»Rationalization of Religion in Judaism, Christianity and Islam« – Joint Conference of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 16th –18th December 2013, Berlin (BBAW) Organised by: Christoph Markschies (Berlin) and Yohanan Friedmann (Jerusalem) Report edited by: Marc Bergermann, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The first of two international conferences (followed by Jerusalem in 2014), planned by scholars of both the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, dealt with concepts and influences of rationalization in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In addition to taking a closer look at the immediate links in the history of tradition between those rationalizing movements and evolutions in religion, emphasis is put on intellectual-historical convergences: The debates were led by central questions, such as what factors foster/hinder rationalization?; where are criteria for rationalization drawn from?; in which institutions is rationalization taking place?; who propagates, supports and utilizes rationalization?
The conference was opened on Dec 16th 2013 at the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften by the keynote speeches of Christoph Markschies (Berlin) and Yohanan Friedmann (Jerusalem).
Thereafter MAREN NIEHOFF (Jerusalem) introduced Philo of Alexandria’s rationalization of the god of Israel by exploring the ways in which Philo interpreted the biblical descriptions of god, which are rather mythological in nature. Niehoff argued that he used contemporary philosophy, especially Platonic and Pythagorean ideas, to develop a new approach with significant implications for Hellenistic philosophy and early Christianity. The god of Israel is transformed into an utterly transcendent entity, whose nature cannot be known. Philo introduced the idea of the divine logos on the basis of his detailed interpretation of Genesis, chapters one and two, providing a powerful tool for subsequent generations to come to terms with the mystery of god.
CHRISTOPH MARKSCHIES (Berlin) demonstrated in his paper that a central element of rationalization, not only in antiquity, lies in the resolution of dualisms. Thus rationalization does not mean the simplification of a mythological conception of the world, but rather the addition of complexity to an insufficiently complex theory. Markschies further showed that the Alexandrian theologian Origen († approx. 254) overcame the dualism of biblical theology versus platonic philosophy, which shaped the Christian theology of the 2nd century and the so-called Gnostic systems and their contestation within the majority church. According to Markschies, one can describe his thinking more appropriately than in such dualisms as a hierarchical network of knowledge systems continuously reconfigured in accordance with current requirements.
In the first part of his lecture GUY G. STROUMSA (Jerusalem) sought to analyze the different ways in which one can speak of the rationalization of religion in late antiquity, and also argued that beyond the multiple religious groups and movements of late antiquity, it makes sense to speak of a late antique religious »koine«, or »meta religion«. If this is the case, the patterns of religious change and rationalization of late antique religion offer the background to the radical religious revolution at the end of late antiquity, i. e., the emergence of Islam. Applying the concept of »modes of religiosity« developed by the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse to late antique religion, the second half of the lecture offered a new model for the understanding of rationalization patterns in late antiquity.
Next MOSHE IDEL (Jerusalem) discussed three forms of Rationalization of Judaism in medieval Jewish thought. He argued that biblical and rabbinic Judaisms have operated without a sustained systemic theology. Philo’s thought, written in Greek, reflects the deep impact of Greek philosophy, which turned into a theology that has been ignored or rejected by rabbinic authorities. In these two forms of classical Judaisms, the will of God constitutes the major religious factor. In the Middle Ages however, some elite forms of Jewish thought adopted a variety of theological thought, of Greek and Hellenistic extractions, mediated by Muslim translations and sources. Idel spoke about three new major types of constellating the religious life found in the writings of those elite figures: two of them are deeply influenced by Muslim sources: the astral one (as found in the influential writings of R. Abraham ibn Ezra), the Neoaristotelian and the Neoplatonic ones (as found for example in Maimonides and R. Shlomo ibn Gabirol). The third one, the theosophical-Kabbalistic one, became one of the most influential form of theological constellation of medieval Judaism. The gist of those forms of constellation is not only theological but also informs the meaning of the performative aspects of Judaism, the performance of the commandments, whose rationales were not explained in the biblical and rabbinic Judaisms.
The first conference day was closed by a public lecture of MOSHE HALBERTAL (Jerusalem) on the topic »Rationalization and the Problem of Evil: Job between the Theologian and the Mourner« at the Faculty of Theology of the Humboldt-University in Berlin.
MOSHE HALBERTAL was also the first to give a lecture on the second day, but changed his lecture topic due to the vivid discussions on the day before. It became clear to him that there was a strong need to define what is meant, when one speaks about rationalization in general and in the context of religion. Halbertal explored different dimensions of the term, which were discussed by the participants.
After this systematical approach and certain clarifications SARAH STROUMSA (Jerusalem/Berlin) spoke about early Muslim and Jewish Kalām and the enterprise of reasoned discourse. In their attempt to understand the emergence of Islamic theology as a distinct field of science in the 2nd –3rd/8th–9th centuries, scholars have examined the etymology of the term Kalām as well as the context in which it appeared. Both internal developments of early Islam and the influence of the encounter with other religions, and in particular with Christian theologians, were mentioned as factors in this context. The paper attempted to highlight a hitherto ignored feature of early Kalām as we know it, namely »kalām« as an expression of logos in the primary sense of human speech. It argues that beyond the dialectical external structure, which has long been recognized as a typical feature of Kalām, early mutkallimūn built their logical argument on speech – the way one speaks, the words one uses – as the main instrument of both thinking and arguing.
Next JAN THIELE (London) presented a case study – namely qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s book entitled al-Jumal wa-l-ʿuqūd – in order to illustrate methodological approaches and challenges encountered in the reconstruction of Muʿtazilī texts on both Muslim and Jewish sources. The Muʿtazila was one of the most important rational schools of theology in the Islamic world, but not an exclusively Muslim phenomenon: their teachings were also adopted by medieval Jewish savants. Thanks to its cross-denominational character, a substantial number of allegedly lost Muʿtazilī works have been recently rediscovered by adopting a comparative methodology.
SABINE SCHMIDTKE (Berlin) further explored the medieval world of Islam, in which transboundary crosspollination in numerous directions was the norm rather than the exception in virtually all fields of knowledge, and this most significantly in the so-called rational sciences. Her lecture was devoted to a particularly telling case of a Muslim scholar of the 11th century, Abū l-Ḥusayn al-Baṣrī, who engaged in medicine, philosophy and rational theology and was exposed to various cross-denominational exchanges, both in the rational sciences as well as in the domain of scripturalism (namely the Bible). These had a major impact on his intellectual biography and scholarly output. Moreover, the reception of his doctrinal notions and writings still during his lifetime and beyond is likewise remarkably cross-denominational, as he was apparently read by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.
In the following lecture BINYAMIN ABRAHAMOV (Ramat Gan) discussed Ibn al-Arabi’s († 1240) approach to reason in the light of his predecessors’ thought. In Ibn al-Arabi’s view, god’s existence, his unity, his attributes, the relationship between his attributes and his essence, and the hierarchy of the attributes can be attained by using rational arguments; he also incorporated philosophical and theological notions into his ideas on God and the world. However, Abrahamov argued that Ibn al-Arabi emphasizes the superiority of revelation, thus creating sometimes self-contradictions in his thought.
Closing this unit on Islam, YOHANAN FRIEDMANN (Jerusalem) gave his lecture on quasi-rational and anti-rational elements in radical Muslim thought in the case of Abu al-A`la Mawdudi (1903–1979). Mawdudi is one of the most influential thinkers in modern Islam and in his works, he maintains that Islam is a rational religion and whoever employs his intellect will necessarily become convinced of this. However, after conversion to Islam, Mawdudi expects the believers to refrain from employing their intellect in order to question the rationality of Muslim commandments and the decisions of Islamic authorities.
In the next lecture MOSHE SLUHOVSKY (Jerusalem) argued that the traditional Catholicism developed its own internal dynamics of rationalization between the 14th century and the 18th centuries. This resulted from two unrelated developments: One was inherent to late medieval and early modern Catholicism itself: the ecclesiastic establishment sought to restrict prophetic claims for authority within the church. The second process had to do with philosophical discussions concerning the reliability of vision and the senses. In their attempt to explain how the senses operate, philosophers and natural philosophers realized that vision could never be trusted. The joint force of these two unrelated processes led to a systematic denial of most supernatural occurrences and to the restriction of the realm of the supernatural. Sluhovsky points out that Catholicism did not need the Protestant challenge of the 16th century to become »rationalized«. It drew new boundaries between the natural and the supernatural and developed new categories of certainty that paralleled, rather than mimicked Protestantism.
The first two lectures on the last day of the conference picked up on rationalization of religion in the modern era. First JOHANNES ZACHHUBER (Oxford) lectured on theology as science in the 19th -century Research University, following the question of how rationalization of religion took place in form of theology at such institutions.
SIMON GERBER (Berlin) could further illustrate this by presenting Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), who is often considered to be the founder of modern Protestant theology. Schleiermacher defined religion as intuition and feeling, Christianity as a monotheistic religion relating everything to the redemption by Christ, and Protestantism as a form of Christianity treating the laiety as subjects of religious autonomy. Gerber critically examined the question, if all this means a rationalization or a de-rationalization of religion.
The conference’s last unit provided the opportunity to double-check these insights on rationalization of religion in Judaism, Christianity and Islam by taking a closer look at both another religion of antiquity and a contemporary »natural religion«.
The first was illustrated by SHAUL SHAKED’s (Jerusalem) lecture on Zoroastrism. He dealt with the theological debate conducted by Zoroastrians against the monotheistic religions of the early Islamic period: Jews, Christians and Muslims. The debate centers on the contradictions which the Zoroastrian polemicist discovered in the position adopted by the monotheists (e. g. God is omnipotent and omniscient, and yet he allows the antagonistic spirit, which may be termed Satan, to operate in the world which is god’s creation.) Shaked points out that the Zoroastrian argument seems well-founded, but an examination of their position reveals that the Zoroastrian faith is vulnerable to the same kind of arguments.
After these insights on this ancient religion KARL-HEINZ KOHL (Frankfurt) spoke about rationality in local belief systems by the example of an eastern Indonesian religious cult, centered around the violent death of the mythic rice-maiden. He argued that ever since oral traditions could be documented via modern audiovisual media, the classical view on mythical lore in contrast to the rational Logos (Plato) has changed significantly. Anthropologists were able to prove that the rational Elements in such forms of tradition were substantially underestimated: In illiterate societies, dramatic events serve as mnemonic devices to ensure the integral transfer of pragmatic knowledge from generation to generation. Kohl concludes that the reduction of myths later to an irrational and scandalously-viewed narrative core didn’t happen before the scriptualization of myths had taken place.
The conference was concluded by a resume of Christoph Markschies and an intense discussion on the gained insights and open questions for the next meeting in Jerusalem 2014. The results of the Berlin conference as well as additional contributions on the topic will be published in a volume by the publishing house of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and De Gruyter.
– Philo’s Rationalization of the God of Israel (Maren Niehoff)
– Origen of Alexandria: Bible and Philosophical Rationality – or: Problems of Traditional Dualisms (Christoph Markschies)
– Patterns of Rationalization in Late Antique Religion (Guy Stroumsa)
– Three Forms of Rationalization of Judaism in Medieval Jewish Thought (Moshe Idel)
– Rationalization and the Problem of Evil: Job between the Theologian and the Mourner (Moshe Halbertal)
– Thoughts on Rationalization (Moshe Halbertal)
– Early Muslim and Jewish Kalam: the Enterprise of Reasoned Discourse (Sarah Stroumsa)
– Rationalised Theology in Muslim and Jewish Sources, or: Approaches to unearthing a shared Intellectual Heritage (Jan Thiele)
– Rationalism as a Means to allow Intellectual Exchanges among Jews, Christians and Muslims: The Case of Abu l-Husayn al-Basri (Sabine Schmidtke)
– Rationality and Rationalism in Islamic Mysticism: the Case of Ibn al-Arabi (Binyamin Abrahamov)
– Quasi-rational and Anti-rational Elements in Radical Muslim Thought: the Case of Abu al-A`la Mawdudi (Yohanan Friedmann)
– Rationalizing Visions in Early Modern Catholicism (Moshe Sluhovsky)
– Theology as Science in the 19th-century Research University – a Rationalisation of Religion? (Johannes Zachhuber)
– »They shall be all taught of God« – Schleiermacher on Christianity and Protestantism (Simon Gerber)
– Zoroastrian Arguments in Favour of Dualism (Shaul Shaked)
– Pragmatic Knowledge in Mythic Disguise: Rationality in Local Belief-systems (Karl-Heinz Kohl)