If you asked why after 40 years the originary hypothesis remains almost totally unknown, the average intellectual would no doubt respond—as I will always remember Franz de Waal responding wordlessly to my copresence on the platform at the 1999 COV&R conference in Atlanta by moving to the opposite corner of the stage—that this “non-empirical” hypothesis is of no scientific interest, since it is not, as Karl Popper has taught us to say, “falsifiable.” Whereas statements in the writings of social scientists such as language is not that difficult or language was a new behavior that emerged naturally are perfectly acceptable, in accordance with the “empirical” frame of mind that denies any ontological distinction between culture and biology, just as uniformitarianism dictates the proposition, both unfalsifiable and altogether unsupported by evidence, that life, even “intelligent” life, is present throughout in the universe.
Some years ago, I pointed out (1) that the essence of Old Testament theology is contained in God’s revelation to Moses of his “name” in Exodus 3 as “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” I am that/what I am. This is the replacement of a vocative/ostensive name by a declarative sentence, the form of objective truth; and (2) that this development is parallel to that taking place in Greece at much the same time in the work of Parmenides, who saw the declarative sentence as possessing the potential of the “way of Truth,” an intuition starting from which Socrates, Plato, and then Aristotle would give birth to Western philosophy.
Even if you don’t care for “speculations” on the origin of language, isn’t it striking that these two peoples, the Hebrews and the Greeks, both liberated from the great archaic empires, both characterized at approximately the same time by a high level of literacy, that is, of being able to read and thereby to de-temporalize declarative sentences into propositions, are universally recognized as coming together in Christianity to produce what was, at least until recently, recognized as the greatest of world civilizations?
The point of this Chronicle is to propose a new wrinkle in my description of the Hebrew One God. It is one of those phenomena too familiar to be reflected on that, on the one hand, whereas Christianity follows the Jewish tradition of not naming God (the Father), simply designating him by his title, as do the Jews when praying to Adonai, for Muslims, Allah is conceived and used as the name of God.
I have been reflecting on why it is that the unnamable God, in contrast to the Muslim Allah, has played such an innovative role in human progress, standing at the root of the civilizational source of all modern science and technology. Although the story of Islam is not finished, and I share with Islamicist Daniel Pipes the belief that, like the other “Abrahamic” religions, Islam too can adapt to the modern world.
If we consider that the Hebrews are the originary model of the nation, which is neither a tribal confederation nor an empire, that is, in Voegelin’s terms, not compact, where one’s loyalty to God is not identical with but transcends one’s loyalty to the polity and its (secular) ruler—the source of Jesus’ line about God and Caesar, a phrase that would have been meaningless, or blasphemous, in an empire such as ancient Egypt—we can hypothesize that the “namelessness” of the Hebrew One God, the sense that God is not someone to be “interpellated,” is an essential component of the national concept. Given Islam’s considerable difficulty, in contrast with Christianity, in adapting to the political conception of the nation-state and its opening to modernity, it is hard to avoid drawing a correlation between this difficulty and the omnipresence of the name Allah in Islamic culture.
At this point I must introduce a nuance not developed in my previous discussions (principally in Science and Faith) of God’s “name” in Exodus 3.
I have referred to the paradox inherent in the universal God who must nonetheless choose one people, and indeed, one language, through which to reveal himself to the world. The “Jewish barber” (see Chronicle 405) is a paradoxical figure, because although he “shaves” everyone, including himself, of his God, he is the only one to shave himself. But anyone familiar with the Jewish tradition knows that this paradox can be exemplified in real life in a manner more concrete than by merely noting the Jews’ “firstness” and their “chosen” status.
As the Talmud copiously illustrates, God may have no name, but the Jews feel free to imagine themselves conversing with him, even arguing with him. There are many midrashim where God participates in discussions with rabbis, and has to work to come out on top. I speak from ignorance, but I strongly doubt that Islamic doctrine includes examples of arguing with Allah. Nor, as I understand Islamic history, does it include canonical examples of a population making a moral judgment of its rulers, as in the texts of the Old Testament prophets. The conflicting claims of legitimacy that led to the Sunni-Shiite split and numerous others did not, as far as I know, involve accusing one’s opponents of neglecting widows and orphans. The only thing at issue beyond sheer power was faithfulness to Mohammed’s bloodline or what was conceived as the originary doctrine of the Koran and Hadiths.
This difference is a direct consequence of the Islamic surenchère with respect to the Christian “supersession” of Judaism. The latter being presented as a historical sequence, Islam could not very well define itself via a third testament. The solution was simply to annul history: the Koran was the eternal original, and the Testaments but faulty copies. Beside this brilliant act of chutzpah, all other Islamic enormities, like claiming that no Jews ever lived in Jerusalem, are as nothing. Whereas the miracles of the Judeo-Christian religions can be easily taken by non-believers in a symbolic sense, because they impinge only peripherally on historical actuality—which makes them as articles of faith ultimately adaptable to the revelations of natural science—Islam by its originary nature cannot find, or at least has not yet found, a generally accepted way to reconcile faith and reality.
The Hebrew paradox suggests that, once God declares himself unique and transcendental, not nameable nor describable except as being what he is, the Hebrews and their descendants, the Jews, are by the very fact of this declaration enabled to converse with him, to share language, revealing a reciprocity implicit from the beginning, one that Christianity will take only a step farther. Because God respects the principle of identity, the Parmenidian “way of Truth,” his pronouncements, and by extension, the world that came into existence as a result of them, must be explicable in rational terms, and thus he should if necessary be able to defend them to us. Whereas it is difficult to conceive of anything similar occurring between Muslims, imams, even caliphs, and Allah, whose “discourse” in the Koran is uncreated, that is, always already scripture, never parole.
The Biblical idea of God as (1) sharing language, combined with (2) universality provides us with a minimalist formula for understanding the difference between a nation, which in principle shares a common language, and other kinds of polities, even allowing for the variety of governments that nations have had over the centuries. This also helps us better understand the question of sovereignty, which has been subjected to various dialogues de sourds since the days of Hobbes.
“Realists” like Hobbes or Carl Schmitt—or Adam Katz—have a right to be impatient with abstract definitions of the “people’s” sovereignty, as though we are speaking about some kind of Platonic essence. What matters is indeed who’s in charge. But particularly in the founding era of nationhood, the relationship between political control and what can already begin to be separated off as “religion” is a focal domain of innovation.
The God of the Hebrews is not merely “universal,” he is defined in a new way. By giving his “real” name as a declarative sentence, but to a specific people, the One God presents himself as a being whose will is devoted to his people, while at the same time he is knowable only as the self-identical, autonomous agent of that will. This idea is fully compatible with the “secular” originary hypothesis, since in both cases, the language that we share is born in the originary moment, whether that of God’s creation of Man, or that of our hypothetical scenario.
No doubt God’s words to Moses hardly suffice to let us predict the variety of forms of government of which a “nation” is capable, but they do imply three essential principles:
- The ontological separation between God and humans is absolute; no humans, not even kings, are “closer to God” than others, nor can humans become “as Gods.” (Thus Christianity must affirm that Jesus, as a person of God—but not the text of the New Testament—“always already” existed before the creation of Man.)
- God’s power is not limited, but he and we “think in the same way.” The coincidence between Parmenides’ Way of Truth and the Hebrew God’s principle of identity is real. In both cases, the telos of originary language is indeed the logos in the sense of “rational” truth. Hence the God who appears to the rabbis in the midrashim can be addressed and reasoned with without the intermediary of a king, or even a priest.
- Yet the One God speaks to Moses as the representative of his people, whom he will help to free itself in the Exodus. God’s statement is universal, but his speech act is particular, and defines the Hebrews, his interlocutors, as a nation.
What this suggests is that a nation is only conceivable as a chosen people, however broadly this choice is defined. The Hebrews, as the original recipients of God’s choice, did not need to concern themselves with this qualification.
Or to put it differently, the Hebrews alone were “chosen” by the One God himself; in secular terms, they alone first conceived the One God. But insofar as they remained a people, they had no effective mechanism for extending their revelation to the “gentiles.” Although the “axial” world of Jesus was full of parallel attempts, Christianity succeeded in converting virtually all the peoples of the Western world into nations on the Hebrew model by in effect inventing the concept of religion as independent of the “national” culture (“my kingdom is not of this world”).
As Paul saw so clearly, what unified the Christians was not a book of laws, a Torah or a substitute for it, such as the Koran would provide, but the opportunity for everyone to share in guilt and expiation for the Crucifixion and its subsequent redemption. Saul’s realization on the road to Damascus that persecution is already worship, the total spiritualization of the “aura” around the central object of the originary event, could be shared by all different cultures, and thereby permitted them to reproduce in a new manner, and in their diverse languages, the paradoxical national unity that the Hebrews had established between a particular people and a universal divinity.
But whereas the political unity of the Hebrew nation with “their” God could not survive in the face of imperial power, the Empire’s Christianization would not only outlast the imperial framework, which hung on in ghostly fashion for another millennium as Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, but go on to provide the model for the emergence of “nation-states,” a process completed in the Early Modern era.
Islam has not yet learned to permit this separation of the religious from the secular. It is sometimes said that Islam, especially radical Islamism, “is not a religion but an ideology.” This is no doubt unfair to Islam’s spiritual qualities, but it reflects the simple fact that the very notion of “religion” is a Christian one, one that has clear parallels in East Asian cultures, but that cannot apply to the classical form of Islam. The fact is that still today, a considerable percentage, often a majority, of Muslims in the “Christian” nations of Europe would prefer to live under Sharia than under secular national laws, and a few countries have even granted “Islamic courts” jurisdiction in certain areas of family law.
I am certainly not suggesting that Muslims stop calling Allah by his name. Nor do the barbaric practices of jihad justify considering Islam a throwback to premodern forms of religion. But Islam needs to discover for itself a way of entering modernity, not merely by adopting Western weapons financed by Western-initiated oil extraction, but by rethinking its basis in the genuine universalism that, even more than Christianity, has brought its version of the One God to peoples from all over the world. I am no admirer of Malcolm X, but one cannot help but be moved by the wonder he expressed in his Autobiography at witnessing the diversity of those who come together in the Hadj.
My final point is this: in the necessary effort to modernize Islam, Europe’s apologetic weakness in the face of pressure is anything but helpful. As Pipes and others have been insisting, if there is to be peace and progress in the Middle East, the Palestinians will have to be made to renounce their intransigent irredentism, and the Islamists their dream of a universal Caliphate. This is a newly difficult task in an age where total war and final defeat are no longer conceivable, and where “asymmetric” wars are fought more in the arena of public opinion than on the battlefield—one more ironic legacy of Hitler’s and Tojo’s barbarity.
Instead of preaching “the rights of man,” Europe should rather provide Muslims with the opportunity to learn nationhood, a knowledge that could be extended to Muslim-majority countries, some of which, such as Morocco, Egypt, Iran, or Saudi Arabia, already have a fairly well-developed sense of national identity. But it will be only when, as a result of this apprentissage, the Islamic world can accept the Jewish state as an example to emulate and rival rather than to destroy, that this process can truly be declared successful.