I’ve been reading Paul Berman‘s The Flight of the Intellectuals (many thanks to my boss here at RFE/RL, Jay Tolson, for lending me a copy). Although the book’s primary goal is to unearth the true ideology of Tariq Ramadan, a man whom both fans and opponents alike acknowledge is difficult to pin down, its elucidations of the links between Islamism and Nazism, located roughly speaking in the first half of the book, are extremely valuable. Berman not only provides an excellent summary of the most recent and important scholarly research into the topic, but he accomplishes the goal of making an intimate call to arms within the reader to face up to the true horrific countenance of certain ideologies.
This theme of avoidance, in Berman’s words, “the multi-motivated disinclination to discuss or even think about the very largest of crimes,” on the part of Western intellectuals, “The urge to look somewhere else — to look anywhere at all, except at the main thing,” is central to his book, and serves as the diving board for this reflection. You see, this little blog of mine is saturated by Transhumanist themes, and insofar as it reflects my mind (as close friends and sharp readers have noted, I’m not entirely candid in this digital space) it can be said to be an expression of a worldview that is, although not exclusively Transhumanist, is nevertheless deeply informed by such an outlook.
So, you’ll understand the depth of my concern when I say that Transhumanism, or at least some varieities of it, may be the Nazism, Communism, and Islamism of the future. Specifically, I fear that, if so, then it may one day be looked upon by distant generations from now as the twenty-first century’s equivalent of the antisemitism and eugenicism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — in other words, a belief system that promotes horrifying goals via terrible means, yet somehow is espoused by otherwise perfectly rational and decent people.
Since the World Wars, our species has been repeatedly confronted with the horrible visage of our increasingly godlike power. It grins at all of us from behind the emaciated ribs of starved Jews, Cambodians, and Darfurians, with the glare of Hiroshima shimmering across its jagged teeth. Now, what began as a severe crisis of faith in the Europe of the 1920s and 40s has quickly rippled out to encompass every culture and civilization, whether they realize it or not. Confucian and Buddhist peoples have laicized with shocking zeal, not to mention Jews, while Christianity and Hinduism have become hypercapitalist and contradict themselves. Mindbogglingly, all this has happened in the name of progress, virtue, and, most ironically of all, “family values” and cultural self-defense.
Let down as it has been by modernization and globalization, and severely betrayed by its own leadership, few in or out of the Muslim community would dispute that Islam has been particularly hit hard by the ever-expanding spiritual abyss. After all, is not most of the Third World Muslim? And in the few countries where Muslims have been able to prosper somewhat, it has either been in a position of dependency vis-à-vis the West (and now China), such as the bloated rentier states of the Persian Gulf and Central Asia; via dehumanizing authoritarianism, as in Egypt, Tunisia, Kazakhstan, and Malaysia; or in the form of a stuttering ascendancy fraught with ethnic strife, as in the fractious republics of Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Indonesia. If it is true that Islam has “bloody borders,” this condition is at least as much a result of the seepage of vitality from Islamic principles, like blood from a slit vein, as it is due to Muslims’ persistent failure to co-exist with kafirs.
I’m no fan of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahab but he did have a crucial insight, namely, that the most important concept of Islam is tawhid توحيد (unity). Could it not be that in a sense Islam may point toward our species’ animal past while Christianity may point toward our post-human future? Existence for our primitive tribal ancestors was experienced as a unitary whole in which sacred and secular were one, the same, and visceral. But for sedentarized homo sapiens, existence is an experience filtered through instrumental consciousness, cookie-cut into categories and concepts. Hence the reason why Islam, the marauding super-tribe, and Christianity, the staid city of man-deities, have been historic rivals.
Could it be that as our species barrels toward a future so inundated with technology that not only the body but the very soul could become genetically alterable, the image of the resurrected Christ—more human than human—begins to seems very prophetic, and Islam, for all its brutality, may actually be calling us to remember where we came from and that we should be careful about lunging so quickly toward the Kingdom of Heaven?
“The problem of evil.” Theologians and philosophers couldn’t have found a staler term to categorize the spiritual and intellectual catastrophe that is the question, “Where was God…?”
Where was God during Deir ez-Zor, Auschwitz, Darfur, and September 11th? Where is God when everyday people suffer and die from the most banal of causes. A non-stick frying pan, when scratched and heated, releases brain-damaging lethal fumes — where the hell is God in that? Imagine! The creator of the universe’s very existence challenged by kitchenware, and the best response Mankind’s thinkers can conjure is the crossword puzzle-sounding “problem of evil.”
The term I prefer is “theodicy”; the word’s Greek origin has an appropriately menacing sound. Yet, when I take a moment to examine the word’s etymology I find it nearly as insufficient as “the problem of evil.” It comes from the Greek θεός (theós, “god”) and δίκη (díkē, “justice”), meaning literally “the justice of God,” but more accurately rendered as “to justify God” or “the justification of God.” It was coined in 1710 by the German polymath Gottfried Leibniz. You may recall him as the fellow who believed ours is “the best of all possible worlds.”
The problems with theodicy are immediately apparent, loaded as it is with innumerable assumptions. One assumption is the very goodness of God; another is whether it is the divine, not humanity, who is in need of justification. And of course the most fundamental assumption is that God even exists (but that’s a topic for another reflection — for the sake of this essay, and out of respect for my own spiritual experiences, I’m going with the belief that some kind of divinity does exist). However, the most problematic assumptions are (a) that there’s a flawless divine plan, much less total divine mastery over events, and (b) that events are assailable as either “good” or “evil.” At the root of both these assumptions are the ideas of certainty and necessity, and the question of the relation between suffering and divine intention.
For these reasons I propose that the entire concept of theodicy be gutted and rebooted. How? By dropping talk of “good” and “evil,” eviscerating the gibberish of what we mean when we say “God,” and then asking a new question, one about the relation of chance and divine decisions. In other words, let’s be historians about our faith, and ask: how do we reconcile belief in God with contingency and change? The answer I propose: God is a storywriter, and we are partners in the plot. This is the core analogy of what I call “post-monotheist theodicy.”