Post by Nobody in Particular
Finally finished the book by James P. Carse.
Here're my thoughts, not all necessarily from the book, except for
Carse associates belief with "willful ignorance." "It is a
paradoxical condition in which we are aware there is something we do
not know, but choose not to know it." "Belief marks the line at which
our thinking stops, or, perhaps better, the place where we confine our
thinking to a carefully delineated region." Creationists will usually
prefer not to know details of evolution, as it might weaken their
faith. Galileo's colleagues refused to look through the telescope at
the moons of Jupiter. Some actually looked but said they did not see
In religion, words are interpretation, they are not the actual
substance. Religion expresses something that cannot be found in the
actual words, like the experience of a symphony cannot be found in
the musical notes or in a critic's commentary.
Belief is the study of the pointing finger, describing and measuring
it, arguing about its shape, etc. Religion is finding what the finger
Religion has a deep resonance inside. There is no need to oppose
those who do not feel this resonance. The feeling of joy or bliss is
part of religion. There is no belief associated with it. Belief
often works toward dryness, coldness, emotional emptiness, "everything
Beliefs are not necessarily tied to religion. Nazism, Stalinism,
Maoism are non-religious belief systems. So is the doctrine of
Scientism, the belief that science is the *only* true way to acquire
knowledge about reality and the nature of things.
Belief must have an external authority, be it a person or a scripture.
However, "Authority does not precede its use, but is created by it.
It does not present itself spontaneously; it is *chosen* by those whom
it restricts, protects, authenticates, and guides."
Since authority is chosen by the believer, it has no power of its own.
If people do not accept a power as their authority, they may be cowed
for a while, but not forever. "The Soviet rulers confused authority
with power, failing to understand that power by itself has no
authority, and authority has only the power observers give it.
Collapse was inevitable."
Belief must have an opponent (or enemy). Since this opponent is seen
as a threat to the belief, he must be devalued. Namecalling is a
common way ("idiot", "woo-wooist", "nutter") "Belief systems thrive
in circumstances of collision." "We could go so far as to say that
belief is so dependent on the hostile other that it may need to
stimulate the other's active resistance. Belief has a confrontational
element built into itself that is essential to its own vitality."
-- Boy, do we see a lot of that in these groups! Especially in regard
to the belief system of American Triumphalism.
Another aspect is that of evil. This is an overwhelming problem for a
believer who "knows" the nature of God. "The fact of evil is
ultimately the undoing of all belief systems. Because of their
oppositional character, their attention is focused on the wrongs of
the other. To admit their own wrongs is to draw into question the
coherence of their beliefs and their trust in a chosen authority."
"Evil is nearly always an attempt to eliminate evil, as it appears in
those who oppose us. It therefore thrives in belief systems inasmuch
as it is easily ascribed to their enemies, the result being a
spiraling expansion of evil."
Religion concerns itself with mystery and wonder. Belief with
explanation and certitude. The two are worlds apart, but believers
(and their detractors) like to define religion as belief.
"Critics of religion may have been mistaken in thinking that it was
religion they were attacking and not the isolated beliefs with which
they mistakenly identified them, but they have a point, inasmuch as
believers do regularly represent themselves as truly religious - or
impute to their beliefs an aura of pseudo-religious validation."
Carse has always been one of my heroes and "The Religious Case Against
Belief" is a wonderful book, and I gave several copies to friends in
the past year. His distinction between willful ignorance and higher
ignorance is fantastic, which he took from Nicolaus of Cusa, of whom
both Carse and I are fans.
Btw, above: the namecalling of "woo-wooist" and "nutter" are exactly
my terms for "willful ignorance", as I don't go for any belief system,
and hence don't have any enemies, but I'll use any dogmatist as a
punching bag, if they'll let me (or if none are available, I'll hire
someone like Keynes as a straight man to set me up for my punch
lines). I think the key to Carse's thinking is his astute insight that
it's belief systems, dogma, that are the problem, and not religion,
which without belief can be a powerful positive force, a form of
poetry instead of division and repression.
Btw, Carse's earlier more intuitive poetic book "Finite and Infinite
Games" is by far his best work and is a masterpiece. This book maybe
comes in second. For an intro to Carse, listen to this mp3 (or see the
video but it's just a lecture without props) here:
And there was a nice interview with Carse a year and a half ago on
Slate, which I'll paste in below.
P.S. Ignore anything Fu says about Carse, as he will whine just as he
does about Karen Armstrong, and is pissed off by anyone who isn't a
hard-core atheist who insists religion has no redeeming value,
shunning Carse the way homosexuals often shun straight-looking
Monday, Jul 21, 2008 04:21 PDT
Religion is poetry: The beauties of religion need to be saved from
both the true believers and the trendy atheists, argues compelling
religious scholar James Carse.
By Steve Paulson
Take a snapshot of the conflicts around the world: Sunnis vs. Shiites,
Israelis vs. Palestinians, Serbs vs. Kosovars, Indians vs. Pakistanis.
They seem to be driven by religious hatred. It's enough to make you
wonder if the animosity would melt away if all religions were
suddenly, somehow, to vanish into the ether. But James Carse doesn't
see them as religious conflicts at all. To him, they are battles over
rival belief systems, which may or may not have religious overtones.
Carse, who's retired from New York University (where he directed the
Religious Studies Program for 30 years), is out to rescue religion
from both religious fundamentalists and atheists. He worries that
today's religious zealots have dragged us into a Second Age of Faith,
not unlike the medieval Crusaders. But he's also critical of the new
crop of atheists. "What these critics are attacking is not religion,
but a hasty caricature of it," he writes in his new book, "The
Religious Case Against Belief."
To Carse, religion is all about longevity; it's what unites people
over the millennia. He cautions his readers against looking for more
conventional explanations, like the search for transcendence or belief
in an afterlife. He writes that religion's vitality is based on
mystery and unknowability: "Religion in its purest form is a vast work
Carse dismisses attempts to find some underlying unity to all
religions. He says the major religions differ radically from each
other. He also shrugs off 2,000 years of Christian debate over who the
real Jesus was, claiming "it says nothing." He even speculates that
this religious tradition, with its 2 billion followers, may be
unraveling. "Christianity is losing its resonance," he writes. "Its
history looks to be more a matter of decades than millennia."
Is Carse the man to save religion from its enemies and false prophets?
I found him to be charming and good-humored in conversation, even as
he lobbed grenades into our conventional ideas about religion.
I think the vast majority of people would say belief is at the very
core of religion. How can you say religion does not involve belief?
It's an odd thing. Scholars of religion are perfectly aware that
belief and religion don't perfectly overlap. It's not that they're
completely indifferent to each other, but you can be religious without
being a believer. And you can be a believer who's not religious. Let's
say you want to know what it means to be Jewish. So you draw up a list
of beliefs that you think Jews hold. You go down that list and say, "I
think I believe all of these." But does that make you a Jew? Obviously
not. Being Jewish is far more and far richer than agreeing to a
certain list of beliefs. Now, it is the case that Christians in
particular are interested in proper belief and what they call
orthodoxy. However, there's a very uneven track of orthodoxy when you
look at the history of Christianity. It's not at all clear what
exactly one should believe.
So there's a lot of argument over which are the proper beliefs.
That's right. After the New Testament period, there was a lot of
quarreling over exactly how to formulate what Jesus taught, who he
was, and how to lead the Christian life. So early Christians began
forming creeds. By the year 325 there was so much division among
Christians about how to understand Jesus -- his work and his person --
that it was actually breaking up the Roman Empire and forcing the
emperor Constantine, who was a very recent Christian convert, to call
a conference in the small city of Nicea. In effect, he ordered all the
bishops and leaders of the church to settle these issues once and for
all. The result, the Nicene Creed, is basically a negative document.
Each phrase in the creed is intended to correct or argue against some
other belief. So it's a creed and a counter-creed at the same time.
It sounds like you're saying that belief doesn't need to have any
religious associations. You could just as well be talking about Nazism
or Maoism or Serbian nationalism.
Exactly. In fact, very passionate believers are often not at all
religious. However, it does happen to be the case that people who hold
on to beliefs with great passion begin to describe themselves as
religious. For example, the Nazis had a kind of pseudo-religious
understanding of themselves. Hitler talked about a 10,000-year Reich.
That's taken right out of Christian mythology -- the kingdom of God
going on forever and ever. The swastika is, after all, in the form of
the cross. So Hitler was a passionate believer -- not religious but
pseudo-religious -- ascribing to himself some sort of religious aura.
So what is it that holds together a belief system?
A belief system is meant to be a comprehensive network of ideas about
what one thinks is absolutely real and true. Within that system,
everything is adequately explained and perfectly reasonable. You know
exactly how far to go with your beliefs and when to stop your
thinking. A belief system is defined by an absolute authority. The
authority can be a text or an institution or a person. So it's very
important to understand a belief system as independent of religion.
After all, Marxism and Nazism were two of the most powerful belief
What, then, do you mean by religion?
Religion is notoriously difficult to define. Modern scholars have
almost unanimously decided that there is no generalization that
applies to all the great living religions. Jews don't have a
priesthood. Catholics do. The prayer in one tradition is different
from another. The literature and the texts are radically different
from each other. So it leaves us with the question: Is there any
generalization one could make about religion?
But aren't there certain core questions that religion grapples with:
God or some kind of transcendent reality? Evil and the afterlife?
Well, let's talk about the five great religions: Judaism,
Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Hinduism is 4,000 years
old. Judaism is hard to date but about 3,000 years old; Buddhism
2,600; Christianity 2,000. And Islam has been with us for 14
centuries. The striking thing is that each of them has been able, over
all these centuries, to maintain their identity against all kinds of
challenges. Let's say you're a Muslim and you want to know what Islam
is about. So you begin your inquiries and you find that as you get
deeper and deeper in your studies, the questions get larger and
larger. If people come to religion authentically, they find their
questions not answered but expanded.
In your book, you say the only defining characteristic of religion is
its longevity. It has to be around for a very long time to qualify as
Exactly. That's a very interesting contrast with belief systems.
Belief systems have virtually no longevity. Think of Marxism. As a
serious political policy, it lasted only about 70 or 80 years. Nazism
only went 12 years. And they were intense, complete, comprehensive,
passionately held beliefs. But they ran out very quickly. The reason
the great religions don't run out as quickly is that they're able to
maintain within themselves a deeper sense of the mystery, of the
unknowable, of the unsayable, that keeps the religion alive and
guarantees its vitality.
But you've just used words that people associate with religion, like
"mystery" and "the unknowable." I would add "transcendent." Don't you
have to talk about these things if you're going to explain religion?
Take the term "transcendent." It's very difficult to find anything in
Buddhism that resembles what Christians or Western people think of
transcendence. The Buddha was not a divinity. He made it clear that he
really died. He wouldn't dwell with his students forever, but turned
over to them the discipline that he tried to teach them. So in
Buddhism, there's really no sense of the divine or the supernatural.
And the notion of transcendence in Judaism is not so large. To be a
Jew is really to be an active, practicing Jew. It's a way of living a
certain kind of life, not believing something. In my judgment, you can
be a very good Jew and have very little sense of transcendence.
Can you be a good Jew and not believe in God?
That's a good question. A lot of my Jewish friends would say yes.
Several of my Jewish colleagues at New York University were absolutely
obsessed with what makes a Jew. It turns out the question is very
complicated. It goes back into the Talmud. Is it ethnic or is it
religious? Does it apply to one practice but not another? So it's a
very difficult question to answer. As a matter of fact, you could even
say that Judaism itself exists as an attempt to find out what it means
to be a Jew.
You're also suggesting that there's no underlying unity that permeates
all religions, that, in fact, they're totally different from each
I'm absolutely saying that. There have been a lot of fantasies about
putting all the religions together. Mahatma Gandhi was famous for
saying that all religions are, at their core, the same. But I have
spent my life studying these traditions. I am a historian of religion.
And the more I studied them, the more I saw that they were absolutely
But if the only test of a religion is its staying power, are you
saying Mormonism, which has been around less than 200 years, is not a
religion? Or Pentecostalism, which some religious scholars say is the
most important religious movement of the last century?
Those are large questions. Will Mormonism hold out over the centuries?
It's a difficult judgment. I don't have an answer for that. What I'd
really like to focus on is how extremely long the great traditions
are. There are other traditions that aren't that long: Sikhism,
various kinds of Middle Eastern religions, mystical movements.
Mormonism is an open question. You could even talk about Scientology.
Does it really have staying power over the centuries? I would doubt
it, but we don't know yet.
Are you religious yourself?
I would say yes, but in the sense that I am endlessly fascinated with
the unknowability of what it means to be human, to exist at all. Or as
Martin Heidegger asked, why is there something rather than nothing?
There's no answer to that. And yet it hovers behind all of our other
answers as an enduring question. For me, it puts a kind of miraculous
glow on the world and my experience of the world. So in that sense, I
What about God? If God is defined as some sort of transcendent
reality, do you think God exists?
[Laughs] Frankly, no. But there are so many different conceptions of
God. Take, for example, the medieval Christian, Jewish and Islamic
mystics. It's a very rich period from the 12th to the 15th centuries.
They began to realize that in each of their traditions, it was
impossible to say exactly who God was and what he wants and what he's
doing. In fact, human intelligence has a certain limitation that keeps
it from being able to embrace the infinite or the whole. Therefore,
every one of our statements about God and the universe is tinged with
a degree of ignorance. I would say that I am deeply moved by the
thought of an unnameable mystery. If you then ask me, exactly which
mystery are you then referring to? I can't answer. That's as far as I
can go. But it's got its grip on me, for sure.
Do you engage in any kind of regular religious practice?
I have, off and on, over the years. I find certain religious liturgies
very compelling, especially the Christian Eucharist, which is the
celebration of Jesus' last supper with his disciples. When you begin
to look into the aspects of that liturgy, there are some very strange
things. For example, breaking and eating the body of God and drinking
the blood of Jesus. What in heaven's name is that about? Once you
begin to inquire into it, what you find are very deep echoes with
ancient religious traditions. Primitive people sacrificed their gods
and literally drank their blood. They would elect someone to be a god
for a year or a season and would then sacrifice that person. You also
have to understand the art, the music and the rich culture that
surrounds these traditions. Think of Chartres, the Vatican, the Dome
of the Rock, the great temple in Jerusalem, which in its day was the
largest building in the world. And the music, the poetry, the great
scriptural texts; it's a very rich fabric. I find myself deeply moved
and endlessly reflective about it.
Given what's happening in the world right now, do you think there's a
lot at stake in how we talk about religion and belief?
Absolutely. In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one
thing that's left out is the sense of religion that I've been talking
about. Instead, it's an attack on what's essentially a belief system.
Are you talking about atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris?
Yes. There are several problems with their approach. It has an
inadequate understanding of the nature of religion. These chaps are
very distinguished thinkers and scientists, very smart people, but
they are not historians or scholars of religion. Therefore, it's too
easy for them to pass off a quick notion of what religion is. That
kind of critique also tends to set up a counter-belief system of its
own. Daniel Dennett proposes his own, fairly comprehensive belief
system based on evolution and psychology. From his point of view, it
seems that everything can be explained. Harris and Dawkins are not
quite that extreme. But that's a danger with all of them. To be an
atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you're not believing
in. Therefore, if you don't have a deep and well-developed
understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism
And yet, you've just told me that you yourself don't believe in a
divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to
go along with what the new atheists are saying.
The difference, though, is that I wouldn't call myself an atheist. To
be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk
around in wonder about the universe. That's a mode of being that has
nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them.
As a matter of fact, one reason I wrote the book is that a much more
compelling critique of belief systems comes not from the scientific
side but from the religious side. When you look at belief systems from
a religious perspective, what's exposed is how limited they are, how
deeply authoritarian they are, how rationalistic and comprehensive
they claim to be, but at the same time how little staying power they
have with the human imagination. It's a deeper and much more incisive
It's interesting that you're going after the atheists. I would have
guessed that you wrote this book to criticize true believers who are
Oh yes, I'm very concerned with belief systems. Today, the world is
really being ravaged by conflicts between believers. Go to Bosnia,
anywhere in the Middle East, to China, Sri Lanka, the Sudan, Kosovo,
Chechnya, even in Europe. There are great crises in France and
Britain, even Holland and Denmark. So it's very important to
understand how different belief systems work and what's inherently
wrong with them.
But I have to wonder if your dichotomy between religion and belief is
simply your attempt to rescue religion from what you consider to be
ill-formed or dangerous believers. Is this just your way of separating
good religion from bad religion?
Well, you could see it that way. But my deeper point is that religion
doesn't need to be defended. I'm not going to make a whit of
difference to a tradition that's 2,000 years old and has 2 billion
people talking about it. That's a remarkable phenomenon. I don't have
a case to make for religion. In fact, as a historian of religion, I'm
very aware of the fact that religions die. They disappear. Hundreds of
them have over the centuries. I even believe that Christianity and
Islam and the other great traditions will themselves dissipate in one
way or another.
You say we're actually beginning to see the death throes of
Christianity. That's a startling comment, considering how many people
around the world identify themselves as Christians.
I think there's a fragmentation going on that's quite significant, a
tendency to identify with something outside their religious tradition.
Once they've married their Christian faith to a national or ethnic
identity, then it loses its deep historical Christian character. To
look at these huge mega-churches, for example, the startling thing to
me is when you go to their services, you don't have any sense of the
enormous complexity of the history. You have the feeling that Jesus
walked in here yesterday, and the minister will pick up a few
contemporary cultural phenomena, like popular music. You're seated in
something like an auditorium. There's no cathedral atmosphere. There's
no great chanting choir. I think it's lost that indefinability.
You refer to the period we're now living in as the Second Age of
Faith. What do you mean?
The so-called Age of Faith runs from the end of the 11th century to
the beginning of the 13th. It's a period in Europe in which all the
religions grew very rapidly. It was also a period of terrible
conflict. At the end of the 11th century, Pope Urban II gave one of
the most consequential speeches in Christian history. He called on
Christians to rise up and take Jerusalem back from the Saracens. And
it was with that speech that the Crusades began. The Crusades were an
ugly period. It was bloody and cruel. It exhausted people on both
sides. No one won or lost. And it went on for centuries.
And you think we're now in another period like that?
I would say we are back in that crusading spirit. In the modern era,
the great belief systems begin to think of themselves in more
militaristic ways. And they conceive of themselves more and more in
oppositional terms. Look, nothing equals the 20th century for its
bloodiness. Who knows how many people were killed? Two hundred
million? And the 21st century is not getting that great a start. At
the same time, there's a very rapid growth of belief. Islam is growing
faster than ever. Christian evangelicalism is probably one of the most
rapidly growing phenomena in religious history. Mormonism is just
racing along. The earth as a whole is getting more and more religious.
But it has nonetheless become more and more preoccupied with conflict.
You have a provocative view of Jesus. You claim that "the vast
literature on Jesus is not about anything; that, in fact, it says
nothing." That's hard to swallow, given that we've had 2,000 years of
inquiry and debate about who the real Jesus was.
The most difficult part of understanding Christianity is trying to get
at who Jesus was. The New Testament writers were very confused about
who Jesus was and what he was doing. And during the New Testament era,
there was great strife among Christians. They were quarreling with
each other over a number of questions. Was Jesus really God? Or was he
only appearing to be God? Was he simply a person of such perfect
morality that God adopted him? Was he created by God after the
creation? Where does he belong in the Trinity, Augustine asked in the
early 5th century?
Later on, St. Thomas, the great theologian of the Catholic tradition,
understood the church as the historical extension of the incarnation.
This is a very radical idea. So you know Jesus not through Scripture
and not through some kind of internal experience, but through the
existence of the church itself. And then you get Martin Luther, who
rejected that idea and said the only way you really get to know Jesus
is through Scripture. It couldn't be more different than Thomas'
conception. Then you get Calvin, a contemporary of Luther's, who
understood Jesus strictly in Old Testament terms, as prophet, priest
and king. And then you have Soren Kierkegaard, under the influence of
Hegel, who saw Jesus as "the absolute paradox," the eternal and the
human combined in one historical moment, which is in fact
unintelligible. I call this long history of how Jesus has been
understood and interpreted "an abundance of Jesuses."
And we're not even up to the 20th century. You could say this
convoluted history is a mess. After all, what are Christians supposed
to believe? Or you could say all this passion over competing
interpretations reveals the vitality of this religion.
What's striking to me is not that Christians keep disagreeing about
these things. They can't stop arguing with each other. The issue
doesn't go away. You'd think, we can't settle exactly who Jesus is, so
let's forget it. But the subject burns. It holds people's attention
and requires some kind of response. I think Christianity is the
attempt to answer that very question. And that's why I made what may
seem to be an outrageous remark: When you look at the way Jesus has
been interpreted over the centuries, it says nothing. What do we
actually know about Jesus? Well, there's only one historical
contemporary reference to Jesus. That's in the historian Josephus. All
he said was that Jesus lived, he was loved by his disciples, and was
executed for a crime that Josephus doesn't indicate.
Even the Gospels are not contemporary accounts. They were written
after the life of Jesus.
They were written many years later. The earliest is the Gospel of
Mark, probably written 35 years after the death of Jesus. The Gospel
of John is written anywhere from 60 to 65 years later. They were
written by Greeks, not by Jews. These were people who couldn't speak
Hebrew. They probably had never even been in Jerusalem, and they
certainly did not know Jesus personally. They probably knew no one who
knew Jesus personally. So if we have to get down to solid fact, what
we have is an illiterate young man, a homeless man, who wandered about
the area of Galilee -- a backwater in the Roman Empire -- who taught
some things, healed some people, and was executed by the Romans.
That's about it in terms of historical verification. That's not much.
Isn't this a point of great contention? Some biblical scholars say
Paul's letters were written just 15 to 25 years after the death of
Jesus. In Corinthians, Paul refers to hundreds of eyewitnesses who saw
Jesus after he rose from the dead. And the author of the Gospel of
Luke claims that he got his account of Jesus' life from eyewitnesses
who were still alive. Christian scholars point to these accounts as
evidence that the story of Jesus is grounded in history, not just myth
created long after he died.
It is true that Luke says he's basing his Gospel on the many stories
being told. Even more interesting, John closes his Gospel with the
remark that if all the stories being told about Jesus were written
down, the world could not contain them all. John also gives us a very
different Jesus from the other Gospels. Some of Paul's letters are the
oldest in the New Testament, written before the Gospels, and Paul does
refer to Jesus appearing to 500 witnesses. But Paul has nothing to say
about the life of Jesus, not a trace of his teachings or his healings.
If we had to rely on Paul for a portrait of Jesus, we would know
nothing more than Paul's personal reaction to a mysterious event.
In your book, you say the core of religion is the pursuit of
knowledge. But what you really celebrate is what you call "higher
Higher ignorance is one of the great philosophical concepts. Nicholas
of Cusa developed this idea. It comes out of the great mystical period
of the 15th century. It's the notion that we can never get outside
what we know to say something about it that's definitive. We're always
locked inside that body of knowledge. For example, we have any number
of theories about the origin and nature of the universe, but there is
no way we can place ourselves outside the universe and observe it
objectively. However learned these theories are, they contain a
profound ignorance that cannot be eliminated. Heidegger's metaphor is
that of the "house of language"; we can know nothing except by way of
language. There is no outside.
You also say poets are the real visionaries of the world. And you make
the case that religion, at its root, is inspired by its poets.
You know, my entire career was at New York University, but I only
taught the history of Christianity once. That's when one of my
colleagues was not available. So I went back to my graduate study of
St. Thomas Aquinas. And I loved it so much. When we got to Thomas in
the class, I began to notice that the students -- most of them were
Catholics -- had stopped taking notes. They stopped moving. It looked
like they stopped breathing. They'd never realized that there was so
much beauty behind the Catholic teaching. They thought it was about
doing something right or wrong, rather than this great cathedral of
language within which they could understand their very individual
experiences. It struck me that what was great about Thomas is not that
he was right or wrong, but that he's a poet. It's just beautiful work.
It's an artistic creation of the greatest achievement. And when you
take that insight and look across the traditions, you find people of
very great poetic insight. The great religious figures are not
philosophers, they're not historians, they're not institutional
leaders in any sense. They are people who inspire the imagination and
therefore deserve the word "poet."
So do we have those poets today -- poets in the religious sense?
That's a very good question. I have a dark view of what's happening. I
think our poets have lost their great voices. If you ask me to point
to a poet, I couldn't do it. We need them. I don't know where they
are. And, of course, there's no way of getting them. They come on
their own. They simply appear. There's no way you can train someone to
be a poet or a great original mind.
Why are you so pessimistic?
Let's look at Islam, as an example. There's no way of reducing Islam
to a single belief system, but what you have in Islam is a very active
series of belief systems. And they're in deep conflict with each
other. There's no poetry in this. It's all strictly hard belief, in an
oppositional voice. But if you go back in Islamic history, what you
get is a very deep sense of poetry. As a matter of fact, the Quran
itself is considered so poetically beautiful that it's a very high
value in Islamic life to memorize it and sing it. Muslims refer to the
Quran as a recitation, something to be repeated over and over again.
You go back to the medieval mystical period and you find Islamic
thinkers who say terribly beautiful things. There's a story told about
Abu Ali of Sind, a famous mystic. He made his annual trip across the
desert, which took days, to get his supplies in the markets on the
other end of the desert. Then he walked all the way back, opened the
packages that he bought and found that there were ants in his cardamom
seeds. Immediately, he wrapped the ants back up in the cardamom seeds,
walked back across the desert and returned the ants to their home.
That's a different Islam. That's a poetic Islam. It comes right out of
the heart of that religion.