TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 134 (Spring 2006): Politics and Religion

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Telos 134Au secours, Voltaire! Ils sont fous. (“Save us Voltaire, they are crazy.”) With this cry for help, the French newspaper France Soir appealed to a national hero, the notoriously anti-religious philosopher of the Enlightenment, in the face of burgeoning Muslim protests against its reproduction of the Danish caricatures of Mohammed. As of this writing, European embassies in Damascus are in flames, and angry protestors have filled the streets from Jakarta to Jutland. The conse­quences are, as the Danish Prime Minister has put it, “unforeseeable,” at least as far as the political dimension goes. Suddenly it is Western Europe and not the U.S. that bears the brunt of Muslim anger. The contrast is telling, though hardly a reason to gloat. On the eve of the Iraq War, opponents warned that the “Arab street” would be up in arms if the U.S. were to invade. Nothing of the sort ensued; with few exceptions, demonstrations in the Muslim world in response to Operation Iraqi Freedom were few and far between. How striking the difference, then, is the scope of public outrage to the cartoons in the European press. When all is said and done, caricaturing the Prophet is worse than toppling Saddam. Reams of public opinion polling about anti-Americanism in the Arab world sud­denly seem irrelevant in the face of this unpredicted explosion of anti-European sentiment. (The long-standing pro-Palestinian tilt of Denmark and Norway has not won them much sympathy, not even in Gaza.)

It seems fair to argue that in the global “clash of civilizations,” Europe, with its more thoroughgoing secularization (read: empty churches and post-Christian mentality), may be more offensive to traditionalist faiths than the combination of religion, democracy, and neo-liberalism of Bush-era America. At least at this point, a Europe addicted to unmitigated secularism—and a predisposition for aggressive expressions of hostility towards all religions, especially its own—seems distinctively more dogmatic and Voltairean than a Washington that can at least condemn the caricaturing as “offensive.” It is worth recalling how, soon after September 11, Europeans began to fret over a religious fervor in the U.S. that they nervously equated with fundamentalist Islam. They were wrong about that equation, but in the contemporary encounter with the Muslim world, the U.S. is at least not burdened with the same animosity to religion that has come to define postmodern Europe. The dialectic of enlightenment traces an important line between mandatory secularization and respectful tolerance.

There is, however, more to thicken this plot. The Muslim protests forfeit most of their credibility when one recalls the standard proliferation of anti-Semitic imagery in the Arab press, in contrast with which the Danish images seem tame. Nor did streets anywhere fill with protests when, in 2001, the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in the name of Islam. Evidently blowing up Bud­dha is fine, but lampooning Mohammed is wrong. Are some religions more equal than others? This, of course, will be the quandary facing the multicultural camp in the West, once the current dust settles: how will it be able to define certain reli­gious sensibilities as worthy of protection, while retaining its right to deride the symbols of the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Save us, Voltaire” indeed.

When Telos began a systematic engagement with questions of religion and liturgy ten years ago, some of our intellectual neighbors found it shocking. Today it is apparent to all how much contemporary politics overlaps with religion. Moreover, the philosophical problems inherent in religion have been central to this journal for decades: the phenomenological goal as infinite and unattainable and subject to perpetual reformulation; the specificity of traditions as a source of irreducibly particular identities; and the critique of a flattening reification inher­ent in certain strands of the Enlightenment legacy. This special issue on religion and politics is therefore both a response to the current state of affairs in the world around us, as well as a continuation of a long-established mission of Telos. This issue commences with a clear and programmatic statement of the politics of radi­cal orthodoxy, John Milbank’s argument against neo-liberalism on the basis of the sacred and the gift. This critique of reification via religion is, in effect, a Christian socialism. It is a compelling vision, but one that Alain de Benoist exposes to an Enlightenment skepticism. Can one, in contemporary Europe, sin­cerely put forward Saint Paul as a basis for social policy? Yet Benoist’s critique goes further, pointing out, in a Nietzschean manner, how the critique of the law always implies a distance from the polis and therefore an incapacity for politics. The next essay, by Raymond Dennehy, turns the tables once again, with a force­ful interrogation of contemporary liberalism via John Paul II’s condemnation of the “culture of death.” The philosophical twist is ironic, since this was precisely the accusation that Nietzsche leveled against Christianity; yet here it is Christian religion that picks up the banner of life against a liberal movement towards deg­radation. Philip Goodchild’s inquiry into “Truth and Utopia” may seem to bypass the explicitly theological concerns of the other essays, but his recovery of utopian moments in truth should be seen as a de facto surpassing of the reduced facticity of liberal reason in order to regain an unconstrained excess in all truth. Aryeh Botwinick follows a parallel line of negative theological thought in his two pieces. His commentary on Ben Zoma, in particular, spells out the emancipatory agenda in monotheism as well as its anti-representationalism— suggesting, in a subterranean resonance with the critique of the Danish cartoons, that depicting divinity can only reduce humanity. Mark North unravels the interconnections between postmodernity and intelligent design: if “everything goes,” then why not creationism, too? Joshua Gold explores Jacob Taubes’ account of Pauline poli­tics, as does Matthew Bullimore in his review of Taubes’ The Political Theology of Paul, recently translated into English. Nick Hoff’s new Hölderlin translations are caught up in the discourse of the departure of the gods. Ahmet Çiğdem replies to Luciano Pellicani’s commentary (in Telos 129) on the links between terror and Islam; in contrast, Çiğdem casts terrorism as part of a problematic of modernity, not doctrine. James Kalb’s review of Christopher Insole’s The Politics of Human Frailty examines the proposed compatibility of standard liberalism and Chris­tianity. And finally, Herbert Marcuse’s note on Proust is published here as a document in the history of Critical Theory but also for its proximity, no matter how indirect, to the topics of this issue: redemption, time, and loss.

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