NASA Reaching Out to Muslims? AWESOME.

Cause and effect.

About a month ago, I read with great interest a fantastic little book called The Closing of the Muslim Mind, which goes into great detail about why the Islamic caliphates went from being the foremost intellectual center of the Middle Ages to scientific backwater.

For instance, many people are not aware that Islamic textbooks on science often postfix many of their scientific posits with “God willing” in order to avoid any implication of heresy.  A fascinating concept, especially when you draw contrasts to Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensberg address back in 2006.  While most people remember the speech for the historical depictions of Ottoman conquerers (and the riots that ensued afterwards), the Pope had much to say about the relationship between faith and reason:

“Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”  The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”

John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the logos”. This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts with logosLogos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist.

From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature.

God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, “transcends” knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul – worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason.

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

So maybe that was a bit too much to quote all at once.  If you haven’t read the Regensberg address in full and have even a remote interest in the Global War on Terrorism (and can stomach the heavy intellectual lifting), then print this out and read it paragraph by paragraph.  It’s worth your time.

Benedict XVI was reflecting on two key aspects of Christian-Muslim relations: (1) that for Christians, we not only inherit Greek philosophy, but that our faith is rooted in reason and our reason rooted in faith, and (2) that this is a stark contrast to the Muslim belief that faith trumps reason, and a theological discussion that must be developed.

You’d be surprised to learn that it wasn’t always this way.  In fact, during the Middle Ages it was almost precisely the opposite — a Catholic Church locked in mysticism, medieval politics, or outright dying (well before the restoration spearheaded by St. Francis and St. Dominc in the 12th century) contrasted against a Muslim caliphate that embraced reason.

So what changed?  Islam, like Christianity, has its own tectonic rifts, and during the 11th century it would be Islam’s turn to look for purification.  In short, they had their own “reformation” — their own version of Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, and above all the sovereign will of Allah.

By the 12th century, Muslim philosophers in Cordoba would be the last refuge of reason as philosophic inquiry itself would be banned, and the books of the great Muslim thinkers burned.  Why this sudden change in Islam?  Much of it centered around the displacement of reason in favor of faith — faith in the Koran, faith in the um’ma, and the idea that Allah alone governs every microscopic aspect of natural events.

For instance, imagine an arrow aimed at the heart of a man.  Islam would argue that the tension of the bow is entirely the will of Allah, the loosing of the arrow is also the will of Allah.  The travelling along a determined path is the will of Allah.  That the arrow pierces the skin of the target is also the will of Allah.  That it kills the target is also the will of Allah.  That the individual loosing the arrow is not responsible for his actions, but submitted to the will of Allah. That there was no injustice in the act, but for the will of Allah.

Get the problem yet?

There no justice, culpability, or responsibility for any of these actions.  Worse still from the mindset of the philosopher or the Christian West, there is no cause or effect.  Each moment, each variable, was the will of Allah alone.

Now apply this mode of thought to the scientific method.

…and you get your “AHA!” moment as to why President Obama wants to use NASA as an outreach tool to the Muslim world.  In essence, if you’re working with the physics of landing a Martian rover, at some point you’re going to have to challenge — and perhaps recapture — an aspect of your faith.

This is obviously an oversimplification, so before any Muslim readers of Bearing Drift jump on me for it, I undoubtedly realize that reason isn’t exactly extinct in the Muslim world.  Likewise, I also understand the implications of using NASA as a tool for proselytization.  Still, to create missionaries for reason isn’t necessarily a bad idea, especially when put in the context of stoking a long-term (and long haul) process of restoring reason to her rightful place alongside faith.


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