Monday, August 10, 2009

Rémi Brague and Medieval Philosophy

Gypsy Scholar has a post on the influence of medieval philosophy that links to an interview given by Rémi Brague. Brague has a nice high-level view of the institutional (and so professional) development of Chritian(ized) philosophy:
In medieval Europe, philosophy became a university course of studies and a pursuit that could provide a living. It also supported a mass of untenured, garden-variety “philosophy profs,” few of whom have left their names in the manuals, even though we can exhume their courses, which we discover to be full of surprises. But these were the men who made it possible for philosophy to make a profound impact on the minds of the jurists, physicians, and others they taught, hence for it to become a factor in society.

This had an important effect on the relationship between philosophy and theology. You can be a perfectly competent rabbi or imam without ever having studied philosophy. In contrast, a philosophical background is a necessary part of the basic equipment of the Christian theologian. It has even been obligatory since the Lateran Council of 1215. In Christianity, the tension between philosophy and theology can be said to be vertical, setting apart people who had followed the same course of studies, given that all theologians began by studying philosophy. The two disciplines spoke the same language. In Islam, the tension between Kalām and falsafa was horizontal, distinguishing between specialists in different disciplines, all of whom contested the legitimacy of the other camp’s methods.

Theology is a Christian specialty. To be sure, several religions developed stores of knowledge, at times of an extremely high degree of technicality and subtlety, concerning the adventures of the gods, regulating the cult due to them, and explaining their commandments, when such had been emitted. But “theology” as a rational exploration of the divine (according to Anselm’s program) exists only in Christianity.
Later, Brague responds very sensibly to a non-medieval, personal question. Perhaps it is best to let the text be reported here without additional comment from me:
Question: One last and perhaps more personal question: What place can someone who believes in one religion make for other religions?

Brague: A place where? In his library: in his quality as a cultivated man, he will give their documents shelf space, and he will strive to know something about them in order to keep himself from saying really stupid things about religions that are not his own. He may eventually discover fine expressions of religious sentiment in authors who profess other religions than his own and piously make them his own.

Do Religions Deserve Respect?

Can he respect those religions? Properly speaking, no. Not because he is or is not a believer, and not because he adheres to religion A rather than to religion B, but quite simply because he values the meaning of words. Religions are only things, and one can only respect persons. One can no more respect a thing than listen to a painting. I respect no religion, not even my own. I respect those who believe in all religions, not because they are believers, but inasmuch as they are human beings.

More specifically, I have no esteem for belief in and of itself. I detest the recent habit of considering the act of belief as having a value in itself, independent of its content. And I mistrust those who attempt to discover connections between “believers,” even to lump them together, without asking themselves what they believe in. One can believe in flying saucers, after all! There were sincere Nazis and convinced Leninites. And the Carthaginian fathers who had their sons burned alive as a sacrifice to the god Moloch (the scene is narrated by Flaubert, but the facts are true) must have “believed in it” strongly. For me, a belief is as good as its object, neither more nor less.

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