Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ch. 7. God and Being / Ontology

By Brian Welter

Nasr's conception of God and of being/ontology is based on hierarchical thinking that doesn't threaten the dignity of the person. He interweaves the ultimate equality of humans with the nature of divinely-ordered existence. God is higher than us.

Natural law, an Islamic natural law proceeding from the Greeks, undergirds much of Nasr's assumptions. Aristotle and Plato play a big role in Nasr's philosophy. He is unafraid to borrow at length from the Greeks in general, believing that they augment rather than threaten the Quran's teaching. The Greeks do not threaten Islamic or Quranic purity. Part of natural law – part of the healthy natural condition – is to accept and live according to the fact that creation is hierarchical. Nasr writes in The Garden of Truth, “On each level of being, existents both veil and reveal realities belonging to a higher level of existence.”1 God is central to the hierarchical nature of reality, and human growth can be envisioned as growth up the hierarchy. The inner, spiritual life is superior, higher up the hierarchy, than the outer, material life: “The goal of the spiritual life is to be able to lift up the veil of outwardness so as to behold the inward and subsequently come to know the outward in light of the inward. Spiritual realization enables us to see the outwardly invisible within the visible.... But that is only possible if we are able to penetrate into our own center and to life the veils within, to become interiorized, to gain inner vision.”2 In other words, the hierarchy is both an inner and an outer reality; we can climb up the ladder through our interior lives because the spiritual life is by its very nature hierarchical. Islam calls for each human to climb this ladder. In this sense, the spiritual vision of Islam is egalitarian. Each believer, Nasr points out, is a priest, and no hierarchy stands before the individual Muslim and God.

Nasr links God to the person. The individual is nothing without God: “Human beings qua human beings cannot enter the Divine sanctuary, but there is within us a reality that is already Divine. To be fully human is to realize our perfect servitude and to remove the veil of separative existence through spiritual practice so that God, transcendent and immanent within us, can utter 'I'.'”3 He argues in The Garden of Truth that the human being exists “to worship God and to seek His help in realizing our utter dependence upon the Divine Reality.”4 He highlights the Sufis' very existence as being for this state of “servitude.” Islamic spirituality is the spirituality of submission, which demands a hierarchical view of beings, with God at the summit and humans existing as servants. Yet this servanthood is accomplished through knowledge, which throughout his writings he emphasizes as a holy and necessary endeavor, and through love. This is not the typical master-servant relationship; nor does this hierarchy work in the way that feminists accuse patriarchy as working. It is an Islamic view of hierarchy, and as such revolves around a spiritual implementation of hierarchy. In fact, the one who journeys correctly on this path, Nasr promises, can enjoy a special relationship with God, a special participation in the hierarchy itself, in other words, because journeying on this path leads to deeper knowledge about God, which leads Nasr to write, “vision is directly related to knowledge.”5

The spiritual nature of existence and all life is grounded in God. The transcendent finds its meaning in God. All returns to God. God gives meaning to all other spiritual and non-spiritual reality. Though at times Nasr the philosopher sounds heavily influenced by Platonism, and the belief in universals or at least in another world of the truth, this other world is firmly grounded in God's transcendence. “The great mystery of existence is that it veils God by what is none other than Him... This truth is explicitly stated in the Quran.”6 Nasr tells a Sufi story to illustrate: “...The moral of this story is that the in-depth understanding of the truth that God veils Himself by what is none other than God can come only from spiritual realization.”7 Nasr again counters Western assumptions, this time feminist assumptions, about Islamic theology: “the traditional Islamic understanding of the Divinity is not at all confined, as some think, to a purely patriarchal image.”8 He aims for a fuller undestanding of God by going beyond gender: “Allah is beyond all duality and relationality, beyond the differences of gender and of all qualities that distinguish beings from each other in this world.”9

Nasr's theology also hinges on a hierarchical view of spiritual and human beings. He bases this on the workings of God, who constructs a hierarchical relationship with humans, which forms part of the essence of Islam: “This direct address from God, the One, to each human being in its primordial state requires total surrender to the Majesty of the Absolute, before whom ultimately nothing can in fact exist.”10 The hierarchical structure extends to all creatures, since “everything in the universe has its origin in the Divine Reality and is a manifestation of that Reality.”11

In this discussion in The Heart of Islam we get a sense of how God permeates the universe and makes Himself known to humans through nature without this becoming pantheism. This explanation relies on the hierarchical nature of creation's relationship to God, the unconditional surrender of all in creation to the higher being: “Everything in the total cosmos both visible and invisible is a theophany, or manifestation, of the Divine Names and Qualities and is drawn from the 'treasury' of God.”12 Nasr deftly explains how the universe is an extension of God without becoming untied in a panthesistic way with God. The words are clear and simple, reflecting Islam's clarity and simplicity: “The wisdom of God thus permeates the universe, and Muslims in fact see the cosmos as God's primordial revelation. Everything in the universe, in reflecting God's Wisdom, also glorifies Him.”13 Nasr concludes: “the very existence of beings is nothing but the consequence of the breathing upon the archetypal realities of all beings in the Divine Intellect of the Breath of the Compassionate.”14

Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices

By Brian McLaren, 216 pages hardcover, Thomas Nelson.

Following current evangelical Protestant thinking, McLaren boldly challenges us to shake off the old cobwebs of churchiness and to find new life and zest for Christ. This is one book in a new series that explores ancient Christian practices.

Evangelical Protestants, always on the prowl for new techniques or approaches to things, are taking the most interesting approach here, in talking about tradition, including something called “neomonasticism.” McLaren consistently refuses to put himself into any sort of box, and borrows from Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal (as he puts them) Christians.

This eclecticism comes off as a bit airy at times, which doesn't help the author's case, given that he's talking about reforming the church. He rejects the mushy vagueness of liberal Christians, who are on their last 2 legs anyway. What he fails to do is clearly show where he is. He is all over the Christian map. This is something we have seen before with the New Age crowd (as well as from those mushy liberals), who pick and choose and really just end up confusing everyone, most of all themselves.

Perhaps Finding Our Way Again reflects the fact that American Protestants are confused at the present. McLaren fears institutional religion, which means that, like many evangelicals, he is dooming himself to wander the spiritual paths of Christianity like a confused ghost, stopping here and there, but never able to set anchor. Perhaps this is the defining spirituality and tradition of evangelicals.

McLaren uses fancy though predictably empty ideas to hide the fact that he has built his house on sand, not rock. The author wants Christianity as a way of life, not “a system of belief”; reintegration rather than confrontation in the science versus religion debate; a “fusion of the sacred and the secular”; “an everyday sacredness”; “spirituality”; and “a life-giving alternative to secularist fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism.” These expressions sound like the mutterings of 1970s mischievous Catholic priests whose misreading of Vatican II really helped no one. The author, as though we haven't known this for decades, notes a dissatisfaction with “premodern religion, institutional religion, and modern secularism.” Like everyone, he knows the problem, but like most writers, he hasn't found any real answer.

Finding Our Way Again shows us that pick-and-choose Christianity is alive and well, not only among liberal Christians, but among evangelicals. Rather than respecting the Christian tradition, McLaren's work is one more example of Christian disengagement from it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pressing Forward: Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Victorian Age

By Louis A. Markos, Sapientia Press, 288 pages.

Liberalism, nihilism, and scientific growth have failed to settle the basic issues related to philosophy, ethics, spirituality, and life and death. As Markos points out, we have not yet resolved the great paradigm shift of three hundred years ago, and we are therefore still restlessly dissatisfied. Thinkers went from Who? and Why?(Who created us? Why were we created?) to What? and How? (What are we and other things made of? How do we and other things work?). Scientific progress has in fact often led to our dispirited existence. Newton had explained to the English public, for instance, just what a rainbow is, spoiling the enchanting Biblical idea of rainbows.

After this shift towards materialist science and philosophy, the Romantic poets reverted to an individualistic primitivism based on excessive emotionalism and a refusal to face the hard facts that society had changed forever and that the old certainties were now dead and gone.

Tennyson represents for Markus the brave Victorian explorer who, though initially tempted by the almost childish escapism of the Romantics, decides to look straight into and beyond the pain of life – in the case of Tennyson, the death of a beloved friend – and explore the new wide view of things.

This came at great cost and effort. Though Tennyson remained open to “the new science” which would lead to Darwin's evolutionism, he refused to let die within himself the poet's soul.

Science and anti-Christian philosophical systems had by the Victorian age disenchanted the cozy old beliefs and ways of life, and technology had increasingly pushed people from what were seen as idyllic, slow-paced farms into the hustle and bustle of the industrial revolution, under full swing by Victoria's reign.

Markus offers a great background to the poet's sufferings, showing that these were largely the result of England's tumultuous, materialistic, industrial society. Philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, a utilitarian who experienced sharp depression and emotional pain, pushed this process along. Pressing Forward paints a none-too-pretty picture of this philosopher, whose emotional and spiritual state was, Markus writes, comparable “to that of a convicted sinner on the threshold of conversion.”

Nonetheless, Mills avoided a Christian conversion, Markus notes: “His [Mill's] final resolution will be spiritual in nature, but it will happen apart from any Christian doctrine or supernatural event – will constitute, instead, a sort of secular salvation. What else could it be? Mill's education ... ignored religion completely, and his father had instilled in him the unswerving belief that non-empirical, non-rational religious doctrines were ultimately of no value and could not be relied upon to resolve the problems of society or of the individual.”

Tennyson's search for the spiritual and religious within this spiritual and religious desert sounds an awful lot like our search today, but of course Mill's spiritual impotence also sounds like our own.

Tennyson represents the modern human in his need to wed the achievements of science with the belief in a higher power and deep meaning to life and its sufferings and hardships. Markus helpfully identifies in Tennyson's poetry the belief that all of geology and biological nature's savagery is really a movement, “upward and forward,” towards humans.

According to Markus, Tennyson asserts that “human life with all its dreams and accomplishments is not just so much refuse in the garbage pile of the cosmos. We must not think that we are merely nature's compost.”

Pressing Forward makes the vital connection between poetry and religion. Recent theologians and bishops have spent so much of their time trying to answer the impossibly tough challenges of materialist science and secularizing post-Enlightenment philosophy that they have half-forgotten religion's artistic, poetic, and enchanting sides. They forget this at great peril.

John Paul II and the New Evangelization: How You Can Bring the Good News to Others

Edited by Ralph Martin and Peter Williamson, Servant Books, 324 pages,

At first glance John Paul II and the New Evangelization takes the pontiff's call for a new evangelization as a basis for a series of essays by American Catholic leaders engaged in spreading the Gospel. The book indicates the extent to which at least some parts of the Church have integrated the various teachings of the late pope into their own Catholic lives and the actions of the Church leadership.

One essay echoes John Paul's insight on contemporary Western culture: “Western culture is failing because its Christian roots are eroding. This failing culture has reached its lowest point in the emerging culture of death, which is antithetical to what John Paul II called the culture of life in the 1995 encyclical Evangelical Vitae. There are four specific roots to the culture of death: individual autonomy, a debased notion of freedom as detached from objective truth, the eclipse of the sense of God and, in consequence, of the human person and the darkening of human conscience.”

This choice of words most probably reflects the fact that the pontiff's prophetic stance against secularism and individualism has become mainstream in the Church, and has replaced the liberal socialist-feminism of the 1970s and '80s as the dominant stance of the Church speaking to the world, something akin to a Catholic neo-traditionalism.

This books reflects the fact that the pontificate of Pope John Paul II gave sense and closure to Vatican II and have become normative for contemporary Catholicism – and Christianity as a whole -- the world over.

Another example from this book that reflects the mind of Vatican II-John Paul II, a second contributor writes that “For centuries many thought the only way to holiness lay in monastic life or in religious orders, which often adapted monastic spirituality. The word is out: Jesus wants everyone to be holy!...For that to happen, each one of us must hear the Good News and respond.”

These words neatly encapsulate the masculine, assertive, lay-oriented spirituality of the late pontiff.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Remembering Henri: The Life and Legacy of Henri Nouwen

Edited by Gerald S. Twomey and Claude Pomerleau, Novalis, 176 pages.

“I came to feel that Henri was never able to satisfy himself. When his father was talking with him, you know, did he measure up? Henri had to be good enough for the queen. Now, I think his father was a very concerned and loving person, but the way he expressed love was through performance...But I think that his standard was a little higher than Henri could ever feel that he met, whether he ever met it.”

These astonishing words words come from an astonishing book about the great Henri Nouwen, one of the most effective Catholic teachers of recent memory. His books include the influential The Wounded Healer, Can You Drink This Cup?, and Reaching Out.

Remembering Henri makes clear that there was more to Henri Nouwen than his writings on community, love, and true Christian friendship--on how to truly find Christ in the other. He ate too much chocolate, had a hard time settling down, and he was sometimes needy, controlling, and resentful with his friends.

He could not fit into a monastic life with the Trappists in New York state. Neither could he fit into his professor roles at Yale, Notre Dame, or Harvard. One contributor notes: “He didn't take well to Harvard. He found it rejecting, unspiritual, cold. He felt that people didn't get his gig. He believed that his colleagues and graduate students found him too 'soft.' And in a sense that was true, when you compared Henri to almost any faculty member there.”

Faced with such difficulties, Nouwen didn't always take the spiritually heroic high road: “He became severely depressed, drinking more and more coffee and exhausting himself. He was so exhausted some days that he had to go straight to bed by mid-morning and all the coffee in the world wouldn't make him feel better.”

Nouwen's great strength was his devotion to the Eucharist, something that didn't prevent him from adopting uncommon pastoral practices when confronted by non-Catholics. This developed from his way of thinking theologically: “Henri shifted from the more legalistic, scholastic formulations that he learned from the 'manualist' moral theology training of his seminary years that permitted only Catholics 'in good standing' to receive communion,” one writer notes.

Remembering Henri shows how Nouwen managed to break through all his pain and neuroses to truly live the life that he preached and wrote about in all those books: “Henri longed to expand the view of Eucharist as true viaticum, food for life's journey for a sinful, broken, pilgrim people standing in need of God's freely bestowed, healing grace.”

Remembering Henri effectively tells the story of a complicated person because each chapter is written by a different person, each of whom writes from their personal experience and relationship with Nouwen. In this sense, the book is a kind of communal biography, or an autobiography of the Henri Nouwen Community.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

John Paul II: Man of History

By Edward Stourton, 325 pages, Mad About Books.

Instead of the standard caricatures of the late pontiff, Stourton aims to present his human side in the attempt to “recapture some of that sense of excitement that rippled round the world when, in the early days of his papacy, Karol Wojtyla became the first pope ever to let us see his humanity.”

Stourton gives us a good introduction to the aggressively anti-Christian secular climate of the past two hundred years. He also describes the excitement of Vatican II and the future John Paul II's participation in it.

In the attempt to humanize the late pope, Stourton offers suggestions that are too ambitious and even simplistic, as in accusing John Paul of rejecting something of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, stating without basis that for John Paul “the point of the concept of 'the People of God' was not so much to create a new and democratic structure within the Church, it was to empower an army of foot soldiers who would fight those everyday battles on the frontline of the war with a hostile ideology.”

The following words also reflect the slightly cynical stance the author takes in order, apparently, to present the pontiff's human side: After the tracheotomy of the last few days of his life, “John Paul communicated more through images than words; but he was a master minter of the wordless symbol, as he had demonstrated in Ali Agca's cell and later at the Western Wall of Jerusalem, and he gave us some truly memorable moments during his final days.”

Yet John Paul II: Man of History is better than most on the pontiff. As a journalist with no particular ax to grind, Stourton examines the controversies of the pontificate with some freshness. Rather than getting caught up in the left-wing / right-wing divide, for instance, he examines the way that these two groups repeatedly misunderstood John Paul II, who never thought in those limited terms. In fact, the book's strength is Stourton's journalistic awareness of the cultural climate of normal people in North America, the U.K. or Germany--those people who could never completely understand the pope. Stourton's description of liberal Catholics is refreshingly honest: “The symbols of the new Church were 'the American nuns in shorts and T-shirt with a guitar slung over one shoulder and a book on Eastern meditation in the other hand; the 'just call me Kevin' sort of priest who was not sure what he believed about key doctrines but was certain that he had to be 'with it' wherever 'it' was.”

Stourton seems to be a little on edge towards everyone, rather than only towards the late Pope. That's actually a step forward.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Open Mind, Open Heart

20th Anniversary edition, by Thomas Keating, Continuum Books, Continuum Books, 190 pages.

In his sophisticated book on Catholic spirituality, Thomas Keating states that prayer is not principally about you, but about God. Prayer is about seeking God.

Open Mind, Open Heart is of interest to people with some theological knowledge or those seeking spiritual discipline, but Keating, American Trappist monk and teacher of Centering Prayer, also writes incisively about human psychology.

Even more than all that, however, he offers the simple, down-home advice that good priests and religious have often been able to offer to the rest of us over the centuries: “Before you reflect on whether a particular period of prayer is going well, you are having a good period of prayer. After you reflect, it is not so good. If you are drenched with thoughts and can't do anything about them, acquiesce to the fact that that's the way it is for today. The less you wiggle and scream, the sooner the work can be done.”

This is the sort of excellent Catholic spirituality and theology that can answer the New Age movement or the Da Vinci Code's me-me-me spirituality. Keating does focus on the individual, but cautions against self-centeredness and aims instead for critical self-awareness.

Thus Keating writes, “Not contemplative prayer but the contemplative state is the purpose of our practice; not experiences, however exotic or reassuring, but the permanent and abiding awareness of God that comes through the mysterious restructuring of consciousness. At some point in your life, it could be in the middle of the night, on a subway, or in the midst of prayer, the necessary changes in the nervous system and psyche finally come to completion.”

These words make modern pop culture and spirituality (including that which has invaded the Catholic Church) look not evil and destructive but small and petty. To borrow from this pop culture, Brother Keating is a kind of Anthony Robbins of the soul, telling us in a straightforward manner that there's so much more to life.

He is not satisfied with Sunday Catholicism or five-minute spirituality, challenging us instead to the repentance and change of heart that Jesus and the first Christians called the world to: “Divine love is not an attitude that one puts on like a cloak. It is rather the right way to respond to reality. It is the right relationship to being, including our own being. And that relationship is primarily one of receiving. No one has any degree of divine love except what one has received.”

These words evoke a primitive, ancient Christianity—an eternal Christianity. Keating repeatedly gets to the heart of the matter, which is the human heart and its relationship with Christ.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Teresa of Avila: God Alone Suffers

By Jean-Jacques Antier, 352 pages, Pauline.

“The life of Teresa of Avila is, first of all, the deeply moving proof of a call from God, the necessary Existing One, the refutation of the philosophy of the absurd and the nothingness that shrouds in gloom our so-called civilized societies,” writes Jean-Jacques Antier.

God Alone Suffers presents a spiritual biography of Saint Teresa by giving us a very good picture of the religious landscape of late medieval Spain. Antier personalizes this in the family, societal, and Church figures who played a role in her life.

The author excels at outlining the web of relationships Teresa enjoyed with Avila's different groups. Her faith and spirituality was not a private matter, but something that impacted on her society. As the following shows, religion at the time was not a private thing but something social and public; one did not have the right to keep religion to oneself:

“But Teresa had no desire to suffer for the sake of suffering. Her only ambition was to love and to do the will of the God of love. Maria Diaz constantly surprised Teresa, for she experienced neither ecstasy nor other divine favors, a reassurance to theologians who were scandalized by the idea that a woman, albeit a saint, could take pleasure in Christ! But why not? Teresa would dare to write: 'The Lord sometimes desires, as I say, that the body enjoy [the experience of ecstasy] since the body is now obedient to what the soul desires.'”

Teresa's mysticism was a public mysticism, something she didn't use to escape from the world, Antier argues. She scandalized as much as inspired people with her unique spirituality. Her growing personal strictness had very public dimensions, even if she did not deliberately aim for this: “At the monastery, all those who saw that they were targets because of their lukewarm and relaxed lifestyles felt threatened. Teresa was disturbing. Was she going too far in her radical detachment? No more worldly parlor visits!”

Even this deeply religious, pious society could not easily deal with Saint Teresa's mysticism because, as Antier makes clear, she was a spiritual innovator, as exemplified in her autobiographical writings. More than that, however, was her intellectual maturity:

“But she was a born observer of psychological states, at that time a quality that was not only fashionable, but was also becoming suspect. Even in her ecstasies she remained an objective observer, refusing to passively abandon herself to celestial favors and other raptures of the spirit.”

Deeply religious societies have the problem of falling into brittle, repetitive ways of practicing their tradition, and Teresa's genius, along with Saints John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola, was to break through this and express the old ways with fresh energy. They did this at the time when the Protestant reformers decided to break with much of this tradition instead, and when the Roman Church itself was in dire need of structural, theological, and spiritual reform.

Saint Teresa will always have a significant place in Catholic history because of her role in this transformation; she showed us that reform does not need to lead to unfaithfulness to the past.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching: Its Origins and Contemporary Significance

Edited by David Matzko McCarthy, 213 pages, Brazos Press.

Why do so many people hate the Church? Why do they see the pope as a stern disciplinarian and arrogant judge? Or as “medieval”? Why do they insist on saying, “I have my rights, and the Church can't take them away!”

Perhaps the following words, from John Donovan in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, will help: “In social contract theory, associations are always secondary and derivative. Their function is to serve the needs and desires of individuals. Viewed from this vantage point, notions of the human person as essentially part of groups and as incomplete without communities appeared to be unjust limitations on human freedom.” The debate over individualism is the starting point for the Catholic Church's dialogue with capitalist and socialist societies on the nature of society and the economy. The Catholic vision opposes the notion that society is merely contractual, and that relationships, including marriage, depend on nothing more than the goodwill of those involved, which can be withdrawn at any time. The sacramental view places God in our relationships, implying something much more profound than fragile human agreement.

Using Pope Leo XIII's 1891 social-economic encyclical Rerum novarum as the starting point, then, the authors in this book examine ensuing Catholic social teaching. As reflected in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, Catholic social teaching identifies two central points, the dignity of the individual and the need for a functioning society. This society embeds this individual in a meaningful network of social relations that offers security yet allows for individual creativity and initiative.

The popes, including Leo XIII, Pius XI, Paul VI, and John Paul II, are remarkably consistent on these two points. Since the Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century development of capitalism and socialism, the same issues keep reappearing in their writings. Regarding Rerum novarum, then, Donovan notes that late nineteenth-century European Catholics – the audience for Leo XIII - faced a dilemma: “Could they affirm the reality of the modern economic order in a way that was congruent with their Catholic faith? Or were they forced to choose between them?”

Leo and subsequent popes affirmed the right to private property, but they also promoted the dignity of workers, and their right to organize themselves independently. This leads to other important themes in Catholic social thought, again well-covered in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching. Individuals need to organize themselves into self-governing groups. These groups should not be built from above, as by the state or a large company.

Grassroots organizations should have freedom from interference from more powerful organizations. This is the principle of “subsidiarity,” first named by Pope Puis XI. He envisioned groups similar to the medieval guilds, which were active economically but were also educational and social organizations. Guilds would seek the mutual benefit of their members, so competition, such as encouraged by capitalism, would be kept to a minimum, and social harmony would be built.

Subsidiary is a theme in John Paul II's 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus, written to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Rerum novarum. John Paul is not only consistent with previous papal teaching, but integrates this with Vatican II and his own vision of the dignity of the human person. No modern political system has the power to negate human dignity, he argues. Centesimus annus, quoted in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, claims: “[T]he guiding principle of Pope Leo's encyclical, and of all of the church's social doctrine, is the correct view of the human person.” David McCarthy in his essay thus concludes: “Catholic social teaching challenges us precisely because it puts social relationships before economic theory.”

As with other good Catholic writings on society today, the book's authors note how both left-wing and right-wing economic and political viewpoints undermine the family. The family is the core of society, yet the atomistic view in politics, society, and economics damages all social groups and gives enormous power to the state (left-wing) or to large corporations (right-wing), something that attacks the Catholic concept of subsidiarity. Modern society, and both capitalism and socialism, devalue individuals by lifting them out of their social network, where real meaning is found, and by commodifying their work.

Somewhat unique for a work of this sort, The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching includes sections on love as taught by Pope Benedict XVI and St. Augustine. Modern living replaces love with the commodification of the human. Evil, for Augustine, is the wrong ordering of things that are not bad in themselves. Evil comes from loving something in the wrong way. While Christianity is a profoundly materialistic religion, it denounces as sinful the human tendency to love things and money more than people. William Collinge sums up well Augustine's view: “All human communities ... are based on shared love.” Collinge notes that friendship, which means friendship in God, was central to Augustine's life. He never went about his day without a few friends in toe. He knew where he was in his society, and saw the Christian meaning of this.

The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching shows very clearly how, through the economic policies of Adam Smith and the individualism promoted by John Locke and J.J. Rousseau (and their social contract theory), we have lost the sense of love and responsibility for each other, even within the family.

Catholic thinkers begin at the beginning – with Christian love and the family, grassroots groups, and the charity and transformational love of people like Dorothy Day, who followed the Little Way of Therese of Lisieux. The richness of the Catholic Church's social teaching on display in this book comes out of the depth of the whole tradition.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Cox's Book of Modern Saints and Martyrs

By Caroline Cox, 214 pages, Continuum Publishing.

The Christianity portrayed in Cox's Book of Modern Saints and Martyrs adopts an adversarial dialogue with society. The values it preaches counter those of society and governments.

El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero, who became the voice of the poor and was murdered for it, exemplifies this approach. The Catholic Church in Poland also played this role. Deeply rooted in its society, it championed the people's freedom against the Communists. Its symbols, such as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa and a new church, initially forbidden, in Krakow's suburb Nowa Huta, became the symbols of freedom and the peaceful opposition to oppression.

Caroline Cox includes the gory details in many of the stories, of people being literally butchered for their beliefs. She uses the words of Christian martyrs or their families to write a clear theology. Bishop Pargev Martirosyan of Nagorno Karabakh, she writes, said demanding words: “If we want God's victory, we must love. Even if there are demonic forces at work, not only in this conflict, but in other parts of the world, we must still love—we must always love.”

Real people personify Cox's theology (and she does include photos of some in the book), as with the sad example of the murder of a warm, dedicated Russian priest, Father Alexander Men, killed in 1990 with an ax: “He had the gift of living completely in the present: everyone who spoke to him felt that he was concerned only with them in the whole world. And he had a deep sense of humour and a gaiety that sprang from his faith.”

Cox's vignettes give the book two important, even rare aspects in religious writing: First, she carefully selects stories that witness to the strength that these people received from their faith. “Witness” is the meaning of “martyr” in Greek. Second, the vignettes hit the reader with an immediacy, stress, and even desperation.

Because Cox's message about martyrs is ultimately the Christian message, she includes the hope-filled words of many sufferers. Metropolitan Veniamin of Petrograd (1874-1922) spoke to a crowd in 1918 to a group of believers: “They thought that by granting freedom to licence and to human passions, by promising all earthly goods, by showering money, that they would force people to forget heaven, forget God, forget conscience.”

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Pope's Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the Vatican

By Charles A. Coulombe, 250 pages.

Coulombe has done a great service to the Church in unearthing a long-forgotten moment in nineteenth-century Church history, when powerful political and military forces were uniting to upend the old civilization, which had centred around Christianity and to a lesser extent the papacy.

The Zouaves, named after a north African berber tribe that had fought for the French in Algeria in the 1830s, came together in 1860 under French Major Lamorcière to defend the papacy against Italian nationalists determined to steal the papal lands away from the Vatican.

Men from all classes and Western counties, including the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Holland, Poland, Britain, and above all France, streamed to Rome to fight the good fight. They saw the pope as the centre of freedom and civilization, much as Polish Catholics would in their long struggle against communism in the 1970s and 80s.

Coulombe brings these men alive by offering simple portraits of many, often citing correspondence to capture their feelings and the level of their devotion to the papacy and to Christ. Many became priests after their Zouave experience.

“When enough English-speaking men had joined the unit, they formed a billiards club. Although Julian entered fully into the unit's social life and was zealous in his military training, he was renowned for his piety – which, in that company, was not looked down upon. A frequent guest at the English College ... Julian attended Mass every day, the rosary each night, and confession weekly.”

Perhaps because of the depth of their beliefs, time and again the Zouaves would be outmanned and outgunned, yet inflict asymmetric damage on the enemy. Sometimes just a handful of Zouaves in a fortified position could hold off entire companies of Garibaldi's men or allies:

“The woods were secured and hundreds of Germans were taken prisoner. They were about to attack the village when the Prussians realized the very small size of the force with which they were contending and brought up three regiments from their reserve.”

In other words, the Zouaves were able to outfight the dreadful Prussians, even with hopeless odds.

The Zouaves were part of the great Catholic revival of the nineteenth-century, which included devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This revival included the construction of Basilique Sacré Coeur de Montmartre in Paris in 1873; the great bishop of Montreal, Ignace Bourget, who did so much to make Quebec a devoted Catholic province for another 100 years and who supported the 137 Zouave recruits from Quebec in 1868; Vatican I; and the papacy of Leo XIII and his energetic defense of Catholic theology.

Because of this Catholic energy, the Zouaves enjoyed a special mystique well into the twentieth century, and were often celebrated in France or Spain even though, “Except perhaps for Joubert's campaign against the slavers, all of the Zouaves' ventures ended in failure....Indeed, the philosophies of government and humanity that they fought against in peace and war are completely triumphant.”

The Zouaves' continued honor reflected a world ill-at-ease with the choices it had made.

A Life in Letters: Thomas Merton

Edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen, hardcover 402, Harper.

Both traditionalists and renewalists love Merton so this thick book offers something to everyone. It reflects in depth the peacenik Merton who wrote against the Vietnam war, seeing it through a spiritual rather than geopolitical lens. This war, as well as the arms race, was for Merton really about deeper issues related to what he saw as the ugliness of modern, industrial living.

Merton the traditionalist opposed the commodification and commercialization of life. His letters reflect his love of deep, real relationships with people. He saw technology and industrialization as dehumanizing forces. His conception of Catholic freedom opposes the liberty that capitalism and consumerism offer:

“Our souls cannot be free if we believe only in money and power and comfort and having a good time. I do not think that our present line of action is doing anything to keep us free.”

These prophetic words were written when these economic and political changes were happening, and not from decades later after the fact. Though a convert to Catholicism, Merton was able to be so prophetic because of he was so deeply immersed in the Catholic worldview:

“I do not aim at the heights, I aim at the depths. Not at what is exalted and spectacular but what is humble and unenviable and unattractive and blank. I aspire to become a nonentity and to be forgotten.”

Merton's openness to the world came through a Catholic view of diversity rather than the current, post-modern one. He loved the variety of paths to God that the monastic life offered religious. Because of this high esteem for monastic and contemplative living, he had high standards for the religious orders. Echoing other mid-twentieth-century Catholics, he saw them and the Church as a whole, as having become too institutionalized.

Being so immersed in the roots of Catholicism, he took obedience to mean more than simply an institutional obedience that makes each religious a cog in an institutional wheel. Repeatedly, Merton called for the spirit of things to overshadow the institutionalization of things. Heavy institutionalization killed the spirit of individual monks, he noted: “[O]ur problem is not to be solved so much by rules as by men who are alive with the Spirit of the Risen Saviour and are not afraid to seek new paths guided by the light of perennial tradition and the wisdom of Mother Church.”

As A Life in Letters shows, Merton was keenly aware of his place as a monk in American society. He strongly believed in the value of his vocation for his fellow, secular Americans; the monastic vocation went against the capitalist-technological utilitarianism of modern living. The usefulness of a man of prayer was precisely the fact that he didn't fit into the paradigm of what was useful.

Since society was off the right tracks, a contemplative calling could bear prophetic witness. This view tied together Merton's social concerns with his contemplative life. He was qualified to speak out against war, nuclear build-up, prejudice, and industrialization only because he was a monk rooted in a way of living that was quite different from the rest.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Historical Genesis: From Adam to Abraham

By Richard James Fischer, 227 pages.

“Adam was a real-live, flesh-and-blood human being – or else he wasn't. As much as we might like an intermediate position, something in between, or a happy compromise, it's not possible. We either can believe there was an Adam wearing his fig leaf, or we can have an Adam who was only a figment,” the author asserts in Historical Genesis.

He believes that Adam did exist, but that this is not exactly the same Adam that Christianity has traditionally posited. Fischer, who holds degrees in both science and theology, is not satisfied with the two generally competing positions.

The first argument states that the Bible is right and science has gotten many important things, such as evolution, wrong. The second argument claims that much of the Bible must be mythological considering its impossibility in the face of such overwhelming scientific evidence. In this game, either science or biblical cosmology fail. They cannot co-exist.

Fischer sets out to prove that biblical theology and science can indeed co-exist. He sifts through thousands of pages of archeological, theological, and biblical texts to situate the physical location of Eden, the general time of The Flood, and the human and physical ecology surrounding Adam.

Where did Adam come from? He came from the surrounding neolithic culture. Isn't this deeply disrespectful to the Bible? Well no, since Fischer gets a lot of his information from the Bible itself. Or more specifically, unlike most biblical scholars, rather than reading his ideological or theological agenda into the Bible, he is very good at allowing scripture to speak for itself:

“References to tents, farming, and raising livestock (Gen. 4:2, 20) suggest Adam was not in the company of cave-dwelling hunter-gatherers.... Adam's placement in the Neolithic Period from the Genesis genealogies, coupled with the mention of farming in the Genesis text, makes this a compatible time frame, putting Adam in relatively recent history – not ancient history.”

Speaking in anthropological terms, “recent history” means putting Adam into the “stream of civilization” rather than at the beginning of it. Adam was a man of his time. Eden was probably irrigated, as many gardens and growing areas were at the time. Again, he uses the biblical record as the primary basis of his musings, then follows up with archeological and scientific evidence for this irrigation. Eden's sacred tree paralleled sacred date palm trees found throughout the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia.

Again, letting the Bible speak for itself, Fischer wonders about the Cain story, and the man's concern for his safety after having killed his brother:

“Is it likely that he was worried about being chased and killed by future unseen and unknown generations from Adam, or was he concerned about approaching others outside his family who would have been potentially unfriendly?”

In other words, Cain was living in the midst of a fully-developed civilization that had traditions for dealing with outsiders and trouble-makers such as murderers – probably enslavement or execution. The Bible itself implies such a civilization from the unease Cain has with striking out on his own, knowing that civilization, and the capacity to murder him, already exists.

One strong point of Historical Genesis is Fischer's respect for the Bible's assertion that something was special about Adam despite some closeness to other neolithic cultures. Historical Genesis only hints at or half-develops some theories here, which may sound like a serious drawback to the book. However, the challenging thesis Fischer develops cannot be fully explained and understood in one work. Even Fischer himself stumbles and occasionally fails to maintain a perfect balance between science and religion, as he briefly and unexpectedly allows for the possibility that Eve was made from Adam's rib, and that Adam lived for over nine centuries.

Having said that, Fischer offers a solution to the implausible records of other peoples in the region, such as the Sumerians, whose royal lists indicate that individual kings lived for up to 28,800 years. The sexagesimal system and other ways of counting time that we no longer use or understand explain that some of these figures indicate monarchical reigns of length that we today would consider normal.

Fischer doesn't spend loads of time detailing his own theology around Adam. Early in Historical Genesis, he adopts Saint Paul's theology of salvation through Christ from Adam's sin. Fischer uses other ancient records from the time to show that neighboring cultures had similar ideas about an Adam (or “Adapu” / “Adamu”) and resulting catastrophe.

Fischer pictures Adam as a kind of supercharged Abraham, as the father of a group or groups of people, the Adamites, who followed the same religion. The holes and half-leads that Fischer produces make the reader hungry for more detective work, rather than cynical or more confused than before.

Jesus / Jesus: A Portrait

By Gerard S. Sloyan, 194 pages.

By Gerald O'Collins, SJ, 246 pages.

These 2 books offer complementary rather than competing discussions on Jesus. Demanding, scholarly authors, Sloyans closely analyzes the New Testament account of Jesus, while O'Collins starts with theology before turning to the biblical evidence.

O'Collins offers a faith-based approach that often reads like a Sunday homily, making the book slightly more accessible than Sloyan's. He has a sense of the Jesus of faith for whom Christians hunger. He therefore takes a liberal approach with filling in the gaps in the record on Jesus' life:

“Jesus embodied the message of the divine kingdom before preaching it. His life at Nazareth expressed in advance the hidden, humble quality of the kingdom.” At this point, he turns to scripture to find something specific.

O'Collins loves to think about the kinds of experiences Jesus must have had. He takes the interesting viewpoint that we can learn about Jesus' early life from the parables, so many of which were agricultural. Jesus would have witnessed repeatedly and at close range the workings of vineyards and wine-making, sowing and harvesting, and even dishonest management of these operations, as attested to by one of his parables.

This simplicity came through more generally in Jesus' personality and the “hereness and nowness” of his approach. Jesus did not concern himself with history or old feuds, but with the lives of the people he met everyday. His language was “earthly” and therefore accessible to the poor, illiterate people who followed him.

O'Collins manages to keep his focus on an intimate portrayal of Jesus that is nonetheless faithful to the Church's teachings and to the biblical account. His faith-based approach allows him to be pastoral with the reader, including in the following zinger, which is more about Jesus' followers (and potential followers) than about Jesus himself:

“I continue to suspect that it is the significance rather than the fact of these miracles which poses a problem for some or even many people.”

Sloyan gets his theology about Jesus from a much closer reading of the New Testament witness than O'Collins, and this can at times bog things down. Rather than presenting a coherent vision of Jesus, which is most helpful in the case of O'Collins, he gives a coherent vision of the New Testament writings.

In fact, the book is more about the New Testament and how we can interpret its various writings, than it is about Jesus. The reader will probably be closer to the Bible at the end of the reading, but not necessarily closer to Christ. The book does offer some thoughts that can help us more deeply understand Jesus at a personal level, though this closely follows the New Testament perspective, as in the discussion of the Gospel of Mark:

“His [Jesus'] business was to proclaim God his Father, not himself or the redemptive act, if indeed he knew anything of it beforehand.”

The author has interesting things to say about Paul's vision of Jesus. This is a refreshing discussion, as Sloyan pushes the reader none-too-gently past the 1970s Jesus-is-your-best-friend spirituality, and invokes the “Christ now in glory with the Father, with whom every baptized member in all the churches is in an intimate personal relation.”

Sloyan holds doctorates in both theology and scripture, so he naturally bases his theology on a close reading of the various biblical Greek writings. This makes for very energetic scholarship and advanced theology, as at a third-year university level. But it doesn't offer much to those who don't have a more basic training in the Bible or theology. In this case, the more pastoral and freely-written book by O'Collins does the trick.

The Secret

By Christopher A. Ferrara, 248 pages.

Christopher Ferrara, an American lawyer, implies that the Vatican is more interested in saving its own skin than in saving humanity. To support such an outrageous claim, he turns to a never-ending litany of dubious evidence. The author contends that the Vatican has left out an important part of the third prophecy of Fatima, a secret that points to “an apocalyptic crisis of the faith in the Church starting from the top.”

The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to 3 shepherd children near Fatima, Portugal in 1917 for 6 consecutive months starting on May 13. On October 13, as she had promised, the sun danced in front of 70,000 witnesses. Our Lady of Fatima left 3 messages for Lucia, the oldest of the children (the other 2 only saw the apparitions). The first 2 messages are well-known, and concern a vision of hell and a prediction about the end of WWI and the start of another war, obviously WWII.

The third secret is the biggie, and was not to be made known until a later date. Sister Lucia – she became a Dorothean and then a Carmelite nun – gave information to the Vatican about this third prophecy, which she instructed was not to be opened until 1960.

Ferrara aims to undermine Vatican II. As a radical right-wing Catholic, he shares more with radical left-wing thinkers such as Hans Kung than with more centered Catholics. Like Kung, Ferrara takes on the magisterium in an assortment of ways, and with a less-than-respectful tone. Ferrara portrays various Vatican officials, especially Cardinals Sodano, Bertone, and Ratzinger, as misrepresenting and withholding the truth.

The Secret traces the work of an Italian journalist who covers the Vatican and is a faithful Catholic. Antonio Socci came to believe that the Vatican had been less than forthcoming about the third secret, and wrote a book about it. Then Cardinal Bertone with another journalist answered these claims with a book of their own, as well as TV shows and other events to contradict Socci.

In his best in-your-face style, Ferrara writes that “There is a secret not revealed, and the Vatican, for whatever reason, is hiding it from the world, while the prominent Catholic layman who makes this grave accusation is being attacked, but not answered, by a Vatican prelate.”

The basic and severe theological error at the heart of The Secret is more damaging than his flamboyant, hard-to-follow, million-facts-a-page style. Ferrara subscribes to determinism: “The very nature of true prophecy is that it unerringly predicts what comes to pass.”

Cardinal Ratzinger discussed this theological issue in his June 26, 2000 “Theological Commentary” on the matter of the third secret and the Fatima apparitions. This brilliant commentary reminds us of the basic truth of Christian freedom, which is that through prayer, repentance, and Christian living people can change the world and break free from the terrible effects of human sinfulness. Humans are free in Christ. The more negative prophecies of Our Lady of Fatima will come to pass if people don't repent, pray, and receive the Eucharist. Doing these things will create a better future.

For Ferrara, Fatima has superseded the Bible and Catholic tradition. Because of this, he reads all sorts of crazy stuff into the events and words of Fatima and the hierarchy's handling of it. This becomes very tiresome, as it is next to impossible to follow Ferrara's leads, which are usually just his interpretation of the “real meaning” of some Cardinal's remarks or of something said or done by Sister Lucia.

The following sentence gives a good sense of how much this book is based on reality and how much on a very creative imagination: “While the real Pope has retained ultimate authority, in practical terms he has largely been seduced to rubber-stamping the Secretary of State's daily management of Church affairs.”

Good grief! Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the 2 most genuinely authoritative leaders the world has had in decades, are really led around the Vatican by an old Italian Cardinal?

This book reads like a Dan Brown novel, with all the sensationalism read into otherwise bland or innocent-sounding statements, and with mountains of disrespect shown for the hierarchy. It serves no purpose other than to agitate faithful Catholics. Best to read something by Pope Benedict XVI and drop this book.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In the Footsteps of Francis and Clare

By Roch Niemier, O.F.M., St. Anthony Messenger Press, 205 pages.

Father Roch Niemier, with extensive experience as a pilgrim leader to Italy, writes a geography of Franciscan holy places. His generous use of near-eyewitness accounts of the saint's life enlivens the ancient chapels, cities, woods, and mountains, which is important since tradition associates St. Francis with the beauty and holiness of the natural world and his time in Rome and Assisi.

Niemier also associates geography with the saint's famous love for lepers, as near the Maddalena chapel: “One day he was riding his horse near Assisi, when he met a leper. And, even though he usually shuddered at lepers, he made himself dismount, and gave him a coin, kissing his hand as he did so.”

The author uses these stories to argue that Francis came closer to any other human being in imitating Christ. These near-eyewitness accounts reflect the powerful character of Francis, just as the New Testament's stories show Jesus' powerful character. Thus when Francis' fasting became too much for a young friar in the middle of the night, the saint “encouraged all the friars to eat together so as not to embarrass the one who awoke with the complaint. Throughout the night they ate and laughed and told stories, as they were often given to do, transforming that hovel of Rivotorto into a veritable banquet hall.”

Francis and the San Damiano Cross: Meditations on Spiritual Transformation

By Susan Saint Sing, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 103 pages.

Reports of God's death have been greatly exaggerated. The symbols of Christianity endure.

Basic Christian art, such as that of the Middle Ages or of Eastern Orthodox icons, holds a power over people that contemporary abstract art does not. Medieval art was for the people and their religious edification, if not education.

Susan Saint Sing writes about a piece of art when art was of, by, and for the people - democratic art that affected and continues to affect countless people. The San Damiano Cross is the Cross through which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced a great deal of his conversion; Jesus on that cross instructed him to rebuild his church.

Saint Sing offers insights into Saint Francis and his era with her own spirituality and theological knowledge, thereby showing how art can have a positive, powerful influence on the masses. When art is about something important like God, its message can endure through the centuries.

A Short History of the Mass

By Alfred McBride, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 128 pages.

Father Alfred McBride's A Short History of the Mass emphasizes the constancy of the Mass throughout centuries of profound change, from ancient, pre-Nicene Creed Christians, towards and through the Middle Ages and Reformation periods and into the turbulent modern epoch.

A strength of the book is that the author does not try to present a Eucharistic celebration that stayed the same in form throughout the centuries. Instead, he shows that even though the liturgy did undergo well-guided and thought-out changes, the underlying spirituality and theology has been unchanging. This is an important achievement because many religious writers and historians emphasize discontinuity.

McBride portrays different Eucharistic practices of various eras as a positive thing: During the Middle Ages, “As members of the assembly felt alienated from the celebrant and the community, a sense of privacy arose. A need developed to find personal satisfaction in a religious experience apart from the Mass... Worshipers became preoccupied with relics, processions, pilgrimages, attachments to favorite saints, acts in which they could invest themselves and find some intimacy with God.”

This sounds a little critical of medieval Christians and the Church, yet the author is simply pointing out that when society changed more quickly than the religious institutions, people would find a way to live their faith, and that the appropriate institutional changes eventually came.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Personhood in Islam: Harmony in Seyyed Hossein Nasr's Anthropology

By Brian Welter
For Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam teaches harmony. Unity, harmony, and the carrying on of tradition form the focal point of Nasr's writing, the story behind the story. His view of man and woman, following an Islamic perspective, distances itself from the Western feminist assertion that male and female are an enmeshed, undifferentiated sameness, and therefore equal, to a vision of women and men in harmony with each other. Likewise, Nasr's view of science, knowledge, and nature invoke harmony. Rather than dominating nature, science and knowledge should bring us into closer contact with God. Islamic science should be a spiritual and science that unites rather than objectifies. The Islamic economy should bring about harmony rather than fierce, profit-making competition. It should build family and community rather than destroy centuries-old human ecology and traditions, as Western-influenced capitalism is presently doing.
Yet how well does Seyyed Hossein Nasr represent Islam? Each chapter will discuss the basic arguments offered by Nasr, interwoven with possible objections and alternative views by contemporary or twentieth-century Islamic thinkers such as Muhammed and Seyyed Qutub, Tariq Ramadan, and others. This will offer some possible assessments of Nasr's teaching from within Islam. How, then, does Nasr transmit his religious tradition of harmony to this West and the wider world? Do other Muslims writers have similar thoughts on the dignity of men and women?
Key to understanding Nasr's thinking is his attempt to show his Western readers that they are wrong in judging Islam as backwards, intolerant, and corrupt. He envisions an elegant religion with a highly developed and highly refined spirituality. On the one hand, he argues that Westerners have misrepresented and misunderstood Islam and its treatment of, for instance, women. Head coverings for women is not Islamic so much as it is middle eastern, something Christian and Jewish women have done for centuries. He also points out that until recently, Catholic women in the West covered their hair when they attended Mass. On the other hand, Nasr challenges some Western criticism of Islam by challenging Western values. He goes so far as to argue that the West is unbalanced on issues like individualism, whereas Islam balances the individual's and the community's rights. On the issue of Islam being backwards, he points out that dynamic, greedy Western science, which objectivizes and pulverizes nature in its search for profit and control of the environment, is leading us to a dead end, and something like an Islamic science is necessary. Islamic knowledge is not about power but is seen as a Muslim's duty, as knowledge leads one to the truth. Islamic science, Nasr argues, would be holistic, taking into account the teachings of the Quran, treating nature as God's gift to humans, to be cherished rather than used. In fact, he believes that much of the West's and the world's problems could be solved by Islam.

Ch. 1. Dignity and Rights: Psychology and Spirituality

In Islam, what is the worth of the individual outside of the community? Does his value only consist in his adherence to the community? Seyyed Hossein Nasr has written extensively on the person and on nature, from his interpretation of Islam, and often to a Western audience that is firmly ensconced in a tradition of individual rights and the diminishment of collective identity, rights, and traditions.

Nasr avoids an entitlement view of rights for the individual. He finds human dignity by locating God in the heart of the person. The Sufi mystic ultimately sees the world with God's eyes. Yet this comes through the arduous spiritual journey. In The Garden of Truth Nasr points to the Universal or Perfect Man as being central to Sufism, the esoteric life of Isam. He cites the French Islamist Louis Massignon, calling the notion of Universal Man “'the privileged myth of Islam.'”1 As a scholar anchored in Islam but open to universalist truths, Nasr quickly turns the discussion of this myth to the Greeks, and the idea of anthropos teleios. He surmises that Neoplatonism could very likely have been the source of this myth, but that, given the universal nature of the Universal Man, Sufis did not rely totally on the Greeks: “But even if the Sufis used certain theoretical formulations drawn from such sources, the reality they were describing did not come from earlier philosophical texts. The Universal Man is a reality independent of any philosophical descriptions of it. On the basis of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet, the Sufis were able to experience the reality of the Universal Man.”2 In other words, as regarding other topics, Nasr seems to be pointing to a universally-accessible natural law, although for a variety of issues he often uses the term archteype.

Nasr's Islamic approach parallels the Christian belief that human dignity rises from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, though Nasr does not indicate that this dignity also follows from the fact that we are made in the image of God, which is a cornerstone of Jewish and Christian anthropology: “The grandeur of the human state is not in that human beings can make complicated machines or conceptualize complex theories, but in that men and women are worthy of being addressed by God and being considered worthy of receiving His revelation and grace.”3 In a nutshell, Nasr's Islamic viewpoint does follow the Christian understanding that human dignity comes from the nature of God and the nature of human-divine relations: “To be human is to be capable of hearing the Word of God and being led back to Him.”4 Nasr pinpoints the individual's priestly function as being particularly noteworthy and full of dignity: “The fact that in the Islamic rites each Muslim – man and woman – stands directly before God in the daily prayers without any intermediary indicates from the Sufi point of view not only that each Muslim has a priestly function but also that there is a nexus linking each soul directly to God.”5

Ch. 2. Male and Female; Sexuality

Rather than equality-through-sameness, Nasr offers a traditional Islamic vision of the dignity of women and men that encourages harmony in the household and in society. Yet for Nasr the Islamic tradition is more well-rounded, more tolerant of human realities, than simply offering one vision: “As in the Far Eastern tradition, where males and females possess both yin and yang, but in different proportions, so in the Islamic perspective the male is not simply equated with the active principle and the female with the passive, for both the male and the female contain both elements withing their nature.”6 Nasr here offers an Islamic humanism that places human needs in the center. Yet having said that, Nasr does believe that the differences between men and women have to do with the nature of God. Anthropology and theology are linked: “The male and the female polarization is an essential part of the mystery of God's creation.”7 The yin-yang nature of the relationship is a relationship of complementarity, where together they form a circle of “perfection, totality, and completion. That is why the male and the female both vie with each other and are attracted to each other. The alchemy of marriage and sexual union has the power to transmute and complete each side through the realization of both complementarity and wholeness through a love that transcends the two sides and yet encompasses them, a love that is rooted in God.”8 Note here the traditional alchemical language, rather than the typical psycho-social academic verbiage. Nasr explains the tradition of Islam using traditional language. Though trained as a Western scientist and historian of science, he explains his tradition from within the confines of that tradition rather than from the more scientific and social scientific Western view. God is intimately involved in this love: “The bond between two hearts is made by God ... and the love of one spouse for the other is an earthly reflection of the love of the soul for God, although the male and female forms of spirituality are not the same.”9 Thus love and complementarity draw male and female together.

Certainly, Nasr follows the traditional Islamic teachings on sexuality. He argues that Christians are wrong in condemning the Prophet for having had many wives. With Christianity's traditional suspicion of sexuality in mind, Nasr notes that this has allowed Islam to see sexuality in a positive light, as a gift from God.10

In the important chapter of The Heart of Islam entitled “The Vision of Community and Society,” Nasr explains in some detail the place of women in Islamic society, and the harmonious relationship between men and women that Islam seeks. At the basis of this is justice. Islam is a religion of justice, so that any aspect of male-female relationships must conform to this pursuit. Neither men nor women can be oppressed. Nasr repeatedly points out that the Western view of Islam is erroneous, but also that Western notions of justice are not necessarily the only normative principle for justice. Islam is well within its right to establish its own norms. In fact, those norms, because beholden to God, are superior to those of the consumerist, religiously-skeptical West. That sense of justice, and of the entire relationship of harmony between men and women, is a spiritual path, he notes in The Heart of Islam: “The role of Islamic society has always been to make possible the attainment of virtue and the perfection of character,” with many Muslim authorities such as al-Farabi judging societies according to their success in fostering “this inner perfection of moral and spiritual qualities of the member of society. From the Islamic point of view, the value of a society before the eyes of God lies in its virtuous quality, its moral excellence, and not in power and wealth.”11

This challenges the Western feminist, power-based view of relationships and money. The family, and marriage itself, has become the enemy of women according to this view. Nasr's Islamic view, while also offering a critique of oppression, places much more trust in basic familial and marital relationships. Such human links are the basis of his view of Islamic society. Rather than the Western notion of freedom, he believes that humans come to their full humanity through relationships, through serving others. “The traditional structure of Islamic society is based not on quantitative equality, but on the reality of complementarity, although there are exceptions.”12 Here, Nasr outlines a traditional view, with the man as breadwinner and family protector, as the imam of the family. He is imam because his leadership comprises a spiritual role. Again, rather than the Western penchant for judging relationships according to power, money, credentials/merit, it is the spiritual value of relationships that define basic ties. He then paints a traditional picture of the Islamic woman, as the heart of family life, and not at all in competition with her husband: “The woman is the real mistress of the household, in which the husband is like a guest. Her primary duty has been seen as that of raising of children and attending to their earliest education, as well as being the basic buttress of the family. Like all traditional societies, Islam has honored the work of homemaker and mother as being of the highest value, to the extent that the Prophet said, 'Heaven lies under the feet of mothers.'”13 Femininity, like masculinity, has in its deepest characteristic a spiritual reality. Male and female are the roles that Islam lays out for them. Nasr contrasts this spiritual view of femininity and motherhood with the Western, materialist, feminist view: “Islamic society has never thought that working in an office is of a higher order of importance for society than bringing up one's children.”14

Ch. 3.The Economy, Work and Leisure

What is the role of work and the economy in Islam? How do they promote harmony? The economy and work are closely related to the basic masculinity and femininity of Islamic male and female. In an Islamic society, Nasr argues, the economy is structured around family and not solely around making money. This allowed for traditional motherhood: “an economic system was not created in the cities, where by and large, but not always, the wife was not forced for economic reasons to leave the home and her children during the day. From the Islamic point of view, the right of a child to a full-time mother rather than a nanny or day-care provider is more essential than many rights held dear today.”15 Nasr spends some time discussing the importance of the work of homemakers to the Islamic family. As the center of the family, the mother's work should ideally be at home. Economy therefore has spiritual dimensions; work is about building the family and the community, and not about career attainment or making huge amounts of money. The economy is at the service of the family. People work to build family and community. Work is therefore not an issue of the individual, but of the family and community.

Ch. 4. Community and Hierarchy
For Nasr, the world is necessarily hierarchical. God created the universe, and humans and spiritual beings, as well as animals and minerals and all else. God is the supreme ruler of all, and humans occupy a special place.

Nasr spells out clearly that a good community is one that allows for the Islamically good life. It should allow “its members to live the good life, in the religious sense, based on moral principles. It [the Quran] judges a community to be good to the degree that it reflects the constant presence of the Transcendent Dimension in human life and is based on spiritual and religious values.”16

Nasr equally clearly spells out just what happens to communities unfaithful to holy moral living: “the decay and destruction of communities or nations has happened, according to the Quran, not because of loss of wealth or economic power or even military defeat, but because of moral corruption and straying from the religious norms willed by God for the community in question.”17 Here Nasr raises the sense of hierarchy, with God over top all communities and individuals, who must follow His rule: “The earth belongs to God, and He allows deserving communities or nations to rule over it as long as they deserve to do so. Once they lose their moral authority, they are replaced by God with other communities or nations.”18 Harmony comes from following God's law, and communities that follow this law exist and prosper for long periods of time.

Nasr avoids setting up the problematic battle between community and the individual. Such a duality is false; the human is both individual and part of the community. “There is no doubt that Islam meant to create a community based on justice, one in which the pursuit of the Divine Law was made possible, not just injunctions for private behavior. In the debate between those who claim the primacy of society and those who emphasize the primal significance of the individual, Islam takes a middle course and believes that this polarization is in fact based on a false dichotomy. There is no society without the individual; nor can the individual survive without society. The social nature of the human being us part of the wisdom of God's creation,” Nasr writes in The Heart of Islam, turning to the Quran (58:7).19
Nasr's view of Islam locates the holy in both the community and the individual, without one superseding the other: “He [God] is present in human community as He is within the heart or center of the individual.”20

Nasr does emphasize that God's judges the individual, not the community as a whole, for entrance into salvation or damnation. While God can judge a bad community in this lifetime, in the next, a community will not face this type of judgment: “Only individual souls do so. Hence our personal responsibility before God remains, in whichever community we happen to live.”21

Ch. 5. Creation

“Esoterically speaking, all things by virtue of their existence, which is ultimately the Divine Breath, praise God, as the Quran asserts. They speak in silence of the mystery of existence, but most of us do not have the necessary power of hearing to grasp their silent words.”22

For Nasr, creation and humans, and God, who created the first two, are all linked through the dynamic mystery of God: “Although from one point of view creation is old, from another it is fresh and new. God's act of existentiation is ever present, and in fact existence is not so much a state as an act, as the existentiating command of God, 'Be!' This doctrine is of great significance not only for cosmology but also for the spiritual life.”23 Creation's youth is caused by the truth that God constantly sustains it, keeping creation in existence. Without this support, creation would cease to exist. This enchanted view of the universe, while not necessarily excluding the laws of Western science, demands something more than laws of physics and Darwinian evolution. Physics itself is an expression of God's support. Physics and the laws Western scientists have discovered depend on divine sustenance. Evolution too depends on God's sustenance; it exists because God wills it to exist. God is prior to and independent of physics and biology, and the laws discovered therein. This is the Islamic or at least Sufi re-enchantment of the world. God's generosity to creation is immediate and intimate: “In a deeper sense, every tree that we observe in the garden comes freshly from God's creative act.”24 Education is a spiritual journey, and the teacher is therefore a life teacher, a teacher of wisdom. This evokes the meaning of the Catholic terms “spiritual formation,” and lectio divina, both of which place spiritual growth above the need for a heavily critical outlook on life and the literary or religious canon and tradition. Education, for Nasr, is the guardian and transmitter of tradition, of spiritual and communal life, rather than about new discovery or revolutionary, radical thinking. This follows from his depiction of Islam as the middle way, something he also admires in the Greeks.

Ch. 6. Philosophy as Wisdom
The wisdom and teachings of the Quran govern what is valuable and not valuable knowledge. Knowledge foremost brings the believer closer to God. As such, knowledge is a lifestyle aid. It gives us the knowledge of the heart. Nasr writes at length about the intellect, which he situates in the heart. The knowledge of the heart – spiritual knowledge in keeping with Islam – governs the knowledge of the head. Science, in other words, falls under the knowledge hierarchy. Knowledge is subject to hierarch; otherwise, it would not lead to wisdom, but to the chaos of modern Western science and technology, which, Nasr repeatedly observes, is killing the planet, as well as the human traditions that dwell on it.

Ch.7. Science, and Knowledge

“Since in Islam the revelation came in the form of a sacred book, many Muslim sages have looked upon nature as a book of God...”25
Nasr portrays Islamic science and knowledge as holistic and unified around the oneness of the religion, a practice personified in the hakim. This knowledge strives for wisdom rather than for the Western-based need for advancement and the domination of the material world. Since Islamic knowledge is really a spiritual striving with God always on the mind, education and knowledge play a central role in the sacred. Knowledge in Islam is sacred, and the hakim is a kind of sacred man.26

Nasr highlights the spiritual and interpersonal nature of Islamic education, which does not seek to cultivate, above all, freedom of thought and a hyper-critical outlook, but which instead emphasizes the human dimensions of community, teacher-student relations, and knowledge itself. Knowledge builds community: “The transmission of knowledge has always had a highly personal aspect, in that the student has sought a particular master rather than an institution, and has submitted himself to that chosen teacher wholeheartedly. The relation that has always existed between the teacher and the student has been a highly intimate one, in which the student reveres the teacher as a father and obeys him, even in personal matters not connected with his formal studies. The atmosphere of these schools has been very relaxed and informal, without there being any great academic or financial pressure upon the student.”27 Nasr then ends this train of thought by gently though forcefully criticizing the modern, Western path: “Nor has there ever been the strong incentive to receive a diploma and then seek to benefit from its social and economic advantages, prevalent in so many modern educational institutions.”28 Education, for Nasr, is a sacred, personal endeavor, the goals of which are spiritual growth and community bonds: “That is why a person may often remain a student all his life, mastering one subject after another and going from one teacher to the next.”29

Ch. 8. God and Being / Ontology
Natural law: an Islamic natural law, or one too in debt to Christian law. Aristotle plays a big role in Nasr's philosophy. He is unafraid to borrow at length from the Greeks in general.

Nasr links God to the person. The individual is nothing without God: “Human beings qua human beings cannot enter the Divine sanctuary, but there is within us a reality that is already Divine. To be fully human is to realize our perfect servitude and to remove the veil of separative existence through spiritual practice so that God, transcendent and immanent within us, can utter 'I'.'”30

“The great mystery of existence is that it veils God by what is none other than Him... This truth is explicitly stated in the Quran.”31 Tells a Sufi story to illustrate: “...The moral of this story is that the in-depth understanding of the truth that God veils Himself by what is none other than God can come only from spiritual realization.”32

Fakhry, Majid,
Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Mysticism, A Short Introduction.

Gülen, M. Fethullah,

Khomeini, Sayyid Ruhollah Mousavi,

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein,
A Young Muslim's Guide to the Modern World.
The Garden of Truth.
The Heart of Islam.
Ideals and Realities of Islam.
Islamic Philosophy from the Origin to the Present.
Knowledge and the Sacred.
Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man.
Religion and the Order of Nature.
Science and Civilization in Islam.

Ozak, Muzaffer,
Irshad – Wisdom of a Sufi Master.
The Unveiling of Love.

Ramadan, Tariq,
Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity.
Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.

Qutb, Muhammed,

Qutb, Seyyid,
Social Justice in Islam.

Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs

By Emerson Eggerichs, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Love and Respect, though seemingly just another self-help, pop-psychology book, offers a potentially ground-breaking view of marriage. Rather than calling for the typical sissification of the man by getting him to talk about his feelings and in general see things through a woman's eyes, Dr. Eggerichs asks women to see men differently as well. For once, an author does not assume that women's ways of doing things are normative and morally superior, and that men must conform.

Central to the argument, Eggerich asserts that men and women are not the same, and that the Bible's teachings on marriage are as valid as ever because it shows how men and women have different needs. While women are verbal beings in need of assurance that they are loved and safe, men are action-oriented, and would rather silently share an experience than talk about feelings. Men communicate through words, but more than that, through their actions.

Male readers can understand Eggerichs' argument in their own relationships. Feminists have indoctrinated women to look down on men and not to understand men. They no longer meet their husband's deepest need, which is to feel respected. When they cut down their husband, he shuts off, and she feels unloved. In order to get that love, she becomes more rude and cutting so that he will be able to see just how desperately unloved she feels. This leads the husband to distance himself even more. Thus the couple has entered a vicious cycle.

For this cycle to be broken, wives need to respect their husbands unconditionally, even when they don't feel respect for their man. The husband must unconditionally love his wife, even when he doesn't feel it. This love and respect is actually not about feelings, but about responding to God's call.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Guantanamo North: Terrorism and the Administration of Justice in Canada

By Robert Diab, Fernwood Publishing, 120 pages,.

Western governments followed the Bush administration's example after 9/11 and used that tragedy as cover for increased government encroachment on personal liberties. Swept up in terrorism-inspired hysteria, most of the public did nothing, and in fact approved much of this power grab by the state. Safety in the short run seemed more important than ideals about freedom and curbing state power.

Now that some of the 9/11 dust has started to settle, and we no longer fear terrorists behind every tree, increased government power doesn't seem like such a good deal. The 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act and related amendments, as to the Canada Evidence Act, could potentially infringe too much on our rights as outlined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

An effective way to examine newfound government activities is through the experiences of those unfortunate enough to have their freedoms curtailed by these laws. Guantanamo North, the outcome of a Masters of Laws study, sets the theoretical framework, offers some legal history, and presents the cases of individuals targeted by Canada.

Diab does a good job of addressing several issues at once, and tying them all together in the exceptional conclusion of the book, where the sort of big questions we expect from legal philosophers do get asked.

First, Diab focuses throughout the book on the 2001 legislation's undermining of the age-old presumption of innocence, so central to English common law. Diab warns that “Out of an abundance of caution, we have proceeded to treat these men as guilty and to forgo the need to present evidence in a full trial. We have held them in an administrative limbo that is officially neither a detention pending deportation nor a punishment, but simply an indefinite incarceration. We have preferred to deal with these cases using the language of risk management rather than crime and punishment.”

Secondly, the secrecy behind many of the trials makes it nearly impossible for the accused to defend themselves, given that their lawyers cannot refute all of the charges. Diab believes in the common law system, whereby a suspect can robustly challenge the accusations. This component is missing when the government does not allow defendants and their lawyers the right to see all the information. Diab struggles to find a solution, calling for, at least, special advocates with security clearance allowed to see all the evidence so as to provide a more vigorous challenge to the government's accusations, something that is essential to justice and the respect of human rights.

Thirdly, Diab questions the need for and goodness of the expansion of “state privilege.” He offers the Arar case as an example of the dangers of expanded state privilege. Not all questions regarding the affair have been answered by the inquiry because the government “invoke[d] the new secrecy provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act to conceal much of the testimony of CSIS and RCMP personnel on their role in the incident, and to censor significant portions of the Inquiry's final report. Questions remain about the complicity of Canadian officials in Arar's torture and imprisonment in Syria.”

Diab laments the growing gulf between “practice and principle in the administration of justice.” Ottawa is failing to adequately follow the ideals of justice, and is denying people their full rights. Diab worries that the new measures taken by Canada's Parliament are permanent, whereas other countries had sunset clauses to emphasize the temporary nature of these increased governmental powers. Judges' independence have been compromised, as has the justice of the entire legal system in Canada. Criminal suspects are treated differently by the arresting authorities and the judiciary if they are suspected terrorists, which means that we are not all equal under the law.

The Theology of Tariq Ramadan: A Catholic Perspective

By Gregory Baum, 178 pages, ISBN 978-2896-460-793.

Just as the Catholic Church had to confront the secular, liberal order of modernity, eventually accommodating itself to a large degree, so Islam now is being confronted by the same forces of individualism, secularism, and democracy. Canadian Catholic theologian Gregory Baum examines how Swiss Muslim theologian Tariq Ramadan's appeals to Western Muslims echo many of the earlier developments in Catholic theology over the same issues. Baum's argument is from a very narrow left wing Catholic perspective, so the subtitle is misleading, as he is not representative of large swaths of the Church, including those who follow Vatican teaching.

Baum notes: “Since Islam, like traditional Catholicism, sees itself as a total system, Muslim societies challenged by political modernity have defined themselves either as ideologically secular, as Turkey has done, or as religiously reactionary, as Iran or Saudi Arabia have done.”

Islamic theology has reacted to the forces of modernity with, depending on the brand, varying degrees of liberalism, fundamentalism, or traditionalist reform. Ramadan belongs to the last one.

Ramadan is no liberal revolutionary, according to Baum, but he has been equally misread as a fundamentalist, which he is not. Ramadan does not believe that the Quran should be read simply for its legalistic declarations. Theologians who follow this way, like the Taleban or Saudi Wahabbis, tend to believe that seventh-century Arabia is the normative Islamic culture, and that all cultural change is aberrant.

Ramadan, conversely, believes that it is natural for societies to change, so the laws must as well, including shariah law. While he supports Quranic law, he emphasizes its spirit rather than specific prescriptions. What is unchanging for Ramadan, however, are the truths revealed in the Quran and shariah about God and about how Muslims need to relate to God.

These unchanging laws and spiritual truths can and need to be applied in every cultural and historical circumstance. Ramadan thus seeks the spiritual and theological truths of the Quran -- the religious rather than legal truths – according to Baum.

Following the Salafi Reformist tradition of al-Afghani (1838-97), Ramadan opposes the fundamentalist belief that interpretations of the Quran were closed after the tenth century. Salafi reformists like Ramadan, Baum notes, “prefer to return to the Islam practised by the Prophet and his 'Salafi,' or companions – an Islam that was open to reason and common sense and capable of responding creatively to historical challenges.” In other words, the “doors of ijtihad,” or “interpretation,” remain open.

Since Baum himself as a liberal Canadian Catholic theologian pushed for decades for the most possible feminist-liberal interpretation of Vatican II, he sometimes builds up for readers an image of Ramadan as a kind of Islamic left-wing Vatican II theologian, someone with whom Baum and his ilk can do business.

Baum does a good though incomplete job of discussing parallels between the Catholic Church's struggles with modernity, and the struggles of Islam with modernity. As a liberal theologian, Baum seems insensitive to the damage liberalism and feminism have done to Catholicism and Islam (not to mention to the family and human ecology as a whole). A wider discussion on how liberals and feminists have for decades attacked the pro-family, pro-life traditions of Islam would go a long way to show why Islamic theologians such as Ramadan have been so intensely discussing whether Muslims should or should not adopt Western values.

The Theology of Tariq Ramadan does nonetheless take an important first step in addressing inter-religious dialogue, hopefully putting to silence the unhelpful idea of a clash of civilizations. Perhaps the book will encourage other writers to address the deep chasms that inevitably remain between Western liberalism-feminism and Islam in its Western and non-Western forms.

Creating a Failed State: The US and Canada in Afghanistan

By John W. Warnock, 209 pages, Fernwood Publishing, ISBN 978-1-55266-2-625.

“[T]he United States is now deeply involved in World War IV, the struggle to control natural resources and in particular oil and gas. The primary area of conflict has been the less-developed countries, including those declared to be failed states.” So writes Warnock in this damning book on American and Western greed and colonialism.

America's involvement in the Middle East follows the logic of oil rather than the logic of justice and peace. If Saddam Hussein starts selling too much oil to China and elsewhere, take over the country. If Afghanistan won't allow pipelines and other petroleum-related infrastructure, take over the country.

Many pieces of American foreign policy (and its poodles such as Britain, Canada, and Australia) are linked to this thirst for oil. The goal of containing Russia and to a lesser extent China aims for American control of Caspian Sea oil, working closely with American oil companies.

Washington negotiated with Pakistan and the Taliban for the better part of 2001 over Caspian Sea oil as a way to shut out Iran, since both governments were anti-Iran. Warnock reports, though, that America, with the help of Russia, was actually thinking of invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. This plan, which somewhat counters the containment of Russia theory, “was widely discussed at the July 2001 meeting of the G8 countries in Geneva.”

The politics in Creating a Failed State, as the above shows, are shocking in their single-mindedness and lack of respect for the lives, cultures, and nationhoods of the target countries. In fact, Warnock links this neo-colonial indifference to the lives of people with the mentality of the nineteenth-century European colonists, who also put a premium on the lives of their own citizens even while committing countless acts of violence against subjected populations.

Creating a Failed State follows American oil imperialism as it built up Islamists during the Cold War. The leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood admitted that “America made Islam” in the 1960s. Washington helped al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups recruit fighters from all over the world, including from Brooklyn.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Arab, Pakistani, and Afghan trainers were trained by the CIA in America. Bin Laden's main focus at this time was on the “Little Satan,” the Soviet Union, but he became incensed when Saudi Arabia allowed American troops on Islam's holy land in 1991.

America's relationships with jihadists in the 1990s were confused, as Washington often had them do its dirty work. Yet throughout the decade, the Islamic fighters constantly increased their activities and rhetoric against America.

Because of Washington's belief in bin Laden's continued utility, it never had him extradited even though the Sudan (and the Taliban after that) had offered this and even though countless opportunities for his capture had presented themselves.

Why didn't America nab bin Laden when he was in the American Hospital in Dubai for kidney treatment from July 4-July 14, 2001? Bin Laden “was even visited by the head of the CIA operation in the city. But the US government did not ask for his extradition,” Warnock notes. Bin Laden, it seems, was still America's guy right up until 9/11. Even in 2002, when holed up in Tora Bora by the US military, he was allowed to escape.

Why did so many senior Bush administration officials deny that they had advanced knowledge of 9/11 when so many foreign governments, including those of Jordan, Israel, and Russia, had warned them? The former Egyptian defense minister Mohammed Heikal said after 9/11 that it was impossible for the American government not to have known of the planned attack.

Looking back, in the days immediately before September 11, why do we see such frenetic stock market activity from World Trade Center-based companies such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, and from United and American Airlines?

While American and Canadian neo-colonialism in Afghanistan is bad enough, the politics and purported dirty dealings that occurred before 9/11 are disturbing to say the least.