Friday, September 15, 2006
Things I owe my readers:
- Reviews of more than a dozen books that I've read since I last posted book reviews.
- Reviews of a dozen plays that I saw at the Stratford Festival (well, one at Shaw) in Canada this summer.
I would rather be writing these things. Actually, I would rather be writing the book I never finished, or any of the books or screenplays I never started. But that's all one: I have no time.
So: some quick thoughts on things that are easy to have quick thoughts about.
1. The Pope had some things to say about de-Hellenization, and the media has picked up particularly on his comments about Islam, and the relationship between faith and reason in Christianity versus Islam. To whit (if I may simplify): in Christianity, because of its Greek heritage, reason is allied to faith. One cannot substitute reason for faith, but one can reason to faith and within faith. (I think I have that right.) In Islam, he implies (though the Pope never explicitly endorses this view), faith is beyond reason. There is, of course, technical reason within Islam (legal reasoning, for example) and compatible with Islam (scientific reasoning). But reason as the Greeks (or Plato) understood it, Benedict implies, is not an ally of the Muslim faith.
I have no idea if this is right about either Islam or Christianity. It seems to me that much theology is more technical and instrumental in its reasoning than its practitioners admit, and that as a matter of history Christianity has had its partisans of unreason as well as reason. But I did want to address a common assumption, that Judaism works in some way similarly to Christianity in this regard. It does not - anyway, traditional Judaism does not.
To some extent, Judaism is quite analogous to Islam, in that the kind of reasoning it engages in is instrumental - predominantly, legal reasoning. Legal reasoning, like mathematical reasoning, has an irreducible aesthetic component, but I don't think I'm wrong in describing it as instrumental. The interesting question is whether the rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic eras thought of themselves as reasoning within a hermetic system or with reference to a larger philosophical framework. I'm inclined to believe that the rabbis of the generation of the Mishnah were indeed reasoning with reference to a larger philosophical framework, one recognizably influenced by the Greek philosophical tradition. But I'm less sure about the generation responsible for the Gemarra, which is a much stranger text.
In other ways, Judaism is more similar to Christianity. The notion of human beings as partners with the divine is much more Judeo-Christian than Islamic. The Jewish conception of God is not quite so "near" as the Christian, but is much closer than (this is my impression) orthodox Islam's conception. As well, neither Christianity nor Judaism is possessed of Islam's horror of history; Judaism is highly conscious of its transformation through history (albeit, obviously, a strict traditionalist would interpret these historical developments differently than a religious liberal like myself) and Christianity cannot without profoundly bad conscience avoid an awareness that in its own terms it is only justified by its own pre-history (in Judaism). Both of these have some bearing on Benedict's point, though they are not identical to it.
But in other ways, Judaism is quite distinct from either Christianity of Islam. The most obvious way is very much on-point to the distinction Benedict draws. Judaism is the only one of the three major monotheistic faiths in which religious obligation is passed down the bloodline. In Islam, all people on earth are born Muslims, and need to return to their birthright faith if they hvae been corrupted by their upbringing. In Christianity, all people on earth are born in sin, and need to accept God's self-sacrifice to be redeemed and born again as Christians. In Judaism, people are born as they are - and those who are born as Jews are born with specific (and un-natural) religious obligations. And we signify this special birthright with an act of violence: circumcision. (Muslims also practice circumcision, of course - for that matter, so do most American Christians - but it signifies differently.) My point being: howsoever Judaism may (with Christianity) exalt reason as the pinnacle of human faculties, the one that brings us closest to God, and the handmaiden rather than the enemy of faith, there are some aspects of our relationship to the divine that are indeed beyond reason.
2. Steve Sailer has written a good piece on a book I have not read, John Keegan's A History of Warfare. As I say, I haven't read the book, but from Sailer's description it sounds like Vic Hanson through a glass darkly. That is to say: Keegan and Hanson agree on what makes the West different from the rest in terms of the practice of warfare; it's just that Keegan thinks this is a bad thing, and Hanson that it is a good thing.
Which raises the question: couldn't they both be right? Couldn't the Western way of warfare be intimately related to the Western tradition of free self-government (as Hanson thinks) *and* horribly and ultimately irrationally destructive, as Keegan thinks? I don't see why they couldn't, and I can easily think of reasons why they could be.
Sailer is re-reading Keegan in the context of his opposition to a confrontation with Iran. I have a lot to say on that point, and no time now to say it all. (I've said some of it already elsewhere, but I haven't put all my thoughts together in one place.) But I will say this much apropos of Sailer's fears of nuclear genocide. He should recall that, in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a similar clamor in some quarters for a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union. And while this sentiment never became a majority view by any means, it was far from being confined to the lunatic fringes. People forget this, but no less a luminary than Betrand Russell advocated a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union by the United States in the early post-war years. He understood just how evil the Soviet system was, and he understood that conflict between free peoples and Soviet Communism was inevitable. He wanted that conflict to happen on the most favorable terms to the free world, which he believed obtained when the United States had a nuclear monopoly. Once two hostile powers had the A-bomb, the future of the human species itself was at stake.
It seems to me that commentators like Krauthammer are making much the same argument with regard to Iran. In their view, it's not so much that Iran is anything like as powerful as the Soviets, or that they ever will be. It's that they don't believe deterrence will work against them. If you accept that proposition, all else follows. The question, then, is why anyone would believe that Iran cannot be deterred. Once they have the bomb - and they will get it; I fully expect that - we will have to think the truly unthinkable: how to learn to stop worrying and live with it. Which means it makes sense to start thinking about that possibility now. The refusal to consider seriously a nuclear-armed Iran, the jump to the conclusion that such a world is synonymous with the apocalypse, is the hawkish parallel to the dove's refusal to consider scenarios in which we might use nuclear weapons. Both are evasions of the real world, intellectual surrenders. Both are more likely to lead to wars - bad wars - than a realistic appraisal of risks and costs on either side of various propositions.