Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Empire, Brexit, and the Historical Imagination

Today is Queen Victoria's birthday, a public holiday in Canada (observed on the preceding Monday) and the anchor point for the moving Empire Day holiday (which subsequently morphed into Commonwealth Day).

Debates about the British Empire - was it a monument of civilization or a system of global oppression? - have reminded me of debates about a more contemporary question: Brexit. Does Britain belong in Europe or not?

In a recent Financial Times article, Gideon Rachman examined the claims of two rival camps of historians as they argue about whether Britain has, historically, been part of Europe. Historians for Britain, the euro-skeptic party - led by David Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge - contend that Britain has a long tradition of political continuity and moderate reform (unlike Europe, with its revolutions and reactions, not to mention Fascism, Nazism, and Communism), as well as physical separation from the European continent.

The pro-European party - which lacks a handy label, but did put out an article titled "Fog in Channel, Historians Isolated" - takes issue with these claims, noting that Britain has a long history of close interactions with the Continent. Not least among such linkages is Christianity, integral to Britain's identity, at least until quite recently, but also something to which Britain has no unique claim, but instead shares with the rest of Europe and regions beyond. Moreover, the critics note that Britain had a civil war, which, though several centuries ago, was no less nasty for its antiquity.  So Britain is not immune to such upheavals. And then there's the Empire. "Expropriation, slavery, massacres, oppression, anyone?” asks Neil Gregor, professor of modern history at Southampton.

Rachman concludes that "I do not entirely agree (or disagree) with any of the historians I have met... [but] I agree with Abulafia and the Historians for Britain in one important respect: their argument that the UK has been unusually good at creating successful political institutions and that this is an inheritance worth cherishing and protecting." However, Rachman adds: "But I do not think that this adds up to an argument for Britain leaving the EU."

I would like to pull the lens even further back, so to speak. Ever since Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), the father of the modern historical craft, we - I say this as a member of the historical guild - have focused on history wie es eigentlich gewesen (as it actually happened). This is a perfectly reasonable and laudable standard for historians to pursue. But as Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) reminds us, history also has advantages and disadvantages for life. I would not go so far as to say, as Nietzsche might, that we should falsify the historical record for the sake of the impact it has on the present. But we would be fools to overlook the role that perceptions of the past have in shaping our imaginations, which in turn shape our actions.

In this context, I would argue that emphasizing Britain's long history of evolving, moderate, and generally freedom-loving political institutions is useful, even inspiring, for Britain's present, whether that be within or outside the EU. In a similar vein, I think a case can be made that emphasizing the British Empire as a global effort at fostering trade, harmonizing law, ensuring security, and spreading the Gospel is a worthy means of inspiring the men and women of today to deeds of virtue.

You might contend that these visions of Britain's past are as much romance as fact; I would suggest they are simply the product of particular emphasis. But what about all the failures that went along with these positive elements? Ah, you are putting on your critical history hat, as Nietzsche would say. As I pointed out five years ago, we can do that tomorrow. Today we celebrate the good.

Today's image comes from the Canadian War Museum.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Many Parts, One Body - Islamic Edition

One of the more well known passages from St. Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth, written c. 55 AD, concerns the relationship of the believers to one another:
As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.”... If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.
Christians may be surprised to discover a similar sentiment among the sayings (hadith) of Mohammed, given some six hundred years later:
An-Nu’man ibn Basheer reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The example of the believers in their affection, mercy, and compassion for each other is that of a body. When any limb aches, the whole body reacts with sleeplessness and fever” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 5665; Sahih Muslim, 2586).
I am not a scholar of Islam, much less of comparative religion. I am sure a case could be made that the parallels above are mere coincidence. Given the familiarity of the body, it is a natural analogy to use and more than one person could independently use it. Still, I think the parallel is striking and may be more than coincidence.

Pious Muslims would probably argue that the Christian understanding articulated by Paul was a prefiguring of the perfect revelation that came with Mohammed, or that Paul did articulate the Islamic notion, any divergences being subsequent corruptions of the Pauline message.

Christians might view this parallelism positively, as a further proof that Muslims too follow the faith of Abraham (as the Catholic Church holds). Other Christians might take a more negative view, arguing that this parallelism is proof of Islam's lack of originality, that it is merely a debased form a Christianity. This is basically the medieval understanding of Islam, that is is a Christian heresy. It is easy to see how this line of argumentation could turn rather ugly. But implicit in it - implicit in the word "heretic" - is a kind of compliment which ought not be overlooked. Pagans are people without any connection to the Church. But those in heresy, on the other hand, do have a relationship to the Church; they hold to some form of Christian doctrine, albeit with one or more crucial shortcomings. But the truth is not utterly alien to them. And thus a dialogue may be possible.

A little something to keep in mind next time you hear the talking heads pontificate about Islam.