More on the Pope, Islam, Europe & America

Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Spengler at Asia Times Online has commentary on the Pope's recent comments on Islam.

Spengler makes the Pope out to be almost an underground figure:
For the pope to refute the fundamental premise of US policy is news of inestimable strategic importance, yet a Google News scan reveals that not a single media outlet has taken notice of what Fessio told interviewer Hugh Hewitt last week. No matter: still and small as Benedict's voice might be, it carries further than earthquake and whirlwind.

While adding some valuable context to our understanding of the Pope's reported remarks - explaining the centrality of the question of revelation to Benedict's theology and anthropology - Spengler makes a fascinating observation on Benedict's article in the most recent edition of First Things (presently by subscription only):

Benedict makes the remarkable (for a pope) statement that the US model is what the early church really had in mind. He proceeds from the famous argument of Pope Gelasius I (492-496) that "because of human weakness (pride!), they have separated the two offices" of king and priest. Neither the state church model of Northern Europe nor the secular model of France, Italy and Spain has sufficed, Benedict observes. But he continues:
Situated between the two [failed] models is the model of the United States of America. Formed on the basis of free churches, it adopts a separation between church and state. Above and beyond the single denominations, it is characterized by a Protestant Christian consensus that is not defined in denominational terms but rather in association with its sense of a special religious mission toward the rest of the world. The religious sphere thus acquires a significant weight in public affairs and emerges as a pre-political and supra-political force with the potential to have a decisive impact on political life.
It is useless to bemoan the fact that Americans do not understand what they are until a European comes along and explains it to them; that has been true since Alexis de Tocqueville. It is most promising that a European, indeed one who speaks with the authority of the throne of St Peter, has explained the difference between the Christian foundation of the US political system and theocratic Islam - even if the explanation came in the form of a stage whisper. I expect this to have profound consequences.

It would seem that Benedict has come to the same conclusion as at least one of our readers, Pastorius, who noted here that if Europe is to survive as an engine of western culture, it must become more like America. For Benedict, this means Europe must rediscover the prepolitical (revealed and sacred) truths which make politics, i.e. contest of a shared human scene, possible. I wonder also what YARGB readers will make of Spengler's suggestion that America still has much to learn from Europe, or at least from certain Europeans.


David Thomson said...

“I wonder also what YARGB readers will make of Spengler's suggestion that America still has much to learn from Europe, or at least from certain Europeans.”

We have something to learn from specific Europeans like Jean-Franciois Revel and the late Raymond Aron. However, the United States is far more evolved than the European nations. We surpassed them in just about every significant manner over a hundred years ago. Am I an arrogant “ugly” American? Nope, I simply refuse to blind myself to reality.

The Europeans mostly became socialists. This resulted in slowing down their economic growth. They are now envious and bitter. Where are their children? Also, there are far too many unassimilated Muslims running around the continent. It’s indeed probably too late for them. What should the Europeans do? The more sensible should be planning to emigrate to the United States as quickly as possible. Thank God my ancestors left in the late 19th Century.

Eric Blair said...

I think Spengler is too much into his namesake.

I've begun to think that Europe mainly exists as a bad example for the US to learn from, these days. Probably has been since about 1900.

truepeers said...

Eric, did you read this, from the end of Spengler's article?

Benedict excoriates the pessimism of Oswald Spengler, who claimed to have discovered a deterministic pattern of rise and fall of civilizations. Instead, he argues that "the fate of a society always depends upon its creative minorities", and that "Christians should look upon themselves as just such a creative minority".

I agree with the pope, not with my namesake. My choice of nom de guerre is ironic rather than semiotic. The fact that the West still has such a leader as Benedict XVI in itself is cause for optimism. It might be too late for Europe, but it is not too late for the United States, and that is where the pope's mustard seeds may fall on fertile ground.

Frankly, that is pretty weak optimism. While I see much in what you and David say, I can't give up on Europe. If western culture can't prove its ability to renew itself there, how optimistic can we ever be? What sayeth your namesake on such matters?

terrye said...

Learn from the Europeans?

We have been proving for centuries that we are not, nor do we have any desire to be Europe.

Perhaps they should learn from us.

chuck said...

I tossed Spengler aside over a year ago when he predicted that Russian troops would be in Iraq before the fall. I mean, really, that was just dumb. That said, the guy generates great atmospherics of decline and decay, so think of his stuff as entertainment, sorta Batman Begins for the intellectual...

truepeers said...

Chuck, that Russian troops thing sounds pretty dumb. I don't think I've read Spengler more than a couple of times, guess I'll have to keep my eyes open.

Terrye, to learn from America is exactly what Benedict is proposing; the question is, does he have a role as a world leader left to play after he makes that gesture?

Pastorius said...


I heard the Hugh Hewitt interview on the radio and I have read the transcript twice. I have come to the conclusion that the Pope did not say what Father Fessio indicates he said. I am sorry, but I have to believe Fessio got it wrong.

Benedict is a big believer that the Power and Grace of the living God has the authority and dominion over all things in Heaven and Earth.

There is a verse in Romans which says,

" 38For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

39Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

If Benedict said that Islam is an evil which can not be reformed, then he has refuted Gods Word.

truepeers said...

Pastorius, I would like to hear more your thoughts on this. I am of course willing to believe that Fessio heard what he wanted to, until we hear more from Benedic himself. And I am sure that Benedict would not deny the possibility that we can all know, as indidividual humans, God's grace, whatever religions or social systems we are born into.

This passage from Romans says to me that no power can come between God's love and all his children. In other words, we are all humans, united in a universal humanity, before we are members of specific religious organizations or political units. But to believe in this universal vision is not to deny that there are not worldly hindrances and religious heresies that may block our path to God's love, to knowledge of the basis of our original unity and the freedom that stems from it.

Doesn't the Pope's belief in the truth of Christianity necessarily imply that it must come into conflict with the other great proselytizing faith of our age? The two faith's accounts of revelation cannot be equally true. The object of revelation is an ethical system and these are tested daily in the world. The relative failures of Islamic societies to prosper economically, respect women, etc., can no longer be blamed on colonialism, or some such, by serious people. It is becoming evident that certain historical revelations are more true than others, if the measure of this truth is the degree of freedom and wealth produced by the societies born of certain revelations. This only suggests to me that people should emulate the successful, and give up failed beliefs. It does not mean that we should believe that any people are irredeemably fallen.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

...if the measure of this truth is the degree of freedom and wealth produced by the societies born of certain revelations.

But is it?

truepeers said...

MHA, if people, or our social systems, need experience at least slowly expanding freedom and wealth in order to survive, and I think they do, then this primal necessity dictates how we test revelation. If my revelation ends up killing me and my people, or enslaving us, well then sooner or later we should grow weary of it.

This is somewhat akin to saying that history's victors dictate its truth; many privileged westerners find this idea appalling, but frankly, how else can it be? The only people who seriously deny that the truth is proven by historical success are those who would dissimulate their own privileged positions in western educational hierarchies, etc., or their clients who play the white guilt card to reap the benefits this allows within the western-dominated system. Those true believers in their moral superiority, despite their peoples' relative technological backwardness just keep fighting, believing that they will be eventually victorious and proven fight, say, e.g., the Al Qaeda folk.

Anyway, it could well be, that is was nothing more than accidental bad luck that led me, in following my revelation, to lose my way, while you, in following yours, prospered. Still, for how many generations should my progeny continue to believe in my revelation if it does not provide results? The proof is still in the pudding.

The one thing that is amply clear about the process of human history is that, whatever wrong turns we take, whatever dead ends we explore, in the long run history is evolving a social system characterized by ever greater freedoms. We move towards greater human self-understanding, not less. In the beginning was the Word, but remember it was a single word, allowing a single degree of freedom. And today we have millions. The archaeological record of the stone age suggests that language and consciousness and creativity all evolved quite slowly at first (pace Comrade Chomsky). But evolve they did.

Now it's true that the forces of freedom have to continually compromise with our intuition of a fundamental human euality, but at the same time it seems we can't survive over the long term without transcending the limits of one ethical order by creating another that allows us greater possibilities for expanding the freedoms by which we represent and understand ourselves (this implies an imperative to ever greater exchange, reciprocity, and hence the need to recognize some kind of fundamental equality, as well). I think this is because these representations are the means by which we can mediate and defer our internal conflicts. And at the same time they are the means by which we make our societies stronger vis a vis our enemies, and thus increase the likelihood of our society surviving wars.

Now it may well be, that after achieving a certain level of freedom, human society will destroy itself: if everyone can one day build a nuke in the backyard, our time on this earth might run out, but maybe we don't have to go there. But even if this final end of the road is an admitted possibility, it cannot constitute an argument against the primary belief that without freedom we cannot survive. We probably came closest to ending our earthly presence in the primal age of sticks and stones.

charles henry said...

I think there is cause for optimism, that Islam can be reformed. Surely when there's an individual example, it can be used as hopeful seed for a larger
number. For years now I've played with, worked with, dined with, had regular business transactions with, muslims who are nothing at all like the zealous monsters who engage in honor killings and marrying 13-year olds and other shameful behavior. These people
have resolved the intellectual vitamin deficiency that plagues their co-religionists in
Europe and the Middle East.
If these individuals can find a way, without any official teacher to guide them,
indeed with their entire cultural instincts acting as incentive not to adapt,then surely change on a larger scale should be possible as well?
How to engineer that change, on the larger scale, that should be the question... I believe the possibility of change, itself, is already an established fact.

MeaninglessHotAir said...


I used to play around with artificial intelligence and in particular with simulated evolution in various forms ("genetic algorithm"). By doing this over and over for hours I learned a number of lessons about how evolution really operates. One of them is the enormous role that chance plays in the game. Another is the enormous role of time, that what is a winning strategy for a time--even for a very long time--sometimes turns out to be a losing strategy in the long run. And vice versa. Another is that you can't ever predict what's really going to be the winning strategy. So if Joe's revelation has led him to success or failure for several generations that means...? Precious little from this point of view. But not nothing, and therein lies the rub.

The evolutionary struggle between Islam and the West is far from over. Yes, we have more digital video recorders than they do. Is that supposed to be an ultimate proof of our divinity? On the contrary, by the standard you set, which is based on our "primal necessity", surely we should allow points for the side which has children? Surely by this standard having lots of children easily trumps having lots of toys and bigger houses.

I don't pretend to know what's going to happen. But our continual worship of the trivial materiality at the cost of children seems to me to be a recipe for disaster, which may in a very few generations lead to a complete revision in just who's revelation was the divine one after all.

truepeers said...

Charles H.,

I certainly don't want to suggest I think that any individual Muslim is incapable of growth and transformation, especially not once in a society that allows them the necessary freedoms. But the question remains whether people like your friends can ever command a large following and speak in the name of both Islam and indefinitely expanding human freedoms. It may be possible, I don't entirely discount it. Time will tell. But I just don't see the signs of it happening now, and I can see many hindrances to such a future. It is one thing to succeed in the free market when you are a religious minority and you have no other economic choice except dependence on the state. But societies dominated by Islam and Sharia law, societies without our kind of church-state separations, have so far been complete disasters from the point of view of the global marketplace. The universal submission to the word of God, i.e. to the Koran, seems to mitigate against the kind of society that can compete with the west at its own game, a game which surely must continue in something somewhat like its present form if 6.5 billion are to be fed, clothed, housed.

I wish it weren't so difficult, but this is the situation. At some point in time, if the west survives in a dominant position, we may have to grab the bull by the horns and if violence continues to come out of Islamic societies - as it surely will if they remain impoverished in relation to much of the world (I mean take away the oil and gas and they have practically no stake in global trade, at present) demand, even if this means some violence on our part, that they open themselves to missionaries, apostates, conversions, and all manner of religious freedoms. Imagine the cries against the neocon belief in bringing democracy to the heathen then. But they are not heathen, they are people with a right to share in the future if they can do so relatively nonviolently. But this will probably mean marginalizing some very major bodies of Islamic htought as presently constituted. Do you really believe it can happen, or do you just want to believe it? That's not a snarky question, just one we have to honestly ask ourselves.

truepeers said...

MHA, yes I agree with everything you say. I'd note that there are different kinds of evolution and the biological and cultural are quite different. But if there is a higher degree of chance in the former, it is not absent from the latter. Many things could have happened in cultural history, but didn't. But we cannot live our lives around half-baked ideas about what could've should have been.

Anyway, I agree, that if the west cannot reproduce itself because it prefers to distract itself to death, then fine, history has spoken, given us a hypotheis about its limits, and other revelations will prove victorious; and to the victors goes the ability to name the truths of history. SOme might remember that the west could have saved itself, but they will have no definite proof, unless and until our successors exceed our level of freedoms in a non-destructive manner.

In any case, the victors will not be able to sit still, if my argument is correct. I assume that no society is stable. This is because they all produce resentments of the established order and its social differences, and hence they must continually find ways to transcend this resentment and the conflict it breeds. A lot of killing can limit the change that goes with the need to transcend; but in the long run I think the need to defer or temporarily transcend conflicts will, in one place or another, evolve the heresies and freedoms that will put people back on the path to having more videocams.

Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution is shaped by things like faith in the future. Our future is not predetermined, nor highly subject to chance, other than things like rocks from space killing us all. We will make our future one way or another. And the more open conflict, the more obvious our choices and the need to make them will become.

Fertility is in decline almost everywhere on earth; but even if some have many more children than us, there remains the question how are they going to feed them? And on this, the west still has most of the answers. CHina and a few others may have a lot to say soon, but the Mullahs are a long way from playing a serious role in this conversation.

Pastorius said...


Thanks for challenging me.

This is in response to the question you put to me, on this same subject, over at my blog.

As I lay awake at 3:00AM, I finally figured out why my argument may not make sense to some people.

In WWII, we went up against an ideology (Nazism) which we eliminated through warfare. In the Cold War, we eliminated an ideology through economic and ideological warfare.

So, I think people have the idea that we can eliminate Islam.

You can not stamp out a religion through warfare, not even through economic and ideological warfare. There are always people who are going to choose to follow the religion.

We can, however, choose to make aspects of their religion illegal. This is what we did in Japan in the aftermath of WWII. We did not stamp out Japanese Buddhism. Instead, we made it illegal to teach the doctrine of Emperor-worship.

In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we would have done well to make it illegal to

1) preach Jihad,

2)to institute strict Sharia (we should be specific regarding what it is in Sharia that we will not allow, because Muslims are always going to want to keep the idea of Sharia)

3) to force women to live in slavery (no more burqas, females are allowed to choose education, whom to marry, careers, etc.)

You say we can not force changes on a peoples religion.

I disagree. We must do so.

We need to recognize the fact that these people live in slavery just as sure as the blacks of the American South did, and just as surely as the Jews in the concentration camps.

Time is of the essence. We can not merely afford to have patience. In this case Christian patience would be the equivalent of appeasement.

How many generations are we to allow to die under this enslavement? Now, that we are all very aware of what is going on, and now that we are mortally threatened by the lethal combination of fanatic governments and nuclear weapons, we can not afford to wait.

charles henry said...

Truepeers, I guess I sounded zealously optimistic, and I did not mean to be. I deeply agree with your assessment of the immense challenge ahead of us. And my definition of victory in this ideological struggle with Islam, is to settle for the prolonging of western civilization, rather than cementing it as an invincible, permanent fixture. I think it’s a race where the finish line is the starting point for the next race. The advantages we have, which I think you are outlining in far more clear terms than I could, gives us better odds at winning but I didn’t mean to imply that by itself it guarantees the victory, just as having a good hand in a card game doesn’t guarantee success… it’s how the hand is played along with how the hand is dealt. This is how I reconcile MHA’s points about random chance jeopardizing our attempts to predict and control change; when things change we must adapt to change as well. Our strength is that, in my opinion, our book of instructions teaches many important lessons through metaphor, rather than through literal statement, as the Koran does, so that we are in a better position to survive the changes forced upon us. One example: our text teaches us that we live in an orderly universe, but does not purport to teach us what the order is, in detail; for this knowledge we develop Science so that by progressive measurements we can discover How the heavenly bodies are so ordered. The Koran flatly states that the sun revolves around the earth (or so I’m told; I’ll substitute another example if this one proves wrong). The ambiguity within our texts makes it hard to arrive at a consensus on penetrating the mysterious, but that struggle must be less than one built around denying the obvious.
You ask, who speaks for islam, and I think you’re correct that right now, their system is such that single individuals may rise and claim that authority. To overturn that status I ask myself, who speaks for the judeo-christian faith currently opposing islam, and my answer is, we all do. No single voice but a choir. Our political system is an echo of this, all the more so thanks to the blogosphere, where we all have a piece of the truth and can add our pebbles to the mountain. My anecdotal examples earlier were an attempt to suggest it will be by manufacturing a multitude of small voices, whether by incubating them over here, or sheltering their growth over there, and combine them into a shout that can drown out the siren song poisoning their present and our potential future.

truepeers said...

Yes, one step at a time. Looking forward too much can boggle the mind. Just think, this conversation may actually prove the sideshow to the developing debate over how the west, CHina, and India are all going to get along!