Tuesday, April 07, 2009

God(s) and fear of change

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, the Rev. Gloria del Castillo asked during her sermon at the Episcopal Church of St John the Evangelist in San Francisco:

Why did the same people who greeted Jesus with cries of Hosanna when he paraded into Jerusalem, just days later shout 'crucify him!' Were they afraid of change?

Religions as well as individuals encounter existential dilemmas when confronted with changes in human societies. Tamim Ansary's wonderful memoir, West of Kabul, East of New York, contains a section describing the Afghan-American author's quest to re-encounter Islam while traveling across North Africa. One episode he describes is learning about how a religious tradition responds to the reality of human social mutability while cleaving to a belief in the unchanging divine. I am going to quote quite a long piece of it; it is worth reading all of this excerpt and wading through the gendered language about God.

...on the train across Morocco, I was reading an intellectual history of Islam by an erudite Pakistani scholar named Fazlur Rahman. His account of one doctrinal dispute in the early centuries of Islam hooked me. I couldn't stop thinking about it, couldn't stop spinning out the implications -- and I have been thinking about it ever since.

The dispute raged between orthodox scholars and a school called the Mu'tazilites, the "rationalists." The two schools didn't disagree on how people should behave or what they should believe. Their debate centered on one of those questions so abstruse, they give scholars a bad name -- namely, Are certain beliefs and behaviors good because God commands them? Or does God command them because they are good?

Hairsplitting, you say? Not so fast. If certain beliefs and behaviors are good only because God commands them, it means that God might change His directives at any time. Logically, it's possible that justice and charity would suddenly be foul and murder good. ...

Unthinkable, you say, that God would ever promulgate such an ethos? Why not -- because it wouldn't be right? If you think that way, you've slipped over to the other side. You've assumed that right and wrong, good and bad, have a status prior to God and more fundamental than He. If God cannot, from His own almighty and unknowable will, enjoin murder and cruelty as virtues, God is not limitless or omnipotent.

Unwilling to go there, the Mu'tazilites argued that the good was as fixed and absolute as God Himself. God's commandment therefore embodied principles that reason could discover. And those deep principles could be applied to all new situations. In short, they took the position that things change, but the good is eternal and the Koranic compass allows one to keep finding true north amid the turmoil of history.

Their opponents thought God was the only absolute, the only fundamental, pure, uncircumscribable will. He could, in His omnipotence, determine freely what was good. A human, therefore, couldn't reason from God's explicit commands to original ideas, because that would be assuming that God's will was bound by what the human mind could conceive. They took the position that the Koran gave the prescription for freezing history. ...

Significantly this debate unfolded in a political context. Everywhere from Cairo to Delhi was Muslim at that point. Throughout the realm, a smattering of Arabs presided over oceans of locals. Everyone in the realm accepted Islam, however, so power ultimately resided in the religious ideology.

If the orthodox school was right, the Arabs owned the ideology. The orthodox doctrine implied that questions about right and wrong, about jurisprudence, laws and contracts, could only be resolved by recourse to the word of God as revealed in a particular time and place. Therefore, anyone who had actually been in that time and place had a leg up on knowing the truth. Those would be Arabs ...

By contrast, if the Mu'tazalites were correct, any Muslim, anywhere, anytime, could discover from studying the Koran and the life of Muhammed the principles on which God's commandments were built. Judgment and reason trumped authority and eyewitness testimony. In their ideological sphere, the Arabs had no particular advantage.

The orthodox scholars won. ...

Sound familiar? It certainly does to me. People who want to hold on to power always have an interest in promoting a source for laying down rules to which they control unique access. And this often takes the form of claiming that a particular historical era (as they describe it) has all the answers about the good life, so don't anyone go thinking up changes. The contemporary Roman Catholic Church seems to like medieval European Christendom as its reference era, while U.S.-based fundamentalism looks to an idealized U.S. suburbia of the 1950s.

More than once in his memoir, Ansary identifies with the Mu'tazalites, insofar as he is willing to take anything from Islam. That way is not the God/metaphor I live inside, but I too relate well to the idea of a deity that expects humans to draw first principles from Being and figure out what that means in the context of lived experience. That is, I believe we are all capable of being responsible moral actors, not dependent on the guys (it is nearly always guys) that claim to know how we should live on the basis of some past era. And that means we have to embrace change sometimes.

Once you start thinking that God's good really is good, not some arbitrary divine construct, as the Mu'tazalites decided, you find yourself wrangling with what that means in real human circumstances. I'm seeing that all the time these days: for employment I'm working for full inclusion of all people (that means queers too) within the full life of the Episcopal Church, a religious outfit that by and large has decided it has to learn to understand ancient truths within this actually existing human society. Change is hard.

That's what the Rev. Gloria was pointing to last Sunday. We don't always want the terrible responsibility that goes with discerning the meaning of the good as responsible adult actors. It would be a lot easier if God were that being in a book, fixed forever in a text, demanding only conformity mediated by a special class of priests who tell us the rules. Those people who enjoyed the excitement of Jesus's parade into Jerusalem also wanted the security offered by known religious authorities. They were ready to be led to kill the disturber of their known order. Jesus was saying there had to be change, but that unimaginable change could be of God. Humans kill people for such impudence.


Rebecca Gordon said...

This Muslim debate about God and Good actually has its roots in Plato's *Euthyphro* dialogue on the same subject. Not too surprising, given that it was the Muslim world that preserved the works of the Greek philosophers after the Roman empire collapsed.

Tina said...

In the early centuries of Islam, everything was not "Muslim from Cairo to Delhi". In fact this period is considered the "Golden Age" of Judaism (Maimonides amongst others), not counting the profusion of Christian sects Arabs, Copts, Malabars etc.. and extended from Cordoba to Delhi

janinsanfran said...

Thanks Tina -- that's a necessary correction. I too noticed that he'd overdone it in his characterization of the early days of the Muslim empire. Histories record that the Arab conquerors seem for several centuries to have been unconcerned with converting the conquered -- and later not particularly eager for conversions because non-Muslims paid an additional tax that was important to sustaining these armies and states.

Fr. John said...

Wonderful post, Jan. This debate about God and the Good is central to the conflict over homosexuality in the Church. If God commands only what is good, and we discover that homosexuality just "is," then we have to revise our understanding of the good to include queer people and their relationships (all other things being morally equal).

If God's will is arbitrary, and what is good is simply what God commands, then the discovery that homosexuality just "is" be damned. Too bad for us queers.

BTW, the Church Catholic has come down on the side that God commands only what is good. This is why the Roman Curia has tied itself up in knots with odd locutions like, "Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder." But by admitting that homosexuality just "is," they have pulled the rug out from under themselves already.

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