Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Islam is Not the Problem

If you were to watch the world news and listen to the pronouncements of our leaders, you would think we were at war with Islam.  Almost every night we see images of fanatical people brandishing flags with Arabic slogans and proclaiming Allahu Akbar (God is Great) alongside images of bombed out building, beheadings and abductions.  We hear stories of Christians and other religious minorities fleeing for their lives to avoid the choice of execution or forced conversion.  Is this an inevitable result of Islamic dominance in society, or is something else going on?

I have been convinced for long time that Islam is not the problem.  Not that Islamic extremism isn't a problem, but that this is an historical anomaly not an inevitable result of Islam. I want to try to explain briefly why I think this.

When these persecutions and religious cleansing efforts first became headline news and various commentators and friends started suggesting they were a logical result of the teachings of the Koran and Hadith, my first thought was that this didn't make any sense historically.  The Prophet Mohammed received his revelations in the early seventh century CE and Islam has been the dominant faith in the Middle East since the eighth century - 1,200 years and counting.  For much of this time the Arabic-dominated cultures of the Middle East and North Africa were the most powerful and advanced civilisation on earth, dominating and threatening their Christian neighbours.

Yet through the 20th century there were still substantial, thriving Christian populations in places like Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Iraq.  There were also other historic faiths such as the Yazidi, the Samaritans and communities of Jews who remained in the Middle East after the fall of the Roman Empire and rise of Islam.  There is also a diverse set of minority interpretations of Islam - Shi'ites, Druze, Alawites, Sufis and so on.  If Islam is inherently intolerant, how has such diversity survived for 1,200 years?

The answer is that the level of intolerance we are seeing in the some parts of Middle East now is a relatively new development, imposed by a radical minority.  The majority view in Islam, and the view that has prevailed through most of history, is that minority religions, particularly "religions of the Book" including Christianity and Judaism, are to be licensed and tolerated.  This toleration has not always been totally benign and there have been instances of persecution throughout history, but these are the exception, not the norm.  The norm is the type of regime we now see just to our north in Indonesia and Malaysia - a regime in which Islam is dominant and demands to be respected as such, but followers of minority religions are permitted to practice their own religion (often requiring payment of a extra tax known as the jizya) provided they respect the sensibilities of their Islamic rulers.

We can also see this dichotomy in Australia.  There are currently around half a million Muslims in Australia.  Recent news reports suggest that there are less than 300 Australian supporters of Islamic State including 120 fighting overseas.  In other words, about 0.06% of Australian Muslims actively support IS.  What of the other 99.94%?  Every indication is that the vast majority are as appalled by IS as anyone else - indeed many of them have fled similar regimes.  This horror is the norm in Islam.

If the current radical activism is historically relatively new, and is a small minority position in Islam, why is it gaining increasing power and influence now?  What has led to this change?

Earlier this year I attempted to develop a framework for understanding immediate surface phenomena and their underlying causes through a simple pyramid diagram.  The diagram below reworks this to provide a context for the current Islamic radicalism.  Click on it so see it full-size.


At the top level is the phenomenon we are focused on - the rise of radical political Islam with its extreme fundamentalist interpretation, its radical intolerance and its use of terror as a weapon of war.  We are right to be frightened of this, but what has brought it into being after all these centuries?

Sitting just beneath this surface is a history of international tensions.  These are quite complex but we can think of them as being of two types.  The first is the long-standing ethnic and religious tensions that have developed through the centuries within the Middle East and North Africa.  There are tensions between Peninsula Arabs, Northern Arabs, Persians, Kurds, Egyptians, and so forth.  There are also tensions between the branches of Islam - particularly between Sunni and Shia - and between different interpretations within the Sunni majority.

In the past century these tensions have been further exacerbated by increased American and European intervention in the region's affairs.  The fall of the Ottoman empire after World War 1 saw the region divided between the victorious powers who created states and protectorates within their spheres of influence, often cutting across ethnic and religious divides and exacerbating existing conflicts.  This led to the creation of unstable states which degenerated fairly quickly into various forms of dictatorship.  At the same time, US and European meddling has sowed the seeds of our current problems - Al Qaeda (of which Islamic State is a breakaway faction) and the Taliban were both covertly supported by the CIA in the 1980s as a way of undermining Russian rule in Afghanistan.

A preference for manipulation at a distance and the fighting of proxy wars has given way to increasing levels of direct intervention, beginning with the first Iraq War in 1991.  On the third level down we see an explanation for why these conflicts have escalated in the past 25 years. We are starting to hit a number of hard ecological limits and these are biting in the Middle East in various ways.  The approach of peak oil has led to greater competition for increasingly scarce oil supplies.  In particular, the dwindling of the US's own supplies at home has left it more dependent than it has ever been on Middle Eastern oil and hence more desperate to secure its access.

At the same time the processes of climate change have worked alongside the ravages of sanctions and war to impoverish large parts of the populations of countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt.  Displaced farmers and rural workers have moved to the cities, escaping drought and joining throngs of urban unemployed.  These populations become hotbeds of dissent, attracting the wrath of dictatorial rulers.  A good deal of their anger is directed inwards, but some is also directed outwards towards the West as the US and its allies are seen as responsible for many of the problems they experience.  The further resulting breakdown in these countries is not necessarily an accidental by-product of Western intervention - Noam Chomsky, for instance, has suggested that the creation of weak and divided governments in oil-rich states serves US interests by removing barriers to oil wealth.

At the deepest level, what are the illusions that sustain this mutually destructive behaviour?  I would suggest there are two.  One is our absolutisation of our cultures, nations and "ways of life".  The Middle East and the West are in a symbiotic relationship over oil, reinforcing the mutual delusion that our economies and technologies can continue as they are.  We all know they can't, we are already bumping up against their limits, but we keep trying to eke out the current patterns for as long as possible, despite the damage they do, because they are making our elites rich.

Our rejection of the necessary fundamental changes - changes in technology, in wealth distribution, in food production - leads us instead to foster illusions about ourselves.  For us Westerners, it is an illusion about the present - our image of ourselves as enlightened and democratic.  This leads to us attempting to enforce a kind of moral ascendancy on the countries of the Middle East, to try to bomb them into being kinder and less belligerent.

On the Middle Eastern side, extreme Islam promotes an illusion about the past - an illusion of a pure, righteous form of Islam untainted by any compromise with the West, symbolised by such ideas as the Caliphate of Islamic State.  There was never such a pure state, Islam always compromised with those around it like we all do, but our 21st century radicals attempt to escape the humiliation of the present by returning to an imagined heroic ideal.

Neither the causes nor the remedies for complex global issues are ever simple.  My description oversimplifies and glosses over many things, but if I'm right it provides a framework within which we can begin to understand not only the day to day realities, but the bedrock of questions which underlie them.  It is not simply a matter of defeating Islam, nor even of defeating radical Islam, because so much of the problem lies within ourselves.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Farewell, Tony

So, it's kind of strange to find that once again our government has changed leaders.


Not because it was a surprise.  Abbott has already been challenged once since he became Prime Minister, and put on notice that he needed to do better.  He didn't.  Rumours have been flying for weeks, Cabinet has been leaking like a sieve, polls have been plunging.

What is surprising is that Malcolm Turnbull is prepared to take the job.  When Julia Gillard deposed Kevin Rudd in the midst of his first term it went really badly.  She couldn't criticise a government of which she had been part, nor claim it did a great job in the light of the fact she had deposed its leader.  She was left clinging to the rocks as the waves of negativity battered her from all sides.

Why have our recent Prime Ministers (and indeed, Opposition Leaders) had such a short shelf-life?  One possibility is that politics these days is not a very attractive career choice, so we don't have the calibre of people we once had.  There is no Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating or Howard in the current parliament.

This may be true.  Our current leaders are not an impressive lot.  The shallowness of their pronouncements on important issues, their inability to focus on anything beyond the 24 hour media cycle, is a constant source of frustration for anyone who cares about where our country is headed.

I suspect this is a symptom, rather than the problem.  No one person can grasp the complexity of the issues that face a national government.  Good governance requires a team, a group of people with different skills, backgrounds and training who work together.  Small things need to be delegated, big things need to be dealt with collectively.

Rudd, Gillard and Abbott all forgot this, and tried to solve problems on their own.  Of the three, Abbott was the worst at it because he was the stupidest of the three by a long distance.  He made absurd calls on things he should have left well alone, like knighting Prince Philip.  He took policy positions to Cabinet that had not been properly researched, and tried to force them through without discussion.  He continually acted like his job was to destroy his opponents rather than govern the country.  When people asked him difficult questions about the economy he just talked about something else.

Yet, even if he had a brain the size of the planet, being a one-man-band still wouldn't have worked for him.  After all, look what happened to Rudd.  I know I bang on a lot about presidential politics and the Westminster System, but at last we have a Prime Minister who agrees with me.  Here is what he said in his first press conference after taking over the leadership.

The culture of our leadership is going to be one that is thoroughly consultative.  A traditional...a thoroughly traditional Cabinet government that ensures that we make decisions in a collaborative manner.  The Prime Minister of Australia is not a President.  The Prime Minister is the first among equals.

Music to my ears!  At last, a Prime Minister who understands how the system is supposed to work!

Still, I'm not getting too excited.  To begin with, for this approach to work the team needs to be reasonably united.  They don't have to love one another, but they have to be capable of working together.  There are 44 people in the Liberal Party who didn't want Turnbull to lead them, You can bet your bottom dollar that people like Joe Hockey, Matthias Cormann and Cory Bernardi will not just quietly fall into line behind Turnbull.  The leaks and destabilisation will go on.

Nor is Turnbull's record that encouraging.  After all, the last time the Liberal leadership changed hands was in 2009, and the issue was that Turnbull had unilaterally decided to support the Labor-proposed Emissions Trading Scheme over the heads of his own party members who were implacably opposed.  What has he learned from this experience?

The other reason I'm not very excited is that whether they work together or fight like cats in a bag, they are still a bunch of Tories.  Turnbull may be a more reasonable, articulate Tory, but that's as far as it goes.  They'll still be cutting welfare, screwing the workers, promoting the interests of big business, trashing the environment and imprisoning innocent asylum seekers.  Who cares if they are doing it collegially?

Friday, 4 September 2015

The Inescapable Love of God

Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading Thomas Talbott's book, The Inescapable Love of God.   I'm not really obsessed with the question of universal salvation but it does form part of my Christian faith and the question has come up in my church over the past year as some others move in a more Calvinist direction.  So I thought I'd provide a quick review just to keep the pot boiling.

The Inescapable Love of God was first published in 1999, but has been out of print for a number of years before Talbott and Cascade Books released a second edition last year.  Universalism aside the author appears to be a fairly orthodox and even conservative Protestant, perhaps in a similar mode to Robin Parry whose book The Evangelical Universalist was published in 2006 (under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald) and dedicated to Talbott alongside my cousin Alex.

Yet while Talbott's influence on Parry is clear, his book is very different to Parry's.  Parry concentrates on the biblical case, providing an exhaustive treatment of the various passages that relate to the subject.  Talbott, who is primarily a philosopher rather than a theologian, provides a briefer summary of the biblical case followed by a more lengthy exploration of the philosophical issues involved.  At the time of its publication Talbott had already been arguing for Universalism for some time through journal articles and other short works, and the book serves in part as a more detailed response to his critics.

Like so many Christian Universalists, Talbott's impetus to explore the question came from his confrontation with the problem of suffering.  In his case, it was a philosophical rather than a personal confrontation - as a young philosophy student he took a course in which his skeptical lecturer presented the class with a series of arguments against the existence of God, each of which they were encouraged to explore and do their best to refute.  Talbott found himself stumped by the problem of suffering, and this started him on the path that led him eventually to Christian Universalism.

He starts his analysis of the question by presenting three commonly held foundational Christian ideas - that God loves all his creatures, that he is all-powerful and will ultimately triumph, and that some people will be redeemed while others are condemned to eternal torment.  All three ideas, he says, can be plausibly argued from the Bible, but only two of them can be correct.

For Augustine, Calvin and their followers the first proposition is modified - God loves some of us, but not others.  For Arminians, followers of 16th century Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, the second proposition is modified - God loves all of us but we are able to thwart his will by the exercise of our own, effectively condemning ourselves to hell.  For Universalists the third proposition is modified - all people will ultimately be reconciled to God.

Because all three propositions can be supported from the Bible, your interpretive procedure will depend to a large extent on where you start.  Which passages will you treat as foundational, and for which will you try to find alternative explanations?

Talbott begins with one of Paul's classic statements of universal reconciliation, Romans 5:18.

Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life to all men.

This idea is repeated in 1 Corinthians 15:22.

As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

Since both these verses are paired statements, the most logical way of reading them is to see the "all men" (that is, all people) who were condemned or died as a result of Adam's sin as the same as the "all men" who were justified or made alive through Christ - that is, the whole of humanity. This was how many of the church fathers viewed the matter, including Origen and Gregory of Nyssa among others.

However, once the Empire-sponsored church of the fourth and fifth centuries imposed uniformity of doctrine it opted for the exclusivist view of Augustine and others, a view more congenial to an authoritarian Church and State which uses both physical and spiritual weapons to enforce obedience.  This meant these passages had to be interpreted in a less logical way.  Augustine, for instance, thought that the second "all" (but not the first) suggested all classes and nations rather than all individuals.  But why?  Not because it is the most logical reading, but because he (and others who came after) believed that the rest of Scripture taught that some people would be condemned to eternal torment.

Where in Scripture is this taught?  Talbott addresses three passages commonly referred to by his opponents - the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and 2 Thessalonians 1:9, "they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord".

In relation to the two parables he points our first of all that they are parables, not literal predictions of future events.  Parables are typically designed to dramatise (often through the use of hyperbole) a central point.  The point of these two parables is similar.  The Sheep and the Goats teaches that we should see Jesus in the most humble and needy of those around us, and hence treat them with compassion.  The Rich Man and Lazarus teaches that those of us who have plenty should share our wealth with those who have nothing.  The purpose of the dramatic rewards and punishments is to reinforce this message, rather than to outline the future of a proportion of humanity.

His second point is that none of these three references talk about punishment that goes on forever.  The Rich Man and Lazarus simply refers to a present situation: "between us and you a great chasm has been fixed".  There is no indication that this chasm can't be bridged in the future - for instance, through the death of Christ.

The other two passages are more problematic - 2 Thessalonians refers to "everlasting destruction" while The Sheep and the Goats refers to "eternal fire".  Talbott's argument is that the Greek word aionios, translated "eternal" or "everlasting", does not mean something that goes on forever.  It means primarily something that comes from and belongs to God.  Hence the prevailing English translation of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 is misleading - it would be more accurate to render it as referring to the "destruction (or punishment) that comes from God".  For Talbott (and he says for Paul) such punishment is redemptive, a destruction of what is evil in us so that we can present ourselves before God with a cleansed conscience.

There are many more passages Talbott could have referred to but these are enough to illustrate his point.  Once you accept the clear universal intent of passages such as Romans 5, it is then possible - and in fact preferable - to understand passages such as 2 Thessalonians 1 and the condemnation scenes in Jesus' parables as consistent with this intent.

The second part of the book deals with a number of issues of religious philosophy.  The first is the nature of God and particularly the idea that "God is love", as articulated by John.  What part does love play in God's character?  Augustinian theologians often portray God as having a number of attributes - love, mercy, wrath, justice and so on.  God's love requires him to have compassion on us, but his justice requires that our sin be punished.

Within this framework it is easy to slip into a picture of God at war with himself and of the Trinity as divided - the Father expressing justice while the Son expresses love.  Talbott is aware that this is a caricature but this hasn't stopped it finding its way into popular piety, as shown in some of our more gruesome worship music.  Talbott suggests it makes much more sense to see God's nature as simple and undivided - God's love, mercy and justice are expressions of the one character - his love is just, his justice is loving.  Once we understand this it takes us away from a view of justice as retributive, towards a view of restorative justice guided by love.

This leads directly into what Talbott refers to as the "Augustinian paradox".  The paradox is this -  those who God elects will be admitted to God's presence to enjoy eternal bliss, while those he rejects will be consigned to eternal torment.  However, we are not isolated individuals and our happiness depends on the happiness and wellbeing of others.  If I am in heaven but my mother, wife or child is in eternal torment, heaven will not be heaven for me.  I will be tormented every day by the thought of their suffering.

If, as we are generally taught, we will be perfected in heaven and cleansed of our sin and selfishness, our torment will be all the greater as we think of those who suffer, even if they are strangers to us.  To avoid inflicting this suffering on us God will either have to hide it from us (perhaps also blotting out our memories of those loved ones - in effect, a kind of spiritual lobotomy) or teach us to enjoy it.  Neither option is consistent with the character of God.  Heaven can only truly be heaven if we are all there together.

These considerations apply more to a Augustinian view, but Talbott also deals with the question of free will which is central to Arminian theology.  For Augustinians God consigns some people to hell.  For Arminians some people consign themselves to hell by refusing God's mercy and God does not force them - as CS Lewis says, "the doors of hell are locked from the inside".  Is this position logically tenable?

The key question here is: Can God save everyone, even the most reluctant and determined, without violating human free will?  Talbott accepts that a certain level of alienation from God may be essential for us to become truly human - to grow up, as it were, as independent thinking beings made in God's image.  However, is it essential that such alienation always be possible?

Interestingly Lewis himself talks about his own conversion in terms of compulsion - of coming to the point, with great reluctance, where he felt he had no other choice.  Is this not possible with everyone?  In a cosmos where God is ever-present and the veils are removed, why would anyone deny God?  Even those who are reluctant or firmly rebellious, brought face to face with God and perhaps, in the extremities, sent into the "outer darkness", would eventually acknowledge God as all in all without any violation of their free will, even if there is an element of pressure and a stripping away of alternatives as happened for Lewis.

Now, as you know I'm a Universalist and I find Talbott's arguments helpful and convincing, as you'd expect.  He is clear-headed and thorough in making his case, and he has honed his arguments carefully over multiple controversies.  I doubt he will convince either confirmed Calvinists or confirmed Arminians but he has ensured that the debate can continue and given comfort to Universalists who frequently find themselves isolated within their churches.

However, it occurred to me that he hasn't solved his own problem.  He started his journey into Universalism as a result of the problem of suffering, but Universalism doesn't solve this.  Certainly it eases it a little in psychological terms with the promise of its eventual end, something neither Calvinism nor Arminianism can claim.  Yet in the meantime we still suffer.  I suspect the problem is insoluble, but I would love Talbott to explain how he has solved it....