The Number Three: Political Dimensions of the Godhead

trinity icon

Long before God became a Trinity by vote of bishops in the fourth century, the number three had a magical history. Philosophers before Aristotle divided events into beginning, middle and end, the way Aristotle divides a play; early Neo-Platonists saw the world as a combination of harmony, necessity and order; they talked about bodies consisting of length, breadth, and thickness; intelligence as consisting of memory, mind, and will.

To read some of the early writers, you begin to get the sense that everything comes in packs of three—that three is a natural cipher, so that by the time we get to Plato, even the soul is divided up this way—into a vegetative, an animal and intellectual part. Three fortunes amongst the planets. In the underworld, three judges, three furies, the three-headed dog Cerberus–a thrice-double Hecate. Three months of the Virgin Diana. Three eons–of nature, law, and grace. Three theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity. Jonah was three days in the whale’s belly; Jesus three days in the tomb.

And not to be stingy, three branches of government in Locke’s philosophy—a sovereign power whose sovereignty is checked by a legislative and judicial arm.

If you take yourself back to that class in Greek mythology you may have slept through, as I did (until later I learned you could crack myths like walnuts), you’ll remember that there really wasn’t a supreme god in Greek mythology. There were three feuding brothers, each with his own territory. Zeus had the best seat in the cosmos perched atop Olympus with the world and all those virgins and new brides at his feet, but there was also Poseidon, who plays a major role in the Iliad, you’ll remember, and there was Hades, the black sheep of the family who spent most of his day figuring out how to lure people to his subterranean apartment for the weekend. A dysfunctional family of three gods.

Now in the good old days, the real old time religion, the way to get new gods was to kill off the old ones. The three male Olympians are the sons of the Titan, Cronos, who killed his father Uranus, just as Cronos would be overthrown by his sons. The battles of the gods were a simple reflection of real dynastic feuds being fought throughout the Peloponnese in the 8th century BCE when some of this was written down. It was all about power, authority, and gaining ground, winning and losing. It was also embarrassing to the Athenian philosophers like Socrates who tried to tame the myths (he wasn’t the first of course—the philosopher Xenophanes said that if horses could make gods, gods would look like horses) and with the help of Plato, maybe with a lot of help from Plato, turned the feckless threesome into a trio of eternal ideas—Goodness, Truth and Beauty. (You know them when you know them not when you see them). Victorian translators used to call these the eternal ideas or the verities—but in fact Plato saw them in a weird kind of way as one big thing—Good or Goodness and two things that were really emanations or aspects of the Big thing: that’s why when you went on to study Keats in college you remember reading that beauty is truth and truth beauty and it’s all really, really Good. Unfortunately, Plato’s demythologized trinity didn’t last because even his pupil Aristotle scoffed at it; the gods survived the philosophers for a long time after the school of Athens had been reduced to a colonial backwater.

When Christianity came along at the start of the 2nd century it found itself in a theological mess. The Greek gods—their Roman counterparts—weren’t dead but they were aging badly. The Christians were stuck in a world where to get rid of an inconvenient god by assassination, assimilation or conquest was the best way – the usual way to do things. But it didn’t make much sense to set the Hebrew father figure against Jupiter. For one thing, Old Warriors though they both were, the Hebrew god would lose to Jupiter because the Jews always lost to the Romans.

So, the Christians decided instead to create their own God. The problem they immediately confronted is that the God of the Jews was older than the Hellenistic gods and was aging even worse; by the time the Romans took over Palestine from the Syrians in 63 BCE, he hadn’t had a winning season in 500 years. A bit like the Chicago Cubs. Presumably, that was one reason most Christians were committed to the divinity—the Godiness—of Jesus Christ, and were happy to send the father into semiretirement in their Old Testament with honorary mention in the Creed. If they had been 8th century Greeks, they could have staged a battle where Jesus simply unseats the old man and occupies the throne for himself; but because they were third century gentiles with honorary Jewish passports, they decided to go with the number three. Jesus does not fight a war against his father, he simply ascends to his right hand as a “never to be king in his own right” but one who isn’t exactly a prince either.

To keep the power in check, or arbitrated at least, they are joined by an emanation called the holy spirit, which one of my teachers—a theologian nonetheless, called a gratuitous rounding off to an odd number in the spirit of Greek philosophy. So lacking a role was this holy spirit in earlier Christian thought that the first version of the Nicene Creed in 325 barely alludes to him and gives him no job description at all. His importance comes later, as a mechanism for inspiring popes and Pentecostals.

What does this theological muddle about threes have to do with the Middle East? Well consider the following:

  • Three prophets, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad
  • Three sacred books, the Old Testament the New Testament, the Quran
  • Three claimants to holy ground, the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims
  • And let’s not forget the world—a beginning, a middle and a very loud end, after which
  • Judgment, heaven, and hell

The interfaith movement, of which I used to be a strong supporter, used to talk about the book religions, the big three—three religions worshipping the same God. Three paths to the same truth. In fact, we have heard a great deal recently about the ahl al -kitab or book religions—an Arabic phrase which actually also includes the Zoroastrians and in some areas the Druze.

In the most recent period of Islamic extremism, the fact that these brother religions would resort to bloodshed to settle their disputes has seemed incomprehensible to commentators, especially interfaith commentators. Religion (they say) is all about peace, not war; especially Islam.  (Or, especially Judaism, or especially Christianity). The media bought into it; faith communities bought into it; liberal Muslims embraced it as a political stance. The orthodox interfaith version was that the people of the book all worship the same god, tell virtually the same story, have the same theological doctrines, and the same sense of world history, progress and the future.

The sanitized version of the ahl al-kitab fallacy, if you’ll forgive my calling it that, is that religion behaves like the contestants in the Miss America pageant each falling all over itself to promote world peace and brotherhood. And in times of crisis, the talking religious heads appear in “dialogue” to promote just that view: Judaism was the first religion to teach peace, every man under his own fig tree or in his vineyard happily wined and dined where the lion lay down with the lamb. Christians saying that Jesus is the prince of peace and Christianity the religion of good will and forgiveness; Muslims saying that Muhammad is the prophet of peace and that Islam itself derives from the Arabic root for peace.

And this is when the number three becomes dangerous. It becomes dangerous when we believe that a lack of historical knowledge is as good as the truth just because history can’t be tested in the same way we test truck tires. Or it becomes dangerous when what we would like to believe about our faith replaces the historical record. Just to take from the three examples above: Judaism cannot have been the first religion to teach peace because religions weren’t in the peace-teaching business. In fact, you need to get rather deeply into the late modern period before religions take up the banner of social justice. Are there elements of an evolving human “conscience” and sense of justice in the Bible?  Sure there are, but the dominant theme has to be the supremacy of the one God and how that supremacy has to be defended against his enemies. Or take the second, that Jesus is the prince of peace, a title lifted from chapter 9 of the Book of Isaiah. When Christians proclaimed this about Jesus they were actually doing something quite mischievous; they were challenging Augustus’ famous title as the emperor who brought peace to Rome and tranquility to the provinces; that famous song the angels sing above Bethlehem, peace on earth to men of goodwill, is actually lifted from an ode written to celebrate the birth of Augustus. Or take the term ahl al kitab: it doesn’t denote the Muslim view that Christians and Jews are as “good” as Muslims, or all equally right in what they believe or how they behave; it means that because they were tolerated during the prophet’s lifetime they should not be slaughtered gratuitously, only when they resist or try to convert Muslims to their own faith. Indeed, it isn’t exactly true that the word Allah is the ordinary word for god that Christians and Jews also use. It is, true enough, the generic word for any god, but one who is given a distinct personality in the Quran, very different from the God of the Jews, who properly speaking has a different name, or the Christian God who doesn’t exist as a single face but as a god with three personalities, only one of which takes us back to the God of the Jews. It’s an act of theological imagination not a fact of history that the three religions talk about one God rather than three gods. It is difficult to know when a matter of theological difference begins to make a political difference; but it is not difficult to know when a theological neo-doctrine becomes absurd, as the idea would be that a God of peace who fostered three clans who worshiped him in different ways, with different books, styles, laws, and different prophets really all believed the same things. Historically speaking, it seems undeniable that Jews and Christians and Muslims do not get along very well because while using suspiciously similar stories, their interpretations of those stories differ dramatically.

The second way in which the number three becomes dangerous is in terms of a doctrine all three share. This is the doctrine of chosen-peopledom. The idea of an “elect” is actually older than the Hebrews; it’s intrinsic to the beginnings of civilization—that means city culture. It probably has a lot to do with the survival of city culture, and tribes before that. Every ancient god is the protector of a city. To think that the neighboring god is stronger or wiser or a better fighter is simply a recipe for defeat. Every ancient city from Babylon to Rome is a chosen people that worships what it thinks is the right god in the right place in the right way. There’s no multiculturalism in the ancient Near East. There’s swapping and mixing and conquest and rape and intermarriage—and gods do change through the normal historical mechanisms those events entail. But the God of the Hebrew tribes who becomes the god of the Jews over a period of about a thousand years virtually shouts his exclusivism. “You shall have no other gods ahead of me” because I am a jealous God who vents his wrath down the generations.  He’s a trickster God who likes to test people’s devotion by working against their own interests—like offering them deliverance from Pharaoh and then hardening pharaoh’s heart to keep them slaves. I’m not sure what equivalences we can see between that kind of behavior and the conduct of a sadistic parent, but it’s hard not to notice the cruelty of the image.

The Christian God was a problem from the get-go. Just as the Christians couldn’t invent a myth of Jesus at war with Jupiter for control of heaven, so too they couldn’t accept, without substantial revision, a Jewish God who had been the commander of armies against the Romans–especially when the Jewish people were almost unrepresented in the new gentile faith. The uneasy solution is that the Christians, through the hook and crook of St. Paul’s theology become honorary Jews, able to live without Jewish law as the adopted sons and daughters of Abraham. Why? How? Because God (saith Paul) intends to provoke his original chosen people to jealousy, so that by seeing other people saved first, they’ll want to be next in line. What could be more natural if we think in terms of family dynamics—Show favor to the younger child and your no-good, defiant 18 year-old will finally come around and love you back. But how offensive to decency. An interesting theological strategy, but not the kind designed to promote good feeling between the new chosen race and the race God had rejected because of their hardness of heart and dogged sinfulness.

And so to the third. In the 7th century Muhammad offered a new option. The option is really much simpler than most textbooks make it. The non-Arab religions had falsified the revelation of God, each making itself the centerpiece of God’s care and concern. The true chosen were the people God had chosen through the true prophet to receive the uniquely true word of God—the Muslim faithful. To read the “operant” portions of the Koran is to read a book obsessed with its own primacy, petulant and carping in its view of the other religions as fakes. The basic tension in the book religions is that each has a messianic case to argue, and each case nullifies or tries to nullify the preceding one. If this were only a theological issue, if this were only a problem in metaphysics with no human casualties, this little discussion would be unnecessary. But the idea of chosenness, the idea of the salvation of a few and the rejection of the many is more complicated.

And it’s more complicated because there’s a third problem with the number three. Three land claims.

Let me tell you a little story.  Once upon a time there was a father who had three sons. The father vowed to give all he had to the son who could prove he loved him the most. The reward was a beautiful ring that symbolized the father’s whole estate, the palace, the land, the animals, and the wealth—all of it. The sons began to quarrel over the ring; instead of showing their love they were only able to show their hatred for each other, their greed. What is the father to do? What happens to the inheritance?

The original story is used by the poet-philosopher Lessing in his drama, Nathan the Wise.  In that version the ring is an heirloom that has the power to make its owner beloved by God and has been passed from father to the son he loves the most. When it came to a father of three sons whom he loved equally, he promises it (in “pious weakness”) to each of them. Looking for a way to keep his promise, he makes two replicas,  indistinguishable from the original, and on his deathbed gives a ring to each of them. The brothers quarrel over who owned the real ring. A wise judge admonished them that it was up to them to live such that their ring’s powers proved true.

Now transparently this is a story about the book religions, and more particularly about the relationship between the religious claimants to the holy land. But it is a very irritating story. It is annoying because it ignores more than it reveals. It assumes that the father is loving, that the sons are hateful, and that all the three have to do is learn simple division to work out their differences—that all the father wants is for each son to have a piece of the estate (or a share in God’s love) but that they have to figure this out for themselves, and in figuring it out they will show the father the love he wants. It is a Mr. Rogers episode on sharing applied to the Realpolitik of a fused dynamite keg. At least that’s how I read the parable. It is odious moreover in its theology, making God a power-broker and his simple subjects pawns on his board.  Chess was, by the way, Lessing’s and Moses Mendelssohn’s favourite parlor game.

But those of us who are impatient with the sort of trickster god who would make an Adam and Eve, give them Paradise, and then concoct a test he knew they were going to fail in order to punish them and their descendants for all time—those of us who know stories like that are on to this god’s tricks. So here, instead of my solution to the ring-story, is a better story:

Once upon a time there was a man who had three sons and an unpromising piece of ground that he tried to make fertile and productive. Like all sons, they had their virtues and their shortcomings. The eldest son was small of stature; he spent so much time trying to acquire better land that his crops failed repeatedly. And so his father gave his property to the strong middle son. But the middle son showed no interest in staying put; he married a girl from another city, moved away and left the old man wondering what to do with the land. When the youngest son had come of age, the father said “Your brothers have disappointed me: your oldest brother is too weak and undependable, your older bother is too ambitious to be a farmer, so I am counting on you.” The youngest son took the farm and made it prosper. But when the old man died, the oldest son said—‘It’s mine by birthright. I was here first.’ The middle son, hearing of the dispute, and not much liking the youngest brother anyway, came to the oldest brother’s defense, raised an army, and drove the youngest into exile for a while, and killed many of his followers.

But only for a while. The younger brother raised a bigger army and drove the others out and killed many of the older brother’s followers. And so it has been from that day to this.The land became a bloodsoaked sponge while the descendants of the brothers searched high and low for the old man’s last will and testament.

The secret of whose land it really was died on the smiling lips of the old man.

Advertisements

On the “Affirmations of the New Skepticism”

crucifixion2Without skepticism we might never have invented the umbrella, or the compass.  After all, commonsense observations about storm-clouds and your best friend’s sense of direction make the tools of precaution and measurement possible.

The spirit of curiosity and doubt probably explains many inventions that have made human life more bearable, the world more manageable—at least more intelligible—ranging from telescopes that tell us about the far flung corners of the uncornered universe and microscopes that tell us there are biological realities we can’t see at all without assistance.

There is a common misunderstanding that “skepticism” is something new, a turn of mind that took shape during the Enlightenment after the long dark sleep of religion and superstition.  Even well-educated women and men sometimes think this way, usually pointing to the religious texts and creation stories of our literary infancy as proof that doubt is a skill that evolved over time.   These same people know that while human discovery is a recent story, human intelligence has been around for a long time and that we would not have got very far in the world without doubt.  Just as something in the primal slime saw its future on dry land, someone in a cave must have imagined a happy life in a semi-detached in Wantage or a split-level in Teaneck.

But to be fair to our predecessors.   Ancient creation stories weren’t based on stupidity but on early attempts to reconcile the existence of the seen world with known patterns of causation:  if shoes are made and human beings are, in some sense, made, then the world must have come to be in a similar fashion.  It doesn’t really matter whether you call it creation or “generation.”   The important thing is that human beings asked the question “What caused this?” and then invented the stories that answered it.  We still do, only our stories are better because our observations are different and the causes are better understood.  Frightful thought: doubt leads both to Genesis and to Steven Hawking.

The Big Questions are often Why questions: Why something rather than nothing?  Why this universe and not some differently arranged one?  Why intelligent life as opposed to mere bacterial or not-quite-so intelligent animal life?   Some early skeptics doubted the existence of the natural world, a question still considered au courant in Descartes day.  Even the ancients who did not doubt everything, most particularly the reliability of knowledge, could doubt that the world of the senses provided insight into the real world–recall those Eleatic philosophers like Thales and Heraclitus, for example, who seemed to believe that what we get is not what we see.  I am still enthralled by Democritus’ ideas about the nature of the unseen atom, of stoic ideas about creation and conflagration, and Lucretius’ willingness to turn some of it into—of all things—a poem.

Some questions are Why not questions.  Why not a thousand inhabited planets in this galaxy?  Why, since we can imagine a better universe, a more efficient planet, even a better designed species, are we not living in it, on it, not,  in fact, It?  But both why and why not questions have something in common: they want to know why things are the way they are and not some other way.  The ability to figure out the way things are gives us science.  The ability to create models of existence that differ from the way things are experienced gives us art and technology.  The two capacities are not so much two sides of a coin as two strands in a rather tightly woven rope of human reason and imagination.  Remember Donne’s poem, “I am a little world made cunningly.”  Well, take out the bit about sin and salvation and you’ll see that he just about has it right.

The idea that a household warmed by skepticism and science are the best models for leading a good and fulfilling life is not just untrue for people who see life as more than the “exercise” of reason.  It should also be true for people who value skepticism.

That is why I am troubled by the recently issued Affirmations of  the New Skepticism authored by the founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Paul Kurtz.

I suppose the place to start with these “affirmations” is that they read like the creeds they are intended to supplant.  The Apostle’s and the Nicene Creed begin with the phrase “Credo,” “I believe,” and then go on to posit such events as the creation of the world by God, the eternal generation of Jesus as the only son of the God, the salvation of the world through a crucifixion, and the eternal “progression” of the Holy Spirit through some undefined process, stuck on to the end.  I am pretty sure most Christians who say these words don’t begin to understand them, because if they did they would not say them.

But the Affirmations of the New Skepticism are gobbledygook of an equally pedantic nature, worse perhaps because while the Nicene Creed says preposterous things eloquently, the Affirmations say nothing in particular rather badly.

In the first place, they are statements of a position toward reality, hence “postulates.”  What does it mean to say (Article 1) “We believe in the possibility of discovering reliable human knowledge.”  Except that it doesn’t work as a postulate either: “Human knowledge is possible” is as insightful as saying “Water is wet,” and to say “We believe water is wet….” is—well you get the idea.  Beyond this, one has to question whether the sentence means anything at all: would the headline “Reliable Human Knowledge Discovered” be more significant than the headline “Human Knowledge Discovered.”  The point of course is that knowledge, unless we are speaking of metaphysics, which is not, I think, the agenda here, is of particular things and processes.  Unless this sentence is directed against Sextus Empiricus, it doesn’t mean much to claim to be able to discover “knowledge.”

The Affirmations are a quilt of equally badly thought out triticisms.  With apologies to the Tampa Tribune columnist who once japed a political writer with the following parody (badly paraphrased),  on Gilbert and Sullivan,

“It’s obvious, it’s obvious, he’s positing the obvious: He tells us what we always knew in terms so flat, it’s all review–in glaring generalities and uninspired banalities.”

So banal that it is hard to imagine the audience for this creed.

The worst bit of the Affirmations is not the sense but the syntax:  they ask for skepticism to be “extended to all areas of human endeavor—science, everyday life, law, religion, and the paranormal.”   Mercifully, lawn-mowing has not been included.

Syntactical short-cutting asks us to imagine these “areas of endeavor” as of one sort, when (a) they are a laundry list of uncategorized nouns, into which science has crept as an area recommended for scientific inquiry; (b) might not be susceptible to “scientific inquiry” to the same degree, in the same way, or at all, and (c) are not really what the author wants to say.  What he wants to say is that smart people need to make smart choices about certain activities and that skepticism is a useful tool to achieve smartness.  Despite the cloudy phrasing, the Affirmations “believe in clarity rather than obfuscation, lucidity in the place of confusion and linguistic definitions to overcome vagueness or ambiguity.”  Personally, I prefer Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia to mud, but call me picky.

The remainder of the Affirmations is an effusion of treacle, if treacle can be inconsistent.  “We do not reject any claim to knowledge prior to inquiry.”  It has, as a professor of mine once said, “an air of philosophy about it,” textbook possibilism.   But surely a coherent skepticism rejects all sorts of things out of hand, including claims about patchwork elephants and Guanilo’s perfect island.

Unsurprising, then, that only a few affirmations down the list, the author rejects out of hand “mythologies of salvation whether based on ancient fears or current messianic illusions unsubstantiated by corroborative empirical grounds.”   Not sure how one can reject a messianic illusion on the basis of investigation before the empirical, corroborative ground one is standing on is trembling at the Rapture, but I look forward to the experience.  Again syntax is the enemy, as salvation becomes not a matter –a doctrine–to which doubt can be applied but a system springing from “ancient fears” and “messianic illusions.”  That is a tough characterization to overcome through dispassionate investigation.

My last criticism actually extends to the whole thought-process behind the Affirmations. The solipsisms and phrasal potholes reveal a mind already narrowed to believe that instead of the two woven  strands of why and why not science is really a whip to be used to beat the past:  “We believe in inquiry rather than authority, reason in the place of tradition.”  The euphony of chiasmus has always been the enemy of sound reason: How for instance would we create a legal or constitutional system on inquiry rather than tradition?  If the methods of science do not possess authority beyond the heuristic value of inquiry, on what grounds do we defend the method?   Or do the Affirmations mean to say authority and tradition only when speaking of religion, which is an important source of legal tradition and even legal reasoning? Is the author distinguishing between the authority of dogma, as distinct from the soundness of a proposition and a conclusion based on experiment?

“Clarity rather than obfuscation?”  Before trusting too much in these proposals, readers should at least insist that the Affirmations reflect the clarity of thought they extol.

This narrow vision at its narrowest sees human happiness, essentially, as a celebration of the world technology can erect “to alleviate suffering, reduce pain, and ameliorate and enhance human happiness.”  Skepticism, in other words, does not extend to the evil that science can perpetrate, the questionable benefits technology has achieved by injuring the planet for short term gain, the ethical irresolution science and skepticism wreak when the humane is equated with the merely human.   Even following the logic of the sixth affirmation (”We ask for facts, not supposition, experimental evidence, not anecdotal hearsay or conjecture,  logical inference and deduction, not faith or intuition”) there would be plenty of reason to reject the idea that science is the source  “of all worthwhile inquiry about the world and that it can be enlisted to solve problems, neutralize animosities, compromise [sic] hatred and negotiate differences” (article 3).  Frankly, faith, intuition and good intentions have done at least as much to ameliorate hatred as science. Technology has killed more of the naked than it has ever clothed.

There is no profound sense in this bombastic paean to the skeptical muse, in other words, that the mere affirmation of science and skepticism falls dismally short of a coherent humanist vision of the past and its connectedness to the future.  The author seems to have some sense of the limits of these proposals in the last affirmation, where he writes, “We are not negative skeptics, naysayers, debunkers, cynics, or nihilists.”

There is nothing “new” about this New Skepticism.  It is more of the same old debunking and ghost-busting that sees Jesus, Bigfoot, Muhammad and the Amityville Haunt as stars of the same carnival sideshow.  And that is the affirmation that deserves the most skeptical review possible.

Purity and Danger: The View from Pakistan*

Tpakistan_longhe somewhat mysterious title of this offering can be traced to a book written by the anthropologist Mary Douglas in 1966. The equally mysterious subtitle of the book was “an exploration of the concepts of pollution and taboo”– which in anthrospeak means the customs adopted by groups and societies that create a sense of wellbeing and general healthfulness, as opposed to practices that lead to a feeling of general despair and corruption—“sin” in religious terms. Douglas’s own situation as a Catholic in 1940’s Oxford, a woman academic in the Congo, an independent voice in an age of anthropological orthodoxy (centering on the work of Robertson Smith and Sir James Frazer)—created her interest in looking at the structure of societies, what rituals reinforced their identity, and what practices created anxiety, marginalization and a sense of threat. Tempted to believe, as she began to ponder these things, that “pollution” is a problem for primitive societies and not for ours, she came gradually to realize several things about modernity:

1. In the study of religion, evolutionary approaches to behavior (a la Frazer) are mistaken; we do not progress by stages from magic (primitive) to religion (less primitive) and to science (fully modern) as degrees of knowledge and sophistication.
2. Ritual is not an exclusive trademark of “primitive” societies; social rituals create a reality which may or may not be religious but which cannot be sustained without it: “Money is only an extreme and specialized form of ritual.”
3. Early and modern cultures, religious and otherwise, create ways to protect their system of ritual from skepticism (or contradiction), for example, by asking the community to believe in a “Them” who are planning to destroy the community, or telling the community that its lack of success is a trial, the passing of which will restore the community to health or grace.

Douglas found examples of these ritual attributes in societies stretching as far back as ancient Israel (her chapter on the origins of the “abominations” –ritual taboos– listed in the book of Leviticus stands is a classic in its own right) to the wealth/poverty divide of modern society. After reading her, you will never think of the words “us” and “them” in quite the same way, and you will never feel comfortable talking about ”inferior” cultures and primitive religion.

Which brings me, quite literally, to Pakistan. In December 2008 I was appointed Visiting Professor of History at LUMS, the Lahore University of Management Sciences, sometimes seen as a kind of hybrid Harvard and MIT of South Asia. The rankings bear out the legend. LUMS faculty are trained at the leading research universities in the world, the tone is studiously Ivy-Oxbridge, and in recent years the privately endowed institution, despite all odds and economic downturns, has managed to attract prominent Pakistanis away from senior positions in the UK and US as well as a respectable number of international faculty. LUMS symbolizes for its over-achieving students what a certain segment of Pakistanis want to be: modern, slightly if not wholly secular (on the Turkish model), well-spoken, business savvy, scientifically and socially current, and at least competitive with the traditional “enemy” to the south, India, whose ancient heritage overlaps with Pakistan’s own story.

The word heard most often in progressive circles like this is “Identity” and the sentiment I hear voiced most often by ordinary Pakistanis is that the promise of Pakistan at the time of independence (partition from India in 1947), whosever it was to keep, has not been kept. The local English medium TV station, suggestively named Dawn TV, uses the motto “Restore the Identity.” The sense that something has been lost, or squandered is a part of every conversation. Only the religious zealots feel that there is nothing to be recaptured since for them a static, timeless ideology rather than space, history and culture define what identity means. It is sufficient for them to label any activity of which they do not approve, including cricket and the education of women, as Unislamic. Whatever other motives fuel the seemingly unstoppable Taliban in their quest for power and dominion, the quest for purity and the fear of contamination from Unislamic enemies is prevalent.

The American view of Pakistan, to the extent Americans pay attention to anything beyond their continental borders, has been self-referring. Estimates range from the country being a failing (even a failed) state, a haven for terrorists, or a potentially indispensable ally in the war on “terror.” Except for military personnel perched on the border with Afghanistan in the Northwest tribal Frontier, a few stray diplomats and the odd (mainly European or Canadian) academic visitor or thrill-seeker, Pakistan is not bustling with tourists. The recent hotel blasts in Islamabad and Peshawar were designed to underscore the contempt for strangers that that religious zealots instinctively feel.

To the chagrin of its intellectuals and mainstream policy-makers, Pakistan has been made a “them” in global political terms. Since September 11, 2001 it has been a reluctant but not a natural ally of the United States, reluctant in the same way any state with a rich cultural legacy and independent streak would be hesitant to find its validity in its value as a buffer zone between religious lunacy and secular democracy.

Not that Pakistan’s troubled history hasn’t contributed to its in-between-ness. Its story is now a sixty year history of not coming together, a period equivalent in historical terms to the end of the American War of Independence in 1783 and the presidency of James Knox Polk. The analogy while completely inappropriate is made even more inexact because the contradictions, paradoxes and contrarieties of Pakistan society have now become ritualized, defining features of a country waiting to be born but still somehow only able to evince the pangs of labor. But the analogy is still a nagging one because post-Revolutionary America while still dominated by English values and Christian virtues like hard work and frugality was already becoming pluralized while Pakistan began its life as a nation that placed a premium on its Islamic identity, on depluralization, a place where Muslims could be safe from the predations of religious majorities to the east. Pakistan in one sense is a postcolonial concoction: the name is an acronym of its original areas, Punjab, Afghania (Frontier Province), Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan) but the acronym had its own appeal: in Urdu the name means “land of the pure.”

In a country that within a period of twelve weeks since my arrival saw an independent judiciary restored by impressive civil action on the streets of Lahore, Sri Lankan cricketers assaulted by gunmen for reasons mired in uncertainty and confusion, and the Government’s surrender, then subsequent recapture  of the Swat Valley, once Pakistan’s premier tourist destination (“the Switzerland of Pakistan with its high mountains, green meadows, and clear lakes,” the old brochures read) to the forces of the radical operator Maulana Fazlullah—anything is possible.

As I write that last sentence, I can’t help thinking how differently it would scan if we applied it to the generally optimistic view that North Americans and Europeans have of the future: “Anything is possible” is usually taken to mean that even things that aren’t quite right will improve with a little time, a bit of imagination, luck, and effort.

In the case of Pakistan, the phrase means “Who knows?” The reality of a troubled history, the growth of religious fanaticism in society and education, fundamental disagreements over whether concession and containment will appease or only tantalize the Pure into broader escapades and adventures. No one knows, least of all the experts. Beyond all this, it is relatively easy for all Pakistanis to point a finger of blame outward toward former colonial masters, toward its manipulation by outsiders during the cold war, at India, at the Soviet Union, at the United States, at homegrown but ideologically foreign fanatics like the Taliban. The tendency until very recently has been for the West, in particular, to say roll up your sleeves and save yourselves.

But now even the West is beginning to realize how disproportionate a burden Pakistan has had to share in the power mongering of the last sixty years, and how the slogans of the war on terror breathe a sordid promise of more of the same.