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secondhand quote, on Second Avenue, secondhand quote

I haven’t read The Economist’s new survey of religion in public life, but Joshua Keating over at FP Passport in a preview (The Economist admits that God is not dead) quotes them as saying:

Islam has always left less room for the secular. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad was a ruler, warrior and lawmaker. Islam, which means submission, teaches that the primary unit of society is the umma, the brotherhood of believers, and it provides a system of laws, sharia, for people to live by.

Now, I know that there are both geopolitical and marketing reasons to compare the two religions, but my immediate thought was that Moses was a ruler, warrior and lawmaker. As was Saul, to some extent, and David. And there are Christian saints who are rulers, warriors and lawmakers, and they are venerated more or less on the same level as Moses, Saul and David. I don’t know enough about Islam to speak definitively, but my impression is that Muhammad within Islam is about on a par with Moses within Judaism, that is, holy, righteous, important, and not part of the Divine, at least not in the sense that Jesus is part of the Trinity.

Furthermore, Judaism teaches that the primary unit of society is the people Israel, and it provides a system of laws, mitzvot, for people to live by. I think you could argue that Christianity teaches that the primary unit of society is Christendom, and that it provides a system of laws to live by; I’m guessing that there are plenty of church fathers to quote on those issues.

I’m not saying that there are no differences between the three religions (or any others). I’m saying that the quote that Mr. Keating pulled is such an egregious simplification that it is entirely useless. And I hate that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

Hmm.

I think you could argue that Christianity teaches that the primary unit of society is Christendom, and that it provides a system of laws to live by; I’m guessing that there are plenty of church fathers to quote on those issues.

Well, the Church father one would go to first on this point is Augustine, and in his writing especially to _The City of God_. There, Augustine's basic claim (if I understand him correctly, and I haven't ever read _City of God_ all the way through) is that the City of God is always different from the earthly city, and that Christians need to consider themselves as citizens of God's city and not the earthly one and thus as on pilgrimage as long as they are dwellers in the earthly city. This distinction builds on the statements rejecting "the world" that appear in Jesus's teachings and Paul's writings. So to say that Christianity teaches that the primary unit of society is Christendom, and that it provides a system of laws to live by is, I think, incorrect, at least with respect to the fathers of the Church. Post-Constantinian Christian thought has re-theorized the relationship between Church and State in a variety of ways, but that very re-theorizing is provoked by the fact that there is a fundamental distinction between the Church and any earthly society in Christian scripture and early teachings.

Knowing only a little about Judaism and Islam, I couldn't say if this distinction between the two cities has any corresponding element in those two religions. That is, when Muhammed gives laws (if it is the case that he does), what are those laws for? Are they to guide people on how they should live together in the world, to provide a blueprint for the organization of society? Is the umma viewed as being congruent with an earthly society? If so, then Mr. Keating's statement would, it seems to me, be bringing forward a genuine difference between the relationship the two religions propose between themselves and the world.

A similar question would be worth asking about Judaism. What are the laws of Moses for? What are they meant to provide to those who follow them?

With respect to Christianity, at least, Mr. Keating's statement is misleading not because it is an oversimplication but because it is representing Christianity from the perspective of a secularist. Mr. Keating appears to be relieved that Christians are focusing on the City of God and not the earthly city because that choice, as Richard, Duke of Gloucester says, "leaves me the world to bustle in." If what you want, as Mr. Keating seems to, is the secular world, it is a distinct relief if Christians seem prepared to leave you to it. From the Christian perspective, the point is not that the Christians are leaving space for the secular out of regard for the secular as such, but they are turning away from the secular toward something better.

I would certainly like to have more and better knowledge about how Judaism and Islam conceive of the relationship between what Augustine calls The City of God and the earthly city. If they do not employ that basic distinction at all, it would lead to a very different theory of the relationship between what Christians call "Church and State."


Well, and I couldn’t give you a definitive answer on the Heavenly Jerusalem; there are too many strands in Judaism for there to be a definitive answer. There are plenty of early medieval rabbis who are very keen on the differences between the earthly and heavenly cities. Rabbi Jacob (c. 200 CE) has a line in Pirke Avot about how you should use this world as a vestibule to prepare yourself for the next; that’s a minority view but important enough to have been included. I know Jews who would say that Judaism has no significant interest in the Heavenly City at all, and is a religion primarily of this world and this life. I know others who line up closer to Rabbi Jacob. Similarly, your question what are the laws of Moses for? has a variety of answers, both today and in the Talmud.

I think it’s actually unhelpful to compare Judaism to Christianity or Islam on the topic of secularism or about the separation of Church and State, because Rabbinic Judaism—modern Judaism, if you will—is developed as a minority religion, a religion of the governed, which assumes that the governors will not be from the same tradition. While the Scriptures of Christianity and Islam are largely developed in similar, minority, situations, the weight of interpretation is developed with the assumption that the major religious institutions have the ear of the governors as well as the governed. This doesn’t mean that there is something intrinsic to the religions about those conditions, but it does mean that the development of the interpretive traditions needs to be understood in that light. Thus, just as a for instance, there is a good deal of rabbinic advice against taking legal disputes (say, a breach of contract) to the secular courts. This is not (in my opinion) because they are against secular courts, or because they think that religious courts should take precedence, or even because they don’t think that Jews could get a fair shake in courts presided over by non-Jews.

There is certainly a tradition in Christianity of allowing breach of contract cases to be heard by secular courts, but there are also examples of in the history of Christianity of competing secular and ecclesiastical courts, of parallel systems, and of nominally secular court systems that show deference to canon law. I see that it’s not accurate to say that Christianity provides a system of laws to live by but I don’t think it would be accurate to say that Christianity does not provide a system of laws to live by. The problem presumably is in defining Christianity, as much as it is in defining system of laws.
I should also add that the pull quote is not Mr. Keating’s own, he himself was pulling it from an article elsewhere. He approves of it, but is not responsible for it.

Thanks,
-V.


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