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C. S. Lewis and the “Argument from Reason”: An Examination and Modified Defense, Part II

August 18, 2012

 II.          Hints of the “Argument from Reason”[1] in Lewis’s Works

            Of Lewis’s major philosophical arguments, the “Argument from Reason” is perhaps his most fully developed presentation.[2]  It forms the basis of his entire defense of the possibility of miracles in the book by that name, and is suggested in several of his other major works such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain.  This particular argument, as I have mentioned, is increasingly popular among those, such as John Lennox, who are making it a point to respond to the New Atheist’s movement.  The argument requires some degree of unpacking and to that we must turn to its fullest treatment in Miracles; but before that, we should see how it is suggested—or hinted (or teased?) at—in some of Lewis’s other, more accessible works.[3]

 

Mere Christianity

In Mere Christianity, Lewis writes that one of his major arguments against God was that the world was filled with so much injustice that it seemed impossible to have been created by just and loving God.  Yet, a problem dawns on him:  where do ideas of “justice” and “injustice” come from?  If the entire argument against God’s existence is that the world is unjust (i.e. “The Problem of Evil”), where does one go to find a standard in which to make such a judgment.  Lewis writes, “What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust?”[4]  In a world that is, at bottom, meaningless, one’s personal preference is all that one has to make such a claim, but the entire argument is predicated upon the idea that there is really (objectively so) such a thing as justice and injustice, and not just personal preference.[5]  It is further predicated on the idea that one’s sense of justice and injustice is, in fact, meaningful or “full of sense.”  Yet, if the universe is, itself, meaningless or “senseless,” then to use “sense” (or more accurately, to believe that one’s own view makes sense) to prove it so (i.e. reasoning), is itself, nonsensical.  Lewis’ own words are worthy of citing here:

Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.  Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark.  Dark would be a word without meaning. [6]

Though only a brief sketch of an argument, it is clear that Lewis is beginning to make the case that the idea humans can reason and make sense of things, that is, to discover meaning, is irreconcilable with a view of the universe that claims that the universe is meaningless.  To go further, to reason toward such a view (i.e. Naturalism) undercuts the view in the first place.  This will be explained more fully in Miracles.

 

The Problem of Pain

Lewis makes almost the identical case in his treatment of The Problem of Pain.  In acknowledging the force of the “pessimists” view that the universe is filled with pain, suffering, and could not, therefore, be the design of an omnipotent and benevolent creator, Lewis writes:

There was one question which I never dreamed of raising.  I never noticed that the very strength and facility of the pessimists’ case at once poses us a problem.  If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activeity of a wise and good Creator…The direct inference from black to white, from evil flower to virtuous root, from senseless work to a workman infinitely wise, staggers belief [emphasis mine].[7]

The point here is far less precise than even in Mere Christianity; nevertheless, one can see the hints at the argument even here.  How did mankind ever infer—or reason to—a good creator from the evidence provided by the universe?  Implied here is the further question:  how does one infer to a wise creator, if the world is in fact senseless?  The Argument from Reason in Miracles simply flips the question:  How does a product of the universe (i.e. human being) infer to a senseless universe (i.e. Naturalism) by an argument based on inference?  It is the same as saying, “I reason that there is no reason.”

 

The Abolition of Man

Lewis’s The Abolition of Man is a tour-de-force in the defense of objective moral values.  Though Lewis writes about objective moral values in most of his writings to some degree or another, in this work he makes an extended argument that unless we accept a Tao—a way or set of objective values that transcends nature—we undercut any value system we try to create ourselves.  Again, like The Problem of Pain, though the suggestion to the Argument from Reason is brief—and vague—Lewis nonetheless mentions it in passing.

For example, while defending objective values, Lewis at various times discusses the effect of the scientific enterprise that attempts to provide natural explanations to everything.  He acknowledges that many will accuse him of attacking science itself, to which he responds:  “I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao are cut.”[8]  In other words, according to Lewis, without some appeal to a transcendent source, the value of knowledge—which is valuable through the process of reasoning—is undercut.  Put differently, knowledge (of the reasoning kind) is intrinsically valuable when it is grounded in a transcendent source; it is valueless (and meaningless) if it is merely a product of nature.  Lewis, thus, ends this work by imploring his listeners[9] to consider the danger of embracing a naturalism that seeks to explain everything in naturalistic terms:  “You cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away.”[10]  This reference to explaining away “explanation itself” is a small, but clear reference to the Argument from Reason.  With these acknowledgments of the argument’s abbreviated occurrences in Lewis’s major works, we now turn to his full length treatment of it in his work Miracles.


[1] I choose to follow the lead of Beversluis, and title Lewis’s presentation of this argument, as the “Argument from Reason.”  I do not believe Lewis every gives such a title, but for referencing, I will.

[2] It could be argued that based on the totality of his works, Lewis’ version of the Moral Argument is the most fully developed.  Still, I find the level of rigor used to develop the Argument from Reason in Miracles to be greater than his development of the Moral Argument, though the Moral Argument appears more frequently and in more detail across his works.

[3] In surveying Lewis’ major works, it is my opinion that Lewis “sprinkles” his major arguments  throughout all of his works, but deals with each of them fully in, at least, one work.  In other words, Lewis will take an argument such as the Argument from Reason and develop it fully in a book like Miracles (or his version of the Moral Argument and develop it fully in The Abolition of Man), but then reference them throughout his other works.  These references then serve a sort of footnote to his major work on the subject.  I mention this because Lewis is often criticized for quickly and superficially presenting an argument without treating it rigorously.  I think this is incorrect however.  Rather his quick “mentions” or hints of the argument serve as glimpses of the full treatment of the argument given elsewhere.

[4] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 30.

[5] This continues his treatment of objective morality.

[6] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 30.

[7] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 374.

[8] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 489.

[9] This work was originally a series of lectures.

[10] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 490.

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C. S. Lewis and the “Argument From Reason”: An Examination and (Modified) Defense, Part I

August 17, 2012

I.       Introduction: Lewis as Philosopher?

            Among the most influential Christian writers of the 20th century, I doubt that there is serious debate as to who would make the top of such a list.  C. S. (Clives Staples) Lewis[1], though deceased for almost fifty years[2] continues to be one of the—if not the—most spoken name among Christians attempting to articulate a “reasonable faith.”  His works are as popular today as they have ever been.  Lewis was a man of many talents and was immensely successful in a wide range of interests, including Christian apologetics—what he is, perhaps, most known for, Children’s literature with the Chronicles of Narnia, Sci-Fi Fantasy with his Space Trilogy, and numerous articles and essay on various aspects of the Christian life.  He wrote a fascinating and intricate autobiography of his conversion from Atheism to Christianity; moreover, he chronicled his personal odyssey through the experience of grief, after losing his wife to cancer, in A Grief Observed.  In terms of literary output, Lewis covered the spectrum of genres and did so with a command of the English language that fans and critics, alike, equally appreciate and envy.  One more accolade to mention:  as a tutor of Literature at Oxford, Lewis commanded high respect as a literary critic.  Among men of literary talent, most will agree that there are few equals with Lewis.

I do not mention these many accomplishments and talents to further bolster an already iconic reputation, but to make the following inquiry:  among Lewis intellectual gifts, is philosophy one of them?  From his writings, it is quite clear that he approaches issues of Theism (and consequently Christianity) philosophically even before he approaches it theologically.[3]  From his writings, Lewis intends his philosophical approach to be taken seriously.  In fact, he is so confident in his philosophically-laden approach that he makes the following claim:  “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it.”[4]

Just how well does Lewis’s challenge hold up?  John Beversluis, a non-theistic philosopher takes seriously Lewis’ bold challenge, and uses it as an occasion to offer a full-length critical study entitled, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion.  In his work, Beversluis interacts with Lewis’s main three philosophical arguments, what he titles:  “The Argument from Desire,” “The Argument from Reason,” and Lewis’s version of the “Moral Argument.”  He also interacts with a number of important claims that Lewis makes on issues such as the divinity of Jesus, the “case” for Christianity, and the problem of evil (or pain).  After examining Lewis’s arguments, Beversluis concludes, “my best reasoning  told me that the weight of the evidence, as presented by Lewis, is against it, and I wrote a book to explain why.”[5]

As someone who has found Lewis’s arguments for Theism and Christian faith compelling, the aim of this essay is quite simple.  I intend to investigate whether Beversluis succeeds—and if so, to what extent—in refuting Lewis’ philosophical conclusions.  While to some degree, conclusions have already been reached in my mind, this writing is itself an exercise in philosophical engagement with an opposing point of view (i.e. Beversluis’s).  The length of this essay will not prevent interaction with the entirety of Beversluis’s work—or with each of Lewis’s main arguments for that matter.  I will have to limit interaction to one of Lewis’s arguments:  the Argument from Reason.  I have chosen this one because I find it to be the most rigorous of the group.  With that in mind, the essay will proceed as follows:  first, I will explore where the Argument from Reason appears in Lewis’s other major philosophical works.  Second, I will closely examine Lewis’s argument as it is found in its most rigorous form in the third chapter of his work, Miracles.  Thirdly, I will investigate and interact with Beversluis’s rebuttal of Lewis’s argument.  While acknowledging that he does succeed in showing weaknesses in the argument as Lewis presents it, it is hard from clear that the argument is without merit.  Quite the opposite, I believe that a modified and modestly presented form of it provides strong explanatory power for the belief in Theism.


[1] All references from Lewis’s works throughout this essay will come from, C. S. Lewis, The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, (San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 2002).

[2] Lewis died the same day as the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, and for this reason, passed almost unbeknownst to those who are familiar with his writings.  This is quite remarkable, considering that he was immensely popular even during his lifetime.

[3] For example, in explaining his approach to the issues of whether miracles are possible, he makes this noteworthy statement:  “If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say [that we are victims of illusion when confronted with alleged miracle].  What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.  It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical questions,” in Miracles, 211.  In Mere Christianity Lewis does not begin theologically or scripturally to explain the doctrines of Christianity.  Instead, he begins by discussing morality, eventually making the “Moral Argument,” thus beginning even a book that is supposedly about Christian doctrine, with a philosophical approach.

[4] Quoted in John Beversluis’s work, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion—Revised and Updated (Amherst, NY: Promethius Books, 2007), 9.

[5] Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search, 9.  This is actually in the preface to the second edition.

God as King, Man as Trusted Servant: An Exploration of Islam, Part VII

June 4, 2012

VII.  Conclusion: The Alternative of the Christian Narrative of Love

            In Islam, we have a unified narrative that, proceeding from the understanding of Allah as Creator and King, offers a cohesive understanding of humanity.  Why do I exist?  To serve Allah as servant and representative.  What is my purpose?  To be His viceregent on earth.  What is my nature?  I am both clay and divine Spirit and am capable of choosing which I will obey.  What is my destination?  Based on my allegiance—expressed by actions—I will be rewarded with Paradise or punished with Hell.  My relationship with Allah is one of King and servant or Creator and master.  Islam is a truly cohesive worldview and I hope that this essay expresses the Islamic faith in its best possible light.

As a Christian, I see many similarities between my faith and that of Muslims.  I see that I, too, am created from dust but breathed into by the breath of God.  I see that I am made in the image of God, and as such, am given the task (and privilege) of reflecting God in the earth; I am His representative.  However, with the similarities in mind, I believe the Christian narrative offers a distinctively different understanding of God and humanity than does Islam.  This is nowhere more apparent than in the concept of relationship.[1]

Though as we have mentioned there is a relationship between Allah and humanity, even when rightly understood, we must admit that such a relationship hardly contains any mutuality or the possibility of mutual affection.  That is, humanity cannot affect Allah in any way.[2]  Thus, intimacy between God and man is not possible in Islam.  This is because the concept of relationship is not essential to the being of Allah; before creation there was no one for Allah to be in relationship with.  In the end, the best humankind can hope for is for Allah to be pleased with their actions and reward them accordingly.  They can never hope for an intimate relationship expressed most powerfully by reciprocal love.

Christianity affirms that reciprocating, sacrificial love is the very foundation of a doctrine of God, and therefore, is the very goal for all of creation, and thus, for humanity as well.  The doctrine of the Trinity—though radically rejected by Muslims—asserts that intrinsic to the very nature of God is the idea of relationship defined by love.  Though I cannot begin to adequately explain the mystery of the Triune God, it is enough to say that from all eternity, God has existed as a divine community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that this community has always existed in loving relationship.  In the Christian faith, God does not create a world where people may serve him; rather He creates with the purpose of expressing the love that has always existed within the Godhead and inviting humanity into such relationship.  Participation in the divine life—of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the aim of humanity.  It is not surprising then, to discover that God as King is not the primary way God seeks to be known in Christianity.  Instead, God most ultimately seeks to be known, God as Father.[3]  We can say then, that the primary relationship between humanity is not King and servant, but Father and son.  It just so happens that God the Father is also God the King, and is, therefore, also worthy of faithful service.  However it is as a son and not a servant.

This is the essential difference between a doctrine of humanity in Islam and Christianity:  in the Christian worldview, humanity’s existence is because God’s overflowing love pours forth in an act of creation.  Humanity’s purpose is to accept and reciprocate that divine love and eternally participate in the divine nature.  It just so happens that this also fulfills the role of bearing God’s image and being God’s representative in the earth.  Humanity’s ultimate goal and destination is to dwell eternally with the loving God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and reflect the glory of this love for all eternity.  And in my mind and heart, this “story” is the one in which I find my existential longings most satisfied.


[1] I am indebted to Ida Glasar’s article, “The Concept of Relationship as a Key to the Comparative Understanding of Christianity and Islam,” Thermelios 11.2 (January 1986), 57-60, for the insights expressed.

[2] Behishti and Bahonhar write, “”Man’s relationship with Allah is not that of hostility or rivalry for Allah is self-sufficient and all-powerful.  Even if all men disobey him, he is going to lose nothing,” in “Man,” Philosophy of Islam.

[3] Glaser writes, “”Man can relate with God himself: indeed, it is for relationship that he is made.  He is to relate with his maker in mutual love as a son relates to a father,” in “The Concept of Relationship,” 58.

God as King, Man as Trusted Servant: An Exploration of Islam, Part VI

May 29, 2012

VI. The “Forbidden Tree” and Human Nature in Islam

            If humanity is to be Allah’s viceregent on earth, given great responsibility for an enormous task, a most reasonable question to ask is, “Why does man ‘sin’ or disobey, or fall short of Allah’s design?”  This, I believe, is the preeminent question for every worldview to answer concerning its own conception of a doctrine of humanity.  Why do humans ‘sin’?  Why do humans behave so wickedly so often?  Conversely, we might also ask, why are humans capable of such incredible goodness and altruism?  What is it that can explain the complexity of the human being that can account for both the horrific actions of a Hitler or Pol Pot and the sacrificial life of a Ghandi or Mother Teresa?  It is answering this question that, perhaps more than any other, helps us understand what each religious worldview is offering to humanity in its explanation and solution to the human problem of sin.

The story of Islam follows closely the story of Judeo-Christianity in giving an account of Adam, a temptation by Satan, and an eating fruit of a forbidden tree.  It differs dramatically, however, in the interpretation of these events.  Consequently, the Islamic understanding of human nature is dramatically different than a Christian understanding.

According to the Quran, Adam was placed in a garden and given permission to eat from any tree in it, save one.  Were he to eat of it, he would become a “wrongdoer.”  So what is this tree?  In Husayni Behishti and Jawad Bahonar’s view, this tree is not a tree of knowledge—knowledge is perhaps the supreme virtue in Islam—but a tree of lust whereby mankind may test his self-control.[1]  If this is true, we might think of the forbidden tree as a sort of testing marker so that humanity may prove itself.  Yet, if Adam (and humanity) was created with a perfect nature, this would be an unnecessary test.  Thus, this interpretation of the forbidden tree, along with our prior understanding of humanity’s creation leads to a specific view of human nature.

When we remember the two-part formulation of humanity—‘mud’ and ‘Spirit’—it becomes clear that man is created with a propensity to sin.  This is his ‘mud’-nature.  At the same time, as part of our divine constitution, humanity can choose to obey Allah and seek after good things.  Ira Zepp states it in this way:  “The ‘breath of God’ establishes our distinctiveness among created things…Here is our misery (‘mud’) and our grandeur (‘Allah’s Spirit’), our bondage to this world and our capacity to soar to heights of excellence.”[2]  Shariati confirms this view when he writes, “Man is a two-dimensional being:  mud and Spirit…It is up to man to choose where to go, towards mud or providence.”[3]  In other words, Allah has created humanity as beings who are intrinsically capable of choice—they may follow their earthly or ‘carnal’ instincts or they may choose to follow Allah and prove their allegiance to Him and confirm their status as His viceregents.  It is within man’s power to do either.

Humanity, in Islam, is not “fallen” as in the Christian worldview.  We are free, at any time to choose either good or evil.  Zepp, in denouncing the idea of “original sin” in Islam, writes, “In Islam, we are not original sinners or original saints.  As a result of our actions we become either.”[4]  So what are we to make of the immensity of evil that mankind is often guilty of?  The best answer, in Islam, is that we have forgotten Allah and have ignored his commands.  We have chosen to use our status as viceregents to serve ourselves and in doing so, have wreaked havoc in our world.  We have—to put it simply—simply served the “mud”-nature at the expense of our world.  Within this context, we can see why the Quranic teaching to return to Allah and obey him is so urgent.  If, as Allah’s trusted servants, we have forsaken our responsibilities, then his judgment will be severe.  Yet, if we do as He commanded and “submit,” then we will be worthy of great reward.  The constant mention of reward and punishment follows reasonably in light of the Islamic understanding of human nature.

Within the context of our Arthurian analogy, it would be best to see the entire human life as a divine test whereby human beings may prove their allegiance to their king.  By test, I do not mean to convey that life is a farce and somehow not real.  Rather, just as a king gives responsibilities to his servants so that they may prove their worth and ability to accept greater responsibility, so human life is Allah’s giving the opportunity to show our “stuff.”[5]  We  may definitely fall, and Allah is merciful in our failures, but in the end, our lives should show by our actions a firm commitment to Allah, proving ourselves to be faithful viceregents in His kingdom.  Our human nature, being both mud and spirit, offers us the genuine opportunity to choose our allegiance.


[1] Husayni Behishti and Jawad Bahonar, “Man”, in Philosophy of Islam.  Al-Islam.  http:// http://www.al-islam.org/philosophyofislam/.  Accessed March 19, 2012.  They write, “The Forbidden Tree of Paradise is not that of knowledge which should be approached, but it is a tree of lust which should be controlled.  It is a means by which man tests his will-power and the power of self-control.”

[2] Ira G. Zepp, Jr., A Muslim Primer:  Beginner’s Guide to Islam, (Westminster, Maryland:  Wakefield Editions, 1992), 94.

[3] Shariati, “Man and Islam.”

[4] Zepp, A Muslim Primer, 95.  I must admit, this sound remarkably similar to every other religious worldview with the exception of Christianity.  In Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and even in many understandings of Judaism, it seems as if the emphasis is on man’s ability to choose the good—whatever that may be—or evil.  The various religious worldviews all speak of the power of the ‘carnal’ nature, or ‘desire,’ or the propensity toward earthly wants, but in the end, they each seem to agree that it is within man’s intrinsic power to say no and overcome.  The Christian worldview is, in my estimation, the only one that says the problem of man’s nature is far bigger than we are aware of—that at our fundamental core, we are broken in such a way that, left to ourselves, we will never overcome our propensity toward sin and evil.

[5] Murrata and Chittick, The Vision of Islam, 111.  It should be noted that we are not proving ourselves to Allah, for He seeing the future already knows what we are made of.  It is rather to show ourselves so we are without excuse in the day of judgment:  “The Koran often says that God measures out good and mercy to test people’s faith and to allow people to prove their own nature–not to God, of course, because he already knows their nature.  They are demonstrating their nature to themselves, so that they will have no objections when they reach their destination in the next world,” 111.

God as King, Man as Trusted Servant: An Exploration of Islam, Part V

May 21, 2012

V.  Man’s Purpose

            The question “What is humanity created for?” in the Islamic view is admittedly complex, and should best be answered by pointing back to the dialectical tension of “mud” and “spirit” that we have discussed previously.

 

Man as Servant: The “Mud” Purpose

In one sense, the answer is quite straightforward:  Allah in the Quran clearly states, “I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me” (Surah 51:56).  This might be called the “mud” purpose.  As the creatures of Allah, mankind is placed in the position of worshipper and servant.  However, we must nuance our understanding of the idea of “servant” in order to more fully appreciate the Islamic narrative and avoid misrepresenting it.

Though we usually assign a negative connotation to the word “servant,” Kung suggests that we avoid such a superficial understanding:

In the Qur’an as in the Bible, the word ‘servant’ must not be misunderstood.  The Arabic ‘abd becomes and extremely positive designation because it is associated with God:  ‘abd allah, servant not of another human being, and therefore unfree, but of God himself and therefore free and set in creation with dignity.[1]

Just as in the legend of King Arthur, to be one of Arthur’s servants would be a privilege and an honor, so in the Islamic view, a servant is not an insignificant role for humanity.  It is, indeed, the rightful place of a creature.  It is certainly true that man’s ultimate purpose in Islam is to serve and worship God, as attested to by numerous Islamic scholars.  For example Mohamed Baianonie states, “He [man] should know the purpose of this temporary life that he lives, and the good that must be the one which he makes all his effort to achieve which is pleasing Allah.”[2]  ‘Abd al Majid Najjar writes, “The ultimate purpose [for humanity in Islam] is to be close to Allah and to work for his pleasure.”[3]  However, this role of servant must be placed in the context of the exalted status of “viceregent” that Allah assigns to mankind, signified by his breathing his Spirit into humanity—what we might call the “Divine purpose.”  This tension between ‘servant’ and ‘viceregent,’ ‘clay’ and ‘spirit’ is, again, aptly stated by Kung:  “The paradoxical anthropological statement of the Qur’an is grounded in the fact that as a servant of God, the human being is at the same time God’s khalifah, his ‘succession,’ ‘representative’ on earth.”[4]

 

Man as Viceregent:  The “Divine” Purpose

Though humanity is God’s servant, it is no less true that all of creation, according to Islam, is placed under the authority of man.  Humanity is given the noble responsibility to be God’s viceregents (khalifah) and work with him in His plan:  “Man’s mission on earth is to fulfill God’s creative work in the universe.  Therefore man’s first superiority is that he represents God on earth.”[5]  In the Islamic understanding of humanity, the doctrine of viceregency emerges as the central teaching regarding mankind.  It is very similar to the Biblical teaching that mankind has been created in the image of God and given the task of stewarding and exercising dominion over creation.  This is so much the case that Allah commands the angels to pay obeisance to human beings.  It is, in fact, for this reason that, according to the Quran, Iblis (Satan) rebels against God and seeks to bring about humanity’s downfall.

Again, if we return to the King Arthurian analogy, we may understand Allah as the King of the universe.  Now, it must be acknowledged that Allah is in no need of any help, so it would be his sheer will that would call into creation and appoint servants and coworkers for Him.  Even so, humanity is created with a very special purpose in Allah’s kingdom:  they are his trusted advisers so to speak—His ambassadors given authority to work in his name.  Now, I must confess, I am not sure what Allah’s purposes are in making humanity his viceregents.  In other words, it seems that the Islamic metanarrative is missing ultimate explanation as to why Allah would do it this way.  When asked, “What is the purpose of humanity?” Islam answers:  “To serve as Allah’s viceregents in the world.”  Yet one could press the issue:  “Why does Allah choose to do it this way?”  The best answer according to Islam is that Allah need not offer any explanation as to why; it is simply his will.[6]  It is enough to conclude our understanding of this section by saying that, far from the critiques of Islam that suggest that man is utterly insignificant in Allah’s eyes, Islamic teaching states exactly the opposite:  mankind is given the most sacred task of being Allah’s vicergent—his representative on earth.  It is in this light that we should understand the seriousness of the responsibility given to mankind, and thus, the sternness with which Allah promises to judge human beings for their failure to obey Him, but also the greatness of His promise to reward obedience with paradise.


[1] Kung, Islam, 83.

[2] Mohamed Baianonie, “The Islamic View of the Human Being.”  Islam1. http://www.islam1.org/khutub/View_of_Human_Being.htm.  Accessed March 19, 2012

[3] Najjar, The Viceregency of Man, xx.

[4] Kung, Islam, 83.  Murrata and Chittick make an interesting connection between the relationship between servant in viceregent in the following way:  “In short, Adam, was created to be a viceregent of God.  But in order to be God’s viceregent, he first had to be God’s servant.  In other words, people were created to represent God on the face of the earth…Servanthood must precede viceregency.  You cannot represent someone until you follow that person’s commands,” in, The Vision of Islam, 126.  In this view, man is placed on earth and commanded to obey Allah as a testing of sorts.  The idea of humanity being given a test is a significant aspect of Islamic doctrine that will be explored shortly.

[5] Shariati, “Man and Islam.”

[6] Harold Spencer summarizes this well:  “We must first remind ourselves that, although Allah is said to have created man and the Jinn in order that they may worship him (Surah 51 v. 56), yet Muslim theology will not admit that Allah has any fixed purpose which might contradict the operation of his will.”  In, “Man and His Destiny,” http://www.answering-islam.org/Books/Spencer/God/chap4.htm

 

God as King, Man as Trusted Servant: An Exploration of Islam, Part IV

May 8, 2012

IV.  The ‘Theology’ of Human Origins in Islam

            According to Islamic theology, humanity is a synthesis of earth and Spirit—of “mud” and the breath of Allah.  Not unlike Christian theology, where Adam is created from the “dust of the earth” and yet made in the image of God, humanity is at once both exceedingly base and incredibly noble.  Ali Shariati describes this synthesis well:  “Since God wants to create a viceregent on earth, He must, as a rule, choose the most valuable and sacred material.  Yet, he selects the basest matter.”  At the same time, writes Shariati, “the Spirit of God is the most sacred, exalting the noblest ‘part’ of His being…He blew his own soul into man.”[1]  Though humanity, without the Spirit of God is little better than dirt, because of Allah’s action, mankind takes a unique place in Allah’s economy.[2]  Humanity is so unique and so privileged, in fact, that Allah commands all the angels to bow down to Adam.  We might rightly conclude, then, that humanity is the supreme creation in Allah’s plan.

The significance of humanity’s creation is profound in the Islamic view.  It is true that man should always recognize that he comes from mud when tempted to elevate his position above the will of Allah; he must recognize his rightful place in “the story.”  However, man is not some insignificant creature created merely for Allah’s pleasure; rather, he is invested with the very spirit of the Divine and given substantial authority and power.[3]   Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, will not allow an unimpeded exaltation of man to the point of man being a god, as some eastern traditions tend to do.  Nor will it allow for an utter abasement of man, whereby man is nothing more than a combination of dust and particles that has somehow managed to gain consciousness, as in a materialistic worldview.  Rather, in response to the question “Where do I come from,” the Islamic answer is, “You come from dust, but have the Spirit of God inside of you; you are both irreducibly small and incomprehensibly great.  This was Allah’s design.”   The logical next question then, is “What is humanity created for?” or “Why am I here?”


[1] Ali Shariati, “Man and Islam,” Al-Islam. http://www.al-islam.org/beliefs/philosophy/manandislam.html.  Accessed March 19, 2012

[2] See Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World, 2nd Ed. (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2000), 105.  According to Ruthven, we should understand that Man is “an earthly being created out of ‘dust’ and given dominion over the earth and its creatures as God’s ‘vice-regent’” and even being earthly “ranks higher in hierarchy of creatures than the angels and jinns.”

[3] Yet, in comparison with Allah’s power, it must be acknowledged that mankind’s authority is quite miniscule.  The Quran and Islamic teaching always, even in elevating the status of man, return to the greatness of Allah.

 

God as King, Man as Trusted Servant: An Exploration of Islam, Part III

May 6, 2012

III.  Allah the Honorable King: Getting Our “Picture” Right

            As mentioned earlier, it is necessary to begin with a doctrine of God to form a conception of a doctrine of man.[1] This will not, of course, be the primary focus of this essay, but it serves an important introduction as to what proceeds.

In my investigation of the religion of Islam, it has been my goal to find an adequate “image” or “model” of God that truly reflects who Allah is to faithful Muslims.  Far too often, the image of Allah—and Islam—presented by Christian teachers of religion has been that of the stoic God, far removed from any semblance of a relationship with human beings, creating human beings for nothing other than obedience and worship.  Moreover, Allah, in many descriptions by non-Muslims, seems cruel—deriving pleasure from torturing the unfaithful—and as having no other end in mind than the desire to show forth His power by creating some for a heavenly reward and others for a torturous hell.[2]  Yet is this the most generous way of describing Allah, by Islam’s own standards?  Taking full consideration of Quranic teaching and Islamic theology into account, may we arrive at a more faithful picture of Allah and especially his relationship with humanity?  I believe so.

Though it is often expressed that there is no relationship between Allah and humanity in Islam, it would be more appropriate to consider that there is a highly qualified relationship between them.  It is most similar to that between a powerful king and a trusted servant.  Perhaps a parallel might be found in the western legend of King Arthur and his knights of the round table.  In this legend, we have come to praise Arthur for his benevolence, justice, fairness, and courage.  He is certainly the king, and as such, wields considerable power over his subjects.  Yet he is fair.  His servants are expected to serve him faithfully, and as a king, Arthur would certainly punish rebellion or insurrection.  However, his servants (i.e. knights) are not some insignificant persons that mean nothing to Arthur; rather, they are cared for by him, given responsibility, and will be rewarded for faithful service  We might even say that in a limited sense, they are his friends.  Above all, we value Arthur for his fair and just reign.  He is not some “despot” that tyrannically rules over his subjects.[3]  He reigns, certainly with complete power, but with fairness and equity.

I would imagine it is something like this picture of Allah that Muslims have in mind when they consider Him master and themselves servants.  This is not to say there are not criticisms to the concept of relationship between Allah and man, but a fair criticism cannot be made without the attempt to describe Allah in way that Muslims would find faithful to their own view.  With that being said, we now turn to an Islamic understanding of a doctrine of humanity.

 


[1] Harold Spencer accurately explains this necessary starting point:  “It has been said by a modern Muslim that ‘Allah is the essence of Islam.’  This is to be expected for in every system of theology the nature of the deity worshipped must determine the details of the entire system and impart to that system its specific characteristics.”  See his, “Man and His Destiny,” in Islam and the Gospel of God: A Comparison of the Central Doctrines of Christianity and Islam, Prepared for the Use of Christian Workers Among Muslims.  Anwering-Islam.  (I.S.P.C.K.: Printsman, New Delhi, 1956), http://www.answering-islam.org/Books/Spencer/God/chap4.htm.

[2] It is true that there are Quranic scriptures that speak of Allah creating angels and men to fill hell with, and creating others to cause them to ‘enter his mercy (See Surah 7: 178; 11:120, and 76:31).  However, as with the Christian scriptures, verses like these must be nuanced with the whole of scripture.  Hans Kung effectively explains the difficulty of both the Quran and the Biblical teachings:  “Aren’t there statements in the Bible, as in the Qur’an, which emphasize God’s omnipotence as God’s supremacy, to which human beings seem simply to be handed over?  Aren’t human beings here  so totally subordinated to the will of God that they can do nothing without God’s will?”  He answers, “Initially, it is enough to say that in the Qur’an, as in the Bible, the statements about divine omnipotence and human responsibility are juxtaposed and nowhere balanced.”  See Islam: Past, Present, and Future, trans. John Bowden (Oxford: OneWorld Publications, 2007), 83-84.

[3] Sachicko Murrata and William Chittick suggest that the “oriental despot” may be the best picture in viewing Allah’s power:  “The king–the ‘oriental despot’ if you will–possesses absolute power over his subjects.  They are in effect his slaves.  The King is mighty, majestic, tremendous, awe-inspiring, inaccessible, powerful.  The subjects are pitiful in the extreme.”  Yet, they conclude, “Suppose this king is a true and worthy king.  Then the stereotype is not so bad.”  See, The Vision of Islam (St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 1994), 126.  I think this provides almost the same balance I am attempting to provide.