Sunday, November 04, 2007

Natural Law and Limits on the Divine Will

Humanity Confronted by Divine Will
Eski Cami (The Old Mosque) in Edirne, Turkey
(Image from Wikipedia)

In 1999, Edward T. Oakes published an interesting article in First Things, "Natural Law in Judaism," in which he looked at the work of David Novak (Natural Law in Judaism) on the "Euthyphro problem" in Judaism.

The "Euthyphro problem" refers to Socrates's dialogue with the Athenian seer Euthyphro, in which Socrates subjects the Greek gods to an ethical critique on the basis of the abstract norms of moral law, in the light of which, the behavior of gods like Zeus appear decidedly immoral.

The problem -- reputably a dilemma for revealed religions like Judaism and Christianity -- can be posed as follows: "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?"

Oakes argues that in Judaism and Christianity, abstract moral law has triumphed over the conception of God as omnipotent Divine Will.

Oakes does not deal in detail with the implications of this for Christian theology (though others have more or less reconciled God with Natural Law). Instead, he observes, rather pragmatically, that this victory of natural law has an upside, one that becomes evident when compared to the absence of the concept in Islam:
That victory is not entirely a matter for dismay, in my opinion, as the example of Islam suggests. Consider the matter of the stoning of adulterers, which, to the great horror of Westerners, is part of Islamic jurisprudence. That practice, as it happens, is not required by the Qur'an. In fact, it was introduced into Islam from Jewish law, according to an oral tradition transmitted by the second Caliph of Medina, Umar ibn al-Khattab (reigned a.d. 634-644):
They brought to the Prophet, on whom be God's blessing and peace, a Jew and a Jewess who had committed fornication. He said to them, "What do you find in your book?" They said, "Our rabbis blacken the faces of the guilty and expose them to public ridicule." Abdullah ibn Salam [a convert to Islam from Judaism] said: "Messenger of God, tell the Jews to bring the Torah." They brought it, but a Jew put his hand over the verse which prescribes stoning [probably Deuteronomy 22:21-22] and began to read what came before and after it. Ibn Salam said to him, "Raise your hand," and there was the verse about stoning beneath his hand. The Messenger of God gave the order and they were stoned. . . . They were stoned on the level ground and I [Umar] saw the man leaning over the woman to shield her from the stones.
Now, Muhammad is obviously thinking of Moses when he orders the stoning of the fornicating pair, but the crucial point is that the Mosaic law being enforced here has reached the Prophet unmediated by either Talmud or New Testament. Moreover, for accidental reasons of history, Islam never passed through the "fiery brook" of the Enlightenment; its confrontation with Judaism and Christianity in the contemporary world is often intertwined with a simultaneous confrontation with the Enlightenment. The clash gets even more complicated by Islam's much higher doctrine of revelation, which makes an accommodation with secular Enlightenment morality even more painful than has proved to be the case with Judaism and Christianity. (Islam's high doctrine of revelation had such difficulty conceding legitimacy to the deliverances of reason that it eventually deprived Muslim philosophers of the oxygen needed for independent, rational reflection; and Muslim philosophy almost entirely died out with the death of Averroës in a.d. 1198.)

At least in certain formal respects, Islam can be described, after a fashion, as "Judaism without a Euthyphro problem," or Moses without a Talmud, so to speak-as the civil war in Algeria so amply testifies, where the most horrific acts of barbarity are perpetrated under religious auspices and in the name of the God of revelation. The Euthyphro problem lives on in today's headlines, and it seems to me that David Novak needs to probe this issue more deeply, for his own (admittedly quite mild) Enlightenment-bashing leaves him with more problems than he seems to realize. (Edward T. Oakes, "Natural Law in Judaism," First Things, 1999, Part IV, paragraphs 4-5)
Islam lacks a Euthyphro dilemma because it simply denies the problem, holding that what is moral is moral because it is commanded by Allah. This is what Pope Benedict XVI was referring to in his Regensberg address when he noted that the Muslim thinker "Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry."

Quoting that got the Pope a lot of bad press, but Ibn Hazm's conclusion is the problem that the world faces in the Islamic refusal to put limits upon Allah's will.

The problem was posed with particular acuteness by the Jesuit James Schall, professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, in an interview about the Pope's Regensberg address. Schall's words were published in ZENIT: The World Seen From Rome as the article "God as Logos, Allah as Will":
The Holy Father posed the fundamental question that lies behind all the discussion about war and terror. If God is Logos, it means that a norm of reason follows from what God is. Things are, because they have natures and are intended to be the way they are because God is what he is: He has his own inner order.

If God is not Logos but "Will," as most Muslim thinkers hold Allah to be, it means that, for them, Logos places a "limit" on Allah. He cannot do everything because he cannot do both evil and good. He cannot do contradictories.

Thus, if we want to "worship" Allah, it means we must be able to make what is evil good or what is good evil. That is, we can do whatever is said to be the "will" of Allah, even if it means doing violence as if it were "reasonable."

Otherwise, we would "limit" the "power" of Allah. This is what the Pope meant about making violence "reasonable." This different conception of the Godhead constitutes the essential difference between Christianity and Islam, both in their concept of worship and of science.
Finding an authoritative voice is not easy in a religion so decentralized as Islam, but perhaps the words of Abdul M. Omar can be cited as representative, for he was the editor of a 22-volume Encyclopedia of Islam, and in an online article, he states the following:
He is Incomprehensible, and nothing is like him, therefore the knowledge of Allâh's Reality (His Essence, Haqîqat al-Dzât), cannot be known through logical proof (Dalîl) or rational considerations (Burhân Aqlî). Revelation is indispensable as a proof of His existence. Nor can any definition or description grasp Him. (See: A. M. Omar, "2. Allâh -- The God of the Holy Qur'ân," paragraph 6, in online article, "Who is Allah?")
Although the reference to "His Essence, Haqîqat al-Dzât," might imply that Allah has a 'nature', Omar is quick to insist of Allah that "There is nothing like Him (He is beyond all comparison)" ("2. Allâh -- The God of the Holy Qur'ân," paragraph 4). If Allah is beyond all comparison, then he can be known only through revelation, as Omar also insists, but such a revelation would not touch on Allah's nature in any substantive sense but merely inform us of how he intends for us to submit to his will, which cannot be questioned.

But this is a complex issue requiring closer philosophical reasoning, and I'm not sure that I'm up to the task, though my friend Bill Vallicella would certainly be able to handle it.

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At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeffery
Great post, fine review by Fr.Oakes.... But:

To be antithetical: if missing the Enlightenment is a stick to beat the Muslims with then it is a very frail wand indeed. Do the folk that proceed to the mourner's bench do so urged by the admonishment of a philosophe? What brings the throngs to Lourdes, Medugorje, Knock and Fatima? No, real religion if it ever was affected by the Enlightenment has seen through it. Is it anything more than what Yeats called Whiggery? "And what is Whiggery? A rancourous, rational, levelling sort of a mind/that never looked out of the eye of a saint/ or out of drunkerd's eye."

Lying in my bed in the El Arab Hotel just inside the Damascus Gate I found the chanting from the mosque moving but reading the Koran leaves me in Carlyle's state of bewilderment. What is it in religion that converts people? Is it not the irruption into the mundane of grace, of the visionary of what the Shiite Sufis of Iran have called, the Imaginal. Henry Corbin has written about this and Norman O.Brown and Harold Bloom (Omens of Millenium) have been influenced by his delineation of a profound theosophy.

Best Regards,

At 3:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, thanks for the kind words, but I fear that my post is flawed by my ignorance of Islam -- and even my limited knowledge of it is secondhand.

But if I recall Oakes, his larger point was that Natural Law thought had a long tradition in the West, even predating Christianity since it goes at least back to Plato. The Enlightenment drew upon that tradition.

Reason and faith have long had their interplay in Christendom, perhaps because Christianity had to win converts by persuasion for the first 300 years and thus had to come to grips with the Greco-Roman cultural tradition of critical reasoning.

Islam, by contrast, entered these Christian Greco-Roman realms as a conqueror religion and could rely upon force, if need be, from the beginning.

It could, one might say, impose its will.

As for religious experience, people also worship what they fear. Rudolf Otto's work on the experience of the holy emphasizes the terror that can accompany an encounter with holiness. I wonder if perhaps extreme fear might, in turn, generate a religious response.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:54 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

A fascinating series of thoughts. This is the sentence that hit me:
"the problem that the world faces in the Islamic refusal to put limits upon Allah's will." It is interesting that Reason becomes the brakes (as it were). I am not certain, however, that this entirely frees the Biblical God: some of the Bible's dictates strike me as lacking in reason (or do I confuse reason with humanity? Probably!) Also, I am not sure that reason is the great gift that the Enlightenment claimed. But, yes, if there can be no restriction of Divine Will and anything can be willed by man in the name of a god, morality enters dark waters.

At 7:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, good to hear from you again.

The Catholic tradition, which is in some ways superior to the Protestant one, broadens the work of the Holy Spirit to include truths that lie outside of scripture.

Hence the importance of Natural Law and human reason -- albeit also grounded in the scriptural writings of St. Paul and St. John, respectively.

Without the force of reason within Christianity -- the potential dehellenization that the current pope warns against -- believers enter into the extremist realm of fideism, which some forms of Protestantism slip into.

I'm not sure how the Catholics handle the disturbing scriptural passages -- such as those in the Old Testament that call for holy wars (albeit limited in time and place, thankfully). I do see a dilemma there. Perhaps some knowledgeable Catholics could comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:27 AM, Blogger Paul said...

bHello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).

At 7:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Paul, thanks. I'll try to take a look.

Jeffery Hodges

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