Friday, 28 September 2012

Tom Holland -part deux

                                                Lazarus' only favoured form of questioning...?

In which your blogger grows a little paranoid and starts obsessing...

My post about Tom Holland and Islam was picked up by Tom and tweeted. So I should really start off by thanking him for noticing the post and drawing it to other people's attention.

But rather like any nutjob who, having bent the ear of a public figure, quickly grows irritated that the VIP doesn't want to spend three hours discussing in detail suggestions for road traffic reform and the use of cowrie shells as a replacement for the dollar, I confess (once my initial pleasure had passed) in feeling slightly miffed at the substance of the tweet:

Interesting that a Protestant shld be more comfortable qu'ing [ie questioning] Muslim tradition than a Catholic: 

It may well be that I'm reading too much into this: after all, I can't expect Tom Holland to have read my points that carefully and, even if he had, the limited space of a tweet couldn't do justice to the magnificent richness of my nuanced arguments! But given all that, it's difficult to resist the impression that there is a linking here between Catholicism and unquestioning obedience to a religion, and Protestantism and a spirit of lively enquiry. And it's that association I want to tackle.

First, Andrew Brown ain't just any Protestant,, but a Unitarian Universalist minister:

I'm a liberal Free Christian minister with preference for post-modern and post-liberal theology. My personal theological/philosophical touch-stones include: Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernst Bloch, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, Paul Wienpahl, Leo Tolstoy, Gianni Vattimo and John D. Caputo. I also admit to a great and abiding love for Epicurus and Lucretius and also Benedict Spinoza.

(A full apologia is here:

Any view he comes up with certainly can't be ascribed to mainstream Protestantism, but to a post-modern, post-Christian philosophy. In particular, he comes at religion with a predisposition to underplay the importance of belief in specific historical claims:

The kind of faith that is encouraged in our liberal tradition can never, therefore, be one which opts for either slavish adherence to the supposedly historical truth of Christianity (of which there can never be assured results) nor a slavish adherence to some personal but ineffable philosophical truth of Christianity (of which there can never be assured results) but, instead, to find a delicate creative balance between these two poles through the conscious living of an unfolding form of life.

In my opinion, although this general balance must be struck, the overall weight leans ever so slightly towards the philosophical end of things...

So the 'interest' here lies less in the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, and much more in the differences between those Christians who take a core of concrete, historical claims as a key element in their beliefs (me, and other orthodox Catholics and Protestants) and those who don't (Andrew Brown).

Second, it's not right to claim that my post is reducible to a lack of comfort in questioning Muslim tradition. As I said in my previous post, I don't have a dog in this fight and am quite prepared to entertain Holland's claims about Islam. Moreover, I think it's entirely right (and certainly inevitable) that Islam comes under the sort of academic, historical scrutiny that Christianity and Judaism are currently subject to: Muslim academics like Seyyed Hossein Nasr can be safely left to fight their own corner. (As indeed can Catholic academics when the attention turns to our affairs.) Whatever might be said about the limitations of academia, in the end, constant worrying at an issue by smart, well-informed people is a good thing.

But the situation of academic popularizers such as Holland is different. In both the book and the film, Holland is presenting a narrative: a story of Islam as he sees it. Within the book, although there is some attempt to give a sense of alternative possibilities, there is certainly not enough in there for someone who reads the book to assess his arguments: essentially, we are being encouraged to trust his version of events. Now, as a non-Muslim, I'm probably happier to trust Holland than I am Seyyed Hossein Nasr: I don't, as a Catholic, believe that Mohammed had a supernatural revelation; as a westerner, I'm reasonably willing to trust western academics. In any case, it doesn't matter too much to me: I can entertain Holland's views without being committed to believe them. But the position of a Muslim without an academic specialism in early Islamic history is different: any temptation to trust Holland will be outweighed by the obvious methodological biases I mentioned before, particularly his need to say something new in order to sell.

Very few of those commenting on Holland's book in the blogosphere have the requisite academic skills and knowledge to get beyond that need for trust: I certainly don't. But that hasn't stopped many from criticizing Muslims for angrily rejecting his analysis. However, it's entirely rational for Muslims to reject his analysis: they have no reasons for giving him that trust that he requires.

So unquestioning Catholicism and questioning Protestantism? I don't see that. The main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the great explicitness of Catholicism about what authorities we are signed up to trusting: I know that, as a Catholic, I have accepted the need, ceteris paribus to trust the Pope and the Bishops. Sola scriptura Protestantism pretends that it relies solely on the Bible, but in fact, for the ordinary believer, is based on trusting authorities such as ministers: Catholicism is simply more self reflective about the nature of authority in belief.

I'm not sure that I'd find 'interesting' the difference between Catholic and (mainstream) Protestant reactions to Holland's book: I suspect that both would find much of interest in it but also analogies to some of the old methodological flaws of debunking academic studies of Christianity. But if there were a difference, I suspect it might be this. Catholics would be more sensitive and questioning about the way that methodologies of historical enquiry affect outcome: unlike (some) Protestants and (some) popular historians, Catholics would be suspicious of any claim to an engagement with history and texts that denied being parti pris and denied the need to trust what one cannot really think for oneself due to lack of expertise, and which instead imagined the possibility of an unproblematic and heroic struggle of the clear seeing truth teller with the forces of obscurantism and blind faith.

And if that is the difference, then Catholicism is in the right here.

Update: an extremely gracious tweet from Tom Holland:

ts Top / All

I am rightly put in my place for dealing in pat generalisations – sthg that I, of all people, shld know is infuriating 

1 comment:

  1. If you send those Andrew Brown quotations to Private Eye's Pseuds' Corner, you'll get £10 for everyone they print - so that's at least £20 :)