Robert Reilly’s new book The Closing of the Muslim Mind rehashes the Muslim turn away from Greek philosophy with al-Ghazali, and argues that doctrinal irrationality is the source of all the problems in the Muslim world. There is of course something to this argument, and al-Ghazali’s importance (and destructive influence) hardly can be underestimated — but Reilly’s account is problematic. I discuss it in a new review essay this morning at Asia Times Online.
To make sense of what a religion teaches and what the faithful actually believe, we must both understand theology objectively - as a statement about God and the world - as well as existentially, that is, as the faith community lives its religion in ordinary life. There is a deep identity between al-Ghazali’s rejection of rationality and the deterioration of Muslim life, but it is not as simple or direct as Reilly appears to think.
The doctrines taught by religious authorities may or may not penetrate into the life of that religion’s adherents. The Catholic Church teaches that all Christians are reborn into the People of God, and that this new spiritual allegiance takes precedence over their gentile origin. Nonetheless, the Christians of Europe slaughtered each other during the 20th century while the Church watched helplessly. Muslims well might retort that whatever their deficiencies, they never created a comparable disaster. Christian civilization survived the world wars and the expansion of communism only because America defeated first Nazism and then communism. Yet American Christianity does not quite fit the Hellenistic model that Reilly offers as the alternative to Islam.
Although Catholicism has become the largest American Christian denomination, in part due to Hispanic immigration, America’s religious character remains Protestant, scriptural and enthusiastic rather than Catholic and philosophical. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is beside the point. The point is that a charismatic Biblical literalist in rural America has a great deal in common with an American Catholic like Robert Reilly, but neither has much in common with Muslims.
A rationalist (by which Reilly means a Thomistic and Aristotelian) approach to theology is not what distinguishes Massachusetts from Mecca. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by radical Protestants who poured contempt on “Popish Authors (Jesuites especially)” who “strain their wits to defend their Pagan Master Aristotle”, in the words of the Puritan leader Increase Mather (1639-1723). American evangelicals, the most devout segment of the Christian population, tend to be fideist rather than philosophical.
What is it that unites Catholic Thomists and evangelical fideists (as well as observant Jews), but divides all of them from Muslims? It is the Biblical belief that God loves his creatures. Heavenly bodies are not deities, but rather lamps and clocks for human benefit. That is a dogmatic assertion on the strength of Biblical revelation, not a logical conclusion. A loving God, in the Biblical view, places man in a world that he can comprehend, which is to say that God establishes order in the universe out of love for humankind. We live in the best of all possible worlds (that is, a comprehensible one), Leibniz argued, because a good God would not maroon us in the second-best version. This implies that if God were not good, the world might not be as hospitable to humans as it is. This is unimaginable to Christians or Jews, but not to Muslims, who think that Allah can make any sort of world he wants, or indeed a different world from one day to the next.
The doctrinal assertion that God loves his creatures cannot be defended on rational grounds, which means that it is wrong to argue that Christians or Jews are more rational than Muslims, objectively speaking. But that is not the whole story.
Whether it is demonstrable or not, the Judeo-Christian notion of divine love is what makes possible the rational ordering of human existence. Whether al-Ghazali was a bad philosopher compared to Aquinas is beside the point: Muslim life is irrational because it is founded on the arbitrary exercise of will, whereas Judeo-Christian civilization is at least capable of rationality because of concept of divine love is expressed in the covenant between God and man. Existential rationality, the rationality of ordinary life, proceeds from the Biblical concept of covenant.