Religious Freedom: Why now? Discussion with Robert P George

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Event Name: Religious Freedom: Why now? Discussion with Robert P George
Transcription Date:Transcription Modified Date: 5/28/2019
Transcript Version: 1

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- You know, often when my friends learn

of my friendship with Hamza, and our collaboration together,

I'll say a little bit about that,

before we begin our conversation.

People will say something like,

well isn't it great, he's terrific, isn't it great that he's

such a good influence in the Muslim American Community.

Well, yes, it's great that he's a great influence

in the Muslim American community, as Rabbi Sacks

is a great influence in the Jewish community,

and Richard Newhouse was such a great influence

in the Christian community.

But like Rabbi Sacks, and like Richard John Newhouse,

Humza is a person who transcends his own tradition.

From whom, Christians and Jews,

and not just Muslims, can learn.

I want Humza to have an even greater influence,

not just in the Islamic community, but in America,

among Christians, and Jews, people of every faith,

and even those of no faith at all.

So that's why it's such a very special honor for me,

Humza says equals, no.

With Humza, I really feel, as with Richard,

or when I'm with Rabbi Sacks,

like I'm in the presence of greatness.

Humza and I have been able to work together on some projects

and I hope we'll work together on many more.

We met, I think, Humza can correct me if I'm wrong.

We met when we got together at a very important conference

that was hosted by the Witherspoon Institute,

on the social costs of pornography.

For several generations now,

it has been fashionable, to say, and widely

accepted, if not believed, if you catch my drift, that

pornography, if it's a vice at all,

is a private vice.

Not a vice that the public should be concerned about.

But it turns out,

that pornography exacts from us, enormous social costs.

And so, Humza and I found ourselves gathered together,

with psychologists, and psychiatrists.

With counselors, with people who deal every day

with the carnage left in the wake

of the massive pornography industry, that we now have

in this country, and more broadly.

And Humza gave, on that occasion, a remarkable,

amazing speech, a philosophical speech,

making a philosophical contribution.

Yes, from an Islamic point of view, as he should.

But one that had lessons in it for me, as a Christian,

for our Jewish participants, for every single soul

who was there.

For our psychiatrists, and our psychologists.

We have so much to learn from each other.

And listening to Humza, is the evidence for me,

of how much we have to learn from the great minds,

the great thinkers in the Muslim community.

Then a couple of years ago,

I had the pleasure of inviting Humza,

and he accepted our invitation, to come and speak

at our annual Respect Life Sunday Service,

in the Princeton University Chapel,

the magnificent Princeton University Chapel.

Princeton was founded by Presbyterians,

but they must have been pretty high church Presbyterians.

You've seen our chapel, it looks like a great European


For the the past almost decade, we've been recognizing,

observing a Respect Life Sunday,

and a major Interfaith Service in the chapel.

Humza was our first Muslim speaker, at one of our services.

He has now been, there's now a succession of them,

including the great Suzy Ismail, who gave a wonderful speech

at our Respect Life Sunday Service last year.

But Humza gave the most moving and profound speech,

that has been given at those services,

over the years.

I remember it so clearly, he began by chanting beautifully,

so beautifully in Arabic.

And then, speaking in English, for all of us to hear.

It also introduced me to the status, the reputation

that Humza enjoys in the Muslim community.

It's hard to fill the sanctuary of that chapel,

but it was filled by Muslims, who had learned, and heard

that Humza was going to be in town, and preaching at the,

speaking at the,

at the service.

And it was just a wonderful thing, to see the esteem

in which he's held, by the Muslim community.

So have I flattered you enough, Humza, yeah?

- I feel like such a fraud, right now.


I think I'm gonna get arrested in a few minutes.

- No it's all, it's all true, and it's just such a pleasure

to have my dear friend here with me.

Now since I'm in the David Frost role,

I'd like to open our discussion, although,

Humza, please say anything, you like.

I'd like to open it, by going to the very

foundations of our thought about Religious Freedom.

Those of you who heard my philosophical

treatment of the problem today, will not be surprised

that I think that, at the foundations,

we find the concept of the dignity of the human being.

We respect people's rights, including,

in the very first place, the right to religious freedom.

Because we believe that every human being,

irrespective of culture, or class, or religion,

wealth, status, every human being


fundamental, inherent, worth and dignity.

No human being is a mere clog in the social wheel,

to be sacrificed for the sake of

the state, or the father land, or the Fuhrer,

or the people, or even the faith.

We believe that every human being is special,

and has dignity.

In the Jewish and Christian traditions, Humza, we would

understand theologically, the dignity of the human being,

to be rooted in

the belief

that man, each of us, is made in the very image,

and likeness of God.

This is taught to us in Genesis.

We can give a philosophical account, because

that fact, of our being made in the image

and likeness of God, manifests itself in certain ways.

I mean, after all, God...

You can't say we're made in the image and likeness of God,

in the sense, that God has five fingers on each of

two hands, and hair on his head, and a nose.

- Right. - Right?



we are God-like in our possession of

the capacities, the powers for reason and freedom.

Like God, we are capable of causing things, we have freedom,

we're capable of causing things, we're not cause to cause.

We're capable of functioning, unlike brute animals,

not simply on instinct, or impulse,

but by deliberation, judgment, and choice.

But the account of that, that might be affirmed

even by a secular person, that the account of why,

or how that is the case, not whether it's the chase,

that's clear, but how that's the case.

Is that scriptural teaching, about man being made

in the image and likeness of God,

how would you address it theologically,

from the Islamic point of view?

- Right.

(words spoken in foreign language).

First of all, the reason why we hit it off, actually,

is because in my talk I quoted Randy Travis.


And immediately, I had a friend, because Rob is, you know,

is a great Bluegrass musician, and my brother

is probably one of the best Dobro players on the West Coast.

I grew up with Bluegrass music, so we knew,

we had all this immediate, the Stanley Brothers, and

Earl Scruggs, and... (laughs)

I actually knew to--

- He keeps outing me, he keeps on--

- I see, he played a banjo tune for the whole audience,

that day, and I thought it was Earl's breakdown.

But he was so impressed, that I just knew that it was

adjustable tuning, that was going on.

- It was the Flint Hill Special.

- Yeah, Flint Hill Special.


This issue

about the image of God,

the imago,

that is really central to the Christian tradition.

This is an area that the Muslim theologians dealt with a lot

because of the anthropomorphism, that is obviously

one of the dangers in that idea.

And as you mentioned, it's not the physical image,

because as Saint Thomas Aquinas, and all the great

Catholic theologians made it very clear,

that God was not limited in time and space.

But in the Islamic tradition, there's a Hadith that says,

that God created the (foreign language),

the Merciful created man in his own image.

And they have a lot of debate about

what that tradition means.

But the dominant opinion amongst

classical Muslim theologians, and obviously

there's some anthropomorphic traditions in Islam.

In fact, what's called the (foreign language)

tradition tends to have a very anthropomorphic

idea about that tradition.

So they will argue, that God's actually

in the direction up, and they demand...

I was once surrounded by a group in Saudi Arabia,

I was in Medina, of young students,

some of them were American students that were studying there

and they surrounded me, demanding that I assert

that God was up, like physically (laughs) up there.

And I said to them, I told them, I said, "You know,

"do you concede that the Earth is round?".

And they said, "Yes".

And I said, "Well, you know, where do you point

"if you're on the other side of the planet,

"what do they do?". (laughs)

And that definitely confused them a little bit.


The theologians argue that we're created

in the metaphysical image of God, and there are

20 attributes that are considered necessary for God,

to believe that God, the One, is Aseity,

which the Catholics assert also.

The idea that God is a being unto himself,

he does not need anything

outside of his own essence, to exist.

And then, the idea of firstness without beginning,

lastness without end, and it goes on.

But the seven


of life, of

sight, of hearing,

that he's (foreign language) that God speaks.

So sight, life, hearing, speech, and that he sees


The seven attributes, the theologians argue

that these attributes manifest in the human being,

as a way of approximating the understanding of God to Man.

That we know that God is all seeing,

because he has limited our sight, and yet,

he can speak to us, and tell us that he's all seeing.

And the fact that we have sight, enables us

to understand what that means.

Even though, you know, in Mathematics they say

any number over infinity, is canceled out.

And so, any temporal attribute of a contingent being,

in relation to the atemporal reality of an absolute being,

that's not contingent, is canceled out.

We can't say, we see, but we can't say

we see like God.

But when God says, he is the all hearing, or the all

seeing, the all hearing, or the omniscient,

the all powerful.

We know what power is, because we have been given

this limited power, contingent power,

that enables us to understand that concept.

The Muslims agree with the Jews, and the Christians

on that principle, but with that caveat,

that it has to be understood...

We have a, the Christian's call it, the Catholics call it

the via negativa, right?

- Yes, that's right. - In theology,

that we believe that it's easier to say what God is not,

than to say what God is.

And the Muslim theologians say, that anything

that will occur to your mind, God is other than that.

And so, in the end, there's

the inconceivability of God, for the human intellect.

And in fact, there's a tradition, the Prophet Muhammad said,

never reflect on the essence of God,

but reflect on the gifts that God has given you,

the blessings.

And we know that mathematicians like George Cantor, who

attempted to even penetrate


Most of these mathematicians have gone mad.

I mean literally, Cantor ended up in a straight-jacket.

That the human being cannot contemplate infinity.

Even an actual, actual infinity,

which mathematicians talk about, as opposed to an absolute.

God's essence is impenetrable, for the human intellect.

- The relationship between faith and reason.

In Christianity, there are a spectrum of views about that,

as is true, I'm told by my friend Rabbi David Novak,

within in Judaism.

But on the Catholic side of that spectrum, and also

for some Protestants, and for some Jews,

it is thought that there is a fundamental harmony,

and not only a harmony, but a

mutual necessity, of faith and reason, or revelation

and reason.

Pope John Paul II opens his great Encyclical,

on faith and reason, called Fides et ratio,

faith and reason, with an image.

He says that faith and reason are like two wings,

on which the human spirit ascends to

contemplation of the truth.

He worries,

and this is very much in line with the Catholic side

of the Christian tradition, that too great an emphasis,

and an over emphasis on reason, leads to fideism.

- Right. - And of course...

On faith, I'm sorry, an over emphasis on faith

leads to fideism.

The belief that what we can know,

especially in the ethical domain, is limited to

what God especially reveals.

And if you make the opposite error, too great a faith

and reason, you get rationalism,

which ends up being reductive,

and turns on itself, to eliminate the possibility

of any knowledge, at all.

Do we find a spectrum within Islam, on the question

of the relationship of faith and reason?

And from your own perspective, as an Islamic thinker,

how do you understand that relationship?

- You know, I think one of the major problems that happened

a few years back, when the Pope gave the famous talk.

- Oh, the Regensburg.

- Right, the Regensburg talk, in Germany.

And he quoted, he was actually quoting

one of the last Emperors, of the Byzantine, before

Istanbul, Constantinople fell,

I think he was about 90 years before the fall.

And he was quoting him, about the irrational nature

of Islam, and then he quoted a Muslim theologian,

Ibin Hazam, who's an Anderocian thelogian

from the 5th Islamic Century.

There's definitely been, as you know,

in Christianity, and in

Judaism, there are strains that are,

that are anti-rational.

And you find that within the Islamic tradition.

And historically, the Muslims had a fundamental crisis,

between this idea of what they called naql and aql.

Naql is what the revelation is that's transmitted,

and aql is the intellect, and how it grapples with

the revelation, so reason and revelation,

and the interchange between these two.

And this became one of the fundamental debates,

in the early Islamic tradition.

And there was a school, called the Mutazilite,

that are the rationalists, that argued that

religion has to be consistent with reason, at all times.

And they took an Aristotelian position, that if

it could not be justified rationally,

then we would reject it.

And the counter to that, were two schools.

One was a traditionalist school, that argued,

that reason doesn't have any place, we just simple accept

what's been given to us,

and the intellect will just lead us astray.

This school was a very small minority school, that now,

a modern version of that school is what we find,

for instance, in some of the

extremist traditions today.

And certainly, in some of the positions in Arabia.

But I would not lump all of the Saudi scholars together,

it's very dangerous to do that.

There are some very enlightened Saudi Scholars,

even within what's called the Wahhabin tradition.

They don't like to be called Wahhabees.

Even within that tradition, and I have friends from

that tradition, but some of those

scholars are, it's unbelievable what they come up with,

because of their rejection of reason.

Logic is forbidden in their school, to teach.

Whereas, in the dominant strain of Islamic tradition,

you have

a balance.

And they talk about the two wings, also,

of faith and reason, and the importance that in fact,

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, one of the greatest theologians

of Islamic history, there's a verse in the Quran

called the Light Verse, and it said that God sends us,

this revelation down, and then it says light upon light.

And he argues, that it's reason upon revelation.

That if you don't have the light of reason,

to interact with revelation, you're blinded

by the Light of God, as opposed to guided by it.

That you need your own reason, to enable you to see

with the Light of God.

That revelation without reason blinds you,

it does not enable you to see the truth.

And this becomes the dominant position,

and this is what taught...

I studied Aristotelian logic

with West African scholars.

I mean, they still are very committed

to the Aristotelian tradition.

They haven't really had the additions that Bacon,

or John Stuart Mill, or others have added

to the logical tradition.

And they certainly, have no idea of symbolic logic,

or some or the madn