George Weigel's speech in Boulder last week was more momentous than I had expected it to be.
As Catholic News Agency reports, Weigel vigorously argued that Pope Benedict XVI has provided in his Regensberg lecture and other writings a "public grammar" for global understanding between Christianity, Western secularism and Islam. In arguments over religious freedom, secularism, Islam, and human rights, Weigel said the Pope has given the world political community “a grammar for addressing these questions, a genuinely transcultural grammar of rationality and irrationality.” He cited Pope Benedict's recommendation that Christianity's own crises and encounters involving religious freedom could be a starting point for Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Weigel's categorization of Pope Benedict's approach was rigorous, novel and, I thought, generally convincing.
However, his commentary sometimes seemed lacking. At one point Weigel described relations with Islam as a matter of reconciling the religion with "Enlightenment values" of religious freedom and human rights(he specifically excluded scientific positivism from consideration).
There seem to be deep problems in this framing of the program for religious reform. To my mind Weigel's clear contention that the path to world peace and reform lies in Muslims reconciliation with the Enlightenment is overly political. While the Pope's theological emphasis escapes merely political polemics, Weigel too quicky turns from theological controversy to Liberal political philosophy. While this makes Weigel's program appealing to Americans of various religious beliefs, I think this move both turns theology into a blunt political tool and whitewashes the ideologies of the Enlightenment.
As I observed in the post-lecture question period, the Enlightenment was not only the sweetness and illumination of religious freedom and human rights. Arguably, Islamic nations have in fact absorbed the most murderous aspects of the Enlightenment: nationalism, pan-racialism, Marxism, and so on, in methods if not necessarily in ideas. One could even argue that fundamentalism is an Enlightenment product in its quest to overturn existing tradition and authority in favor of some foundational period, as interpreted through the understanding of the individual believer.
Weigel thought this point about the influence of the West in Islam was a good one. Making sure to add that fascism had also influenced Islamic socieites, he said it was one of the "great tragedies of history" that the "worst of the West" was exported to the region. He further speculated on a great "What-If?" scenario: What if the United States had not accepted in acquiescence the Islamic revolution in Iran in favor of a liberal regime? (Weigel also called Ahmadinejad "possibly one of the most dangerous people on earth," though I tend to think Daniel Larison is correct in dismissing the man)
All praise must be selective, but Weigel's advocacy of "Enlightenment values" was perhaps more selective than consistency can bear. He took care to exclude scientific positivism from the list of worthy Enlightenment ideals, but like scientific inquiry, human rights and religious freedom are also tragically double-edged.
Rights-language often generates simplistic, fanatical politics. The same regime that composed the Declaration on the Rights of Man ended in the Terror and the first modern genocide. "Human rights" rhetoric is seen in some circles as American cant cynically used to justify control of other countries. The same rhetoric is appropriated by advocacy programs of which Weigel would not approve.
Let us note that even respect for religious freedom could unduly hinder nations' abilities to suppress Islamic radicals in the United States, Europe, and in the Muslim world.
Further, one can argue that even the beneficient aspects of the Enlightement spirit have demoralized Europe and rendered it more vulnerable to Islamic radicalism. If "Enlightenment values" really end in decadence after only two centuries of influence, a culture would have to be suicidal to embrace them willingly.
Weigel at one point underscored the Regensberg address' distinction between rationalist and voluntarist views of God. The former, more characteristic of Christian thought, sees God as a reasonable Being to be freely loved, while the latter view, prominent among Islamic radicals, sees God primarily as a willful Being to be obeyed.
Perhaps rationalist theology does engender religious freedom. But judging from the period of time it took to emerge in its present form, this freedom is likely an end result of other more foundational characteristics.
Other features of Western life that have produced religious liberty, such as reverent trust in providence or simple political prudence, could be the more fruitful habits in the development of religious freedom. These habits are, I think, far less obviously polemical topics than Liberal categories explicitly involving freedom, oppression, and slavery. As such, they are congenial to interreligious dialogue without eliminating controversy altogether.
While the concepts of providence and prudence are obviously shaped by the relative rationalism of the predominant theology, seriously examining them can clarify and shift that theology in a positive manner.
Can one leave to Providence the punishment of apostate believers, infidels, and political enemies? Is the expansion of God's religion prudently served by political coercion?
These are some of the questions that helped the West. Perhaps these are the questions that can help Islam.