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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Abstract Thought, Islamophobia, and a Timely Essay by Hegel

A frequent topic of discussion arising in the Catholic internet sphere lately has been whether Muslims (and by extension Jews, Hindus, etc.) "worship the same God" as we do, a question exacerbated by the recent prayers for peace held at the Vatican by the Holy Father, his All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch, the president of Palestine and the president of Israel.  I have vehemently argued for a position in the affirmative, taking a handful of approaches to the topic, beginning with the patristic precedence (St. Gregory VII's letter to Al-Nasir, the writings of Blessed Ramon Llull and St. Gregory Palamas, the encounter of St. Francis of Assisi with Al-Kamel, etc.), continuing to theological considerations (God is sui generis and therefore we cannot meaningfully ask which member of the class of Gods the Muslims worship; God's transcendence and universal agency require that all creatures are in dialogical relation to God where the meaningful question is how they respond to His call, not whether that call exists; the position that Muslims "worship a different God" entails theistic personalism and by extension moral therapeutic deism involving a finite deity), and finishing with the authority of the Church which stated unambiguously that Muslims and Christians worship the same God in Nostra Aetate paragraph 3.

Ultimately those who hold the fundamentalist rejection of a common theism between Christianity and Islam are incapable of viewing Islam except through the lens of an epistemologically totalitarian Islamophobia, wrapped up in an overwhelming awareness of the hostility Islam has shown towards the Church, its rejection of the Christian revelation, and of the basic human evil it has brought to the world, precluding the consideration of any other facet of Islam.  This point should be completely unrelated to the question as to "which God" the Muslims worship - certainly plenty of vile, evil men have worshiped the one true God - but it is also disturbing in the way in which it polarizes approaches towards Islam into simple, monolithic black and white categories, categories which stand in the way of the complexity and diversity of the situation and serve as idols replacing reality rather than icons revealing it.  The historical reality of Islam seems much more diverse and mixed.  The demonic evil of radical Islam and the historical oppression of religious minorities is seen alongside great tolerance and scholarly cooperation between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  The barbaric savagery exhibited in legal judgments regarding rape and child abuse is seen alongside deep humanitarianism and the sublime spirituality of the Sufis.  Reactionary obscurantism towards modern science comes from the same religion that enabled the formation of modern mathematics and science to begin with.

Hegel has some words which are uncannily pertinent to the situation, a state I find occurring more often the more I read Hegel.  Hegel wrote an essay, possibly in 1807 or 1808, entitled "Who Thinks Abstractly?" in which he turned some common presuppositions about philosophy and his own philosophy in particular on their head.  Abstract thought, Hegel argued, is not a mark of sophistication.  It is rather a mark of sophomoric simplification.  "Who thinks abstractly?  The uneducated, not the educated.  Good society does not think abstractly because it is too easy, because it is too lowly (not referring to the external status) - not from an empty affectation of nobility that would place itself above that of which it is not capable, but on account of the inward inferiority of the matter."  (The essay is reproduced in Kaufmann, Hegel, on pp. 460-465)

Abstract thought, in Hegel's usage, is the process whereby we turn away from particulars and the real world and turn towards abstractions from them, simplifications of those particulars, narrow-minded ideas within those particulars.  The study of particulars, of real beings in their fullness and completeness, is in fact the purpose of real knowledge.  Hegel seems inconsistent on this; in the preface to the Phenomenology written at the same time, in 1807 (and reproduced in Kaufmann pp. 363-458, with the relevant discussion on p. 416) he denies that philosophy can predict historical events, which are purely contingent, "accidental, and arbitrary", and thus to be distinguished from philosophy, since "the nature of such so-called truths is different from the nature of philosophical truths".  Yet in the "Essay on Abstraction", Hegel says that his purpose is not at all to "reconcile society with these things [abstract questions], to expect it to deal with something difficult", but rather "to reconcile the beautiful world with itself", to expose reality in its particularity and uniqueness, to assist the self-disclosure of Being to itself, a theme Heidegger will later adopt more explicitly.

Hegel wishes to turn us away from the superficial process of abstracting individual traits in things and blinding ourselves to the thing in its totality.  This seems to be what happens when Islam is approached - it is viewed as evil, therefore one becomes incapable of viewing it as anything but evil, and any suggestion of any positive trait is dismissed as sympathy for terrorism.  Hegel himself uses the example of a murderer being executed.  "I have only to adduce examples for my proposition:  everybody will grant that they confirm it.  A murderer is led to the place of execution.  For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer.  Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man.  The populace finds this remark terrible:  What?  A murderer handsome?  How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better!

This is abstract thinking:  To see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality."

We would do well to heed Hegel's call to reconcile the beautiful world to itself, to see reality in its fullness and complexity, to reject the polarizing nullification of thought that comes with abstraction, and to see the whole picture of singular beings, not mental idols.

1 comment:

  1. I remember growing up as a heathen praying to God. I did no what God was but my earliest memory was associating him with Santa clause. Sounds silly but in my mind the song about Santa knowing everything about me related to my "dialogical relation to God". My parents never introduced me to religion so I went until adulthood struggling with the theological identity of God. Even though I am a Christian now I don't forget how he was drawing me out of the of my theological ignorance with what I did know of Him. However, here I must contradict your understanding of Nostra Aetate. It actually says,"They adore the one God". Its actually Lumen Gentium 16 that says "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator" and then says the Muslims "together with us they adore the one, merciful God". The language used here by the fathers never hints at actual theological belief. They use the word profess and adore but not believe and worship with us. Theologically we don't believe in the same thing. We both profess a same theological concept but the description of what that is and how we approach that is different.