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A Theological Response to the Fanatic Within Us

In his book on fanaticism, Adrien Candiard claims that it is not an excess of God that produces the worst aberrations, rather it is his absence

Last update: 2021-09-28 13:43:41

Du Fanatisme.jpgReview of Adrien Candiard, Du Fanatisme: Quand la religion est malade, Paris, Les éditions du Cerf, 2020.

 

Scotland 2016. A Muslim shopkeeper is stabbed to death by a fellow Muslim for a Facebook post wishing: “Happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation.” This is the background, at first glance an “incomprehensible” gesture, from which Adrien Candiard attempts to explain to himself and others what fanaticism is. It is a theme which, for twenty years, has been a recurring news story in Europe and the rest of the world.

 

Candiard wrote this book by drawing on his dual identity as a religious man, a Dominican friar and Catholic priest, and as an Islamicist specialising in the fourteenth-century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya, known today as one of the most influential figures among contemporary Salafis and Jihadis.

 

The Reasons for Folly

 

The book begins with the term fanaticism. It is a precise term with a precise history and differs from more ambiguous labels like radicalism, integralism, fundamentalism, Islamism. In the modern sense, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, it refers to religious behaviours that are considered to be aberrant. Voltaire, for instance, regarded fanaticism as a disease (often exploited by skilful puppet masters) and gave an example of fanaticism as “the night of St. Bartholomew [1572], when the bourgeois of Paris rushed from house to house to stab, slaughter, throw out of the window, and tear in pieces their fellow citizens not attending mass.” But is it really the case that the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the episode in Scotland are merely inexplicable and insane?

 

To answer this question, Candiard chooses a theological approach, namely “a reasoned and critical discourse on faith and God.” This is a path that is often left out or ignored in current debates; yet it provides the only perspective that has the ability to take the religious motives of fanatics seriously, without necessarily labelling them as mad, victims of social malaise, or political and national humiliation, or simply as merciless.

 

For his exposition of this approach, he dons the cap of the scholar of medieval Islamic texts: the legitimisation of the killing of a fellow Muslim who had wished a Christian a Happy Easter reflects the legal opinion of a certain Islamic school of theology, the Hanbali school. In this school, absolute divine transcendence is central, and leads to the conclusion that, since we are unable to grasp the nature of God, we can only know His will, namely His commandments and His Law. For Candiard, the result is a “pious agnosticism,” a theology which, paradoxically, declares its own futility and impossibility: since the nature of God is unknowable, we cannot have a relationship with Him, we cannot love Him.[1] The most we can do is love His commandments. Thus, he concludes, in Hanbali theological conceptions, being a Muslim means behaving as a Muslim, irrespective of one’s own inner convictions. Violence becomes “logical:” I cannot force anyone to believe or love, but I can force them to act according to God’s Law. In short, Hanbalism is a theology that rejects theology, a school where God is absent, and is completely associated and identified with the Law. Candiard reminds us that, today, a good number of Muslims, perhaps unconsciously, are influenced by this vision. This interpretation is therefore the key that allows us to define and gain a better understanding (and also to question) fanaticism. Fanaticism stems from theologies that have set God aside, that talk constantly about the divine, yet simply do without it.

 

Idol Worship 

 

So, if fanaticism is not an excess of God, but rather His absence, what fills that absence? This question is answered by the religious man and writer, Brother Adrien: idols, everything that is divinised, but is not God. The term is both ancient and current, and refers to something that is dangerously close to God, and is easy to mistake for Him: the Law, the Bible, liturgy, the Saints, our own very personal ideas, religious identity and religion itself. If he is too engrossed in one or more of these idols, the believer forgets God and the fundamental truth that is repeated so often in the sacred texts: only God is God. Fanaticism begins when we want to force God and His infinity into human plans, finite perspectives and our own battles. When we forget that it is God carrying us, not us carrying Him.

 

The question that arises is: why not eliminate God altogether? Because it would mean forgetting all the profane idols, the many fanaticisms produced by centuries-old ideologies. According to Brother Adrien, regardless of whether it is profane or religious, fanaticism is a consequence of God’s absence, and his replacement with something else. And if we are not going to replace Him, we have to make room for Him.

 

Making room for God means letting God love me. This is a frightening prospect, because God’s love cannot be controlled; it eludes all human logic, our perfectly coherent frameworks. But it is the key element in every religious experience: we cannot love ourselves or others if we are not loved. Those who do not know they are loved and do not allow themselves to be loved, fall ill with that disease of the soul called the hardening of the heart, and become strict with others, their inflexibility leading, in the worst cases, to violence.

 

Because, being limited themselves, idols limit. They limit believers by creating spiritual experiences full of fear, scruples and obsessions; and they limit reality, in the illusion of controlling it. The spiritual life of a fanatic is often characterised by an extreme coherence which, in the hope of bringing order to the real flow of life that is so illogical and inconvenient, stifles and blocks it.

 

Three Remedies for Fanaticism

 

Brother Adrien closes his book with a title that conjures up the idea of being dispossessed of idolatrous images: the path of iconoclasm. Sceptical as to how agnostic societies can really “deradicalise” believers, he sets out several paths to ensure that an eminently religious problem can be given a religious response. Not a fanatical response, of course, but, more than anything, not a moderate one: living, not lukewarm water.

 

The game is played in the spiritual lives of each one of us. The journey to conversion from fanaticism passes through acceptance of the love of God, a living God. And Candiard offers three exquisite remedies: theology, interfaith dialogue made of flesh and blood, and silent, pleading prayer. And here we need to read and reread the book to understand how to deal with our own eddying emptiness, which can either be filled with idols or with divine eros.

 

Brother Adrien’s work is valuable for many reasons. It is short, crystal clear, and honest, like all his books. That is no small thing amid the cacophony of the media’s treatment of Islam.

 

It is simple, but not simplistic. It can be read by both scholars of Islamic theological controversies and their grandparents. And all of them will reach the conclusion that Pope Francis is right when he says that “it is in the flow of life that we must discern” our own spiritual path. But it is not all black and white, not even fanaticism.

 

It is rare because theological answers to religious problems—especially ones that can be understood—are also rare. This book reminds us of the urgent need for theology to, once again, become central to many of today’ debates. And that religion has a part to play here, a big part.

 

And it has a part to play with us, too. This, perhaps, is the real merit of this book: it does not suggest impossible paths. We begin with ourselves, with the fanatic in me, with the believer and the non-believer that converse within, with the lukewarm moderate and the fiery mystic, with the one who thinks and the who does not, who should be accountable for their own faith or their non-faith by critically reflecting on what our human language can say or not say about God.[2]

 

Brother Adrien Candiard helps us take the incomprehensible seriously, both the incomprehensible Evil of fanaticism and the incomprehensible Good of being loved. As well as giving meaning to the strange prayer of another Dominican, Meister Eckhart, who happens to share the same date of death as Ibn Taymiyya: “Let us pray to God that we may be free of God.”

 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

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[1] Candiard takes into consideration what is usually considered to be the mainstream position of Hanbalism. However, as J. N. Bell showed in his in-depth study of some Hanbali theologians, both human and divine love were indeed subjects of interest in late Hanbalism, with a wide range of opinions among the different theologians. See: Joseph Norment Bell: Love theory in later Hanbalite Islam. (Studies in Islamic Philosophy and Science.) Albany, N. Y.: State University of New York Press, 1979.
 
[2] I would like to mention another book that shares two characteristics with the one reviewed here: it was written by a French priest and is very short. More specifically, it takes a closer look at the themes of the third chapter mentioned here, “the path of iconoclasm,” that is, dispossessing believers of certain images of God that are as deep-rooted as they are deleterious. Jean-Marie Ploux, Dieu n'est pas ce que vous croyez,  Bayard, Paris 2010.