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15.10.38, Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths

The Medieval Review

15.10.38, Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths

True story: Winging its way through the mails, my review copy of Neighboring Faiths was stolen from its envelope, which arrived at an Atlanta post office ripped and desolately empty. It is ironically encouraging that our subject's monographs are sufficiently hot properties to tempt thieves. But it's also particularly apt that this book, of all its fellows, was purloined by an eager reader. David Nirenberg's interest here is not merely to expand conversations about "interreligious relations" and religious difference that have been heretofore largely contained within the academy, but also to examine what those differences and their various articulations ultimately signify: the broader social, psychological, and political interpenetrations of past and present that continue to entrap us all.

Neighboring Faiths collects nine essays, most previously published but revised, with a new introduction. (Their titles are below.) All concern the coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and most are set in the premodern Iberian peninsula. In sum, the essays compose a tale of medieval religious communities that were so much more than "neighbors," which can imply mere juxtaposition. Even "interaction" fails, if that connotes solidly bounded, impermeable communities that touch glancingly and retreat while remaining unaffected and unchanged. Rather, Nirenberg presents these communities' mutual reshaping of identities, with medieval Iberia one region of "a world in which the three religions are interdependent, constantly transforming themselves by thinking about each other in a fundamentally ambivalent form of neighborliness" (4). Nirenberg sketches "the 'coproduction' of religious communities," owning as his (deceptively modest) goal "simply to convince you that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have never been independent of each other: that it is as neighbors, in close relation to one another, that they have constantly transformed themselves, reinterpreting both their scriptures and their histories" (5, 12). In these democratic coproductions of religious identities, ideas melded into action and vice-versa, as did the university and the street. Yet the public intellectuals of the European Middle Ages--and what was Vincent Ferrer but a public intellectual, translating theology and ideology into ground-level motives, opinions, and behavior, and in turn reflecting them?--would deny the reality of these coproductions of communities and their identities, while simultaneously producing for polemical or violent consumption their supposedly naturalized and stably bordered neighboring religions.

Each of the essays is elegant, powerful, brilliant, and thought-provoking. But gathered here together, they have been most forcefully repurposed as arrows in a quiver--arrows shot from the past, but landing in our own present territory. Nirenberg describes Neighboring Faiths as "a book about how Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived with and thought about each other in the Middle Ages and about what the medieval past can tell us about how they do so today" (2). As he knows, this "today," and that of the book's title, will make some medievalists nervous. It is a nerve-making challenge also accompanying Nirenberg's recent re-vision of a western civilization structured and even creatively propelled by fantasy (Anti-Judaism: the Western Tradition, 2013). While some readers of that book may charge Nirenberg with receding from the seeming anti-structuralism and anti-determinism of his Communities of Violence (1995), Neighboring Faiths offers one resolution to this apparent puzzle. It urges us to recognize our own contexts as active settings in which fantasies, love, hate, violence, friendship, "figures of flesh and figures of speech," and the very past are worked and reworked. If Communities of Violence broke down how interactions on the ground disassembled, rejected, adapted, but also informed ideological superstructures about religious difference in the particular environment of medieval Iberia, Neighboring Faiths is, at its heart, an appeal to apply the same methods and premises to our own world, our own ground.

This, and not simply its general presentism, is the most fulgent novelty of Neighboring Faiths: its ethical engagement, its impassioned recasting of the study and writing of history as enabling internal examination, of possible benefit both for the individual and collectively for community. Nirenberg repeatedly prompts his readers towards examination and awareness by engaging with the past. These medieval events teach "in the sense of cultivating within us a sensibility that can discover in the past a stimulus to critical awareness about the workings of our own assumptions, hopes, and habits of thought" (3). We might use Neighboring Faiths as "a stimulus to reflection about the ways in which Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and their many heirs continue to coproduce the realities of the world today" (13). His "hope [is] that we can become a bit more self-aware, more critical of the ways in which we have learned to think with and about our neighbors, and that this critical awareness can have an impact on how we then act in the world" (5). The past can prompt "greater self-consciousness of how our thinking about neighbors shapes our world" (6). This is the public but also more specifically the humanist role of the historian, guiding towards introspection, insight, even conversion; a virtuous interiority partly indebted to the Middle Ages. It is redolent, surprisingly but provocatively, of the internal investigation, the "searching out" of the conscience, demanded by both sacramental confession and inquisitions. These are then reflections directed both inward and outward, although Nirenberg shuns, sensibly, political prescriptions. (This is sensible not only for the obvious reasons, but also because of Nirenberg's sensitivity to teleological history--to offer such prescriptions would risk constructing his own telos towards which the passage of time fulfillingly moves.) All of this means, strikingly, that Nirenberg himself can be read in Neighboring Faiths as the reverse-mirror Vincent Ferrer. Like Vincent, he is a public intellectual intertwining university and street, ideas and actions--but Nirenberg is (of course) very much unlike the Dominican friar in denaturalizing religious difference; in making visible rather than occluding the common processes of coproducing communities; in presenting medieval Iberia not as dangerous theatre of multi-religious apocalypse, but as an exemplary stage to depict the perennial complexities of religious coexistence.

Academic readers of Neighboring Faiths may congratulate themselves on how easy Nirenberg's exhorted examination and reflection will be. Perhaps the wider audience that Neighboring Faiths seeks needs to be told that the past informs the present and vice-versa; that constructions that elide into or engender violence are morally wrong; that religious communities have shaped each other, and still do today. But surely we don't. Yet Nirenberg's exhortation expansively, and beneficially, includes us. First, Nirenberg challenges an orthodox premise of the modern West: people living together better understand (and hence better like, and hence better treat) each other. As he warns, "Contrary to the expectations of the more naively progressive strains of modernity, increased proximity to and knowledge of other religious communities is as capable of heightening the power of polemical forms as it is of effacing it" (32, see also 4-5). We might want Nirenberg's warning to pertain only to the past--more proximity or knowledge may not have made medieval people any better, but certainly it will us (and our students). But to do so is to tilt into a view of the Middle Ages through the othering, "dark-ages," modernity-creating lens that we otherwise so scrupulously avoid. Second, Nirenberg suggests that even viewing religious neighbors "positively," even models of inclusion and unity, can reproduce modes of conceiving and shaping, and of structuring history, that still serve as tools of power in the present (e.g. 205, 207-211). Studies of interreligious relations can inadvertently replicate the constructions of the Middle Ages of which we are well aware, even as the intolerance they lament are implicitly contrasted to a modern tolerance. We medievalist readers, so focused on the past, are perhaps even more liable to overcredit our present.

Amid these links of past and present, and particularly amid Nirenberg's exhortations to reflect upon modern coproductions of these religious communities, one might ask if those coproductions happen in the same way "today." If so, how can they? Nirenberg seeks "relief...from the relentless continuity stressed by so many historical inquisitors for whom Judaism and Christianity persisted essential and eternal despite cataclysm and conversion" (143). But there is natural tension between shunning an essentialist continuity, and Neighboring Faiths' presentism. In arriving at the "today" of the book's title, we have experienced ruptures and evolutions in defining and conceptualizing these three communities, and religion itself--in many ways changing the very grammar as well as the vocabulary with which we now speak about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (The index of Neighboring Faiths lists entries for "politics" and "race," but not one for "religion.") How do discontinuities in the religious identities of Jews, Christians, and Muslims between medieval and modern, discontinuities in "religion," alter the reflections on past and present engagements to which Nirenberg urges us? After all, a crucial difference between Vincent Ferrer's world and our own is the advent of secularism as a default of modernity. And secularism is itself a powerful "producer" of religious communities and identities. For instance, the religious violence that lurks in Neighboring Faiths is differently constructed in the modern West, as secularism polices and negates as illegitimate and anti-modern certain forms of religious belief and expression. Can we talk about the continuing coproductions of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities without wrestling with how modern notions of toleration and secularism depend upon definitions of religion, and of these particular religions, that restrict and chasten both their presents, and their pasts? Interestingly, when Neighboring Faiths cites modern discourse, its representatives tend to be European rather than American: How might today's conversations and coproductions differ between the distinct European and American environments of secularism? Another brief example. Neighboring Faiths's opening lines quote Vincent Ferrer: "The neighbor of a Jew will never be a good Christian" (1). But we might say that in the secular West, to be a good Christian (or Jew, or Muslim) requires neighborliness: that is, one's faith and its ethics are unfinished, weaker, if not embedded within and enriched by religious diversity.

As Nirenberg quotes Juan Alfonso de Baena, "It is out of provocation...that good poetry is born" (130). And good history, too, even if mutable histories then shake into life unexpected provocations, which then turn upon and bruise our pasts. I wonder what the book-thief, appropriately provoked by these powerful and even poetic arguments, is thinking about his or her neighbors--whoever they may be--right now.


1. Christendom and Islam

2. Love between Muslim and Jew

3. Deviant Politics and Jewish Love: Alfonso VIII and the Jewess of Toledo

4. Massacre or Miracle? Valencia, 1391

5. Conversion, Sex, and Segregation

6. Figures of Thought and Figures of Flesh

7. Mass Conversion and Genealogical Mentalities

8. Was There Race before Modernity? The Example of “Jewish” Blood in Late Medieval Spain

9. Islam and the West: Two Dialectical Fantasies