TCS Daily

Islam Needs a Cromwell

By Alexander Monro - January 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Edward Feser's recent article 'Does Islam need a Luther or a Pope?' begs a reply. The article he writes is partly about whether Islam needs a Luther or a Pope, but is also a Catholic apologetic. He takes the Reformation, and in a few brief revisionist strokes reduces it to a non-event, claiming the subsequent glories of the Enlightenment for medieval Catholicism.

On science, Feser is correct to point to the fabulous achievements of medieval thinkers. One has only to read the works of Anselm and Thomas Aquinas to begin to see quite how far medieval scholars were pushing forward philosophical inquiry. As with Confucianism's later thinkers, we would be wrong to simply view the medieval scholars as part of a stagnant tradition.

But when it comes to the question of authority, Feser is leagues wide of the mark. What he omits to explain is that the Reformation was, aside from its political usefulness to Henry VIII, about who had the monopoly on truth. Prior to the Reformation, ordinary people were not allowed to read the Bible in their own tongue.

In England, William Tyndale translated the scriptures into English so that 'the common ploughboy' could understand them. Tyndale was burned at the stake for his pains, but his life's work illustrates a key difference between the two churches. The Catholics believed in the infallible word of the Pope, and in the divine appointment of the priesthood. There was no need to translate the scriptures into the vernacular because the priesthood could explain it for the sake of the masses.

The point is not that this was undemocratic but rather that it allowed the priests a monopoly on truth without being directly answerable to any outside body. It comes as no surprise then that soon enough people were paying the clergy to foreshorten their time in purgatory. Worst of all, if divine revelation was true then the priesthood was preventing the people from reading God's word for themselves. The priesthood had taken on the very role of God.

What Protestantism brought was a translated Bible and a new focus on the importance of faith. People were now able to read for themselves such un-Popish verses as 1 Timothy 2 verse 5, "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus..." With biblical truth accessible, it became clear that contact with God required no ecclesiastical hierarchy.

But there was more too. The great scientific discoveries of the ensuing years caused much angst to the Church as they often went against its teaching. It is interesting to note, however, that these discoveries did not in fact contradict scripture, but only Romish teaching, such as Galileo's proposition of a round world. (The Roman Catholic Church admitted its mistake over Galileo in 1992.)

Years later, the Church of England would make a similar error with Darwin, and a less superstitious approach has shown us that Darwin and Genesis are in fact compatible. Indeed, the Genesis story remains an apt illustration of creation, and one not at odds with the discoveries of science.

In this sense, religion and science have nothing to fear from one another. Indeed, I believe that without a law-making God there can be no ordered universe, no natural laws. And I am convinced that without an ordered universe governed by natural laws, science becomes meaningless. Such thinking also propelled the work of key figures like Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon.

Furthermore, the dangers of pursuing science as an absolute truth without any religious belief have already been studied. It was the Social Darwinists (atheists, unlike Darwin himself) who argued that the 'survival of the fittest' theory showed that different races had been in competition and that some had outstripped others. They also assumed that different races had come from different mothers (recently disproved.) Whilst some, notably Kropotkin, would go on to argue the need for 'mutual aid,' many would begin to see Indo-Europeans as a master race.

But what the Reformation achieved was to remind the Christian that there was no human monopoly on truth and that, since all men are fallen and sinful (even the Pope), all men could study nature for themselves and find in it the creative genius and ordering hand of the divine. There was nothing to be feared from truth and inquiry.

And just as salvation was for all through Christ, so the use of mental and sensory faculties to explore the world need not be limited to priests and prelates.

When Luther nailed his theses to the church door in Wittenburg, it was not because he had failed to work with the Church, but because he had read his Bible and realized how far from gospel truth the Church had strayed. In matters of justification, sanctification, propitiation, authority and the afterlife, the Church had wandered away from the teachings of Christ and his apostles. Luther would seek to replace an institution with the person of Christ himself.

It is worth looking back briefly to the origins of the Papacy in order to better understand why history also allows us to reject its self-declared authority.

A document claiming to be the donation of Constantine was used in the 8th century as proof that the Pope was divested with all spiritual power and authority, but also granted him an enormous estate. The paper named him 'Prince of the Apostles, Vicar of Christ.' It is likely it was forged in the 8th century as the Latin is from that era. Those who questioned the document's veracity were burned at the stake until the document was proved false when first studied in the 16th century.

The 'Decretals of Isidore' then appeared in its place, actually written around 845 AD. It consisted of letters describing the early Church of Rome, though oddly enough in a state of splendor it reached only in the 9th century. The Decretals became part of canon law.

Feser is right that we should beware writing off the Middle Ages. But we must nonetheless remain aware of the level of superstition and falsehood that governed it and its institutional Church.

What about Islam?

Islam needs no Pope. The confusion of political power with divine appointment has sparked terrible policies throughout history. Massacres and murders have too often been perpetrated in the name of all major world religions, when this mistake has been made. Furthermore, falsehood has been allowed to go unchecked.

Feser aptly emphasizes the importance of the rule of law in any successful political system. He argues that the rule of law was far better achieved under a Pope than under a book because a book has many interpretations, citing the denominational break-up of Protestantism as his proof.

But the rule of law works precisely because it elevates no particular individual. Instead, it elevates a social code. The establishment of the rule of law came about due to a belief in a higher authority that was not human. It is worth recalling the recent words of a senior Chinese politician -- 'I don't believe in God and I don't believe in the rule of law.'

The Reformation saw the rule of law begin to emerge as an authority higher than any prelate. But it requires a deeply Conservative view of humanity for this to come about. One must first believe in the fallibility and natural selfishness of all men if one is to set laws above all men. One must also believe that all men are equal before such a set of laws. There is simply no place for an infallible Pope.

Islam would profit from such a politics in its heartlands, one that divides off the political system from the religious leadership. What many Islamic countries perhaps need is a figure who acknowledges that all people are fickle and need checks on their power, a man who understands even his own limitations and faults. Politics would then come to be viewed as a necessary execution of power but one that needs to be held closely in check.

My muse is the man who brought down a despotic King but turned down the crown of England, the man who told his own portraitist to depict him "warts and all." What Islamic countries need, for all his faults, is not a Pope but a Cromwell.

Alexander is a frequent TCS contributor. He last wrote for TCS about Machiavelli and North Korea.


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