Liberalism and Islam, Christianity and paganism

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.

32 Responses

  1. Liberalism and Islam also resemble each other in their eschatology and geopolitics, since both expect eventually to conquer the world. Inside Liberal occupied territory is the House of Peace, but everything outside its bloody frontier is certainly the House of War.

  2. Perhaps beginning by remarking that Dr. Feser’s argument “could just as well support the opposite conclusion” is not the strongest position from which to then proclaim that Dr. Feser is correct about ‘natura pura’, and that Henri de Lubac’s ‘attack’ on the concept is mistaken.

    ‘Natura pura’ is precisely like phlogiston. Nobody disputes that the concept has some explanatory power. But phlogiston is ‘unpopular’ now, for good reason. ‘Natura pura’ is not even wrong; it is, simply, not Catholic enough, which de Lubac showed easily.

    And along with the fact that natura pura has no foundation in Scripture or in any Biblical world view, as de Lubac showed extensively, there are other problems with the concept. In common with much of classic Thomism, natura pura has an entirely pagan origin, and must treat of the sacraments, and markedly, the Most Holy Eucharist, and, for that matter, Jesus Himself, God and Man, “one and the same”, as ‘special cases,’ rather than as the substantial Reality in Whom “all things were made.”

    To state that ‘pure nature’ is essential for a “coherent concept of grace” is indeed true, as long as the exact opposite is meant. ‘Pure nature’ of its essence renders any coherent account of grace impossible, since all grace is the grace of Christ, God and Man, “one and the same.”

    ‘Pure’ nature is really ‘sterile’ nature; and that ‘nature’ has no reality whatever, despite the concept’s utility for some — some — argument. Phlogiston, after all, did also explain and illumine, to some extent.

    Nature “in the beginning” is created within the grace and Person of Jesus Christ, “one and the same,” for “through Him all things were made.” That such elementary Catholicism is ‘unpopular’ with scholastics is patent; but this ought to say more about classic scholasticism than is deemed noticeable.

    But thanks for observing that Dr. Feser’s argument can be taken to prove its opposite.

  3. @Bonald (I am responding to your remark – I haven’t read Ed Feser’s piece, although I may do so).

    I firmly believe that politics is simple, necessarily so – which means that when there is an alliance of (apparent) opposites the reason for alliance is not what the two parties favour (buried deep in their fundamental assumptions where only intellectuals can perceive it), but what they oppose.

    For example, the USA/ UK and the Soviet Union in the 1939-45 war – united in opposition to the Axis powers. While it is certainly possible, and true, to locate the Leftist sympathies between the USA/ UK and the USSR – the two sides had basically very different ‘ideologies’, and the primary reason for the alliance was oppositional. As soon as the unifying opposition was defeated, the former allies turned on each other.

    Leftism itself is *in essence* oppositional – oppositional to The Good (the true, beautiful and virtuous) as understood by traditional Christian culture – and consists of a coalition of groups with very different and fundamentally opposed positive progams, united only by their desire to destroy traditional Christian culture.

  4. Too many Catholics have embraced a false notion of the relationship between religion and politics. Basing themselves on Suarez’s interpretation of St Thomas, they have talked of a “natural order,” governed by Natural Law, consisting of truths accessible to unaided human reason, as something that can be kept separate from the supernatural truths revealed in the Gospel. “Under such circumstances, the supernatural is no longer properly speaking another order, something unprecedented, overwhelming and transfiguring” (Henri de Lubac)

    It was this that led Laberthonnière, a hundred years ago now, to accuse Pedro Descoqs, the Jesuit defender of Charles Maurras and his l’ Action Française of “a false theological notion of some state of pure nature and therefore imagined the state could be self-sufficient in the sense that it could be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice.”

    It led his friend and contemporary, Maurice Blondel, to insist that we must never forget “that one cannot think or act anywhere as if we do not all have a supernatural destiny. Because, since it concerns the human being such as he is, in concreto, in his living and total reality, not in a simple state of hypothetical nature, nothing is truly complete (boucle), even in the sheerly natural order”

    Jacques Maritain, too, declared that “the knowledge of human actions and of the good conduct of the human State in particular can exist as an integral science, as a complete body of doctrine, only if related to the ultimate end of the human being . . . the rule of conduct governing individual and social life cannot therefore leave the supernatural order out of account” and “Man is not in a state of pure nature, he is fallen and redeemed. Consequently, ethics, in the widest sense of the word, that is, in so far as it bears on all practical matters of human action, politics and economics, practical psychology, collective psychology, sociology, as well as individual morality,—ethics in so far as it takes man in his concrete state, in his existential being, is not a purely philosophic discipline. Of itself it has to do with theology, either to become integrated with or at least subalternated to theology.”

    Unless we insist, in Blondel’s words, that we can “find only in the spirit of the gospel the supreme and decisive guarantee of justice and of the moral conditions of peace, stability, and social prosperity,” we shall inevitable acquiesce in practice in the Liberal privatisation of religion.

  5. Can anyone offer a concise and simple account of what precisely is at stake in the debate between de Lubac et al. and the scholastics?

    Despite being fairly well versed in patristic and medieval thought, I find myself completely unable to grasp what each side is arguing and how that fits in with how, say, Anselm, Gregory of Nyssa, or Maximus understands things.

    Every attempt I’ve made to read von Balthasar, de Lubac, etc. (I confess I haven’t read extensively in their opponents) has left me with an impression of an almost absurd level of mushiness which seems to verge on intentional lack of clarity compared to their sources. So what’s going one here? What precisely is being argued?

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  7. To Feminists:
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  8. DeLubac diesputes that there is a merely natural end of man. He is right about this.

  9. “Can anyone offer a concise and simple account of what precisely is at stake in the debate between de Lubac et al. and the scholastics?”

    Fr Peter Bernardi SJ has an excellent illustration of the nature-supernatural relationship, as conceived by the Neo-Scholastics and that Bondel and others attacked.

    “Imagine a two-story house with a ground floor that is partitioned into several rooms. This floor is completely furnished and fully liveable. The windows provide sufficient light to carry on the tasks of daily life. The family residing on the ground floor has no real need of an upper floor. However, there does exist a second floor to which access is gained when trapdoors are opened from above and portable staircases let down. Only then does the family come to know of the existence of this upper level of which they had no previous inkling. Furthermore, they are told that a superior life awaits them above and that they must choose to ascend to the second floor under threat of being thrown out of the house altogether.”

    Blondel’s (and Cardianl de Lubac’s) view is more like the Pantheon in Rome.

    “In the architectural design of this ancient Roman building, the lines of force of the circular walls converge on the open space above [the oculus], the primary source of light. Standing within the windowless building, one notices that no part of the cavernous interior is “compartmentalized,” but the eye is directed upwards to the incoming light. Though the lower part of the structure has solidity, it has no self-contained status. There are no “walls of separation” that divide one section from another. Furthermore, without the light that descends from above, it would be impossible to take adequate account of the lower levels.”

  10. “DeLubac disputes that there is a merely natural end of man. He is right about this.”

    St Thomas would have agreed. “Quamvis enim homo naturaliter inclinetur in finem ultimum, non tamen potest naturaliter illum consequi, sed solum per gratiam, et hoc est propter eminentiam illius finis – Even though by his nature man is inclined to his ultimate end, he cannot reach it by nature but only by grace, and this owing to the loftiness of that end.” (In Boethius de Trinitate, q. 6, a. 4 ad 5.)

    It was the Neo-Scholastics in the 16th century who framed the maxim, “the end of nature must be proportionate to nature.”

    But St Thomas says otherwise: “nobilioris conditionis est natura quae potest consequi perfectum bonum, licet indigeat exteriori auxilio ad hoc consequendum, quam natura quae non potest consequi perfectum bonum, sed consequitur quoddam bonum imperfectum, licet ad consecutionem eius non indigeat exteriori auxilio – The nature that can attain perfect good, although it needs help from without in order to attain it, is of more noble condition than a nature which cannot attain perfect good, but attains some imperfect good, although it need no help from without in order to attain it.” (ST I-II, q. 5, a. 5 ad 2)

  11. While paganism has the sacred-profane distinction, just as Christianity does (and for that matter, as Islam does), it is, as to my knowledge all non-Christian religions are, lacking in the notion of a supernatural end of man. While not degenerate and perverted like the Islamic notion of paradise, Elysium was conceptualizer as a place of merely natural happiness. The notion that ordinary humans were called to supernatural happiness, the immediate vision of God, is distinct to Christianity (specifically Catholicism and Orthodoxy). All the others either never recognized, or abolished our understanding of Heaven. While I see the appeal of casting Christianity as perfected paganism (and in a sense it is), it is also true that Christianity is categorically different from all the other belief systems.

  12. I’m still struggling to see what are the precise positions here, mainly because it seems there’s a contradiction between the metaphor Michael Paterson-Seymour offered and Bonald and AR’s characterization of the position held by the later scholastics. Both of the latter suggest a significantly less closed off understanding of the distinction between natural and supernatural orders than MPS’s metaphor.

    This was maybe my biggest problem with de Lubac as well, I was never able to grasp what precisely he was arguing against, and without that his own position never took shape in my mind. Perhaps, I need to read more post 16th century Thomists in order to understand?

    Or I could just go back to the medievals, they’re so much more concise and clear than their modern interpreters that I often wonder what the point of reading the latter is.

  13. “While not degenerate and perverted like the Islamic notion of paradise…”

    We do find in Islam the notion of union with the Divine, in a form which may well be pre-Islamic.

    Thus, we find the great Persian mystic, Bayazid Bastami (804-874), known as “one of the six bright stars in the firmament of the Messenger,” praying “Oh, Allah, how long this “you” and “I” remain between You and I. Take this “I” from me so all that remains is “You.””

    As a Sufi, he taught the unity of God (“there is no God but God”) means that He alone is being and that the self and the created world are illusions. This he regarded as the root of all religions, so all provide a path to enlightenment.

    “How,“ he was asked, “does Islam view other religions?”
    “All are vehicles and a path to God’s Divine Presence,” he replied.

    The similarity to Neo-Platonism is obvious enough and also to strands of Hindu thought. It appears his family was originally Zoroastrian. His shrine in Chittagong is still an important place of pilgrimage, not only for Muslims, but for Hindus, who regard him as an “Enlightened One.”

  14. “Perhaps, I need to read more post 16th century Thomists in order to understand?”

    You should.

    The whole concept of Natura Pura was developed largely in response to Baius (1513-1589) and is best understood in the context of that debate, especially around “the state of innocent nature.”

    Baius’s lifetime spanned the first publication of the text of the New Testament by Erasmus (60 years after the invention of printing and afte3r 30,000 titles had issued from the presses) and which is often taken as marking the end of the Dark Ages, to the Council of Trent and beyond. During this time, a huge number of editions of the Fathers, especially the Greek and Syrian Fathers, containing much material previously unknown in the West and much known only in defective Latin versions, were published.

    Add to this the focusing on the subject of the state of innocence and the effects of the Fall in controversy with the Reformers.

    Indeed, one of the great errors of the later Scholastics was their attempt to extract from the Mediaevals solutions to problems they never addressed.

  15. I don’t really have an opinion on the two v one end controversy. Man’s end is God, yet there can exist perfect natural happiness apart from the supernatural (e.g. Limbo). So I think it’s a bit above my head.

    P.S. When I called the Islamic concept of paradise degenerate and perverted, I was referring to its depiction as a place of license (e.g. seventy two virgins for martyrs).

  16. Michael P-S,
    Do you have an opinion on whether or not there is such a thing as “Christian philosophy?”

  17. It’s obvious to me that man has a natural end. How else could non-Christians have ever said anything sensible about human excellence? Think of it as a proof by construction:

    To be proved: It is possible to describe a human being excelling in his purely natural capacities without invoking supernatural grace.
    Proof: The Nichomachean Ethics
    QED

  18. I don’t suppose you are willing to say that Aristotle knew, exhaustively, the capacities of man; that is, that there is no new knowledge given in revelation that enlarged the pagan philosophical view of man. For instance, is mercy natural or supernatural? If its central role is only provided by supernatural revelation, then there is no way that, unaided, man could have realized it.

  19. Even an account of man’s natural virtues and excellence will be incomplete apart from revelation. As evidenced by the fact that the historical pagan philosophers, though they certainly said many true things, nevertheless remained mired in much error (the chief of which being idolatry, identified by Aquinas as the gravest of all sins). This list is taken from Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma:

    http://www.theworkofgod.org/dogmas.htm

    Note #9 under God the Sanctifier:

    In the state of fallen nature, it is morally impossible for man without supernatural Revelation, to know easily, with absolute certainty, and without admixture of error, all religious and moral truths of the natural order.

    So I don’t think it correct to act as if the natural and supernatural orders are entirely disconnected.

  20. Arkansas Reactionary,

    Morally impossible, sure, even nomologically impossible, metaphysically possible.

    The Thomists have this one right.

  21. […] Speaking of Feser’s article, Bonald takes his own excursion on that here: Liberalism and Islam, Christianity and paganism. […]

  22. > For instance, is mercy natural or supernatural?

    Julius Caesar was well known for it.

  23. Bonald you might be right or it might be much simpler than either you or Feser suggest. Islam is largely a religion of exotic brown and black peoples. So the contemporary left has a natural affinity for them.

  24. DJ,

    That’s true. But on the other hand, the analogy of a two-story house is definitely faulty, since if that were true, non-Christians would be free to choose limbo (natural perfection), yet limbo can only exist for the invincibly ignorant, rejection of supernatural paradise merits damnation, privation of even natural happiness.

  25. AR, yes, I agree that analogy is inapt, for exactly the reason you say.

  26. >Julius Caesar was well known for it.<

    Seriously? Mercy as we now know it to be?

  27. Amazingly I had a recent discussion about the Pagan character of Christianity vis-a-vis something like Islam and Judaism. I like think it was rather destiny, not chance, that Christianity became ubiquitous among the Pagan peoples of Europe. We certainly see the Gospels through a beautiful lens of our own inner tradition.

  28. Mark — yes, Christianity fulfilled the hopes of the pagans just as much of the Jews. My atheist friends sometimes say that the Empire’s conversion to Christianity was just rational, that they had been trending more and more toward monotheism over time, and that Christianity drew from and baptized the abundant source material of pagan religions. They think this is a strike against Christianity rather than argument for its basic truth, that Christ was born into the world in the fullness of time for the redemption of man.

  29. Proph:
    An atheist would have to see it that way: as the unfolding of mindless ateleological forces. The fact that Christianity was exactly what the world needed at exactly the right time is a product of random events plus natural selection. Otherwise we might accidentally see the God in it that we are so desperately trying not to see.

  30. It’s not exactly a corollary, but you’ll also get arguments from atheists against the the divine origin of Christianity, though they don’t phrase it in those terms, that run along the lines of: some religions which predate Christianity have features which somewhat resemble things in Christianity (eg. there is supposedly an image in Egyptian paganism which looks like the Madonna-with-child), therefore Christianity is a mere man-made amalgamation of odds and ends from previous religions.

    The rationalist riposte to this is that these things are coincidental; the more common Christian understanding, I think, is that the law of God is written in the heart of man, and that beyond that we cannot escape some vestige of primordial truths, whether this is manifested in a clouded-but-generally-positive way (eg. Aristotle’s philosophy) or twisted almost beyond recognition by demonic forces (eg. the Aztec temple sacrifices).

  31. @Peasant

    It’s worth noting that practically, a lot of that can be refuted by pointing out that the similarity was made up wholecloth (e.g. Horus did not have twelve disciples and rise from the dead after three days, that’s effectively an internet rumor).

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