On Wednesday, I’m scheduled to interview an American imam. But I’m a member of the doubting community, not any faith community, which means that I trace my intellectual lineage to people like these:
- Rene Descartes. Descartes made the first principle of his life, not certainty about the Ground of Being (or God’s existence), but doubt: “I think, therefore I am” was the best that he could do with regards to certainty, and then he did his best to reason from there.
- Francis Bacon. Bacon is the father of science. Like the theologian, the scientist theorizes and offers reasons for things, but that theorizing and reasoning is based on appeals to empirical evidence, not religious authority.
- Socrates. In the pre-scientific era, aside from revelation and reason (the individual reflecting in solitude), how might one arrive at truth? Socrates gave us this innovation: dialogue. He believed that two or more rational persons in conversation could get pretty far down the road of truth together. Two heads clashing, thinking, and provoking thought in one another might well be—indeed, frequently are—better than one.
- Thomas Jefferson I. Jefferson is a nice representative of the Anglo-French Enlightenment’s culmination—a “representative man.” Jefferson believed, among other things, that: (1) we have far more in common than what divides us; (2) we are rational individuals first and members of religious or ethnic communities second; and (3) we share, not just universal human reason, but inalienable rights, dignity, and equality. Sharing so much, we need not be opaque to one another; we can talk.
- Thomas Jefferson II. Jefferson is so important, he gets two bullets. Jefferson and his fellow Founding Fathers (and their Enlightenment equivalents in France), putting into practice ideas from ancient Greece (democracy), ancient Rome (republicanism), and the 17th century writer, John Locke, arrived at four important innovations in political governance: (1) citizen individuals, via their representatives, rule; (2) the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government are separated, and the press, as an unofficial fourth branch of government, is free; (3) church and state are separated; and (4) individuals possess inalienable rights.
- Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) represents the birth of feminism. If the Enlightenment is based on the notion that we, as human beings, share a great deal more than divides us, that principle extends to all equally: we are rational individuals before we are gendered individuals (or before we are racially divided, for that matter).
The above, in short, are “my people”—the people I am sympatico with as an agnostic, a secularist, a doubter. But there are two other people—one a religious innovator and one a Catholic philosopher—that I think are important to add to this list:
- Mahatma Gandhi. I’m not a pacifist; I recognize that war may sometimes be unavoidable. But Gandhi held to two principles that I think are generally valid as pole stars for living. The first is satyagraha—the pursuit of truth. He called his biography My Experiments with Truth, and I like this notion that life is an experiment, a process of discovery. The second is ahimsa—the pursuit of nonviolence, or, simply, love. Ahimsa, as Gandhi practiced it, functioned as a kind of poetry of compassion and empathy—evoking, in the suffering of his own body, universal fellow-feeling in others. In Western terms, I think of John Keats’s notion of negative capability—the idea that we can imaginatively empty ourselves of ego and inhabit, or walk in, the “shoes” of other beings (human and nonhuman). In artistic terms, Keats thought that the supreme possessor of this imaginative power was Shakespeare. In political terms, I think it’s Gandhi. In musical performance, I’ll go with John Lennon (as in his song, “Give Peace a Chance”).
- Gabriel Marcel. This Catholic existentialist philosopher wrote an essay in 1933 titled “On the Ontological Mystery,” and it has long cast a spell over me. In brief, Marcel suggests that our very ontology—our being, our existence—may be more than a mere problem with a readily scientific or reductionist solution. The mysteries of love and consciousness, for example, may not be solvable in the way that a Scooby Doo mystery proves solvable, and this mysterious source of existence—call it God—may really be there. Marcel reflects on this so beautifully that it makes me cautious, as an agnostic, about lapsing into outright atheism, and keeps me open-minded concerning Deism.
So where does all this put me in relation to Islam and my Wednesday interview date with an American imam? Islam, after all, would seem to posit an alternative to just about everything I’ve proposed above:
- for doubt, faith
- for Baconian science, authority
- for Socratic dialogue, proclamation
- for Jeffersonian individualism, the Herderian ummah (the community of believers)
- for Jeffersonian democracy and the separation of church and state, Sharia
- for feminist equality, a gender-based apartheid
- for Gandhi, Abraham and Muhammad
- for the ontological mystery, Allah, the dictator of the Quran (take that both ways, if you like)
Are there bridges here? And if so, how does an American imam in the 21st century cross them?
And how do I?
Image source: Wikipedia Commons