Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

26 September 2010

Studying (cautiously) the Qur'an

This story from the New English Review blog is worthy of an Indiana Jones film plot:
On the night of April 24, 1944, British air force bombers hammered a former Jesuit college here [Munich] housing the Bavarian Academy of Science. The 16th-century building crumpled in the inferno. Among the treasures lost, later lamented Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy, was a unique photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Quran.

The 450 rolls of film had been assembled before the war for a bold venture: a study of the evolution of the Quran, the text Muslims view as the verbatim transcript of God's word. The wartime destruction made the project "outright impossible," Mr. Spitaler wrote in the 1970s.

Mr. Spitaler was lying. The cache of photos survived, and he was sitting on it all along. The truth is only now dribbling out to scholars -- and a Quran research project buried for more than 60 years has risen from the grave.

Of course, any attempt to explore the evolution of the current text of the Qur'an risks igniting controversy in the Islamic world, which is why such scholars as the pseudonymous Christoph Luxenberg are not anxious to attach their given names to their own work.

Beginning with Spinoza in the 17th century, scholars have been using modern critical methods to analyze the text of the Bible, which virtually all Jews and Christians agree was written by multiple authors over a period of at least a thousand years. Despite the resulting expansion of knowledge of the biblical text, this has not been an entirely unproblematic venture, as the mainstream of biblical scholarship, especially what goes by the label higher criticism, has accepted the presuppositions of modernity, including the dichotomy between faith and fact, the impossibility of predictive prophecy and the belief that no single author could have referred to God as both Elohim and YHWH.

In principle there may be good stylistic reasons to conclude that Isaiah was not the author of Isaiah chapters 40-66, but there is nevertheless a prechristian tradition that God revealed to the 8th-century BC prophet events in the far distant future [Sirach 48:22-25], something to which the New Testament writers themselves testify, e.g., Matthew 3:3 and Acts 8:26-40. Moreover, there is no tangible manuscript evidence for two or more books of Isaiah either. Contemporary scholars need to take these factors seriously.

All the same, despite such reservations, Christians have little difficulty accepting that different authors produced the biblical texts at different times and that these texts were gradually sifted and collected into a body of canonical scripture. No one disputes the value of lower criticism, with its empirical focus on actual manuscripts.

Unlike Christians and Jews, Muslims believe that the Qur'an is a direct and immediate revelation by God to Muhammad. If Qur'an scholars bring the assumptions of western-style higher criticism to Islam's sacred text, believing Muslims are certain to question its validity, especially if it excludes ipso facto the possibility of miraculous divine interventions in the natural order.

However, as I understand it, the current efforts at studying the Qur'an, are not (yet) of a higher critical character. At issue is establishing the evolutionary history of the Qur'an based on ancient manuscripts or at least photographic evidence of these manuscripts. Muslims will find it difficult to deny the validity of such a modest endeavour. The findings of such Qur'an scholarship need not challenge outright the faith of devout Muslims, but the latter may be forced to rethink the belief that the Qur'an, in its present form, came directly from Muhammad. One can only guess at the repercussions of this for the Islamic world as a whole.

Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

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25 September 2010

September snippets

  • Those of us who grew up with the biblical account of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea never thought it the least fantastic or implausible. Now someone has come up with a fascinating model of what may have happened: Parting the waters: Computer modeling applies physics to Red Sea escape route.



  • My young colleague and protégé, Rob Joustra, has written a review of Jordan Ballor's Ecumenical Babel that, in my opinion, hits the right note: The Ecumenical Social Justice Ship: Full Steam Ahead or Teetering Titanic? Here's Joustra:
    The [institutional] church is not just another activist NGO for socially-minded Millennials. True: It does mission. It has a concern for justice, absolutely. But the church is not a think tank, a policy shop, or a political party. Where critical advocacy should be done, Christian citizens are called together for the common good to present their arguments in the public square—not as denominational representatives, but as Christian citizens formed in the liturgies and practices of the church. . . .

    This does not mean that churches have no place in the political process. They can be critical institutions that provide a principled ballast in the fast and easy world of politics. And policy prescription is certainly not outside Christian competence! Christians, as citizens, should and must be doing the range of economic and political work.

  • Speaking of the Titanic, this story will interest aficionados of the ocean liner, which sank on its maiden voyage 98 years ago: Titanic sunk by steering mistake, author says. Could be. I'll leave it up to the experts in nautical matters to judge this one.

  • The Center for Public Justice, which some of us are coming to think of as the American counterpart to Canada's Cardus, is publishing a series of Capital Commentaries on pluralism. Earlier in the month Ashley Woodiwiss published The Problem With Pluralism, in which he advocated a "Christian agonism" as a more realistic alternative to pluralism. One week later yours truly responded with Pluralism in the plural. Joel Hunter has made the most recent contribution: Radical Responsibility for the Presence of Justice. The entire series can be found here. Watch for future instalments.

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    17 September 2010

    Loving theoretical activity

    In the absence of a general cross-referencing apparatus to aid readers in negotiating the multiple First Things blogs, I thought I would draw the attention of Evangel readers to R. R. Reno's Love Rather Than Theory, published yesterday at On the Square. It's an important piece well worth reflecting upon. Reno writes:
    There is nothing uniquely modern about the move toward theory and abstraction. . . . However, an exaltation of theory is unique to late modern culture, and it’s what makes an intellectual an intellectual rather than what used to be called a “man of letters.” For example, Dr. Johnson and Matthew Arnold—two men with very different views of religion, morals, and literature—achieved a rhetorical rather than theoretical synthesis. They analyzed their experience with an integrated sensibility rather than an all-explaining system of thought. The same was true for Edmund Burke, who gave a rhetorical defense of the interplay of prejudice and tradition that he thought allows us to achieve an integrated sensibility. . . .

    Ortega y Gasset once wrote against the theoretical impulse: “To create a concept is to leave the world behind.” An overstatement, no doubt. . . . But there is a real temptation in theory, one to be resisted. It is the temptation to become an intellectual in the modern sense of the term. We search for a magical key, a general theory, a philosopher’s stone of the intellect that will turn the vast heterogeneity of life into the filigreed gold of a comprehended coherence. We hope for vision that will give us mastery, and through mastery release, release from the need to return again and again and again to the question of how to live.

    I don’t think we can underestimate the power this temptation today. It is easy to become an intellectual, someone intoxicated with the promise of theory and addicted to vain images of its triumph. . . .

    The fullness of reality we can only reach by abandoning ourselves to life’s particularity, allowing the truth of things—especially the truth of other human beings and our common life together—to dissect our souls. The proper word for this abandonment is love. Love works very differently from theory. It conquers the lover rather than the beloved. Love renders, and thankfully so, for truth shines from the outside.

    It is appropriate that Reno's reflections came one day after my review of Jamie Smith's Desiring the Kingdom, whose author affirms the primacy of love as the sine qua non of humanity. Reno is in large measure right in alerting us to the dangers of misdirected theory. Academics in particular are always tempted to assume that the theories by which they undertake to account for reality are identical to that reality. For most of us the prospect of being ruled by one of Plato's philosopher-kings is not a pleasant one. Anyone convinced of the certainty of his own knowledge will not be of a mind to listen to his supposed intellectual inferiors, which is a recipe for autocracy at best and tyranny at worst.

    Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that there is such a thing as loving theoretical activity, assuming, of course, that this is a rightly-ordered love. This entails nothing less than the loving use of our intellectual gifts for the service of God and neighbour. What does it look like? To begin with, it is not arrogant but is undertaken with great humility, recognizing that our theories will never completely grasp, much less control, the complexity of God's creation and must therefore be open to constant correction from lived experience.

    Loving theoretical activity also eschews reductionism, that is, the assumption that there is a "magical key" enabling us to unlock all the mysteries of reality. Man is not simply homo economicus, as Marx and his followers would have it, even if economic motives are genuinely present in all human actions. Similarly, we cannot be reduced to psycho-sexual beings, as if sexual desire accounts for everything we do. Contrary to Darwin's adherents, the single biological mechanism of natural selection cannot adequately account for the unfathomable complexity of human cultural activity, in which we adapt the environment for our own ends rather than the other way round.

    Theoretical systems need not be reductionistic, as long as they are open systems capable of being modified and corrected by reality. Over the decades I have found very useful the Christian philosophical framework articulated by several philosophers in the Kuyperian tradition, including Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Th. Vollenhoven. I have appreciated especially Dooyeweerd's effort to articulate the place of political life in the larger context of a normative creation order. His is an excellent example of loving theoretical activity, deliberately undertaken in the recognition that our world belongs to God.

    Theory undertaken without rightly-ordered love will amount to little more than "a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1). Yet love and theory are not intrinsically opposed to each other. The best theory is that which is ordered to the love of God and the love of our neighbours as ourselves.

    Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

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    15 September 2010

    Shaping the heart, not just the mind

    Over the past twenty or so years, publishers have turned out a steady stream of Christian worldview books, which together have altered the conversation over the relationship between faith and cultural activities in God’s world. Most of these have sought to reshape a “Christian mind.” From Harry Blamires and Francis Schaeffer to Nancy Pearcey and Al Wolters, there has emanated a growing library of writings dedicated to fashioning a Christian worldview from which to approach all of life.


    But are such efforts adequate to the realities of living in the real world? Probably the worst title I have seen among such efforts comes out of Australia: A spectator’s guide to world views: Ten ways of understanding life, to which I myself contributed a chapter on liberalism. (Don’t let the title deter you from reading an otherwise excellent book!) Of course we are by no means mere spectators; we are active participants, intimately involved in a way of life, with all its rituals, customs and usages, which inevitably shape us as persons created in God’s image.

    This is something that philosopher James K. A. Smith understands well and it forms the thesis of his Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. We are not simply thinking beings. We are not even believing creatures, as important as this facet is. We are, rather, desiring beings, motivated in a basic visceral way by what we love. We do not necessarily consciously decide what or whom to love; we are in fact shaped by certain rituals, by pedagogies of desire that form us without our even being aware of them. We are habituated to desire certain things by the larger culture, and it is Smith’s task to get us to recognize these secular “liturgies” and how they work themselves into our hearts. Following Augustine’s insight, Smith asserts that we inevitably worship what we love. We are homo liturgicus – liturgical man. Read more »

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    07 September 2010

    Juristocracy versus democracy

    Under its late founding editor, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, First Things made its reputation in part by its opposition to the judicial usurpation of democracy, culminating in its controversial 1996 symposium under that title. Those interested in the topic would do well to read James Grant's fascinating article, The Scourge of Juristocracy, published in the spring 2010 issue of The Wilson Quarterly. In the United States, and increasingly in Canada, opposition to an apparent judicial supremacy comes in conservative guise. The courts are presumed to be imposing progressive values on a recalcitrant public in the habit of maintaining older institutions and mores. In this respect First Things has tended towards what I would call a highbrow populism, based on the (not altogether incontestable) assumption that the people possess an innate wisdom superior to the political illusions of their élites.

    However, by Grant's account, the historical development of juristocracy is more complicated than this: in the first years of the last century American courts were often seen as obstructing the progressive will of elected legislatures, culminating in the Supreme Court's early opposition to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. Grant traces the diverging paths of Britain and the US in their respective attitudes to the role of judges and courts in the political process, with Britain embracing parliamentary supremacy after 1688 and the United States adopting Blackstone's more conservative respect for the judge-made English common law. In the latter a political role for the courts could be seen as a concession to the classical mixed constitution:
    Modern judicial activism is in many ways an expression of the old belief that democracy must be tempered by aristocracy—an idea that was prevalent in the late 18th century and now masquerades in democratic garb. The main vehicle by which judicial activism has been brought about is, of course, the language of rights. Coinciding with the articulation of the secular, anti-religious feelings of the Enlightenment, the flourishing of constitutional debate in the 18th century witnessed regular appeals to the idea of inalienable natural rights, which took on a sacred role. But it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the idea (now described as human rights) became an intrinsic part of legal and political discourse. For many today, a world without rights enforced by a judiciary is unthinkable. Especially in undemocratic regimes and in new or unstable democracies beset by deep corruption and other ills, rights-based judicial review is a necessary protection against arbitrary government. But in ostensibly healthier democracies, it inevitably comes at a cost.

    For the most part I find Grant persuasive. However, conspicuously absent from his analysis is a recognition of the important role of political culture in the protection of rights and in the smooth functioning of a constitution. A political culture includes a variety of attitudes, usages and mores that condition the ways people act politically. Respect for the rule of law, for example, cannot be legislated into existence where it does not already enjoy longstanding support in the culture of a particular body politic.

    Americans have long esteemed their 18th-century founders as near geniuses who crafted a carefully balanced system of government that has proved durable over the course of more than two centuries. However, from the standpoint of the student of political culture, this esteem, while not altogether misplaced, somewhat misses the point. Without a supportive culture of respect for constitutional government, no political framework, however well-thought-out, could have survived for long.

    This has implications for the functioning of courts as well. Here's Grant once again: "Especially in undemocratic regimes and in new or unstable democracies beset by deep corruption and other ills, rights-based judicial review is a necessary protection against arbitrary government." This conclusion is open to question at the very least. If corruption is as deep-seated as it is in many countries, it is a rather tall order to expect the courts to function in a way that places them above such ingrained patterns of public life. Moreover, even if the courts somehow manage to free themselves from the taint of corruption and tyranny, there is no inevitability that the governments at issue will heed their rulings, especially if the citizenry is accustomed to such governmental arbitrariness.

    It would be interesting to see how a recognition of the pivotal role of political culture might change the debate surrounding the role of the courts in a political system.

    Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

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    03 September 2010

    Czechs chuck church, prefer pub

    The Economist carries two stories that may or may not be related to each other. First, in a story about beer consumption in Asia, we find a nifty map showing the levels of beer-drinking per capita for several countries around the world. Second, in an article on Europe’s irreligious, there is a bar graph showing for each European country the proportion of the population that never attends religious services.

    Reading these prompts me to wonder whether there might be a correlation between beer-drinking and the level of religious observance in these countries. For example, the Czech Republic has the highest percentage (60% plus) of people who never attend religious services, and it also boasts a whopping 161 litres per person in beer consumption, by far the highest among the countries surveyed. On this basis might one be justified in speculating that those specializing in spirits tend to spurn spirituality?

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    02 September 2010

    Hawking's 'god'

    The eminent British physicist has issued this seemingly troubling pronouncement ex cathedra: Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create the Universe. Though some may find this disillusioning, others will easily (and gratefully) recognize the measure of truth in his conclusion:

    Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist. . . . It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.

    Hawking is right: the god he describes does not exist. The true God did not simply set the cosmos in motion. He does not merely inhabit the gaps in our explanatory theories. Rather he upholds his creation, including the laws of physics, at every conceivable moment. Without his doing so, it would cease immediately to exist. A god who is subsequent to the law of gravity is definitely not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Thank God there is no such god as Hawking conceives of him.

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