15 November, 2015

Vox Will Never Understand Islam... Or Any Religion, Really

Image Source.

I wish I could say that this Vox hot-take by Max Fisher is the most foolish piece Vox has published and Fisher has written. Alas, this is not the case. It is a rather run-of-the-mill effort from Vox's foreign policy team, no more vapid than their usual fare. What distinguishes this piece from it peers is that is has prompted the best critique of Vox style journalism that I have had the pleasure to read since Vox's creation. 

The critique was written by a friend of mine in a private forum. I repost it here with his permission. He touches on a few themes that will be familiar to readers of the Stage: the banality of Washington opinion writers, forever stitching new headlines into tired narratives; the limits liberal education in the 21st century, far better at teaching platitudes than exploring the depths of the human condition; and the inability of secular elites to understand religions and the religious masses who earnestly believe in them. He starts his attack with Fischer's statement, "people get out of [religions] what they bring into them." The bolded emphasis is my own: 
...If you are not particularly religious, and furthermore do not know much at all about religion — except the assumptions you bring to the topic from your inadequate formal and experiential educations — then you will write, without embarrassment, things like, "religions are big and diverse, and people get out of them what they bring into them."

Let me amend that, and not in favor of the writer: it is not even necessary to know about religion as such to know this is false — it is simply necessary to know about literature, and not to any real depth. This is the sort of thing that reasonably educated people ought not to say and still less believe, as it is so evidently wrong — but it is also the sort of thing that wide swaths of our media establishment, of course chief among them the powerholder-stenographers at Vox, credulously declare. Ideas have consequences and power, ideologies have meaning and content, and faith transforms lives, until those enduring truths collide with the pieties of Acela Corridor explainer-set types — at which moment all narrative, concept, and schema becomes an edifice devoid of purpose except what its occupier, himself a changeless being, brings to it. In the Book of Vox, Saul is stricken with a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, and He says, "Be who you always were, guy," and Saul replies, "In that case I identify as a Paul."

The Vox writer's intent here is of course to defend Islam, by advancing an argument that Islam possesses no intrinsic power to change lives — for better or worse. It's all self-actualization, as if the world's second-largest faith were a benign Californian therapy group with a run of bad luck on the clientele. Of course there are plenty of Muslims who will tell something rather different: by our lights, good men who became bad by their understanding of the faith, but also bad men who became good by the same process. The sagacious seer of men's souls Max Fisher argues that faith is incidental to both transformations. The men and women involved will declare it was essential to them. Here we see again the stunted intellectual universe of the elite drawing one of its leading lights, such as he is, into a defense of Islam that is in fact an infantilization of Muslims. They deserve better, but he is not equipped to know it, nor give it.

The truth is that most faiths, though of course not all, possess a concept something like what the Christian Church Fathers called metanoia — usually translated as "repentance" but more properly the transformation of the soul. It is visible in the tales of Paul, Raskolnikov, and Malcolm X. It is not "people get[ting] out of [religions] what they bring into them." Quite the opposite: it is people getting out of religion what they never had before. Max Fisher of Vox does not misunderstand this because he lacks a grasp of faith: he misunderstands this because he does not grasp the nature of man. He possesses a graduate degree in international security issues from the Johns Hopkins University, writes for a major publication, is a go-to for White House narrative promulgation, and he lacks this most basic element of the liberal education.

This is not to condemn him as any sort of unusual creature. He is not the exception. He is the rule. Our elites are well credentialed: but the danger they pose to us lies in the dismaying truth that they are not wise. Worse, they are not even smart.


LFC said...

I've read this quickly, en route to a belated read of that Indian May 4th post you mentioned, but I find the piece you have quoted at length to be somewhat flawed. I'm hesitant to elaborate without first having read the Max Fisher piece it replies to, but I hope to come back to this whole subject at some point.

itzik basman said...

I hold no brief for Max Fisher, to whom I'm indifferent. But this small critique is as misbegotten as it is histrionic. The criticism I'd make of what Max Fisher is quoted for is that it's trite and anodyne. You'll get out what out religion what you put into, bring to, religion. This proposition doesn't waylay faith. Nor does it deny the soul's transformation. It certainly doesn't implicate the limits of liberal education. Nor does it hollow out the grounds of modern liberal thought. Nor is its aim the rationalization of the pernicious parts of Islam. (Or what's the evidence for that surmise?) It's simply a boring statement of a truism passing as wisdom that doesn't have any real explanatory power. Both the critic and the highlighter need to calm down some. They are making reified mountains out of a mundane molehill.

T. Greer said...


"This proposition doesn't waylay faith. Nor does it deny the soul's transformation"

How can you say that? The very point is that religions bring things to the soul, not the other way around.

itzik basman said...

Respectfully, this is a non sequitur to my utterly humble point. Religion will bring things to the soul but the soul must be brought to it for that. Even with revelatory experiences, which people I know have had.

Ormond Otvos said...

Your "humble comment" presumes the existence of the soul.

Nothing humble about such an arrogant postulation, since there's absolutely no evidence of the existence of the soul, or gods. Are we supposed to agree with you on such an imposed reality?

We call your comment "humblebragging"

Fernando said...

@Ormond Otvos

Apparently your comment reeks of bigotry. You say there is "absolutely no evidence" of souls or Gods, but there is equally "no evidence" of the lack thereof. Proving a negative is far more difficult than proving a positive. Why should agree to heed to your view in that case? If anything, the secular dogma of natural materialism is self-refuting!

Your attitude towards God and religion are like those whom T. Greer warned against. If you earnestly desire to know of things pertaining to the sacred/spiritual (and without a sign-seeking attitude), respond to me with an open mind.