Edward Feser has a long post on the relationship between liberalism and Islam. They seem so opposed, but liberals consistently defend and admire Islam. Are they deluded, or are they seeing something the rest of us don’t. Feser’s conclusion is that liberals are diluted, that liberalism and Islam are as near to being opposites as they seem. However, his argument could just as well support the opposite conclusion.
Feser argues, I think correctly, that what distinguishes Christianity from both Islam and liberalism is our distinction between the supernatural and natural orders. That is, in addition to supernatural good and evil, there is a third state of purely natural good. Of course, since Henri de Lubac’s attacks on the “pure nature” of the scholastics, it has become unpopular to speak in these terms, but that doesn’t bother me. Feser is right; Lubac is wrong. Without a concept of pure nature, there can be no coherent concept of grace. Feser uses these concepts to neatly explain the distinction between state and Church: the one cares for our natural good, the other for our supernatural good. Note that the “natural good” of man does not mean his purely material good or even virtue such as can be had ignoring God. God is our natural end as well as our supernatural end; the former is to know and love Him as our natural capabilities allow, the latter is the beatific vision in heaven and its anticipation of a life of grace on Earth.
Anyway, in Feser’s scheme, liberalism abolishes the supernatural order from public life, leaving only the secular order. What’s more, it perverts the secular order with its mechanistic, ateleological view of nature and its assumption that the political order is purely artificial. Islam, as Feser understands it, makes the opposite mistake of abolishing the secular sphere. Like liberalism, Islam refuses to grant to the natural order its proper intelligibility, but it concludes (with better logic than the liberals) to grant authority only to the supernatural order.
So, in a sense, liberalism and Islam are opposites. In another, they are cousins. Christianity posits two orders, each largely defined by the opposition of the other. Liberalism takes one, Islam the other, but if you’re just left with one order which covers everything, does it matter so much what you call it? It’s just like we know whenever somebody starts going around teaching that everything is sacred, one knows with certainty that anyone who believes it will promptly lose his sense of the sacred entirely, since the sacred only exists for us in opposition to the profane. Or take the idea of a “theocracy”. What’s the difference between a priest declaring himself king and a king declaring himself priest? We call the first “theocracy” and the second “Erastianism” and label them opposites, but they are the same thing.
On the other hand, one should not say that Christianity is unique in its distinction of the sacred from the profane (where, again, “profane” does not mean “evil”). In fact, Christianity is the norm; liberalism and Islam are the historical outliers. The idea that the sacred and profane need each other to be meaningful is something I first picked up from Durkheim, and he was talking mostly about primitive religions. Comparing to liberalism and Islam, one can see that Christianity is the main form of paganism in the modern world. It’s fascinating that liberal modernity tends to decimate Christianity and animistic religions, but it has almost no effect on allegiance to Islam and Judaism. Christianity is notable in other ways for its archaic features, the way it preserves aspects of the most primitive religions. Sacrifice is certainly one: Catholics participate in a human sacrifice, and Protestants at least admit one to lie at the center of their theology (a valid sacrifice pleasing to God, not some revelation of sacrifice being exposed as mob violence, as the Girardian heretics believe). More generally, Christianity is marked by its sacramentality, which one could argue is designed to put naturally profane beings in contact with the sacred. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Christianity is much more accepting of nonideologically regenerated human nature than its modern opponents, although in Islam the Taliban/ISIS wing is the extreme, while in liberalism the social justice purists own the mainstream.
Of course, just because Islam and liberalism really are closer to each other than either is to Christianity doesn’t mean they will necessarily continue to get along in the future. Left has a tendency to be devoured by Purer Left, and much energy goes into deciding who is Purer Left and who is meal. Still, liberals are not wrong to see a kinship between themselves and Muslims.
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