One God, many peoples II: Muslim individualism, Christian corporatism

This is the second part of a four part series.  Part I is here.

Malise Ruthven, in discussing why capitalism arose under Christianity rather than Islam, identifies a core difference between Christian and Muslim societies.  (See here for a more extended quote.)

The key to the seemingly anarchic or ‘irrational’ growth of the Muslim city may lie in a singular fact of the Shari’a law:  the absence of the Roman-law concept of ‘legal personality’.  In Europe, the public right is an abstraction which can be upheld by defending it in law as a ‘legal person’.  Litigation between the public and private interest can therefore–for civil purposes–take the form of an adjudication between two parties…The absence of juridicial personality in the Muslim law may not have been an oversight:  it is certainly consistent with the uncompromising individualism of the Shari’a.  Many aspects of Roman-Byzantine law and administration were taken over by the Arabs…This absence of a juridicial definition of the public sphere had far-reaching consequences.  Islamic law did not recognize cities as such, nor did it admit corporate bodies…

To add a few links to this argument I suggest that in the West the Church, the ‘mystical body’ of Christ which alone guaranteed salvation, became the archetype in law of a whole raft of secular corporations that succeeded it during the early modern period.  The mystic qualities of fictional personhood originating in the Body of Christ were eventually devolved to joint stock companies and public corporations with tradable shares.


— from “Islam in the World”

Organic metaphors for societies are common in ancient and modern political thought, but the mystical body of Christ is not only a mystical organism; it is a mystical person.  To be a person means to transcend oneself, to recognize an “outside” reality and its other beings.  The defining act of the Christian Church is an act of recognition of God the Father, the sacrificial offering of Jesus Christ sacramentally appropriated through the Eucharist.  Christian theology insists that men are not redeemed by our own private sacrifices to God, which would be unworthy of Him even if our slavery to selfishness didn’t prevent us from truly offering ourselves.  Mankind is redeemed by a single perfect sacrifice, identical in its meaning to the Son’s eternal self-offering to the Father but, through the Incarnation, a symbolic event in the public, human world, and thus suited for symbolic appropriation by other men, enabling them to relate to God in a literally supernatural way.  (For more on this, see here and here.)  Everything hinges on there being numerically one sacrifice.  Christians thus “speak” to God with a single voice, that of Jesus Christ because He entirely composes the message, but a corporate Christ in that He has allowed us to participate in it.  Judaism, of course, also had a unitary sacrifice until the destruction of the Temple, after which the religion was fundamentally altered.  Muslims offer animal sacrifices to God on Eid Ul Adha but as families or groups of families rather than as a corporate people, in accord with the individualism of their faith.

As Ruthven points out, the Christian theology of corporate personhood was bound to spin off in secular analogs, including guilds, communes, businesses, national estates, and, most notably, the state itself.  Eric Voegelin identifies the innovation of mystic body language (above and on top of the usual organic metaphors) in Sir John Fortescue’s fifteenth-century The Governance of England, in which the corporate will of the people is said to animate a national mystical body.  There is, then, something to the accusation that Christianity facilitates nationalism in a way that Islam doesn’t.  However, the metaphor of the state as a person in a Christian context is quite different from all social contract theories, Rousseau’s totalitarian General Will, or the national immanentism of Gentile and other fascist theorists.  These latter theories arose in an intellectual climate in which the authority of one person over another was considered intrinsically oppressive, and so authority could only be legitimized by rhetorically underplaying the distinctness of the subjects’ wills from that of the state, whether by invoking the subject’s implied consent or the fact that he is a (minuscule) part of the social organism that rules him.  However, for Christian political theorists, being ruled by a corporate person is not morally different from being ruled by a real person (e.g. a feudal lord).  Each person of the relationship has a separate will, but each is morally compelled to recognize the sovereignty of God in all his or its acts.  Recall Saint Augustine’s use of Cicero’s definition of a republic to say that a true republic must show justice not only in its internal relations, but also to an Object that transcends it, that the people must be united as a people in their love of God to have a true unity at all.  The authority of a personalized collective is delegated from God, just as is the authority of a tribal chief, Saint Paul’s words applying equally to both.

Returning to the question of universalism in Christianity vs. Islam, one should take care in how one uses words like “tribalism” (at least more care than Spengler takes) and “cultural particularism”.  It would be foolish to deny that tribal structures have endured for many centuries in many Muslim lands, and there is a good argument to be made that Christianity’s extreme exogamy rules worked to break down European tribes and draw them into larger associations. At the same time, the Church provides a blueprint for large-scale cohesive social units via the ideology of mystical corporate personhood, while under Islamic individualism anything between the tribe and the multi-national, multi-ethnic caliphate has trouble getting an ideological foothold.  Since it’s really ethnic and national consciousness that Lewis and Spengler object to, rather than tribalism per se, it’s not surprising that they have a problem with Christendom.

A unitary sacrifice, we begin to see, is the key.  Let us now begin to consider what happens to a monotheistic people without it.

9 thoughts on “One God, many peoples II: Muslim individualism, Christian corporatism

  1. Pingback: One God, many peoples II: Muslim individualism, Christian corporatism | Reaction Times

  2. @Bonald: [Quoting Ruthven] “Christian theology of corporate personhood was bound to spin off in secular analogs, including guilds, communes, businesses, national estates, and, most notably, the state itself. ”

    This “bound to” can’t be right, surely?

    It took considerably more than 1000 years even in Western Christendom, and in the East it never really happened. I suspect that this way of thinking is yet another example of the all-too-common condition of Byzantium/Eastern Orthodox-blindness.

    • Actually, “bound to” was me, not her, so I’m the one being sloppy.

      Byzantium was a Roman society and so presumably maintained a plethora of corporate bodies throughout its existence. The more interesting case would be Russia. After skimming for a few minutes through my copy of Russia and the Russians, I didn’t find anything one way or another about corporations, but it does seem that tribalism faded as a salient social structure at around the same time as the conversion of Kievian Rus. (The book even suggests that Prince Vladimir may have chosen Christianity partly because he thought it suitable for building a strong monarchy without tribal feuds.)

      • Byzantium did try to maintain corporations, at least it’s municipalities (the Macedonian emperors did), but gradually these disappeared, just as the legal system inherited from Rome came to remain only in name, supplanted as it was by a parallel system of administrative regulations.
        Not that being Russian provides me with great expertise, but I think it would be fair to say that the influence of corporations in Russian history is negligible: it would seem that Russia didn’t develop guilds (they were introduced from the top only under Peter “the Great”; the first Russians to take advantage of both guilds and communal government under Magdeburg law (as opposed to, say, merchant republics like Novgorod) were the subjects of the Grand Duke of Lithuania), in the Middle Ages it would appear that the Russian church did at times act as a corporate entity, but again, I find nothing particularly noteworthy.

    • Not at all, but these excerpts I’ve found seem to tell a similar story to mine.

      “206—To summarize, the notion of corpus mysticum, designating originally the Sacrament of the Altar, served after the twelfth century to describe the body politic, or corpus juridicum, of the Church…the concept of the Two Bodies of Christ: one a body natural, individual, and personal; the other a super-individual body politic and collective, the corpus mysticum. the corpus mysticum proper came to be less and less mystical as time passed on, and came to mean simply the Church as a body politic or, by transference, any body politic of the secular world.

      210—The notion of corpus mysticum was easily transferred to other secular units as well. Baldus, for example, defined populus, the people, as a mystical body. He held that a populace was not simply the sum of individuals of a community, but them assembled into one mystical body. The designation corpus mysticum brought to the secular polity, as it were, a whiff of incense from another world.

      There was yet another notion which became popular during the thirteenth century, the notion of “body politic,“ which is inseparable from both the age of early corporational doctrines and of the revival of Aristotle. Before long, the term “mystical body” became applicable to any corpus morale et politcum in the Aristotelian sense.”

  3. Pingback: One God, many peoples IV: “neither Jew nor Gentile” | The Orthosphere

  4. Pingback: Cross-post: One God, many peoples IV | Throne and Altar

  5. Pingback: This Week in Reaction | The Reactivity Place


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