In America and across Europe, the business of government has been detached from religious faith. This detachment is made explicit in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which forbids the federal government from making any establishment of religion—in other words, from imposing on the people the beliefs and rituals of any particular faith. But it is also the norm throughout the Western world and is often considered to be part of the Christian legacy. The Christian church was compelled from the beginning to recognize that it occupied a negotiated space, in the larger realm of secular government. St. Paul urged his followers to respect “the powers that be,” and Christ himself had argued that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s—in other words, that we should obey the secular law and not claim exemption from it on religious grounds. Without those cautious pronouncements, the Christian faith would have entered into immediate conflict with the Roman authorities, who tolerated all gods, but only if those gods were as obedient to Rome as the people who worshipped them. As soon as Rome felt threatened by the Christian God, Christians began to be persecuted. And of course later, when Christianity had triumphed and taken on the form of spiritual government, nominally distinct from the secular rule of law but always breathing down its neck, heretics, unbelievers, and Jews were persecuted in their turn.
“You can lose your faith without losing the values that derive from it or the spiritual orientation that it implanted in your soul. And you might retain those things and be all the more distressed by a secular culture that mocks or tramples on them.”
In the time of the Prophet Muĥammad, the Roman Empire had fragmented, and secular government tended to be local, customary, and often tribal. Muĥammad was not negotiating a space for his religion within an imperial order. Instead, he was introducing legal order in a situation where power, rather than law, had the upper hand. As a result, Islam took on quite another character—a way of life, in which law is re-conceived so as to reflect the divine light that shone on the world through the words and deeds of the Prophet. In the seventeenth century, when Christians in Europe were fighting to the death for the sake of their rival doctrines, travelers in the Ottoman Empire were astonished to discover a form of government, which, while nominally Muslim, guaranteed the safety and religious practices of Christians and Jews. But it was not a government founded on secular law, even if it took over from the Byzantine Empire some of the principles of Roman civil law. The Qur’an recognizes secular law but within a framework established by submission to the law of God. Hence, in the fourth chapter of the Qur’an titled “Women” (al-Nisā’), verse 59 tells believers to obey God, and the Prophet, and their rulers.
All this means that we cannot rely on the history either of Christian or of Islamic civilization to tell us exactly how to negotiate the relation between secular government and religious belief today: The nominally secular law of Europe did nothing to prevent the religious massacres and genocides of the seventeenth century, while the nominally religious law of the Ottomans kept the peace between rival faiths for several centuries. But those old ways of reaching a compromise between rival allegiances are no longer trusted and no longer truly available. Hence, the tension between religion and secular government remains and has not diminished merely because so many people are losing their faith. For you can lose your faith without losing the values that derive from it or the spiritual orientation that it implanted in your soul. And you might retain those things and be all the more distressed by a secular culture that mocks or tramples on them, precisely because you have nowhere to turn in your desire to defend them.
Religious believers, faced with a secular culture in which violent, pornographic, and dehumanizing words and images are protected as “free speech,” can take refuge in their faith, saying to themselves that their revulsion towards such things is not merely justified but proof that they are sheltered by their religion and by their community of co-religionists. They can, therefore, look on the surrounding world with a kind of detachment, hoping that more people might come to share their distaste for the nastiness but meanwhile not feeling too much threatened by it. Those who have no faith, or who have retained only the values and the posture of faith without its metaphysical certainties, have no such easy way of protecting themselves. There is, for them, no refuge from the secular culture, and if that culture seems like a desecration, they can only strive to bear it as best they can, while burying their values, their hopes, and their spirituality ever more deeply in themselves. We see this attitude in much modern literature, especially in the early poetry of T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and others in the early twentieth century.
Unlike many of my contemporaries in the intellectual world, I see religion as a natural endowment of the human species—a way of understanding the world and our own place in it that brings the stability and solace that we need. Without religion, we risk being lost in the pursuit of pleasure and advantage, tempted away from all durable commitments and without the virtue on which societies ultimately depend, which is the virtue of sacrifice. Ever since Durkheim’s great study of the “elementary forms of the religious life,” it has been apparent that religion bestows on us, in addition to a comprehensive way of understanding the world and the God who created it, the comforts of belonging. And this kind of belonging is not simply a matter of signing up to a group, or paying your subscription to receive certain benefits, but an existential commitment, a giving of yourself, of a kind that is beautifully summarized in the Arabic word islām.
On the other hand, scientific knowledge, both of the structure of the universe and of the evolution of the human species, has cast doubt on many of the intellectual assumptions on which traditional religions were built. Hence, many people dismiss the heart of religion, its legacy of moral truth, and its vision of a sacred order. Those things, they argue, are simply illusions, creations of our need for comfort rather than insights into the nature of being. They see nothing besides the material universe, organized by mathematical laws; and, even if the existence of this universe is a marvel that will always surpass our comprehension, we cannot deduce or divine from it anything concerning transcendental realities or maxims as to how we should live.
That understandable skepticism was not bound to lead to the desecrated culture that surrounds us today. It is possible to accept the disenchanted vision of a purely material universe without losing the sense that the world is also a field of moral endeavor, in which there are values, prohibitions, sacred moments, and an exalted sense of our own and others’ worth. Nevertheless, those residues of religious feeling are jeopardized when their metaphysical foundations crumble. For ordinary people, the materialist vision is rather seductive; they become obsessed by the vision of the human being as a merely physical object, a lump of flesh suspended between the two poles of pleasure and pain. And that reductive vision gives rise to all that is most repugnant in the culture that now agonizes us. Human beings are put on display as objects, deprived of their freedom and divested of their capacity for love, gift, sacrifice, and service. And many people spend their days gripped by images of this degradation, watching the physical destruction of fellow human beings in violent movies or their physical excitement in pornographic movies. These loveless images are tempting because they remove from the human condition all that is difficult and demanding, and all that makes life worthwhile—the love, commitment, sacrifice, and giving through which we cultivate our better natures and connect with the realm of sacred things. They are visions of hell and owe their charm to the ease with which we can embrace them, leaving all the difficulties of personal life behind. One of the most important lessons taught by Islam is that we must beware of images. The beauty achieved by a Botticelli or a Michelangelo should not blind us to the fact that the human form, represented in images, tempts us to objectify and degrade what is portrayed. The habit of seeing others as objects, of letting our distracted eyes chase the unreal and the illusory, is both addictive in itself and a fundamental feature of our consumer culture, in which the language of advertisements trumps holy words. Through images of the human face and the human form, we wipe away the true face of others and of the world.
I don’t have to harp on this matter for a Muslim audience. But I think it is important to understand two widespread and influential reactions to this state of affairs. They could be described, tendentiously, as the way of re-enchantment and the way of disenchantment. The first of those is my way; but the second is the way pursued by our culture and, in particular, by the university culture today.
It was the great sociologist Max Weber who first identified disenchantment as a fundamental feature of the modern condition. With the loss of religion, he believed, and the advance of a scientific vision of the universe, old ways of understanding the world disintegrate. We no longer believe in magic connections, and even the concept of human freedom begins to crumble and give way beneath the tide of debunking explanations. The face of the world gradually begins to cloud over: the sun no longer smiles; the birds cease to sing; the naiads vanish from the groves, while the wind in the long grass no longer whispers of God’s love for us. The enchanted world of our ancestors is replaced by a routine exhibition of causal connections. And the laws of motion that govern the universe begin to look like chains, by which we too are bound.
In response to this, we might join in the chorus of debunking, hunting out the meanings and values that have been woven into the fabric of our world and pulling the threads away. Or we can make our own attempt at re-enchantment, perhaps entering into alliances with other religious believers and, in any case, trying to knit up the unraveled fabric by means of the many arts that humans have discovered—poetry, drama, storytelling, law, and myth. One of the purposes of a liberal education, as I understand it, is to help us in this task: to provide the concepts, stories, and analogies that will enable us once again to see the face of the world with clarity, no longer clouded over with skepticism but addressing us, person to person, I to thou. All my work as philosopher, writer, and educator has been devoted to that task, and in The Soul of the World, I argue that the task is a generalization of our day-to-day duty to see each other as subjects of dialogue rather than as objects of use. Concealed within that duty is the precious sense of the human person as a participant in sacred moments, sacred relations, and sacred ways of being. That intuition of the sacred is given to all of us in the practice of personal relations, and even if we do not succeed in translating it into a firm religious faith, it constantly reminds us that, in our deepest feelings, we are not fully at home among ordinary physical transactions. We are exiles in this world, and all art, all nobility and heroism, all beauty and sacrifice are attempts to regain the place where we belong. That, to my mind, is why a liberal education is so important: It is an education in ideals, teaching us to love humanity for that which transcends mere humanity so as to situate our being in a world of sacred things. In exploring beauty in art, music, and poetry, we are also acquainting ourselves with the sacred and arming ourselves against the culture of desecration that is swirling all around. Such, in my view, is the way of re-enchantment.
In all our responses to each other, whether love or hate, affection or disaffection, approval or disapproval, anger or desire, we look into the other in search of that unreachable horizon from which he or she addresses us. Each human object is also a subject, addressing us, in looks, gestures, and words, from the transcendental horizon of the “I.” Our responses to others aim towards that horizon, passing on beyond the body to the being that it incarnates. This is why our interpersonal responses develop in a certain way: We see each other as wrapped within those responses, so to speak, and we hold each other to account for them as though they originated ex nihilo from the unified center of the self.
The indispensable presence in our lives of this reaching towards the other is at the root of philosophy and is the real reason that people find evolutionary and reductionist perspectives on the human condition so hard to accept. It also explains the oft-heard complaint that while our secular societies make room for morality, for knowledge, and for the life of the mind, they suffer from a spiritual deficit. Human beings, we hear, have a “spiritual” dimension, with spiritual needs and values, and people say such things even though they withhold assent from any religion and even though they reject the old idea of the soul, the ruĥ, or regard it as an elaborate metaphor. The reason, I believe, is this: The reaching out to the other is not an unalterable given; it can be educated, turned in new directions, disciplined through virtues, and corrupted through vice. In some cases of extreme autism, it may even be lacking, as it is lacking in animals. But learning to direct your attitudes to the horizon of the other’s being, from which he, in turn, directs his gaze—this requires a discipline that goes further than mere respect. In all that touches what is deepest and most lasting in our lives—religious faith, erotic love, friendship, family ties, and the enjoyment of art, music, and literature—we address the horizon from which the other’s gaze is seeking us. Moral education involves the maintenance of this state of mind, so as to make it possible, in the hardest circumstances, to look the other person in the I, so to speak. That is what people mean by “spiritual” discipline, and it is what Plato called “the care of the soul.” And it is what I call the way of re-enchantment.
However, that kind of education is in retreat before the dominant way of disenchantment, and this is something that we should try to understand. Whether we are religious or whether we are the kind of fellow-traveler of the religious worldview that I have been assuming so far, it is plain to see that the things that are most precious to us are not only being ostracized from the secular culture but also denigrated by our intellectual elites. We live under a secular rule of law that guarantees freedom of religion and tries to define the rights and duties of the citizen without assuming the tenets of any particular faith. This must surely be a precious asset to members of a religious minority who also seek to live with their neighbors as responsible citizens. However, this very same secular rule of law has, until recently, exercised a kind of guardianship over the spiritual life of the nation—not insisting on membership in any faith but acknowledging nevertheless the areas in which our sense of the sacred takes root.
By and large the educated elites in the Western world today are without religious belief and often animated by what I call a “culture of repudiation,” keen to banish old ideas of the sacred from public life and to remake the institutions and structures of civil society so as to reflect their own liberated lifestyle. This attitude, which here in America is called “liberalism,” posits itself as the pursuit of freedom and tends to go hand in hand with a rejection of traditional morality and the customs that sustain ordinary people in their daily lives. Such things are dismissed as forms of oppression.
Learning to deal with this culture of repudiation is one of the great challenges faced by religious people in the West today and also by those to whom I referred earlier, who have retained the concepts through which religion enables us to make sense of our experience—concepts of the sacred, the consecrated, and the sacrificial—even though they might have lost the firm foundation in faith that anchors those concepts. One after another, the sacred spaces that our customs have protected are invaded and spoiled. That which has been assumed to be unquestionable, indeed protected from the questions that might profane it, is for that very reason subjected to question.
The liberal mentality, encountering certainties that seem to place obstacles in the pursuit of desire, is irresistibly tempted to undermine them. If people are certain that marriage, for example, is a relation between man and woman, the liberal instinct is to see this as a constraint on homosexuals. The response is therefore to propose marriage between people of the same sex, which is offered as an entirely innocent reform, a mere expansion of our freedoms. If that attitude is pursued to its logical conclusion, then incestuous relations too could be dignified with the name of “marriage,” precisely because the name would have lost its dignity. If all social life is founded in human choice, and no institution derives its validity from any other source, then there are no certainties and no institutions that encapsulate sacred ties.
Some trace this outlook back to the Enlightenment and to the idea of a social contract based in pure rational choice. And there is truth in that: The social contract was a way of excluding God from the equation so as to root legitimacy not in divine command but in the free choice of human beings. However, we should not ignore the fact that an idea of natural order, in which shared spiritual values governed the customs of family life and the relation of human beings to neighbors, to neighborhood, and to country, was part of the European legacy, shared by the people who came to establish themselves in America and assumed by the American founders. Until very recently, the Enlightenment has been treated as a liberation from superstition but not as an attack on the core decencies of Christian civilization or a repudiation of our moral, legal, and cultural inheritance. On the contrary, thanks to the Enlightenment, writers and artists began to explore the past of our civilization and to discover a vision that they could affirm as their own. Lessing and Goethe discovered Shakespeare, Corneille and Racine discovered the Greek tragedians, Milton discovered Virgil, and the Romantics discovered the Medievals. There was also, at the time, a growing interest in Islam, even conversions to Islam among those who believed that its Unitarian concept of the divinity is uniquely compatible with rational theology. In every case, people were seeking an enduring revelation that would give the true meaning of the temporary doctrine in which it was encased.
When the liberal arts colleges arose in this country during the course of the nineteenth century, it was with the intention of perpetuating that revelation. The idea was to teach young people to appreciate the art, literature, and music of their civilization and, by that means, to reaffirm their membership of it. They would discover, perhaps through Shakespeare, perhaps through Emily Dickinson, that there are permanent values; that family and civil society are not invented from moment to moment or based on impulsive choices; that the institutions of our world contain the wisdom of generations and the ways in which people have solved the problems of social reproduction and learned to live with each other. They would learn of the way in which the sexes have idealized each other and striven to earn the reward of love; they would have discovered heroes and role models, and in general have begun to perceive the world in another way, as imbued with consecrated moments and the record of noble aspirations and tragic defeats. They would learn to inherit a shared vision of their society, a Lebenswelt or lived world, shaped by history and culture as a place of belonging and a bequest that is theirs.
Such, at least, was the intention; and many thinkers—Matthew Arnold in my country, Emerson, Hawthorn, and the James family over here—devoted themselves to justifying such a study, and to showing that you did not have to be a religious believer in order to see its point. For a while, it looked as though a secular culture could reproduce a legacy of spiritual values without demanding conformity to any particular religious belief. And our university professors endorsed the effort, regarding liberal education as a critical discipline, in which the younger generation studied “the best that has been thought and said” in order to profit from its moral and spiritual meaning. Such an education belonged to a culture of affirmation—not a belligerent declaration that “the West is best” but a humble attempt to find, in our cultural legacy, the enduring spiritual order that would enable young people to take possession of it as “ours.”
Now many will say that this education was too privileged and too culturally specific a thing to be of use to us, and that we could find something in the Islamic tradition that is more valuable and more secure. But I think it should also be said that the high culture of Western civilization, as it was taught to me and to my generation, was also open to its neighbors in ways that are no longer sufficiently appreciated. There was, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a kind of ecumenical understanding of high culture in which every genuine expression of the human spirit was given an equal chance of entering the curriculum. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Vedas and the Upanishads were being taught in the German universities, and the Sir Thomas Adams chair of Arabic at the University of Cambridge had existed since 1632. The explosion of interest in Islamic civilization at the end of the seventeenth century had led to an extensive work of translation, beginning with Galland’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights of 1704–1711. Sir Richard Burton’s translation of that work, available since the 1880s, not only influenced the entire practice of storytelling in my country but was remarkable for being unexpurgated—there being no unexpurgated version of that great masterpiece now in print in Arab countries. Rather than mount a case for the obvious, however, let me just say that the criticism levelled by Edward Said and others, that our culture is somehow closed to Eastern influence and dismissive of all that is merely “oriental,” is one part of the habit of repudiation that has in recent years swept all that I have been describing and praising from the intellectual landscape.
This is as likely to target the Islamic legacy as the legacy of Judeo-Christian thinking. This is because it is founded in a single, highly destructive principle, which is that the meaning of culture, in all its forms, is power. Culture is part of the “ideological apparatus” whereby one group, one class, one sex maintains another group, class, or sex in subjection. This idea lies at the root of the new curriculum in the humanities and is the most important legacy of the revolutionary movements of the sixties, whose fiftieth anniversary we are now approaching. It explains the fads for deconstruction, radical feminism, gender studies, queer studies, and the new historicism; it explains the antagonism that has grown between universities and society; and it is a major reason why those who are dismayed by the desecrated popular culture of today can find no easy escape from it, no place or institution where the light of civilization still shines.
How many ordinary people long for the authority that will tell them it is right to turn away from pornography; that sexual relations are not just contracts for mutual pleasure; that innocence, purity, and modesty are real virtues; and that obedience is a strength, not a weakness? All those truths are embedded in our culture and were made available by the old curriculum. Turning to the universities in their moments of doubt, our ancestors would have found respectable scholars, students of Greek philosophy, English poetry, French novels, or Medieval history who would, without asserting any religious dogma, endorse the meanings and attachments on which ordinary life depends. Now, dismayed by the collapse of marriage, the profanities of popular culture, or the violence of life in the street, they will find only messages of destruction from the professors.
For this reason, the way of disenchantment is pursued largely without resistance in the modern university, and young people find little or nothing on the campus that will support family values or persuade them that the study of the beautiful and meaningful works of our culture is any more worthwhile than watching blue movies or kicking a ball around the quad. The purpose of study is to uncover the oppression that lurks within those so-called masterpieces. It is to warn the student against Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, which mystifies and disempowers the female sex, or against the Beethoven symphonies, which are, according to one feminist critic, fantasies of rape. It is to issue a blanket condemnation of our entire cultural inheritance in the name of the interests that it was designed to suppress—the interests of every social and biological group besides the group of “dead white males.” The same deconstruction administered to our Western inheritance could also be administered to any other culture—and the likelihood that Islamic culture would survive unscathed, given its historical treatment of women and religious minorities, is pretty slender. Once we see culture in this way, in terms of the power exercised and the submission endured (“who? whom?,” as Lenin put it), all intrinsic meaning vanishes. The beauty of Hafez’s poetry, the grandeur of Spinoza’s philosophical system, Milton’s glorification of sexual partnership—all such things, which are part of the semantic surface, are dismissed as mere ideology. What matters is the power that speaks through them and that puts them to an old and no longer permissible use.
In this way, we have entered a condition in which the secular culture, far from being the inclusive thing that the Founding Fathers intended, has become the property of an increasingly censorious liberal elite, intent on closing the old paths to meaning and stability. Any reaction against the liberal stranglehold is likely to be dismissed as “populism,” while the universities and media seem to find nothing amiss with punishing those who deviate from the liberal agenda.
How should we respond to this? As in all times of conflict and besiegement, the first need is for alliances, not only between people of faith but also between them and those who have lost their faith but not their values. Zaytuna College has set a welcome example with its excellent publication, Renovatio, in which the three revelations—the Judaic, the Christian, and the Islamic—are brought together in ways that show their intrinsic harmony, despite all the real differences. The purpose, as I understand it, is not to judge religion by secular values—to say, it is okay to believe so long as you do not disturb the secular status quo—but to embed the idea of citizenship in our religious traditions, to show that the values on which our lives as good citizens depend are themselves rooted in something deeper than our choice to accept them. Of course, nobody today can ignore the fact that it is possible to commit crimes in the name of faith, and to murder, rape, and pillage while believing that God Himself commands these things. But that form of behavior is rooted in despair—it too is a form of disenchantment, an attempt to void the world of its significance and to set beside the absolutes of religion a merely empty everyday world. If the secular world is reduced to a mere mechanism, in which sacred moments and loving obligations have no place, then we may easily begin to think that it invites destruction and that God will command this destruction as the last way to recruit His friends. In the face of this, we must show that the way of faith does not mean turning away from the secular reality. The true face of religion belongs to the re-enchantment of our injured civilization; faith is a way of filling all the spiritual spaces in our damaged world with the vision of a loving God, the God described in the Qur’an as al-Raĥmān al-Raĥīm. Our world is damaged—no one can deny it. But, in the eyes of the One who looks down on it, it is also holy, and will always remain so.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on February 2, 2020.
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