BlogLast modified: August 10, 2011
~Axel Marc Takacs
Another summer has passed and I was able to spend it in a foreign land once again. This time, my travels took me further east to Tehran, Iran. I was fortunate enough to have spent (an all too short!) month at the Iranian Institute of Philosophy. The generosity of the people, both within the Institute, as well as those I encountered in the various cafés and restaurants I frequented, was overflowing. I plan to return next summer for a much longer three months, and, God willing, a full year sometime thereafter.
However, even more pleasant was the wisdom that the professors and students at the Institute never ceased to share with me – knowledge called Islamic ‘irfân and hikma, i.e., gnosis and wisdom. These two terms signify, essentially, Islamic philosophy. As a Catholic, I would connect Islamic ‘irfan and hikma with theology, as Islamic theology is itself much more dogmatic and doctrinal than classical Christian theology. In Iran, philosophy is still studied as it was in the West up until the end of the Middle Ages, that is, as a way of life. It is studied as Catholic theology and spirituality is studied today, for the most part, in Catholic institutions. I offer Chittick’s explanation of hikma:
The fact that the philosophers often referred to their discipline as hikma…suggests a dimension to their endeavor that tends to be forgotten in the modern world and that is hardly present in the word philosophy as it is currently used in the academy. “Wisdom” is not just knowledge, not even an exalted knowledge of the truth itself. The word also denotes putting knowledge into practice in the appropriate way. Hikma is differentiated from knowledge by the activity that it demands, or the fact that it demands knowing how things truly are and then acting in a way that coincides exactly with how they are. In Islamic texts, it is understood to be closely allied with justice (‘actt, ‘adala), which is often defined as putting things where they belong and ensuring that everything has its proper place, the supreme virtue in philosophical ethics.
The Muslim professors at the Institute have an extraordinary command of the Islamic intellectual tradition, being able to cite sources from memory, connecting various strains of thought to different thinkers throughout history, from famous ones like Avicenna, to lesser known ones (in the West at least) like Baba Afdal. Several at the Institute actually have a direct teacher-student link to famous philosophers such as Mulla Sadra. They are not ignorant of Western philosophy, even though they may be curious as to how anyone could truly study something in such an analytical and detached manner and still call it “the love of wisdom.” At the Institute, the ancient epistemological notion that the knower becomes the known has not been dismissed. Being that they are studying existence qua existence, that is, how the Necessary Existent, God, becomes manifest in the world, their intellectual journey is essentially one that leads them to taking on the character traits of God. The study of ‘irfan and hikma in Iran is still a transformative one; the philosopher seeks the Truth in order to be transformed by that knowledge. As the Ikhwân al-Safâ’ have stated, philosophy “is becoming similar to God in keeping with the capacity of mortal man.” For Western philosophy, this notion has been largely dismissed (my own experience forces me to exclude traditional Catholic theology, philosophy, and spirituality from this generalization; I am sure there are other examples, however). Of course, not everyone at the Institute adheres to such a philosophy; professors who are much more Westernized in their academic approach teach there as well.
I could go on with describing how philosophy is studied in Iran, but I refer you to Chittick’s book cited at the end of this posting for an excellent introductory work to Islamic ‘irfan and hikma, which still applies to the study of it in Iran, at least for the professors and students with whom I interacted. More to the point, as far as my wayfaring in the field of comparative theology goes, the experience was a most enlightening one. It is a rare chance to be able to learn about Islam from Muslims who believe in the richness of their tradition from the bottom of their heart (many of them having such spiritual heart knowledge), yet who are also extremely open to other religious traditions. This openness is not out of a sense of religious pluralism that tends to denude religions of their Sacred Origin, but rather from the starting point of the Sacred Origin that has revealed traditional religions in this world (religious pluralism being a movement that starts from the bottom and futilely works its way up; the traditional Islamic view being a movement that starts from the top—Existence being God—and works its way down in order that we then ascend toward the One based on the spiritual knowledge garnered from the various religious traditions, though never through syncretism, and always remaining exoterically committed to a single tradition).
In Western academia, those supremely familiar with the data of the Islamic intellectual tradition are relatively easy to find. However, those who have become so proficient in it so that their heart is transformed (proficiency implying a transformation, and a transformation implying proficiency) are few and far between. To be sure, Western academia promotes objectivity and detachment from one’s area of research. But according to the classical view of knowledge, one can never understand something unless he or she becomes it. Contrary to this view, Western academia has been so consumed in objectivity that, instead of going deep into the heart of a religious tradition in search of Truth, researchers have had to dig wider and wider in order to conjure up creative research, stripping religion of its essence, i.e., the Sacred. Using the hermeneutics of suspicion, researchers have remained on the outer edges of a religious tradition and its philosophy, deforming a religion and shaping it around their preconceived ideas. Through such a hermeneutics, they are always looking for ulterior motives and other causes (besides the Sacred) for religious texts. Chittick has so pointedly put it,
Our hermeneutics of suspicion will show that philosophical thinking is nothing but historical determinism, historical determinism nothing but psychological conditioning, psychological conditioning nothing but economic stratification, economic stratification nothing but gender politics, gender politics nothing but sociobiology, and so on in an endless samsara of reductionism that knows no nirvana save tenure and promotion.
“Publish or perish,” as the saying goes.
In order to be a proficient comparative theologian, I must enter into a religious tradition as deeply as possible. Remaining on the periphery of a religious tradition, as one often does when one studies with such detachment, I will never be able to honestly learn the rich wisdom from it. With the experience of learning from the professors at the Institute, I was able to powerfully penetrate the religious tradition of Islam. As a comparative theologian, I choose to enter into another religious tradition in order to transform the theology of my own tradition. However, unless the knowledge I gain from the other religious tradition is itself transformative knowledge, then such a goal is unattainable. I look forward to returning to the Institute in my future for this every reason.
 Chittick, William C. The Heart of Islamic Philosophy: The Quest for Self-Knowledge in the Teachings of Afdal al-Dîn Kâshânî. (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 70
 ibid., pg. 55
~Axel Marc Takacs
I recently listened to a podcast of the Ibn ‘Arabi society entitled “Naught but Love,” by Pablo Beneito. His closing remarks called to my mind comparative theology and the practice of interreligious reading of sacred texts. The topic of his presentation was Love—namely, the cosmological reality of Love, as an equivalent to God’s essence, being the source of all movement and existence in the universe. This is a fundamental aspect of the mystical cosmology of Ibn al-’Arabi (d. 1240), one of the foremost and most influential Muslim mystics and philosophers. Beneito quotes Ibn al-‘Arabi on this topic:
“How can one deny love? When there is naught but love in existence and were it not for love it would not have manifested, for everything has manifested from love and through love and love permeates existence and sustains its movements.”
Beneito then explains the Akbarian (of or relating to Ibn al-‘Arabi, his honorific title being al-shaykh al-akbar, “the greatest of masters”) interpretation of knowledge and love and the connection between the two. Since all things manifest (read: are perpetually re-created, therefore sustained) from and by the Love of God, which is God’s essence, to truly know things is therefore to know Love, to love God. Furthermore, to love something implies to know it, and to know its real meaning implies to love it, for its real meaning is nothing but a manifestation of God (no matter what the outward, exoteric reality may imply). The human quest for knowledge becomes an interaction with the things of this world of manifested love. Love descended in multiplicity and thus created the world, and humans embark upon a loving ascent back to the source of love through knowledge of the Divine. A hadith qudsi (saying of the Prophet of Islam in which he speaks in the first-person voice of God) supports this: “I was a hidden treasure, and I loved to be known, and so I created the world.”
Accordingly, human beings are theomorphic creatures, identical to the Christian understanding of “being created in the image and likeness of God.” God created human beings through and with Love, which is naught but God’s essence. Creation, and humanity especially, is thus the means through which God manifests the Divine Names and Attributes. We have the ability to know God through ourselves, and God knows His own self through us. Beneito explains,
“Like attracts like, God loves his resemblance in the theomorphic human form and through love he becomes the eye of his loving servant. God knows himself with the eye pupil of human beings and knowing himself is the theosis [becoming God-like] of the servant and the culmination of the aim of creation.”
Ibn al-‘Arabi uses the term manassa, or “bridal chamber,” to describe humanity. We are bridal chambers of the self-disclosure of the truth: “In truth, you are the bridal chamber where the truth reveals himself.”
This finally brings us to Beneito’s closing remarks, and that which made me connect his talk with comparative theology. The Arabic word manassah comes from the trilateral root that has two meanings. The first is “bridal chamber, wedding bed, or the throne on which the bride sits.” It also means “to elevate, to show, or to indicate.” Ibn al-‘Arabi uses it analogously with other terms that mean “place of manifestation [of the Divine]” (mazhar) and “support of revelation/manifestation” (majlaa)—in other words, the entities that manifest the Sacred in this world. Each being is thus a locus in which the Lover and Beloved meet in the created world.
The interesting part is that the word for “text” (nass) shares the same root. Thus, Beneito explains that manassa is also
“the creative recitation of the [sacred/revealed] text in which activity and receptivity coincide—nassa means “text,” and also “to determine, to fix in writing”—hence, the place of elevation in which the beloved is manifested, manassa, could also be the place of the revelation of the text.”
The revealed text is the wedding chamber of the beloved, in essence and meaning, unveiling herself to the lover, who is the reader. Ultimately, lover and beloved become one, and this is aided linguistically once again: ‘arus, which can signify both bride and groom. A repeated theme in Akbarian mystical doctrine is God being the lover, beloved, and the love between the two. In the reading of the text, it is God himself who reads Himself through the manifested, human reader. Manassa allusively designates the Qur’an as a theophany, and the bridal chamber of lover and beloved united in the reading of the revealed text, the essence of which is Love.
Thus ends Beneito’s podcast on Love in the Akbarian tradition, which leads me to comparative theology. In doing comparative theology, the reader reads the sacred texts aware, to a certain extent, of the aforementioned reality; it becomes a spiritual practice, as Francis X. Clooney has described in his book, Comparative Theology. The sacred text one is reading is a revelation of the Divine, while we are manifestations of the Divine as well: theomorphic beings. As such, we have the essential ability to have the sacred texts we are reading speak to each other through us. Removing the sacred reality from a religious text, and thus reading it dispassionately and without a disposition open to the unveiling of the Beloved (revelation), transforms the given text into something that it is not: a profane text lacking any potential revelatory messages from God. A hermeneutics that is not open to the Sacred precludes the possibility of reaching the essential meaning of the text, thus viewing it as a completely different text, for the essence of a revelatory text is a manifestation of the Divine with human (cultural, linguistic, historical, etc.) influences. As mentioned, to truly know something is to love it, and to love it is to truly know something. In other words, reading a sacred text of a religious tradition other than one’s own, and hoping to truly know it (not in the historical scientific sense), requires, at a minimum, the openness to spiritual transformation that any love engenders.
Our comparative theological reading of texts becomes the manassa that Beneito discussed, an encounter between the Lover and Beloved in the reading of the text. Certainly, scholarly preparation for the reading, and analysis thereafter, must utilize the excellent tools of the history of religion and comparative religion; but these methods only go so far in comparative theology. To truly seek knowledge of the Sacred through the texts, one must take into account the essence of both ourselves, as reader, and the text: each is a manifestation of God, and the goal is to encounter the texts in the bridal chamber of spiritual reading where the two texts meet within the reader. Hopefully, after our time in the bridal chamber of interreligious reading, we will receive Sacred knowledge that the Prophet of Islam himself asked of God when he said, “My Lord, increase me in my knowledge.”
~Axel Marc Takacs
This summer I was fortunate enough to have participated in an experience of interreligious learning that was truly comparative theology in action. I spent seven weeks, four days per week, three hours a day with Moroccan, Muslim students attending a class (in Arabic) on Christian theology taught by Professor Paul Heck (Georgetown theology department). The Moroccans in the class were master’s students of the department of religious studies at Muhammad V University in Rabat. The program is unique to the Muslim world, and for several reasons a sine qua non for the future development of interreligious dialogue, comparative theology, and – as I came to understand throughout the experience – the retrieval of Truth in our secular, modern world. I hope these musings on my experience will put into words my reflections from this summer on interreligious learning.
Less talk; more action: We constantly discuss dialogue in the university setting, but rarely is actual dialogue taking place. While there are plenty of local, national and even international dialogue meetings, they tend to attract individuals for whom ‘dialogue-for-understanding’ is not necessary. In other words, it ends up being a ‘preaching to the choir’ scenario. This was not the case for this program. Many of the students in the department had never met a Christian, must less learned Christianity in Arabic from a Christian (their classes being taught by Muslims, of course). Likewise, it was my first encounter with Muslims not grounded in the worldview of religious pluralism; this leads me to my second point.
Theology matters: Interreligious dialogue in the West – either before or after much frustration over fundamental disagreements on theology – is inevitably relegated to matters of social justice. While not diminishing the importance of the interreligious advancement of the common good, the problem with this is that matters of real theology are never breached. In other words, it is much easier to deliberate about ‘love thy neighbor’ than for a Muslim to come to understand how the Trinity or the Incarnation do not undermine absolute monotheism in Christian theology (more on this later). In this program, the students discussed questions such as: How did Paul ground himself in the concept of covenant as found in the Hebrew Scriptures? What was his advice to the early Christians about Jewish law and how does the soteriological aspects of the sacrifice of the cross influence his understanding? How did Athanasius defend the Nicene creed from Arianism and what is his understanding of the Incarnation? How did Luther understand the faith vs. works problem in the reformation and how did the Council of Trent respond? We engaged in Christian theology in Arabic using primary sources. Consequently, these students probably know more about Christian theology now than the ordinary church-going Christian in the States, even if they still remain skeptical; this leads me to my third point.
Truth matters: How wonderful it was to engage with people who actually had a genuine desire for coming to the Truth. Truth with a capital T. The benefits of post-modernism, secularism, religious pluralism, and relativism may have led to an evermore-tolerant society, but it has also totally eviscerated knowledge of any absolute Truth content. The opposite was the case for these seven weeks in Morocco; for once, the content of theology and Truth was of the utmost importance. Theology and the study of religion have for so long been held captive by secular relativism that the discussion of Truth has given way to confabulations on the subjective understandings of an ultimately unknowable God. The discourse in undergraduate and even graduate theology and religious studies courses has been reduced to a polite exchange of views in which a solid understanding of one’s opinion is no longer necessary, for in the final analysis it is just one truth among many truths (this, of course, being a generalization, for I have had many a theology or religious studies course in which this was not the case). In other words, experience and ‘feeling’ have trumped Tradition and Scripture in informing theology (even though the former two are certainly necessary for any holistic theology). For these diligent and insightful Moroccan students, their questions on Pauline soteriology, the Incarnation and Trinity, and the faith vs. works debate of the reformation penetrated directly to the heart of Christian theology. This was so because for them Truth mattered, and they had a natural ability to pose profound questions; this leads me to my fourth point.
What do I know? I would like to think that I have an above-average understanding of Christian theology. Even so, when I was asked by one of the Moroccan Muslims, ‘who suffered on the Cross, Jesus’ humanity or His divinity (and for either answer, how and why?),’ I was forced to go through years of study and even do further reading on the issue before I could give a solid (and understandable) answer. Why was this? It was because the standard answers are sufficient for students not worried about Truth; but when what you say must be a reflection of Truth, you better have a logical and coherent explanation for it. This process is precisely comparative theology, for it “marks acts of faith seeking understanding which are rooted in a particular faith tradition but which, from that foundation, venture into learning from one or more other faith traditions…for the sake of fresh theological insights that are indebted to the newly encountered tradition/s as well as the home tradition.” (F.X. Clooney, Comparative Theology, 2010, p. 10) I experienced for the first time comparative theology in action (as opposed to in writing). I found myself reexamining my Christian theology, reformulating it so that it might make sense to a non-Christian, and even using Islamic analogies to engage my interlocutors. When theology and Truth matter, the fruits of dialogue are manifold; and this leads me to my fifth and final point.
The necessity of Truth in comparative theology and interreligious dialogue: This sort of interreligious learning is a necessary condition for coming to understand the other faith in addition to one’s own. I was constantly pushed to the limits of my knowledge of Christian theology, and this forced me to enter further into my own faith in order to explain it. My comprehension of Islamic theology was also pushed to its limit as I was seeking correlations for the sake of explaining a Christian notion. Not only did this take place in an academic setting, but it also gave us the opportunity to form friendships. These Moroccan students will be the future religious leaders of their communities, and this experience will surely shape the way they speak about Christianity. (The same could be said for many seminaries in the States. That is, at the risk of oversimplifying this program, imagine taking an Islamic scholar from the Muslim world and his three students to teach at a garden-variety seminary in the States in which most if not all students had never met a Muslim, much less learned about Islam from one.) I, too, benefited spiritually and intellectually by the refreshing insights my personal relationships with the students offered, in addition to their percipient questions. In order to come to an understanding of another faith tradition, a theological engagement that does not eschew fundamental beliefs out of a sort of theological mawkishness is necessary; neither must one reject other reflections of Truth that exist in another religious tradition (simply because it is seemingly and exoterically contrary to one’s own tradition). Even though the concept of the Trinity and Incarnation, or religion without a codified sharia (law), may be a theological cacophony to the traditional Muslim of the Islamic world, it does not follow that we must ignore these essential doctrines when engaging in dialogue or while doing comparative theology; nor should we ignore what Islam has to say about Truth simply because the Qur’an rejects the incarnation and Trinity in its own way. On the contrary, fruitful results are only possible when we remain firmly rooted and loyal to one tradition, yet open and vulnerable to the theology of another.
At times I was frustrated with constantly having to explain theological concepts that ultimately fall within the purview of the ‘mysteries of faith.’ However, I was thoroughly energized by engaging with people not yet influenced by secular relativism. The positive results of secularism, religious pluralism, and relativism are possible while still adhering to the belief in one, ultimate Truth. In other words, it is not necessary to remove the sense of the Sacred and the Truth from the pubic domain in order to create a tolerant, open-minded society. The proof of this is found in a group of Moroccan students in Rabat who were constantly inviting us over to their families’ houses for dinner, or offering their time to show us around the city. Friendships were created, and the search for Truth continues.