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I’ve been thinking some more about the idea of encounter, which I blogged about in these posts and which I take to be central to the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas: the idea that we can never encompass the wholeness of truth, it must remain irreducibly other to us. I’m wondering whether the basic idea animating encounter philosophies is the virtue of humility – a virtue, I think, in both epistemological and ethical contexts. Aristotle, on the other hand, saw pride as a virtue, modesty as its lack – and while I do think humility is a virtue myself, I would remain an Aristotelian in seeing humility, like justice, as a mean. It is far too easy to be too humble in action, to be servile and self-abnegating – an excess which, I’ve suggested before, hurts women’s struggle for equality. And with respect to knowledge, too little humility can lead us to an inappropriate feeling of certainty; but realizing that lack of certainty can spur us to too much humility, leading us into a self-contradictory denial of truth and knowledge.

The issue surrounding encounter, in that case, goes well beyond one’s relationship with God, even one’s relationship with other human beings. Like the question of internalism and externalism, it hits deep issues both theoretical and practical, though from a different angle. And I suspect this is why the question is so pervasive throughout the Western monotheisms.

An earlier post on the subject noted the debate within Indian Sufism, between ibn Arabi’s wahdat al-wujūd and Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindī’s wahdat ash-shuhūd. But what was new in India with Sirhindī was only that the debate happened within Sufism – Sirhindī was the first Sufi to articulate the idea of irreducible encounter, the opposition to pantheism. Opponents of the Sufis had been putting forth that idea for a long time before that. Perhaps most famously there was the case of al-Hallāj, the tenth-century Persian Sufi, who in in his state of mystical experience proclaimed anā’l ḥaqq, “I am the truth!” Al-ḥaqq, “the truth,” was one of the traditional 99 Muslim names of God; for saying that he was God, al-Hallāj was swiftly put to death.

Non-Sufi Islam, it seems to me, stresses the gulf between God and man as a way of maintaining human humility. Stephen Prothero’s popular new book on religious difference identifies pride as the central problem in Islam, comparable to sin in Christianity or suffering in Buddhism. I suspect this is why Muslims lay so much stress on tawhīd, God’s inviolable unity, and treat shirk – idolatry or “associating partners with God” – as a cardinal sin. To raise anything in the physical world to God’s level is to assume an arrogant knowledge of God. In the early days of Islam, the Mu’tazila school, relying on this idea of tawhīd, had argued that the Qur’an was a created object like anything else perceptible, and so one should read it with a rationalistic and allegorical eye. To read it as literal and inerrant would be arrogant, idolatrously taking the Qur’an as a partner with God. But one of the reasons the Mu’tazila became a minority position was that their view was used to license human arrogance: the caliph, the human ruler, had no limits on his power if he could take the Qur’an as meaning something different from what it literally said.

It has been my sense that, while there has been some suspicion of Christian mysticism through the ages, it was not persecuted within Christianity as strongly as the Sufis were within Islam. I think this is because official Christianity has drawn the line between God and man far less sharply than has official Islam (and I suspect official Judaism). What defined the Christianity accepted as orthodox in the Nicene Creed was that God had in fact become man. This idea of God-become-man is, as I understand it, what James Doull finds most significant about Christianity: in it, objective truth (God) and subjective humanity can be united. The idea of God as man has been accepted by all the major strains of Christianity since then – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant – but in its time it had seemed absurd to many if not most. The Arians took a more traditionally Jewish view, that Jesus was merely a prophet, a teacher, an exemplary human being. To say that he was more than that would be impossible, for it would identify perfect God with imperfect humanity. Their foes the Docetists took the exact opposite view: that Jesus was purely God all the time and was never actually human. Despite being at opposite ends of the spectrum, the Arians and Docetists shared the view that no man could ever be perfect enough to be God.

Go to India, on the other hand, and the view is vastly different. There, to identify human and God is commonplace. It’s not just that God takes a physical form, in a way scandalous to Muslims. Many traditions – especially Jainism and Yoga – are all about becoming godlike, taking on superhuman powers and transcending the universe. And most prominently, in Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta, we all already are God, we just don’t know it. For this reason, Nicholas Gier takes these mainstream Indian traditions as examples of what he calls spiritual Titanism: worrying attempts to make man into God. Gier clearly thinks that Titanism is a bad thing. He doesn’t explicitly argue the case against it, but he returns repeatedly to environmental crises: human beings have tried to become godlike in their attempts to master nature, and now we are paying the price. Here, the problem of human arrogance appears again with an ecological cast.

My own position on all this goes back to this post. I agree with the orthodox monotheists that humans are fallen creatures, not worthy of deification. In Buddhist terms, this is why I denied the Third Noble Truth: I have not met anyone I would consider awakened (“enlightened”) in this lifetime, and could not imagine becoming awakened in this life myself; and I also don’t believe in rebirth, so I don’t see our perfection as possible after this life. We are deeply flawed creatures and must always remain aware of those deep flaws; that’s why humility is important.

But. Unlike the monotheists, I don’t see any reason to prefer God to man. For in my view any capital-G God, any god that has created the world or is omnipotent, cannot be taken as a model of moral perfection. God’s track record as revealed in the world is no better than ours; his track record in scripture and tradition is often worse.

And all this, in the end, takes me back to the Aristotelian mean. We must be humble enough to recognize our deep flaws; but not so humble that we submit ourselves wholly to another entity with flaws as thoroughgoing as ours (or close to it). We cannot fully trust ourselves; but we have no choice but to trust ourselves to some extent. The line is difficult to walk, but no genuine virtue is ever easy.

EDIT (11 Jul 2010): The original version of this post claimed that James Doull was an Anglican preacher. A former student of his informed me that he wasn’t, although he was always a believing Christian and belonged to an Anglican community in his later life. A number of his students and grand-students became Anglican priests, however, and that’s probably where my confusion arose.