less imposed on people who are more or less in agreement, manipulated or simply ignored.
But let's put that comment in context:

The second front comes into view as soon as one considers that the attack targeted a political and satirical newspaper that caricatured (I underscore this point) all of the religions, based on the principle that one can laugh about anything “and mock everything else.”

If this newspaper was tolerated and even supported by the public, although it was often shocking, it owed this to a fundamental and ancient trait of French society—the freedom to think and to speak—first secured under the Ancien Régime. It rose to the level of principle in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, took effect when all legislation against blasphemy was abolished at the beginning of the Nineteenth-Century, and was reinforced by the law separating Church and State.

In a way, this crime targeted a central tenet of French society: secularism. Here the second front opens out. What is secularism worth today? We must recognize the ambiguity of this concept and its application. Because, if the State is secular, society is not.

More exactly: the State must be secular (it must refrain from showing favoritism for any particular religion, permit them all to exist under the protection of the law, showing a preference neither for religious belief, nor for unbelief), a stance that I hope no one contests.

But society is not secular and cannot be secular, because upon becoming citizens, men and women do not lose their freedom of conscience—their religious freedom—but, on the contrary, exercise it fully. Besides, the neutrality of the State must never be based on neutralization, forced or tacit, of the religious dimensions of the real men and women who make up society.
This strikes me as theology the way Reinhold Niebuhr practiced it:  taking on secular society from a religious perspective, without being reductionist and insisting on a narrow Christian point of view from which to judge all has having sinned and fallen short of the glory of the believers (yes, I substituted "God" there intentionally).  "If the state is secular, society is not" could have easily come from Niebuhr's pen; or at least aroused a ringing discussion of the differences in their theologies.

Marion here carefully takes the Jeffersonian wall away from those who think Jefferson meant to display hostility to religion (both atheists and true believers in religion, I mean).  The state must be secular; but society is people, and that means they have a freedom of conscience which must be freely exercised.  It does mean the State should not favor Christianity over, say, Islam; but neither must it neutralize religion among individuals.  Go in that direction and all you are doing is substituting one religion for another, even if your "religion" is "reason."

By the way:  challenge the reasoning of Aquinas; or Augustine:  go ahead.  Take them seriously, and attack their reasoning on their home turf.  That'll keep you busy for the rest of your life; and much good may it do you.  I do not agree entirely with the theology of Aquinas or Augustine; but their reasoning is subtle and yet supple enough to have shaped the foundation of thought in Western civilization, no less so than Plato or Aristotle.  Who is going to say the same for any avowed atheist, whose every argument for the abolishing of religion is a reductionist screed?

Marion's conclusion on this point seems equally applicable in America as in Europe, but with a twist:

The second front consists of, and is much more difficult to secure than the first front, a reformation of the secular pact in France (and thus in Europe). To defend secularism, an emergency no one debates, we must redefine it, in positive terms, and not as a constraint. Because we can’t require all of France’s citizens to emasculate themselves religiously.

This is a problem with which we’ve struggled for the past twenty years. Will we know how to address it? It seems to me doubtful that French politicians, still extremely ideological and rather ignorant on the question of religion, are capable of this today.
I don't think American politicians are any more capable than French politicians to handle the problem Marion identifies.  But the willingness of Americans to even handle it is the problem I see (I cannot speak for the attitudes of the French).  President Obama delivers a wholly unremarkable speech at a prayer breakfast (compare what he said to the Easer Sermon of Gregory of Nyssa (excerpted here, here, and here) and tell me who is more enduringly controversial and founded in Christian principles in their words.)  If he'd simply read aloud the words of Basil, or Ambrose, or even the Beatitudes of Jesus in Luke; what do you think people would have said?  His mild remarks and unremarkable observations brought down calumny on his head, mostly from American pundits.  Can we defend secularism and religion any better than the French?  From what I see on bits of the internet, even private citizens are no less "extremely ideological and rather ignorant on the question of religion" than French politicians.

I think Marion is even right on this point:
The situation can be summed up in this way: the religions demonstrate their excellence only by allowing—and even better, by choosing, for themselves, to undergo the ordeal of self-critique—tests of their religious validity. Religions that do not do this either disappear or degrade ideologically.
But I don't think that insight gives me a privileged position from which to judge other religions; or other philosophies, for that matter.  I can adjudge their weaknesses for me; I cannot stand in judgment over them and declare them too infirm until they rise to the level of my preference.  Yes, extremist opinions, like those of Christian white supremacists, can be rejected as inimical to human society.  But from what position do I judge Islam, and it doesn't call into judgment my own Christianity?

Jesus told me "Don't judge, and you won't be judged."  Seminary taught me that means I have to stand outside of any system of judgment, because I cannot judge others without calling myself into judgment.  I will not stand with violence and mayhem as a tool for anything except inflicting violence and mayhem:  but that calls in to judgment violence in the name of reason, nation, religion, even family or tribe.  If I think Islam is in need of greater self-reflection, it means what I most need to reflect on, is my own ignorance and limitations.  Maybe even at a National Prayer Breakfast.

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