"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Nonsense on Stilts

This is a book so inexorably committed to proving its prejudices correct, and so completely immune to any evidence to the contrary, that only that most fatuous of creatures, an American politician-bureaucrat, could have produced it. Normally such a book would be best passed over in silence but because it has already generated considerable publicity, and because it gives so much attention to Eastern Christianity, critical scrutiny must be paid to  

Graham E. Fuller, A World Without Islam (Little, Brown & Co., 2010), 328pp.

The author embodies something the great moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre noted thirty years ago: modernity is the period par excellence when blind "experts" acclaim their own ability to see. Fuller thinks he has seen a great deal of history of the relations between Eastern Christians and Muslims, and of the wider Eastern and Western Christian relationship. But only a tiny portion of this book can be seen as history in any serious sense of the word. This book is, rather, a exercise of fantasy in which the author asks:

if there had never been an Islam, if a Prophet Muhammad had never emerged from the deserts of Arabia, if there had been no saga of the spread of Islam across vast parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, wouldn't the relationship between the West and the Middle East today be entirely different? No, I argue, it might actually be quite similar to what we see today (4).
This book, then, is an exercise of the author's imagination ("this book is an argument, not a narrative" and an "hypothetical argument" at that [15; his emphasis]) in which he claims, moreover, that "there are excellent grounds for imagining that Orthodox Christianity today could have served as a religious and ideological springboard for crystallizing the grievances of the Middle East against the West" (12-13). Thus do we see revealed at the outset Fuller's plaidoyer that he will press relentlessly for the rest of the book: Islam is not and never has been the problem, and he defends it in all the usual ways one finds among today's bien-pensants.

There are two major types of problem with this book: factual and methodological. Both are present in such abundance that I fail to see how this book was subjected to any kind of editorial review, least of all by competent scholars. It would be tedious to list all the problems with this book, so I will confine myself to the first eight (of fourteen) chapters, for here we have the author's treatment of Christian history in general, and of Eastern Christianity in particular.

Let us begin with the methodological problems. The first concerns Fuller's methods of research--or, rather, lack thereof. Fuller, who presents himself--on the front and back covers--as some kind of expert (the "former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, a former senior political scientist at RAND, and a current adjunct professor of history at Simon Fraser University") insouciantly tells us he couldn't be bothered to do any actual research for his book:

this is a book about ideas and alternative ways of thinking about them. I have not attempted to "prove" or to document an alternative history....The arguments in this book are based on my own thinking...over a very long period of time....I have turned to mainstream reference materials primarily for dates, for refining my memory, and for additional details pertinent to this alternative reading of East-West conflict, which diminishes the centrality of religion per se--as opposed to so many other formative factors in history. In this case, the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Encyclopedia of Islam, and the ever-sharpening online resource Wikipedia have been helpful in establishing some general details of events (p.307). 
This would be unobjectionable if indeed Fuller had confined himself simply to a speculative exercise. Then we could have enjoyed his opéra bouffe--a harmless and amusing means to wile away an afternoon before getting back to the real worldBut Fuller, instead of proffering a little light fantasy, leapt furiously into the fray of history, presenting more than half of his text not as a "what if" but as a "what happened," that is, an ostensibly truthful, factual, accurate retelling of early Christian and later Christian-Muslim history as well as Eastern Christianity in its pre-modern and modern forms. Fuller has, as far as I can tell, no scholarly background in Christianity, least of all Eastern Christianity, nor any serious training as an historian. In fact, I find no evidence whatsoever that he holds a doctorate in any discipline, has ever held a serious academic post, or has ever published in serious scholarly journals or by serious scholarly presses.

His lack of credentials are not, however,  the real issue. In fact, too many people have too much faith in them. (Churchill, who never went to university, wrote very important and influential multi-volume histories of both World War I and II.) If Fuller wants to play at being an historian, then let us pay him the respect of evaluating his work on such terms.

Lesser men, trying to tell an enormously complex bi-millennial history when faced with so many glaring gaps in their knowledge, might, at the very least, have bestirred themselves to read even a few standard scholarly works on Eastern Christianity, Eastern Christian history, early Christian history, Orthodoxy, the Byzantine State and Empire, Christian history, Christian doctrinal debates, the ecumenical councils, the formation of the creeds, the events leading to the East-West schism, the rise and many transformations in the long history of the papacy, Eastern Christianity's encounter with Islam and its resulting diminishment and relegation to dhimmi status, the Crusades and their uses and abuses, and dozens and dozens of similar books on related matters relevant to his thesis, but not Fuller. All he needs is merely to "refine his memory." But how can one refine memories of what one neither knew nor understood in the first place?  

In addition to ignoring enormous bodies of scholarly literature, Fuller insists on seeing everything through an utterly simplistic, reductionistic lens of power. In an age where humanities departments regularly pay obeisance to Nietzsche (however misunderstood) and Foucault (however absurd), this should not surprise us. Thus, for Fuller, "most of what passes for 'religious issues' are not truly about religion at all" (17): "In the end I hope to persuade the reader that the present crisis of East-West relations, or between the West and 'Islam,' has really very little to do with religion and everything to do with political and cultural frictions, interest, rivalries, and clashes" (16). A little later on, he insists that "in the case of the Middle East and its religions, it is not the theology that really represents the source of conflict" (37). Fuller is undoubtedly right to note that there are other factors--political, cultural, geographical, economic--at work in various conflicts, ancient and modern, in the area, but to quarantine theology the way he does, and to refuse to consider theological arguments at all, is grossly irresponsible. He simply refuses to consider  that--as the old saw has it--if you spend an hour discussing politics in the Middle East, you have ipso facto just spent sixty minutes discussing religion. Why should this be so hard to perceive? Why should Fuller work so tirelessly to deny this? Why must he endlessly insist that theological questions--above all Christian theological questions (for Islamic theology, replete with many quotes from the Quran, is always treated respectfully)--are all "arcane" or "unbelievably arcane" (73)? For Fuller, all theological questions are to be seen "strictly as a prerogative of power" (39; his emphasis). This allows him to begin rhyming off a list of jaw-dropping factual errors such as:

  • "church and state in Christianity have been far more closely tied over most of Christian history than was ever the case in Islam" (41; his emphasis). 
    • nobody who had any grasp of Christian history, East or West, would ever say this, but what is truly astonishing is just how vast and deep Fuller's ignorance of Islam is here. As Bernard Lewis (whom Fuller mentions once, only to dismiss him by means of his favorite sneer: "neoconservative") has shown not only in his most recent book but over his lifetime of scholarship, "church and state" are not merely "closely tied" in Islam: they are fused as one
    • the very notion of a separation between church and state is an inherently Christian one coming from no less a figure than Jesus Christ Himself
  • Fuller asserts that with the legalization of Christianity, "doctrine was now to fall directly under state control" (45), allowing the emperors to determine "orthodoxy" or "heresy."
    • While this myth of imperial control has certainly been popular, it was long ago debunked by the historian Francis Dvornik in his "Emperors, Popes, and General Councils," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 6 (1951): 1-23; and more generally in his books on the councils and the papacy. Basing himself on the 1931 study of Constantine by N.H. Baynes, Dvornik showed convincingly that Constantine was not a power-mad despot simply using Christianity to advance his own agenda but a sincerely convicted believer concerned about truth (a notion utterly foreign to Fuller). Dvornik--and others since then--further showed that Constantine, and the other emperors, never had the kind of power to dictate doctrine that many have falsely attributed to them. Caesaropapism, in a word, is bunk.
  • Repeatedly Fuller claims, without, of course, the slightest hint of evidence, that the Christological controversies of the early Church, especially those arising out of Chalcedon, are still "without consensus and still roil the ranks of Christianity" (47). More strongly still he later insists that "debate over Christ's true nature could never, and has never, been fully laid to rest in any kind of Christian consensus" (56). This is just silly. Chalcedon generated considerable consensus from which there has been very little deviation down to the present day. And even the divide occasioned by Chalcedon was never as wide as many imagined and has largely been overcome in our day, leaving almost all Christians on the same page Christologically.
  • Anachronisms abound in this book. E.g., he asserts that the split of 1054 was motivated because "the Orthodox Church also rejected the 'new' Roman concepts of the Immaculate Conception of Mary" (73). That Latin doctrine was not even on the radar, let alone discussed and formally promulgated for another 800 years. 
  • his treatment of Orthodoxy in the Ottoman empire (p.74) totally overlooks the millet system even though there is a Wikipedia entry on it....
  • his treatment of the papacy links that institution's development to early Christological debates, claiming that "the doctrinal struggle over Jesus's nature...lay at the very foundation of the pope's claim to power. If Jesus was solely Divine [sic] in nature, then how could the pope legitimately claim to be the 'vicar of Christ'?" (83). I've written and especially read acres of papal history--silly and serious--and much else on the office, and not even the silliest and most jejune of commentators has ever come close to making a claim this absurd.
  • he claims that "in 2001, Pope John Paul II expressed his sorrow to the Orthodox Church [for the Fourth Crusade] in his first visit to Orthodox territory, in Romania" (106). But the pope went to Romania in 1999. And the papal apology for the harm of the Crusades came in May 2001 in Athens, Greece. This is grade-school stuff. Does Little, Brown no longer employ fact-checkers or copy editors--or anyone capable of calling up the Vatican website to verify a few things?
  • his treatment of the Nikonian reforms in Russia (p.123) shows no understanding whatsoever of the issues involved, which he treats, predictably, as nothing more or other than state politics.
I could go on and on, but let me end with my two favorite side-splitting howlers:
  • "the West allowed musical instruments in the rites of Western churches, supplanting the strict Gregorian plainsong chants of the Eastern rite. In architecture, the West abandoned the traditional domed Orthodox church design--later absorbed into the design of many Muslim mosques--and adopted what was seen in Orthodox eyes to be the seemingly 'harsher and sharper' lines of Gothic architecture" (157; my emphasis). 
    • Is this for real? There are are so many errors here one scarcely knows where to begin....
  • But the absolute best line in the book is the author's claim, in discussing the controversy, since 1991, over Eastern Catholics in Ukraine: this Fuller describes as "the bitter so-called Uniate controversy, still ongoing, between Catholicism and Orthodoxy over who should control the Nestorian and Monophysite [sic] churches in Ukraine and Belorussia" (160; my emphasis). 
This, as Jesuit casuists of the old school used to say, is but the most egregious example of "invincible ignorance." And to think that this is the kind of "expert" "intelligence" the CIA was receiving!  I should consider hiring myself out to them.

1 comment:

  1. What a great post...you probably SHOULD consult on these books and help them get the FACTS straight!


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