The Slave of the Koran

2 07 2009

I am the slave of the Koran
While I still have life.
I am the dust on the path of Muhammad,
The Chosen One.
If anyone interprets my words
In any other way,
I deplore that person,
And I deplore his words.

-Jalalu’ddin Rumi

The above text came as a bit of a surprise to me when I found it. After all, this is Rumi we are talking about; well-loved by poetry fans, spiritual seekers, and agnostics everywhere. This is not some closed-minded mullah who demands obedience to religious precepts, but someone who talks about love, mysticisim, and the ultimate inability to know God through human knowledge.

But then again, I really should not be surprised, should I? On the one hand, one can believe that such Sufi concessions to “fundamentalism” were necessary evils when living in an Islamic society. On the other hand, they probably believed, as I do now, that in order to be truly honest when facing this great mystery we call the world, they had to commit to something. The idea of the groundless mystic, of an agnostic seeking only “spiritual kicks” without doctrine, would not have appealed to them at all. Could we say that ultimately this proves that a real experience of the Divine is only possible when one becomes “a slave” to doctrine; when one stops treating God as a matter of personal taste and confronts religion as a serious, life-or-death committment?

I have written in the past that some of the most “spiritual” people I have met have been the most “closed-minded”. And some of the cruelest and most despicable people I have met have been the most “open-minded”. It is no wonder that a perrenialist like Rene Guenon had to move to Egypt, convert to Islam, and “go native”. In the end, we can marvel as much as we like at all the beauty of the “spiritual paths” that exist in the world. We can talk of how they all “indirectly” lead to God. But for the most part, at least for strict monotheists, only one can be the right one.

It comes down to what one can and cannot say. We can say that God is merciful, that He wills that the sinner not die but the he repent and live. We cannot say that the “spiritual path” that the heathen or heretic is on is salvific per se. It may lead him to the truth, but it is not the truth, to the contrary.

People who have met me in person, especially non-Catholics, know that I steer clear of direct religious arguments about what they believe. I am not one to stay up with someone until four in the morning arguing about the logical cohesiveness of Sola Scriptura, the correctness of the doctrine of the Trinity, or why the Novus Ordo Mass is inferior to the old rite. I can do all that stuff as good as the next guy, but it is just not me. I don’t necessarily think that what I do talk about is “that which unites us rather than what divides us” (a John XXIII phrase I despise), but rather I try to demonstrate that I take what other people believe and have to say seriously. In this late-capitalist society, I am under no illusions that I am going to wow people with my eloquence or brillance. Even I am not so delusional to think that what I have to say is THAT good. But lead someone down the path by showing that you actually care why they believe something rather than trying to switch them over to your brand… maybe that is the best approach to bring people to the Truth in this day and age. And in the process, maybe what you yourself believe will be purified of all the slogans, generalizations, and tribalism that often plague the lazy, postmodern mind.


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9 responses

8 07 2009
e.

Arturo,

I am duly humbled and, perhaps, even corrected.

I took your remarks as conceding any such engagement with your pagan friends for fear of violating some sort of ecumenical code or, worse, losing their friendship.

For what’s it worth, I wasn’t necessarily judging but more so your acts which seemed to me to want to duck out of an opportunity to convert your friends (more importantly, out of love for their own possible loss of soul) as well as the fact that I have quite special regard for your own talents, if my own comments (be they the above or even previous) gave any such indication, that I deem them quite exceptional enough for that kind of task for converting hearts of our brothers & sisters for love of Christ, our Lord.

8 07 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Sigh.

That is the problem with having a blog. Some people just don’t pay attention.

Just because I have not christened myself a Catholic super-apologist, going around on blogs and fora and picking fights, somehow I am condemned for a “cop out”. In case you haven’t been paying attention, this blog is not the only place I publish things. You may also see my writings on:

New Oxford Review (Tibetan Flags Over Berkeley)

Inside Catholic (Babies, Bandits, and Other Questionable Saints , Christ in the Village )

and Catholic Exchange ( God in a Broken Frame… )

… and that is just the stuff that I got published so far. Just because my approach is different doesn’t mean that I am doing my part. I would ask that you keep closer watch on my activities before you judge me. If anything, I work a lot harder than those zealous cyber-apologists.

7 07 2009
e.

If you didn’t catch the irony the first time, Arturo; I think that what your comments betray is simply a cop-out, all because you seem more for that all too uninhibited, modern brand of infamous ‘ecumenism’ with all that kumbaya bulls__.

Have the balls to stand up for your faith every once in awhile and use the talents that the Lord Himself granted you; else, you will not only lose what God had generously given you (check out Scripture; I think there was actually a lesson there about ‘Talents’), but even your very soul (you know, that thing about Christ denying those who deny Him — something of that sort).

You’re better than this!

7 07 2009
e.

I am not one to stay up with someone until four in the morning arguing about the logical cohesiveness of Sola Scriptura, the correctness of the doctrine of the Trinity, or why the Novus Ordo Mass is inferior to the old rite. I can do all that stuff as good as the next guy, but it is just not me. I don’t necessarily think that what I do talk about is “that which unites us rather than what divides us” (a John XXIII phrase I despise), but rather I try to demonstrate that I take what other people believe and have to say seriously. In this late-capitalist society, I am under no illusions that I am going to wow people with my eloquence or brillance. Even I am not so delusional to think that what I have to say is THAT good.

Too bad the saints themselves didn’t think likewise.

Imagine if the missionaries just stayed at home instead of going through all that fuss and, in fact, encountering even largely unnecessary risks (not to mention, mutilation and even death) all because they had the gall to perform such acts as preach to the heathens.

Who the heck did they think they are?

Did they actually believe that what came out of their mouths was actually that good?

4 07 2009
Leah

The fundamental problem with any sort of serious ecumenical or inter-faith dialogue (other than the fact that participants generally don’t get beyond the mutual self-admiration stage) is that each group comes to the table with a very different set of assumptions, meaning that more often than not two parallel conversations are taking place. Take for example, the controversy over “The Passion.” The Jewish groups were coming to the discussion with the collective memory of pogroms and mob violence that often reached its apex during the Easter season, often when the aggressors had been hyped up by watching Passion plays. There is also persistent anxiety regarding the a resurgence of anti-semitism. The sad history of the German Jews – who despite being the most well educated and assimulated Jews in what was regarded as one of the most progressive countries in Europe were virtually wiped out – is a constant reminder of the precarious situation of Jews in a non-Jewish society. Then you had the Christian groups who saw “The Passion” as a very moving and very traditional depiction of what they believed to be the most important event in human history. Many Catholics thought that the complaints of the ADL, etc. to be overly sensitive at best and anti-Catholic at worst. Fears of a resurgence of violent anti-semitism were scoffed at as unreasonable and paranoid. A couple of years later when the Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews was changed in the TLM, there were also complaints that the Church was kowtowing to pressures from Jewish groups. As each side in this debate was coming from a very different set of assumptions and experiences, they were essentially talking past each other. I’m not sure how much dialogue will be of help when one side sees the other as being responsible for 2,000 years of oppression, and the second accuses the first of trying to undermine their religion.

3 07 2009
Fearsome Comrade

Isn’t Allah’s unknowability a basic component of Islam?

3 07 2009
Michael Liccione

Arturo,

The first comment in this thread is lifted from this article.

2 07 2009
Michael Liccione

Arturo,

Like you, I hate post-modernism because it is fundamentally unserious. I’ll take a Rumi over a Karen Armstrong any day. And it is a typical irony of the age that, even though she almost idolizes him, my actual beliefs are closer to hers than to his.

Nonetheless, I think it’s worthwhile in some cases to “to stay up with someone until four in the morning arguing about the logical cohesiveness of Sola Scriptura, the correctness of the doctrine of the Trinity, or why the Novus Ordo Mass is inferior to the old rite.” When I did such things in my youthful naivete, it is was indeed to “switch them over to” my “brand.” But I learned that that rarely works. When I do such things now, it is purely reactive. I am under no illusion that I can compel assent to my beliefs by argument; debate is always difficult to conduct in a way that isn’t at least emotionally counterproductive, and the truth of the Faith cannot be “proven” anyhow. What I mostly do is show why my own religious beliefs are logically coherent and based on something much bigger and older than my own tastes and opinions. And I do that as a defense against criticism that it is incoherent or idiosyncratic–for those are the most common criticisms I face.

When I don’t face them, I do indeed seek to “lead someone down the path by showing that you actually care why they believe something rather than trying to switch them over to your brand.” And I agree that “that is the best approach to bring people to the Truth in this day and age.” The problem is that, in this pomo age, the one religious “point of view” that it’s PC to approach with a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ is Roman (not: Eastern) Catholicism. I rarely get a chance to discuss anything with pomo-infected minds without having to deal with that.

Best,
Mike

2 07 2009
Charles Upton

The Nature of Ontological Perspectives

Frithjof Schuon’s doctrine of the Transcendent Unity of Religions is based, in my view, on the principle that while human beings can compare, contrast and evaluate realities lower than we are on the Great Chain of Being, we cannot do so when it comes to those that are higher. Religious revelations are higher than humanity because they are sent by God, which is why they have a right to command our allegiance; and because they are higher than us, we cannot encompass them or pass judgment upon them on their own plane of existence.

Facts are objective realities which occupy a lower ontological plane than human beings; we can evaluate them, but they cannot evaluate us; this is why we can pass judgment as to the truth or falsehood of statements presented as factual. Lee Harvey Oswald was either a lone assassin or a member (or dupe) of a conspiracy whose aim was to assassinate President Kennedy. One of these statements must be true, but both cannot be true; there is no way that these two contradictory statements can be resolved in some higher unity.

Religious revelations, on the other hand, are objective realities that occupy a higher ontological plane than we do; there is no way we can place them, as it were, on the table in front of us so as to compare, contrast, evaluate or judge between them. They are not laboratory specimens; we will never be able to construct an experiment capable of exhaustively determining their actual properties. It would be truer to say that we are their experiment; though we will never be able to test them, they are already testing us.

Religious revelations might be characterized as “ontological perspectives”—God-given perspectives that allow us to entertain certain valid views as to His nature. But since God is Absolute Reality, no single view can encompass Him; in the words of the Qur’an [6:103, Rodwell translation], No vision taketh in Him, but He taketh in all vision. And because He is Infinite Reality as well, no number of valid views, even if they are revealed by Him, can “add up” to a complete understanding of Him. Nothing other than Him can encompass Him in knowledge, which is why all theological formulations must fall short of defining Him—even if, in relation to the particular ontological perspective we occupy, they are necessarily true, and therefore (in Schuon’s phrase) “relatively Absolute.”

Ontological perspectives are are not subjective beliefs or impressions, but objective realities. They are not views we choose to adopt on our own authority, or are influenced to adopt by social or psychological or genetic factors: they are views that God Himself both permits us and commands us to adopt, as ways of knowing Him. We are used to thinking of “views” as collective or individual opinions. And it is true that when speaking of beliefs, impressions, or conclusions based on human experience—rather than of the necessary conclusions of logic which partake of the objectivity of the Transcendent, as both Schuon, in Logic and Transcen-
dence, and C. S. Lewis, in Miracles, conclusively demonstrate—we are dealing with perspectives on Reality that, though they may attain a certain degree of objectivity, can never entirely escape from the subjective bias of those entertaining them. Ontological perspectives, on the other hand, are not based on belief or experience; they are not dependent upon psychology, or history, or culture, either individual or collective; they are not opinions. Like the view of a stationary object from a given distance while facing a given point of the compass, each is entirely objective—as real as (or rather, much more real than) the rocks on the hillside or the stars in the sky. And since they have radiated directly from Absolute Reality, they are ontologically superior to us. We can never encompass them; they have already encompassed us. Consequently, though we can compare certain reverberations of them as they appear in psychology, or history, or culture, we cannot compare them to one another on their own plane of existence, because each Divine revelation, each act of God, is incomparable—unique. Realities superior to us on the Great Chain of Being are in fact more unique, and thus more fully incomparable, than the realities of our human world; this is what St. Thomas Aquinas was alluding to when he taught that each individual angel is a species unto himself. (Furthermore, what appears as a doctrine or system of ideas in this world may in fact be a conscious, living entity in another world; as the Shi’ite theosophers teach us, the Platonic Ideas, in that higher spiritual world which is proper to them, are, precisely, angels.)

Lee Harvey Oswald cannot have been both a lone assassin and a member (or dupe) of a conspiracy; logic is logic, and facts are facts. But when it comes to questions like “Was Jesus Christ the Son of God (the Christian view), or was he only a prophet, though among the greatest of them (the Muslim view)?”, exclusionary logic no longer applies. Such logic can certainly be applied to facts that are ontologically lower than us; we can compare them with each other, and evaluate in relation to one another, because we transcend them. But it cannot be used to evaluate perspectives that are ontologically higher than we are. Consequently, as soon as we admit that more than one Divine revelation is true and valid, we can no longer compare one revealed religion with another on the plane of essence. We cannot accept one Word of God and reject
another without denying God’s veracity, and consequently destroying the very basis upon which we claim to invoke His authority, even insofar as it validates the particular Word we are willing to accept. Nor can we stand outside of two Divinely revealed propositions— “Jesus is the Son of the God” and “God has no son”, for example—so as to compare, contrast, evaluate and judge between them, since to do so could only be based on the false belief that we can encompass the revelations of God with our human understanding, which clearly we cannot. And we can’t say “Jesus both is and is not the Son of God” either, since to do so would be to place in a false relationship two unique Divine revelations which, on the plane of form, “quasi-absolutely” exclude each other. Formal reverberations can be compared; essences cannot.

This seemingly insoluble dilemma is only resolved by an intuition of the overwhelming vastness of God. We agree that God is “Absolute, Infinite, Perfect, the Sovereign Good”—and then treat Him as if He were like the king in a game of chess, moving in response to our own will and intelligence on a board of 64 squares we can survey in a single glance. But that is not how it is. I have said that we cannot encompass the reality of God—but we can encompass the necessity for this very inability. God is not intelligible to us, but His unintelligibility is—and this, precisely, is our point of intimate contact with the Divine Transcendence. As Abu Bakr said (peace and blessing be upon him), “To know that God cannot be known is to know God”. And the resulting certainty that God is infinitely beyond our power to encompass Him is the root of the further certainty that every perspective upon His nature that has in fact been revealed by Him, not concocted by human cleverness, is objectively real, necessary in its own terms, superior to us, and incomparable in essence to any other such perspective. No two religions are “equivalent” to one another, any more than two human individuals can be equivalent, or an eagle equivalent to a lion. If more than one religion is true—just as the lion and the eagle are both beautiful, both awe-inspiring, both sublime—this is because all Divinely-revealed religions are unique and incomparable, and because God’s Truth, which is a Name of His Essence, is Infinite. Infinite Truth has the power to make true (and therefore spiritually efficacious), certainly not every idea we may entertain about It, but whatever objective perspectives upon Its Reality It may grant us of Its own volition—even if, from our limited, subjective perspectives (a limitation which is no less necessary than is God’s Infinity), they contradict each other. If God’s unknowability imposes, at one level (though certainly not all), a necessary quality of paradox upon all statements made about Him, this same unknowability also makes His Self-revelation necessarily contradictory, to one degree or another, on the plane of form. In His own Essence, God cannot contradict Himself—but the incapacity of form to fully embody the Formless Absolute makes contradiction a necessary element (though certainly not the only one) in His cosmic Self-revelation. If we are unable to accept this truth, we are in effect demanding that the world of form encompass God, or actually be God—something that is both impossible in reality, and idolatrous in effect.

From a different but equally-valid perspective, however, two things that cannot be compared with one another cannot contradict each other; they can never come to blows because they can never occupy the same field. A Divinely-revealed ontological perspective is a saving ray of Light that, if we truly and existentially enter into the stream of it, will sweep all other perspectives away, and concentrate us upon God Himself, upon the Divine Reality from which it flows. The two propositions that “Jesus is the Son of God” and “God has no son” can never be resolved on the plane of form; no degree of human ingenuity can make peace between them. They are, however, truly resolved in a higher Unity—the Unity of God Himself. And so, if we wish to avoid the seemingly inevitable conflict between two objective, ontological perspectives on the Divine Nature that contradict each other, the only way is to renounce comparisons entirely, and follow the stream we have chosen (and that therefore must necessarily first have chosen us) to its ultimate Source—in the understanding that a unique, incomparable, Divinely-revealed, “relatively absolute” perspective on the nature of God has no other purpose in the Divine economy than to lead us back to that Source. After our initial orientation is complete, such a perspective is not to be speculated upon or theorized about; it is to be put to work.

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