Volume 40 - Issue 3

Is the Wrath of God Extremist?

By Michael J. Ovey

We have had enough, proclaims re-elected UK Prime Minister David Cameron, of ‘passive tolerance’. By ‘passive tolerance’ Cameron means the tolerance that puts up with what people say provided it remains within the law. No matter that traditional definitions of political toleration would have majored precisely on leaving people alone if they obey the law, Cameron’s point is that this tradition is inadequate. For we can no longer be content with passive tolerance because there are those in the UK and the West who radicalise others, especially the young, by teaching and preaching that carefully remains within the law but which erodes commitment to, in the UK’s case, ‘British values’. People who do that kind of teaching are extremists. And extremists are dangerous. Cameron’s preferred term is ‘non-violent extremists’, but even a non-violent extremist is dangerous.

Just to be clear, Cameron is not talking about speakers who incite or encourage others to criminal acts. What is dangerous is opposition to ‘British values’, an inclusive term covering democracy, the rule of law, human rights. But since this is an inclusive term, no-one quite knows how much wider this may go. You don’t have to advocate violence yourself, you just have to have said something which can contribute to the radicalisation of someone else towards violence. You have provided, so to speak, the ideological bricks from which a terrorist ideology can be constructed, even if you have not incited such violence.

It will no doubt be tempting to see this as a purely British problem. In fact, it seems to me symptomatic of something deeper in western culture at the moment, certainly in its European form and I fear incipiently in its American form.

At root, Cameron and others are reflecting the idea that religion is dangerous—toxic— although this is not openly voiced. The character Dr Maxted in J. G. Ballard’s superb dystopian novel Kingdom Come catches this sentiment well as he says of Islam and Christianity that they are ‘vast systems of psychopathic delusion that murdered millions, launched crusades and founded empires. A great religion spells danger.’ Maxted’s words ring bells with Europe’s chattering intelligentsia.

Now, in a sense this is nothing new. The case has been argued that monotheism is inherently violent, given that the totalising implication of monotheism means that the dissident non-believer can, so the argument runs, only be demonised. Less extreme versions are found in Jürgen Moltmann’s contention that our views of God (is he hierarchical or egalitarian?) will work their way through to how we organise church, family and state.1 Where does patriarchy come from in those institutions? Not least from a patriarchal idea of God, Moltmann argues.2 Moving wider, the argument is also made that the idea of God found in the mediaeval Islamic thinker al-Ghazali (ca. 1058–1111) helps explain some of the political currents in Islam and why violence can have plausibility to Muslims world-wide.3 For al-Ghazali is an extreme divine voluntarist in the sense that the divine will is God’s sole primary attribute and is not constrained by any external norm, nor, it seems, by any internal nature. God’s will is so free that he can will something as good at one point and then will the opposite.

Then comes the awkward moment. I can quite see that al-Ghazali’s divine voluntarism takes you logically down a line of thought that says arbitrary political or other rule is not necessarily bad. I am, though, also clear that al-Ghazali did not have in mind how extreme divine voluntarism could re-inforce arbitrary political rule at the expense of democracy. Do I think al-Ghazali is responsible for some of the worst currents Islamist ideology? In a sense, yes. This is one of those cases where a religious idea—even if it was originally peacefully advocated—is dangerous, given its logical consequences. And I wonder if we are not ethically bound to think through as far as we can the logical consequences of our arguments.

Now obviously some would say that a Calvinist like me has the same kind of understanding of divine power as al-Ghazali does. God can do what he wills, and what he wills, happens. However, conventional Calvinists do not think the divine will is God’s only primary attribute. We think his will is primary, but then too so are his goodness and love. God cannot stop being good, and to that extent his goodness is not contingent and not merely a product of his will. Athanasius made just this point in the Arian debate (Contra Arianos III.58ff).

Can I then smugly sit back and let contemporary followers of al-Ghazali take the heat for the ‘religion is toxic danger’ fear. Not really. For there is another line of argument to bear in mind, this time about God’s wrath.

Some years ago the English emergent church leader Steve Chalke argued that those talking about penal substitution were ‘telling the wrong story about God’.4 For they were talking about an angry God, and this was in part because they were angry people. However, the idea of an angry God then re-inforced their own anger. Thus there was a sort of feedback loop between human anger and the idea of divine anger.

At this point an obvious line of argument appears. I should not preach about an angry God because this is dangerous. It is dangerous because it re-inforces anger in myself and those who listen to me and our anger can all too readily lead to violence. Hence, even if I do not advocate violence and possibly even speak against it at one level (Cameron’s ‘non-violent extremism’), at the deeper level my teaching about God’s wrath puts public order and safety in danger. What is more, if I think al-Ghazali is at some level responsible for some of the outcomes of extreme divine voluntarism, then why should I not be held responsible if some-one does become enraged on God’s behalf as I describe God’s anger at sin? After all, as I write this, I can at least foresee the possibility. Perhaps I genuinely have not taken responsibility for what I teach and how people may not just hear but mishear it as seriously as I should. Perhaps when I foresee a deservedly criminalised act as the foreseeable outcome of my utterances I should be far more careful and circumspect and qualified. Perhaps sometimes I might even consider being silent.

There are, though, a number of other features about the argument that religious ideas are toxic and dangerous which bear reflection.

To begin with, this affects the current chic claim that the secularisation thesis has been disproved and religion is thriving. The secularisation thesis, crudely put, predicted the demise of religion in modern society, but in fact religion thrives, although it does so pluralistically in a modern state. It is not the case, so the argument goes, that modern society is anti-religion. Notably, the comparatively slow growth of dogmatic atheism is sometimes cited as a comforting factor in these debates.

This, though, mistakes what is happening. Here Cameron’s antipathy to ‘non-violent extremism’ comes to the fore. It may well be true that dogmatic atheism is not winning as many converts as it might wish (not surprising since its arguments are actually frequently quite poor). But dogmatic atheism was insisting religion was not true. Cameron and others are not adjudicating on truth: their misgiving is not whether a religious idea is true or not, but whether it is dangerous to public order. Something can be true and ‘dangerous’. In that way, the ‘religion is toxic danger’ argument is as anti-religious as anything David Hume came up with. In fact, I wonder if in the long run it is not more dangerous. At least we can read Hume’s argument on miracles, analyse it, and then demonstrate rationally why it is not true. Showing my words could never be dangerous is far trickier than showing they are true.

Secondly, the Cameron approach I have outlined sounds extraordinarily illiberal in a political sense to a Christian. We do not plan to break the laws as we teach about God’s wrath and don’t want others to do so. Why then treat us the same as those who do? However, secular western ears will be tone deaf to the illiberalism, for it has framed the question to itself essentially as an application of the ‘harm’ principle set out by John Stuart Mill in his influential essay On Liberty. The state foresees harm in the long run from a set of ideas in terms of people being more inclined to violence: to avoid this clear ‘harm’, the freedom of speech of some (the religious) must be constrained.

Thirdly, it is no surprise the argument about what one can say is framed in this way about danger. Zygmunt Bauman persuasively argues that if a society is full of ‘liquid’ relationships (relationships which are infinitely malleable according to the will of the individual involved), then there are consequences.5 For sure, constructing and changing my relationships may be exciting and an expression of autonomy, but it is also destabilising: it is no wonder, Bauman suggests, that ours is an anxious society, worried about diffuse threats and dangers precisely because so much is liquid and uncertain. Hence, in part, why legislation and rules proliferate in what is theoretically an increasingly liberal society. Paradoxically, the urge to control ‘dangerous’ speech can be related to the same urges to control and regulate dangerous substances like coffee that is served too hot.

And the tragedy here in current western discourse is that some speech is indeed dangerous. And Cameron’s inability to draw the line rightly about where danger falls should not blind me to my own ethical duty to make intellectual arguments that are not only true and honest, but logically thought-through and carefully expressed precisely so I am not a ‘danger to others’. Conceivably this will make me less attractive and charismatic as a speaker and writer, as my words lose the thrill of being transgressive for my audience. Conceivably, though, I will only be presenting the same kind of dangers to the public good as the apostles did, but who were still charged with turning the world upside down (Acts 17:6). I must continue to provide that kind of danger, but labour to provide no more.

[1] E.g. Jürgen Moltmann, History and the Triune God, trans. J. Bowden (London: SCM, 1991), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] E.g. Robert R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2014).

[4] From an address at a symposium on penal substitution held at London School of Theology July 2005.

[5] A point Bauman makes in several places but at length in Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (Cambridge: Polity 2007).

Michael J. Ovey

Mike Ovey is principal of Oak Hill College in London and consulting editor of Themelios.

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