Every religion is crazy in its own peculiar ways. It's difficult for me to decide which deserves to win the Looniest of Them All award.
Christianity deserves consideration for its "born of a virgin" and "walked on water" weirdnesses (among others). Judaism's rituals and requirements are beyond strange (such as the Sabbath Feature on our oven). Hindus are into all kinds of bizarre stuff, including Tantric sexual fluid transactions.
But whenever I read about how scared Muslims are of the modern world, I'm struck by how dangerously crazy this attitude is.
After all, Islam is the controlling force in many important nations. When a large portion of humanity is stuck in a fondness for the past, it's tough for Muslim cultures to make much progress.
This leaves them as outliers in our increasingly global civilization, cursing the Western world for leaving behind an Islamic fantasy of how great things were in the Middle Ages when organized religion ruled the roost.
I bemoaned Muslim's fear of modernity on my other blog back in 2004, when I told the tale of how I labored hard and long on a paper that was submitted to a "Traditionalist" journal whose editor was a fan of Fritjof Schuon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and other bashers of modern times -- when God took a well-deserved back seat to science.
And the more I learned about Traditionalism, the more I became wary of this approach to religion and spirituality (the intellectually voracious can read an extensive critique by a Muslim here; I agree with his basic points about Traditionalism, but disagree that Islam is the one true religion). For example, Traditionalists have a strange fondness for medieval times, when the Church ruled every aspect of society.
Since Traditionalism has a close connection to Sufism, and thus to Islam, any philosophy that longs for the good old days when fundamentalist religion ruled the cultural roost has to be looked at with a wary eye after 9/11/2001. Especially after 11/2/2004, because the American religious right would exchange hearty high-fives with most of the tenets of Traditionalism—leaving aside the minor detail of whether Islam or Christianity is the traditional religion that we bow down to.
Anyway, the essay wasn’t at all what “Sacred Web” wanted, as I ended up being much more supportive of science than the editor had anticipated. That was rejection #1. I then sent a shorter version of the essay off to “Science and Spirit” magazine, figuring that my title was right up their alley. That was rejection #2.
So now I say, screw this one at a time rejection business, I’ll put the piece up on the Internet for everyone in the whole world to ignore simultaneously.
Heck, I'll do it again, six years later.
Download Science, Spirit, and the Wisdom of Not-Knowing
I was reminded of this strange Islamic modernity sucks! attitude when I came across an essay by Seyved Hossein Nasr this morning. "We and You -- Let Us Meet in God's Love" was submitted to the Catholic-Muslim Forum held at the Vatican in 2008.
Download We and You -- Let Us Meet in God's Love
It has a warm and fuzzy ecumenical title, and tries to argue that Islam and Christianity have a lot in common, so they should get along. But Nasr lapses into his fear of modernity, which pretty much destroys his thesis that we're all one big happy world family.
There are also significant differences between Islam and Christianity due to their very different encounters with modernism and secularism. Obviously in dealing with Christianity today, we Muslims are not confronted with St Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and the builders of the Cologne Cathedral, however real these dimensions of traditional Western Christianity might still be.
Rather, we face a Christianity that bears the deep wounds of five centuries of battle with forces opposed to religion, from the secular humanism and skepticism of the Renaissance to the materialism associated with the 17th century Scientific Revolution and the subsequent secularization of the cosmos to the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, to the historicism and evolutionism of the 19th century to the current post-modern critique of religious texts and the virulent atheistic attacks being made recently in the West against religion as such.
...Of course there are those in the West who claim that the problem is precisely that Islam did not experience in depth modernism and especially the Enlightenment to which Muslims would respond, thank God that this did not happen to us.
What must be remembered is that these Dark Ages-adoring thoughts are coming from a moderate Muslim, not an extremist. Nasr longs for the not-so-good old days when a fundamentalist religiosity permeated every aspect of society and culture, preventing the free expression of ideas and open scientific study of nature's laws.
In my "Science, Spirit, and the Wisdom of Not-Knowing" essay, I wrote:
William Quinn, in his book The Only Tradition, discusses what he considers to be the last truly “traditional” culture, medieval Christendom. Maybe I’m missing something, but this description of the times doesn’t strike me as particularly appealing, or even genuinely spiritual:
The cultural norm was to imbue and perceive in the most trivial and seemingly insignificant task a link to the sacred whole, "God’s plan," thus transforming that task into something significant of the great (hieratic) chain of being (and becoming). Barbara Tuchman writes that "Christianity was the matrix of medieval life: even cooking instructions called for boiling an egg ‘during the time you can say a Miserere.’" It governed birth, marriage, and death, sex, and eating, made rules for law and medicine, gave philosophy and scholarship their subject matter.
This bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to the vision of Christian fundamentalists in the United States, who write frequent letters to my local newspaper calling for a return to the “values on which this country was founded” (translation: they want everyone to believe just the way they do, and government should make sure that those beliefs become the law of the land).
I agree, with Wilber, that while modernity has created many problems, it also has brought many benefits: democracy, scientific advances, the end of slavery, freedom of artistic expression. How many readers truly would prefer to live in 12th century France (as a serf, not a noble) rather than 20th century America, Canada, England, or any other modern culture?
Well, Seyyed Hossein Nasr apparently would, along with many -- hopefully not most -- of his fellow Muslims.
Until they decide to join modern times, it's going to be difficult for Islam to fit in with the world as it is, most of which, thankfully, is a lot different from the religion-dominated world backward-looking Muslims reverence.