For all three Abrahamic faiths, these questions presented themselves in a particularly pressing way in the guise of Aristotle, the giant of natural philosophy. Covering an enormous range of subjects, from metaphysics to ethics to political theory, Aristotle offered a consistent and empirically satisfying philosophy. Philosophers of all three faiths wanted to integrate those insights into their work. But Aristotle was a pagan, with no access to divine revelation. Was it permissible to learn from such a person? What kind of authority, if any, could he be to people of faith? Was it possible to celebrate (mere) human achievement without calling into question the primacy of God?
The struggle to answer these questions would in different ways prove transformative for all three of the great monotheistic faiths. Far more was at issue than the work of a single ancient thinker. If philosophers could successfully synthesize revealed theology with a fertile natural philosophy, the rewards might be tremendous. Such a synthesis could serve as a foundation for an intellectual tradition that was simultaneously broad (thus, able to address an enormous array of real-world questions) and deep (in the sense of being fully rooted in divinely revealed truths). This is what we see most magnificently in the work of the Medieval Scholastics, and especially St. Thomas Aquinas.
St. Thomas’s work covers an enormous array of issues, from sweeping metaphysical claims to minor, everyday ethical concerns. The intellectual tradition to which he contributed has the consistency and flexibility to extend itself to an enormous range of civilizations, cultures and historical periods; it is substantive without being reactionary. At the same time, it is humanizing. It can exult in the wisdom of noble pagans without denying either God’s authority or man’s supernatural destiny. By weaving natural human virtues into a larger story about God’s creation and redemption of souls, Christian philosophy is able to subordinate human beings to God without in any way dimming the splendor of their own manifest goodness.
Islam never successfully achieved that kind of synthesis. The Aristotelian Averroes was banished from Islamic Iberia for much of his later life, owing to suspicion about the possibly seditious nature of his thought. Meanwhile, the theologian al-Ghazali levied scathing criticisms against the Hellenistic schools of the Islamic world, and was so successful that a Hellenistic synthesis was never again seriously attempted by Muslim scholars. Al-Ghazali ultimately became one of the most important figures in Islamic thought. Obviously this is not a monolith, but lacking the broad and deep foundation that the Christian tradition enjoys, Islam’s responses to modernity have been more obviously reactionary. It is difficult for Muslims to distance their spirituality from a very specific moral and political vision, which has potentially dire ramifications for adherents to the faith who must live in the modern world.
The problems that modern Muslims face are relevantly similar to those confronted by Christians and all people of faith. We see widespread alienation, a loss of meaning in human life, and a widespread breakdown of religious and traditional mores in the wake of an aggressive secular culture. But even as we admire, for example, Muslim parents who successfully persuade their children to resist the demands of a secular culture, we should note the extent to which Muslim cultures sanction the use of fear and even torture to ensure that citizens continue to profess the faith and comply with detailed codes of behavior.
Should Christians Admire Muslim Values?
Rachel Lu - published on 10/28/14
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