GK Chesterton on rationality

A bon mot from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (which I’ve been listening to, since it’s conveniently available in MP3 format) concerning scriptural interpretation and rationalism:

"Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming.  Critics are much madder than poets.  [...]  Though Saint John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators."

Many Muslims would take this observation as a witty vindication of the kneejerk literalism that prevails in so many corners of the Ummah, but who really lacks imagination and faith? The literalist who mechanically takes all at face value–in the process often spreading their aqida between various hermetically sealed boxes in the back of their minds–or the "rationalist" who interprets some challenging traditional beliefs  figuratively and perhaps gets some things dead wrong but who, unlike some of his "traditional" critics, manages to have a reasonably integrated vision of his deen and the world?

I should note that I aspire to be somewhere in the middle, heeding and benefitting from the inherited wisdom of our forebears and contemporary traditional scholars while also being open to the possibility that they, being human and thus fallible, may have erred on some matters.

  • http://andalus.wordpress.com AlexLahoz

    “but who really lacks imagination and faith?”
    I suppose the argument could be made that the one who most lacks imagination and faith is the one who can’t imagine or believe that those who came before us have spared us the need to re-configure Islam to our individual needs.
    Or maybe, s/he is the one who cannot imagine nor believe in the baraka of submitting to those whom Allah has granted greater openings to.
    Or maybe you’re right, and it’s those simple minded folk who ‘hear and obey’ and who don’t see the value in rationalizing their shortcomings.

  • svend

    Thanks for the comment.
    I don’t think your terms really do justice to the other side here, but perhaps that’s my fault for not making my point more clear. Perhaps I was inviting a rebuttal.
    I might’ve come across as more pro-rationalist than I actually am. I’m actually not a fan of rationalism and certainly believe in the legitimacy and beauty of submitting to something greater than oneself. To the extent I find myself agreeing at times with rationalists, it’s generally as an antidote to the complacency and arrogant presumption of having “all the answers” that one encounters among some self-described traditionalists.
    I have no problems with submitting to Islamic Tradition, but I do have a problem submitting to Islamic traditionalists. There is a huge difference, however much many of the latter may pretend the contrary. Believing in a tradition is not the same as uncritically accepting the opinions of self-defined traditionalists who sometimes fail to treat Islamic tradition as living and dynamic.
    One can believe in a tradition and respect its major institutions while acknowledging the inevitable tension between an institional or scholarly community and the tradition that it partly represents and develops.
    BTW, I certainly don’t mean to imply that people who “hear and obey” are simpleminded. On many matters, I’m one of them.
    I’m merely trying to highlight how simplistic and arbitrary a lot of the common pejorative assumptions are about Muslims who entertain unorthodox interpretations when grappling with difficult ideas and beliefs in their faith. Traditionalists aren’t the only ones trying to engage seriously and honestly with the tradition.

  • http://andalus.wordpress.com AlexLahoz

    Salaam ‘alaikum,
    You know I paused more than once before posting the comment on your blog.
    It seems I still rushed to judgement. My sincerest apologies.
    I still think there is some disagreement but my comments were very bull-in-china-shop.
    Thank for overlooking my poor adab and being so kind in your response.

  • svend

    Np. I understand completely.
    Not only are these sensitive topics that can easily cause tempers to flare, but they’re so complex that any brief discussion of them is doomed to be misunderstood and/or inaccurate to some extent. It’s so much easier to blog about politics… ;)

  • http://hangingodes.blogspot.com Abu Muhammad

    Tradition is our perpetual converstation with history while we are flowing. Being aware of their absolute contemporaneousness, those who affirm to undertake this conversation are traditionalists. Others who view tradition as a specific point in history are pseudo-traditionalists not ready to get out of this misplaced anachronism. Rationalsim is merely an awareness of this construct.

  • thabet

    assalamu alaykum
    These problems, as Abu Muhammad alluded too, could be solved somewhat if we drop the modern/tradition duality. I find it mildly amusing that people who call themselves (Muslim) traditionalists are so eager to adopt a division (modern/traditional) which was invented largely by European Enlightenment philosophers.
    The Islamic traditions are surely discursive like any other — a ‘historically extended’ argument within and without, where debate, dissent and disagreement are as important as consensus and unifomity. Why else have Muslims developed their own educational, social and legal institutions if things were ‘Islam is obvious’ and ‘Islam is simple’ as some nostrum mongers would have us believe?