Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Law and the Prophets

A friend of mine mentioned an idea to me a while back, which seems to make more sense as I think about it. I brought it up on Slashdot with a Muslim, and by his reply I'm guessing he sort of smoked and vibrated and turned red and then exploded. Terrible, angry bits everywhere, no survivors. So I got no coherent opinion there. And yet, what he said, which prompted me to bring up this idea, convinced me that he was representative of the very tendency that I suspect runs through Islam.

This tendency is summed up and expressed in the word Inshallah: If God wills it. In Islam it seems that the will of God is mutable and unbound; even science is irrelevant, because God can break the laws of nature at will (this is precisely what the exploding Muslim said.) In contrast, there is a tradition that is common to Judaism, Christianity, Greek philosophy, and science which respects established laws, which God may establish but which even He is bound to. This runs through the Jewish idea of the Covenant, in Plato's Idealism and his argument that the gods do good because it is Good, rather than defining the Good by their words and actions, and in the basic premise of natural science. Both the Jewish and Greek versions of this idea heavily influenced Christianity.

It is this foundation of established laws and principles which allowed the societies dominated by this tradition to gain ground, ratcheting themselves forward by establishing sound principles, testing them for solidity, and then using them to advance to the next. They were able to move forward because because they had solid ground under their feet; ground which they found or discovered as they advanced. Legal jurisprudence, philosophical principles, and scientific theories are all established and built upon, step by tentative step, sometimes faltering or even falling back, and occasionally leaping forward.

This movement is also intrinsic to the tradition. If the world is governed uniformly in all aspects by certain principles, then we can always learn more by querying the world and each other. The world itself is imbued with wisdom, waiting to be discovered. The rules are fixed, but our understanding of them can change and grow, and the rule book is all around us. Nor is there any contradiction between this and religion. If God is both legislator of and governed by these laws, understanding them allows us to understand the mind of God. The scriptures themselves may be corrected in this way.

If, however, God is free to change his mind by whim, and can change the world as he chooses, then God is the only source of knowledge, and anything learned any other way is inherently unstable and therefore of little value. This was the point that the Muslim poster kept returning to; he'd built an impenetrable wall around himself, with this repeated on every brick. Since the agreed upon communication from God occurred only in a few ancient texts, progress becomes nearly impossible--Islam is caught in an endless cycle of return. Everything hinges on the interpretation of those texts. If the texts aren't extraordinarily precise--and most scriptures of any religion are as vague as a Rorshach ink blot--everything hinges on the interpretation, and the authority of the interpreter. The society is fixed in a medieval pattern of successive cults of personality. Just as the personality of the king informs the character of the feudal society which he governs, the position of the dominant clerics sets the tone for the people who follow them.

What appears to be absolute is in fact completely relative, because it is based entirely upon personal opinions which are supported in a self-referential matter. There is no objective methodology, no means of checking their facts, no legal library to consult for precedence. Even logic and evidence are overruled, so previous philosophical refutations carry no weight. Truth is established by force, not because all clerics build their reputations by authoritarian measures, but because those who don't have the option of force will be overwhelmed by those who do, and the winners will rewrite the history and sign God's name to it.

All of this goes a long way towards explaining the state of the many of the countries of the Middle East as political, social, economic, and cultural invalids sustained by a petroleum drip. It is even more disturbing to realize that many fundamentalist Christians aspire to the same world view, hoping to sweep aside the entire history of Western civilization to return to Biblical principles, ignorant of the reality that the world they are trying to undo is itself largely the result and proper inheritor of those very principles. These Christians are aliens in the modern Western world, but I suspect they would be very much at home in Iran. Religious triumphalism is sufficient to encourage return and stagnation, but fortunately the West, so far, has resisted this. But it seems that multiculturalism provides a fog of moral relativism while post-modernism encourages epistemological relativism; fundamentalists of all denominations are quickly learning to exploit this. It seems that the extremes of the left and the right are drawing closer together the more they attack one another, even as moderates on the left and right find common ground.

It's ironic that I would have no interest in converting those who would most likely be converted; moderate, rational Christians who are essentially deists, have little or no belief in miracles, no argument with science, and who go to church for solace and community. The people I would most like to convert are precisely those who exist in a near solpsistic bubble which includes only themselves, their God, and a handful of "True Believers", of which even 95% of Christians wouldn't qualify. They are impenetrable, and that is precisely what makes them dangerous. They would gladly roll back 2000 years of human progress to return to what they imagine to be the fundamentals of their religion. In fact, that religion has moved on, and the real Christian tradition leads through scholastic philosophy to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, science, and secularism.

If the laws of nature are the laws of God, then nature itself is scripture, and understanding the laws of nature is to come closer to knowing God. Where written scripture is in conflict with nature, it is scripture that is wrong, since these writings are the work of men while nature is the direct work of God. In essence, God is reality, and reality is God: "I am who am." If God vanishes into the laws of science, then that is the natural outcome of this tradition. By this point, if religious faith persists, it should persist as some form of deism that makes no truth claims about the physical world.

What Christian fundamentalism represents is not a fork in the Christian tradition, but a radical break from it, an alien parallel that deviates from Christianity even in pre-biblical times. Fundamentalism is marked by bibliolatry (worship of the Bible), false prophecy (radical misinterpretations of Biblical writings, particularly apocalyptic writings which refer to historical events of the writers' times), idolatry (radical alterations in the character and nature of the divine, combined with frequent literal representations of it), and blasphemy (using the name of God to endorse personal or political views.) The danger is that fundamentalists do not consider themselves ultimately bound by any law, even the laws of nature or the traditions of their own religion. The higher authority they appeal to is not God, but their own interpretation of the Bible, or the interpretation of their chosen leader. In Catholicism, you have one Pope who is infallible. In fundamentalist Christianity, you have thousands or even millions of Popes who are all infallible. But behind their absolutist claims is an abyss of ethical and epistemological relativism. There is no objective standard by which to judge their claims, no method of proof or disproof, no long incremental tradition of philosophy, legal precedents, scientific research, or even theological debate. What remains is essentially a feudal system of a series of cults of personality, which range in size from the entire membership of a mega-church to a cult of one who considers himself a law unto himself.

This does much to explain the bizarre attitude of George Bush towards the law and his belief that his own powers supersede it, and why he prefers unilateral action to the force of international law. To him, the law is a mere inconvenient technicality which he obeys, not out of respect, but out of expediency. The same contempt for the constitution and even for democracy can be found in the opinions of other fundamentalists, who hint that it's high time that all this be set aside in favour of the rule of God--their God. This sentiment is behind criticisms of judges as "activist judges", when in fact these judges are only acting upon established laws and precedents. The campaign waged by Christian conservatives to reduce the power of the courts is not an attack against judges, but against the law itself, which like science is based upon evidence and reason. They wish the law to bow and give way before fascistic waves of emotional populism. And to call it fascism is not an overstatement; fascism is built upon relativism and cults of personality. If there is no truth, and even reason is not respected, the only valid argument is a steel toed boot.

Dostoyevsky wrote, "If God exists, everything is possible; if there is no God, everything is permitted." But the survival of our current population level on this planet is made possible only by the advance and benefits of science, and the order and freedom that we enjoy is the fruit of a long battle for legal precedents and wisdom over centuries. Without these, nothing of our way of life would be possible. And if mere opinion, disguised by appeals to Biblical infallibility, is the only standard, then the dialogue of civil society dissolves into a cacaphony of competing, shouting voices, and who can say what is right or wrong. So it would be more accurate to say that if truth exists, everything is possible; if there is no truth, everything is permitted.