Spengler: Islam as Neo-Pagan?

Spengler, writing in First Things (a theme continued in his Asian Times posts like this one), on the argument that Islam is a pagan revival and therefore incompatible with liberal democratic rule. He follows the thinking of the great Jewish theologian of the 20th century Franz Rosenzweig, interestingly an anti-Zionist. [Historical footnote: anti-Zionism (i.e. against the creation of the state of Israel) was the dominant position of Jewish intellectuals prior to WWII. Only Rabbi Kook comes to mind as a Zionist Rabbinic master.]

The reason, in a nutshell, according to Spengler is the following (from the ATimes article linked above):

The first premise of Western democracy, that the rights of the weakest and most despised citizens are sacred, stems from the Judeo-Christian notion of divine humility. The creator of the universe suffers along with his creatures, and bears a special love for the weak and helpless, a belief that appears absurd in Islam. Islam has no inherent concept of humility; it can only be imported to Muslim countries from the outside.

Democracy in its modern form is the almost exclusive province of Christian (and in the single case of Israel, Jewish) countries. I have argued that it is the Judeo-Christian experience of divine love that makes it possible for representative democracy to flourish, because imitation of God reveres the rights of the weak and helpless. “Almost exclusive” is the operative term, for democracy functions well in some Asian countries. Next to love is humility, which acknowledges the limits of one man to impose his will upon another. For example, Japanese culture contains no concept of divine love in the Christian sense, but it does know humility, thanks to the instruction of the United States during 1941-1945 and the succeeding occupation.

No concept of intermediate cause, or rational ordering of the universe, is to be found in mainstream Islam. Allah personally and directly orders every event, from the trifling to the grandiose. The Muslim submits to Allah, the absolutely transcendent ruler of the universe, in return for his mercy and beneficence. That is why Muslim faith hinges upon success.

Rosenzweig correctly describes the pagan state thusly:

In the thoroughly organized State, the State and the individual do not stand in the relation of a whole to a part. Instead, the state is the All, from which the power flows through the limbs of the individual. Everyone has his determined place, and, to the extent that he fulfills it, belongs to the All of the State. . . . The individual of antiquity does not lose himself in society in order to find himself, but rather in order to construct it; he himself disappears. The well-known difference between the ancient and all modern concepts of democracy rightly arise from this. It is clear from this why antiquity never developed the concept of representative democracy. Only a body can have organs; a building has only parts.

Important to recall that spiritually, Nazism was not atheist but revived Germanic paganism. But again how this connects to Islam is not made entirely clear. Other than an attempt at comparing thoroughly organized with Islamism. But again, medieval Catholicism was organismic, “holistic” (in the bad sense). Russian Orthodox feudalism comes to mind.

In other words, prior to the Resourcement Theology of 20th century Roman Catholicism (de Lubac, Balthasar, even Protestant Barth), this notion of the Divine Giving in Self-Love was not emphasized in Catholic thought. God was the dictator of a mythic thought-world, just as God is in too much Sunni Islamic theology. But why exactly is this pagan and why is Islam not comparable to the Catholic world stream prior to Vatican II?

It is certainly correct to point out late magical (red meme**) “pagan” religion existing within “blue” Islam. The cult of death within takfiri jihadism being the most obvious example. That is a pagan belief system. Where land and blood conquer the self, reducing it to the function of the biosphere. Still why is Islam different in this regard than Catholicism, or even let’s say Eastern Christian Orthodoxy, of the Russian variety for example?

It is also certainly true that medieval/Reformation Era Islam (which we are currently seeing) is not able to handle liberal democratic order. But then again neither was Christianity in its medieval and early Reformation modes either. Hence secularism.

As an example of what I mean, Spengler writes:

For Rosenzweig, holy war is the sine qua non of Islam, precisely because war is the most sacred act of pagan society in general.

Is the logic circular here? War is the most sacred act of paganism (true), Islam is pagan (argued from but not proved), therefore (false premise?) holy war is the most sacred act of Islam.

Again, of mythic Islam perhaps, though even there debatable. Even most sacred certainly does mean “most common” or “largest scale.” And true modern Islam does not yet have a major reach, but it is the identification of Islam with one form of Islam that I find incorrect and troubling. While at the same time papering over the mass evolution within Spengler’s own Catholicism. His response would I think be something like the following. The Resourcement Theology (“return to the sources”) that brought about the conservatively interpreted Benedict-style Vatican II RC theology he promotes was in fact a return to the Patristic Fathers. The modern Catholic Thomism therefore being an aberration. If Islam returns to its sources it will not return to a religion of revealed love (and therefore protection of the weak) but further war.

Though again tough to square that with the huge emphasis in Islam on the protection of the poor. The care of the weak and infirmed. Historically yes, within the Islamic community first and foremost (and “protected” groups like Zoroastrians, Christians, and Jews only secondarily). But what if that were freed in an Islamic Transformation (not Reformation)? The Resourcement Theology I would argue was not simply a Return to the Sources, but also a Re-reading/Re-interpretation of the Sources in light of the experience of the industrial liberal democratic world. Why not the same for Islamic theology?

Where Spengler (via Rosenzweig) may have a theological point I think is the question of intermediacy. Does eternity work through the realm of time in stages, non-repeatable emergent leaps? Or does it simply in mosaic, patchwork form, in disconnected, discrete moment to moment, start and re-start the process in its entirety? Is there room for an Islamic process theology in other words?

The intermediary quality, the Divine humiliation is necessary for a theology to enter its modern phase. I think Islamic theologians should take Rosenzweig & Spengler seriously, their charges, as hard as that may be and how easy it would be to write the critiques off as anti-Islamic. That may or may not be a true charge, but the criticism I think needs to be answered nonetheless.

**This post uses the language of Spiral Dynamic.  For a visual representation of the levels and their meanings, here.  (via Formless Mountain).

Published in: on November 23, 2007 at 7:51 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. Talk about throwing stones in a glass house

    It ironic how he could say

    “The creator of the universe suffers along with his creatures, and bears a special love for the weak and helpless, a belief that appears absurd in Islam”

    Then link Judaism to Christianity, by saying it’s a Judeo-Christian experience, whereas the concept of God in Judaism is far closer to Islam than Christianity. The above would also be absurd to a Jew. Christian themselves makes distinction between God as portrayed in the Old Testament and the God in the New Testament.

    He has conveniently blotted out so much of Church, Western and Islamic History it’s laughable, he seems only to being speaking of the contemporary situation.

    He roots this in Divine Love, however the contemporary western world was built from the enlightenment and the curtailing of the power of the church. Secularism is equivalent of the government exiling God from the affairs of the government. This was something not rooted in Christianity it was done despite Christianity.

    He say the Creator suffering for his creation is a sign of divine love saying nothing of if this divine love is reciprocated by the creation, namely does the creation suffer for their love of God, which does not seem case because the western world minimize and in some cases undermine God’s authority.

    There are five pillars that make up Islam and one pillar, ZAKAT is dedicated whole heartedly to the poor and weak of society, to the extent that under the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, a group arose and stated that they were not going to pay the ZAKAT and Abu Bakr declared war and fought these Muslims, in order to give the poor their right. Is there an event as comparable in Christian or Jewish History, in which a war was fought exclusively to help the poor and sick.

    The fact that Arabs themselves represent a minority is Islam, and the love that Muslim have for Arabs is obscured.

    Lastly and most definitively, during Prophet Muhammad’s (SAS) final sermon, which every Muslim knows, he stated the following:

    “O People, listen to me in earnest, worship ALLAH, say your five daily prayers (Salah), fast during the month of Ramadhan, and give your wealth in Zakat. Perform Hajj if you can afford to. You know that every Muslim is the brother of another Muslim. YOU ARE ALL EQUAL. NOBODY HAS SUPERIORITY OVER OTHER EXCEPT BY PIETY AND GOOD ACTION.”

  2. e,

    thanks for the comment. there are a whole mess of problems with this theory. You’ve pointed some of them out.

    The “love” theology is really the theology of Franz Rosenzweig (for Judaism) and Karl Barth (for Christianity). I think those theologies are quite beautiful in their way, but it is not clear that those are not very modern (post-Western Enlightenment) theologies.

    The other problem I think is that by invoking Spengler, everything becomes a question of decline and fall. Spengler made history to be like an organism—birth, maturation, decline, death. No doubt in many cases that is true but it doesn’t have to be.

    There can be death of a limitation and resurrection to a higher place. That seems to be missing, which from a Christian is problematic to say the least.



  3. To say “Pagan” and therefore “False” is quite repulsive and offensive. The only reason why the West is christian is because everyone thought the Roman Emperor was God at the time and an Emperor converted. You people are not true Europeans or whatever, your SELL OUT’s and sold your soul’s just for christian privilage.

    By the way it was the Greeks who invented democracy. Pagans gave the world natural medicine, Pyramids, Heliocentricism and Round Earth (these truths were considered heresy by your idiotic church), Great Wall of China, Roman roads, plumbing, Aquaducts, I can go on. Meanwhile no record exist of the mythological Jesus and nothing substanciates the badly written myth of the book of revelation.

  4. J,

    I didn’t say pagan=false, so your entire criticism falls apart after that point. btw, I’m very glad the Romans figured out plumbing.

    The way I’m using pagan is in a specific, more historically bound and I’ll admit imperfect sense. But to understand what I mean by the term, you have to learn the color system in Spiral Dynamics. I’m using pagan essentially as synonymous with purple and red in that system. That is not the only definition of pagan that could be, but I was responding to one specific author and he was using the term in the same way, and trying to apply it to Islam and I was critiquing that view.

    Also, The Book of Revelation is not written to predict the future, which is I think what are you talking about??? It’s an apocalyptic text–everything is code for something else going in their contemporary history. So I have no idea what you mean by “nothing substantiates” it. That’s like saying nothing substantiates King Lear or The Matrix. What would that even mean?

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