Saturday, November 11, 2006

Persuasion

I am feeling a little better since the elections, which seem to indicate a desire, on the part of the American electorate, for a return of the Republic. The real work will be a labor of generations, for the Nation has fallen into many bad habits, and the neoconservative-inspired orgy of arrogance and self-righteousness will not be easy to shake. Nevertheless, we can hope - and a thread of reasonable and realistic hope is far stronger than pillars of nationalistic rhetoric.

I wish to complete this phase of my inquiry into the Islamic religion by mentioning Karen Armstrong's book, Islam, as a surprisingly fair-minded assessment. I say "surprisingly," because in the past I was not impressed by Karen Armstrong, this English ex-nun who wrote a very bad book about Genesis. Why is it that so many people in the West denigrate their own religious and cultural heritage and reduce it to trivial-mindedness? S uch people surprise us when they exemplify the best of the Western tradition in their explorations of other traditions.

I would not have expected from this author such a strong, concise, elegantly-written and informative history of Islam, but she has done it, and I am glad to say that my earlier negative view of Karen Armstrong was premature and unfair. The book has been included in the Modern Library series, which is some indication of its quality. Armstrong points out that, in the early days of the formation of Islam, this religion was actually a peaceful and unifying force among the warring Arabian tribes. She traces the ups and downs of this religious inspiration through many of the dynasties. No doubt the Mongol invasions (circa 1200's) had a bad effect, and caused a kind of retrenchment and narrowing of outlook. There is a militant stream in Islam, just as there is in Judaism and Christianity, yet in my cursory readings of the Koran this militancy did not strike me as more excessive or extreme than its counterparts in the other Abrahamic religions.

At the time of these revelations, as now, the Arabic and Hebraic peoples were much entertwined, and perhaps the Prophet's message to the "Children of Israel" is just as relevant today as it was then: "Children of Israel, remember the favor I have bestowed upon you, and that I exalted you above the nations. Guard yourselves against the day on which no soul shall stand for another: when no intercession shall be accepted for it, no ransom be taken from it, no help be given it."

I love this reminder of the presence of the intercessory spirit, and that in mutuality and co-inherence, all the Children of God stand together. These are the kinds of messages that must be heard today amidst the "warring tribes" of the present.

Finally, we can recall that Islam means "submission," a word which often grates on Western ears. But again, before we rush to judgment, let us recall Jane Austen's wonderful novel, Persuasion, in which the theme of "submission" or "persuadability" is taken up most wonderfully. People who have read it will recall that the hero, Captain Wentworth, went through a change of mind on this issue. His lady, Anne Elliott, had been persuaded not to marry him, and he was much embittered because of this, being led in future to seek only "strong-minded characters." Yet in a subsequent flirtation with a stubborn and self-willed young lady, he began to see that the ability to be open to persuasion was not necessarily a sign of weakness, but rather of integrity and quiet strength.

This novel has a timely message for American leadership today, for if we have had nothing else demonstrated, we can see how delusional it is to believe that recalcitrance to persuasion means strength. "Hardness of heart" and a narrow, self-willed stubbornness of mind has characterized our public persona and foreign policy for nigh to a decade, and it is the "elitist" camp followers of the neocons -- whether in First Things or the odious New English Review -- who have cheered and followed.

It is good to see that apparently, the American people think otherwise -- more along the lines of a reformed Captain Wentworth who had the sense to catch his lady on a second try. Thus the "submission" which is Islam is not too distant from this literary portrait of it, or from Catholic "obediential potency" or even the Quaker "tenderness." It seems the glory of the Kingdom teaches spiritual surrender. But even the kingdoms of this world need some of it if they are to endure, and a "surrender" to the claims of truthfulness and the common good are much needed today.

In this regard I would like also to mention Michael Kinsley's recent (Nov. 5) book review in the New York Times, where he says that the main problem in our society today is "intellectual dishonesty." I think this essay is a hopeful sign that perhaps a few in the pundit class are catching on. Deception and dishonesty are an inevitable part of human society, but to embrace them actively will destroy society. The maggots and worms need to be exposed if we are to have a future.

(Reposted; slightly edited)

No comments: