Monday, May 28, 2012

Is Calvinism Islamic?


A popular Arminian tactic is to preemptively discredit Calvinism by associating Calvinism with Islam. I’ll make a few observations:

i) Islam is a Judeo-Christian heresy, parasitic on Muhammad’s (mis-)understanding of the Bible, as well as free-floating theological traditions then in circulation. Because it borrows so heavily from Christianity and Judaism, it’s not surprising that you can find parallels between Islam and Christianity.

For instance, both Islam and Arminianism believe in a divine Creator and Judge. By that yardstick, Arminian theism is Islamic.

ii) Likewise, Islam has parallel debates involving freedom and determinism. If Asharites are analogous to Calvinists, then Mutazilites are analogous to Arminians. As such, the comparison cuts both ways.

iii) Arminians try to preemptively discredit Calvinism by claiming that both Calvinism and Islam subscribe to predestination. As I just pointed out, that’s a double-edged sword. But it also oversimplifies the issue. Some distinctions and definitions are in order.

Predestination

Predestination is sometimes used as a loose synonym for determinism. But, in principle, there’s a basic difference. Predestination involves forethought or premeditation. Not just that God “determines” all things, but that all things go according to plan.

This concept is illustrated by the bookish metaphor. God writes down what will happen. Everything that happens onstage was scripted offstage. The players recite their lines. A player/playwright analogy.

You do have some “Arminian” Muslims who reverse this by casting Allah in the role of a scribe taking dictation from the future. Allah is jotting down whatever he foresees. The future is not a transcription of the book; rather, the book is a transcription of the future.

The Bible itself uses the bookish metaphor. For now I’m not going to debate the correct interpretation of that metaphor. I’m just defining and distinguishing various concepts.

Occasionalism

Let’s compare predestination to occasionalism to bring out the difference. On this view, God is the sole cause or direct cause of whatever happens:



Now, this is deterministic. However, it’s logically separable from the notion of a master plan. The Deity could directly cause everything, but be improvising every step of the way. The Deity might have no idea of what he’s going to do next. Even though he causes everything, his actions are purely spontaneous. Making things up on the spur of the moment.

Occasionalism is deterministic, but not predestinarian. Efficient causes, not final causes.

Fatalism

We can also distinguish determinism from predeterminism or predestination.

Fatalism is both deterministic and predeterministic. A classic example concerns the Fates, who predetermine each human lifespan. Unlike mere determinism, it fixes the outcome ahead of time.

However, it differs from predestination in a couple of key respects:

i) It can be capricious or random. There need be no higher purpose or coordinated plan. Just sheer, inexorable power.

ii) The end is inevitable irrespective of the means. Indeed, fatalism is compatible with libertarian freedom. There can be many alternate routes, but they all lead to the same destination.

Causation

There is no received definition of causality. One question is what pretheoretical intuition are we trying to capture when we define causation. Here’s one influential suggestion (by David Lewis):

We think of a cause as something that makes a difference, and the difference it makes must be a difference from what would have happened without it. Had it been absent, its effects — some of them, at least, and usually all — would have been absent as well.

On this definition, predestination is clearly causal. But there’s a catch, for on this definition, even bare permission is equally causal.

Here’s an example of what’s popularly called “predestination” in Islam:


Consider how we should classify different passages according to the aforesaid distinctions and definitions. They fall into different categories. 

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