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Compassionate Justice: Source of Convergence between Science and Religion - Part 7

Dr. Robert Dickson Crane

Chapter Fourteen

The Philosophical and Psychological Context

In every spiritually inspired culture the perennial focus of all higher thought has addressed the interrelationship and relative roles of science and religion. Muslims like to claim that there has never been any tension along these lines in their religion because Allah proclaims hundreds of times throughout the Qur’an that Islam, the primordial religion, is a natural religion in which the signs of God are found equally in nature and revelation, without any possible contradiction.

In Western civilization this most vexing philosophical issue has been posed in the context of immanence versus transcendence. Western civilization started with the cosmocentrism of the Greeks, epitomized in Aristotle, who insisted that the entire universe can be explained without reference to any extraneous source and that the divine, however conceived, exists within the cosmos. The Greeks further developed this into theories of pantheism through what one might call ontological anthropomorphism. They concluded that ontos or being, and the study of it known as ontology, is cyclical in accordance with what we now know as the second law of thermodynamics, and that there is no purpose in anything other than what humans and their anthropocentric gods, if there indeed are any, give it. God is the universe, and man is god. Or in modern Gaia Theory, named after the Greek god of fertility, the universe is sentient and man is only a product and reflection of this universal deity.

Neo-Platonists later introduced theories that resemble panentheism, in which God’s Being is outside the physical universe but He acts within it and even pervades it as its fundamental substance.

The Semitic religions, on the other hand, introduced theocentrism, according to which the universe does not constitute all of reality, because the universe was created and is sustained by God, Who is beyond existence and beyond being, and, in fact, was defined by Meister Eckhart, the “father of cataphatic spirituality,” as the ultimately transcendent “Beyond Being.” All purpose and meaning come from God, i.e., from beyond man and beyond the universe. God said to the universe, “Be!”, and it was. He revealed this through human prophets or representatives of the Divine, but only partially in accordance with man’s limited capacity for understanding.

Furthermore, as a consequence, in Semitic thought, unlike the cyclical thought of the Greeks and some Eastern religions, contingent existence is lineal or directional toward an end time, as is so clearly explained in the classical study, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek by the Norwegian Thorleif Boman.

The greatest Muslim philosopher, Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna, attempted to reconcile the conflict between immanance and transcendence at a purely philosophical level, as did his student, Thomas Acquinas, who was the greatest of the Church Fathers. On the first page of his Substance and Existence, Saint Thomas proclaimed: “Wherever I say master, I mean Avicenna.” But the pedestrian theologians of the time could not handle the abstract thought of the masters and so turned what had become a bitter hostility between religion and philosophy into a war between Church authority and science and finally into the separation of Church and State. This led during the secular European Renaissance into devastating wars to divorce religion from all public life. Classical American thought, based on the writings of Edmund Burke, head of the minority Whig Party in the English Parliament, restored the congruity of religion and society as the fundamental basis of the Great American Experiment in self-government, but after the American Civil War less than a century later the secular wars broke out again and continue today.

The decline of Islamic civilization resulted in part because this artificial dichotomy between Revelation and Reason, which was the Islamic counterpart to the Western war between religion and science, as discussed in Chapter Fifteen below, led the more spiritually attuned to withdraw from politics and public life in the belief that such secular pursuits were incompatible with their own esoteric inclinations. The same occurred in America until the malaise of the 1960s convinced Evangelical Christians that the creeping desacralization of America would destroy both it and them.

Less obvious as a problem are the polemics in what has become known as the liberal mainstream. Every tradition exhibits tension between the mystical or esoteric emphasis on the immanence of the transcendent God and the more literal or exoteric approach to God and truth as something external to oneself and the universe. Even the mainstream mystics, such as the various Sufi orders in both Shi’a and Sunni Islam, are divided into at least two camps. Some of these mystics posit the existence of a universal soul, like an ocean, into which the souls of individual persons will dissolve like drops of water after their physical deaths. This form of immanence terrifies those for whom life itself is the highest value. Others, by inward introspection, experience the disappearance or “annihilation” of their own egos to the extent that at least subjectively for them only God exists. Some objectify this experience by claiming that in a very real sense they are not merely created in the image of God, as taught by all the Abrahamic religions, but share an uncreated divine nature. When the popular New Age guru, Shirley MacClaine, a denizen of the mystical and magical communities of Abiquiu, New Mexico, shrieked into the winds along the California coast, “I am God! I am God,” she was not the first to do so.

The problem with such mainstream liberal extremism is that it creates an environment of both elite and popular rejection that facilitates the secularization of thought. Reaction to this paradigmatic warfare within each religion can divert the search for either immanence or transcendence to the worship of the material world as the sole source of truth. This, in turn, can produce a hydra-headed monster of secular polytheism that perverts culture and destroys its dependent civilization.

Other self-proclaimed leaders in every religion, in an opposite form of exoteric extremism, have tried to resolve the alleged incompatibility of the esoteric and the exoteric by overthrowing the establishment and imposing their own political power.

This exoteric mania is the principal threat in the Muslim world, as well as perhaps increasingly in the world beyond. In his magisterial concluding chapter, “The Poverty of Fanaticism,” Professor T. J. Winter of Cambridge University, England, also known as Abdul Hakim Murad, offers a warning and a solution to the phenomenon of terrorism and suicide bombing.

He postulates that the entire world is going through the most “entropic” stage of its history when civilizational energies are dying out in general disintegration and chaos. As part of this process he says that the “Islamic world,” by which he means the “Muslim world,” is passing through a most devastating period of transition. In the worldwide attempt to revivify Islam, the middle ground has become enfeebled, and the ultras, who once formed only a tiny wart on the face of the Muslim world, are effecting a facelift to reveal the evil potential of human beings and hide the soul of traditional Islam. The authentic summons to cultural and spiritual renewal is being deformed by a “splintered array of maniacal forms.”

The task of marshaling the mental resources to invigorate a spiritual revival “must be grounded in an act of collective muhasaba, of self-examination, in terms that transcend the ideologized neo-Islam of the revivalists [which is his polite term for fundamentalists] and return to a more classical and indigenously Muslim dialectic.” He notes that the failure of the Muslim ideologists to revive Islam would seem to suggest that God is not lending them His support.

He expresses horror at the increasingly common phenomenon of religious conversion whereby the young person lost in the secular desert of radical modernity “one morning picks up a copy of the fundamentalist writer Sayyid Qutb from a newsstand and is ‘born-again’ on the spot.” Within days he is recruited to regard war as holy and to wage holy war. Winter asks, “What attracts young Muslims to this type of ephemeral but ferocious activism?”

Islamic conversion, he says, traditionally has been “a process of intellectual maturation, triggered by the presence of a very holy person or place. Repentance (tawba), in its traditional form, yields an outlook of joy, contentment, and a deep affection for others. The modern form of tawba however, born of insecurity, often makes Muslims narrow, intolerant, and exclusivist. Even more noticeably, it produces people whose faith is, despite its apparent intensity, liable to vanish as suddenly as it came. Deprived of real nourishment, the activist’s soul can only grow hungry and emaciated, until at last it dies.”

T. J. Winter’s final paragraph on page 294, which also concludes the book, is perhaps the best summary of the challenge and the only viable response. He writes, “At this critical moment in our history, the umma has only one realistic hope for survival, and that is to restore the ‘middle way,’ defined by the sophisticated classical consensus which was worked out over painful centuries of debate and scholarship. That consensus alone has the demonstrable ability to provide a basis for unity. But, it can be retrieved only when we improve the state of our hearts, and fill them with the Islamic virtues of affection, respect, tolerance, and reconciliation. This inner reform, which is the traditional competence of Sufism, is a precondition for the restoration of unity and decency in the Islamic movement. The alternative is likely to be continued, and agonizing, failure.”


37. Crane, Robert D., Meta-Law: An Islamic Policy Paradigm, Islamic Institute for Strategic Studies, Washington, Virginia, Policy Paper no. 4, May 2000, 49 pages, especially Section B, “Reconciling Immanence and Transcendence,” in Part Four, “The Ecumenical Challenge.”

38. Boman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1960, 224 pages. This was first brought to my attention in August 1982 by Leif Hovelsen of Oslo in response to an article that I had published in the journal of Moral Rearmament, of which he was an international mentor.

39. Crane, Robert D., “Some False Gods of Personal Transformation,” Iqra, San Jose, California, October 1994.

40. T. J. Winter, “The Poverty of Fanaticism,” in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by Western Muslim Scholars, edited by Joseph E. B. Lumbard, with an introduction by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bloomington, Indiana, World Wisdom Books, 2004, 352 pp.

41. More details on this seminal book, Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, may be found in my article, “New Frontiers in Conflict Management: A ‘Grand Strategy’ to Wage Jihad against Terrorist Muslims who would Hijack Islam,”, TAM #28, Oct-Dec 2004.



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