I don’t write frequently about religion or faith. Perhaps this comes from my degree in theology; a childhood on the ‘foreign field’ in pews hewn and rough. When something is handled too often it ceases to inspire; the rolling road of wonder becomes mundane if you know where it leads.
Neither do I think too frequently about issues of theology. Internecine fights often poison the well that once provided sweet water; making the debates brackish and sour. “If you have four Baptists in a room, how many opinions do you have?” so the joke goes “you have five”.
I do think about humanity a lot. Humanity, ‘humanism’, this is what the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Reason and the Industrial Revolution gave us in the west – human beings free and imperfect, standing squarely at the center of our own story for the first time since the days of Aristotle. Writers often use these four periods interchangeably, and while they certainly do overlap historically each serves to give us something special in terms of our own humanity. The Renaissance reminded us of beauty, that there was more to life than Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish and short” existence. The Reformation, the Protestant Reformation wrested power from the corrupt and the elite and gave it back to people in the form of a Bible that we could read and a faith which did not depend on the dispensation of an out-of-touch humorless intermediary – sound familiar? An approachable God who gave us reading also gave us understanding and science and industry, and all of a sudden we were in a world governed by truths; rules set in place to allow us to know. The Age of Reason gave us “The truths we hold self-evident”; Locke and Jefferson who reached far back to the Apostle Paul as they channeled “The laws of God written on the hearts of men”, who in turn himself had reached deep into history to the Ten Commandments to remind us that life, liberty and property are the bedrock of human existence. That murder is wrong, that prosperous society is built on family, that theft is evil and that the worst of all sins in the world is envy. And finally, the Industrial Revolution broke the backs of the old nobilities to give us that wealth, ‘life more abundant’ and put it within reach of everybody with a good idea and the drive to succeed.
Reason, before our Protestant Enlightenment the Islamic faith had their own enlightenment; it was called the Islamic Golden Age and it was before all philosophical and Aristotelian, driven by that one idea that burns bright in the minds of men; that our faith must be informed by our reason. They called it the Mu’tazila. “The Mu‘tazalites asserted the primacy of reason, and that one’s first duty is to engage in reason and through it, come to know God. They also thought it their duty to understand revelation in a way that comported with reason, so that if something in the Koran seemed inconsistent with reason, it should not be read literally. It should therefore be taken as metaphor or analogy,” says the historian Robert R. Reilly. But the Mu’tazila and its Golden Age, its House of Wisdom – its great and prosperous empire stretching from Cordoba to Baghdad and from the Maghreb to the mountains of Persia and beyond was in the end discarded by reactionaries seeking the soothing balm of ignorance and prejudice to be found in the dark cloud of unknowing. And Islam was lost.
Humanity. Our story is a human one, and in that way we are all humanists. Because what is the alternative? A life interpreting the whims of an angry God? John Calvin’s bonfires of human flesh; Ibn Hanbal’s severed heads? It is only our reason which allows us to move beyond these ideas – pawns of each other’s ruthlessness and sadism which we gladly attribute to an unknowing God, or even worse the new gods invented in our university dorm rooms who respond only to that most base of human conditions – victimhood, and that only of the blood running through our veins.
Are we losing our own reason? Are the civilizations built by the ‘liberal’ mind through hard work and sweat of rational debate coming to an end; a philosophy of humanity sacrificed again to our own joyful unknowing? It might appear so – as we enthusiastically destroy monuments to the lessons of our past, good and bad, and as we flirt instead with un-ideas which rest comfortably in the nouveau mysticism of the weak minded.
Back to Calvin and Hanbal, to unknowing and superstition. Somehow we freed ourselves from John Calvin and his angry God; and the neo-Mutazilites are waging a fearless new war against Hanbal’s Salafists and their tradition-worship. It would be a great tragedy if, after so great a battle with ignorance we were to surrender our planned paradise to those engaged in a bait and switch, who preach that our timeless ideas are in fact tired prejudices and worn-out superstitions to be discarded. Whose gods are just as unknowable as Hanbal’s – and just as angry and vicious. If we don’t remain vigilant we might just be in for another “Dark Night of the Soul” – and its accompanying misery.