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The Soul of the West | An interview with Fr. James V.
Schall, S.J | by Justin Murray | November 9, 2006
Recently, in the course of doing some research he was doing
for the Harvard Political Review, Justin
Murray, an undergraduate student at Harvard, sent Fr. James V. Schall, a
regular contributor to IgnatiusInsight.com, a series of questions about the
impact of Pope Benedict XVI's September 12, 2006, Regensburg Lecture. That
interview is being published here by kind permission of Mr. Murray and Fr.
Murray: One of the remarkable facts about the media's
response to Pope Benedict's Regensburg Lecture is its exclusive focus on the
comments pertaining to Islam and its lack of interest in reporting his comments
about western secularism. What would you say is the main proposal that Pope Benedict
was making to the Western world in his Regensburg Lecture and in other
scholarly and public words?
Fr. Schall: In good
part, the western media's reaction was conditioned by the response in the Arab
world, which almost preempted any other sort of comment. I am wont to compare
Benedict's Regensburg Lecture to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Harvard Commencement
Lecture of 1978. Both are penetrating essays initially addressed to what is
currently the major ideological problem. Both ultimately direct themselves to
the condition of soul in the West. Indeed, every Harvard graduate should be
given a personal copy of each of these profound lectures as graduation
presents. Nothing will prepare them better to understand the nature of our
But I do think that the initial concern with Islam is a
concern we all must have--just what is Islam? And what is going on its world
that seems so clearly to be reverting to the aggressive form that the world
experienced after the eighth century, something that came very close to
conquering all of Europe several times after it did conquer much of Africa, the
Middle East, and Asia.
However, I do not think, at their philosophic roots, the two
cultures--modern secularism and Islam--are much different. This is what Benedict
implies in his citation from Ibn Hazn concerning voluntarism, that is, the view
that there is no obligatory order of reason that is not itself a product of
man, in the case of modernity, or of Allah, in the case of Islam.
Murray: What do you suspect Pope Benedict hoped to achieve
by referring to the discussion between the Byzantine Emperor and his Persian
interlocutor? What is Pope Benedict's vision for dialogue with Muslims, and
what are the merits of his vision?
Fr. Schall: This
reference was very precise. It was bravely asked. It served to pose a question
almost everyone is asking: "Can religion sanction violence?" By placing it in
this historic context, during a period when Constantinople itself was under
siege from Muslim forces, the Pope wanted to remind us that our current problem
was not formulated in this manner for the first time in our tradition. It is
one that has been asked again and again for over some twelve centuries.
The fact is that it is very difficult to get a straight
answer to this question. Rioting over asking the question itself is no answer.
And if the answer is, "Yes, theologically and religiously, it is against Muslim
religion," then why do we have so little objection to religious-based violence
that constantly comes from Islamic roots in our time? It is a fair concern. If
these are difficult questions, I fail to see why. I think the Pope wanted to
use a very simple method that we find in the Gorgias, namely, do not give us long and convoluted answers,
but simply "Yes" or "No" to these basic questions: "Is violence legitimate to
use to expand religion?" and "If not, do you oppose its use?"
Ever since 9/11, I have in fact sought to defend those
Muslims who did the damage and those who carry on constant attacks against the
charge that some Western ideology like fascism explains what they think they
are doing. They claim and have claimed to be motivated by religious reasons. I
am willing to take those who claim this belief at their word. When I see the
approving actions in many parts of the Muslim world at the "success" of, say,
9/11, I can only think that not a few in this world likewise approve of this
means. They seem to do so on religious grounds. I am no expert on the Koran,
but I have seen enough to recognize that a case can be made that violence is
supported by passages and scholars.
Not recognizing this religious source of violence has been
the tactical error of President Bush and Mr. Blair. I note both the reluctance
within Islam itself to condemn the violence and the fact that the few Muslims
who do publicly condemn are found in Western countries where they are protected
by our laws. I do not state this in any polemical fashion. It just seems like
an obvious fact.
The Pope was stating something every one of us has said to
ourselves a hundred times. Google has hundreds of similar inquiries from all
over the world. "Is or is not violence sanctioned by religion?" If so, fine; if
not, fine, but be consistent in the answers. I am sure the Pope would be
perfectly delighted to know that a) violence was not sanctioned in Islam and b)
that those who say it is not sanctioned will work to stop it. The question
would never come up if the answers to these two questions were clear.
Certainly, though not all, many Muslims do seem to hold: "Yes, 1) the religion
does sanction violence and 2) no, we do not have to stop it."
Murray: What is the current status of dialogue between
Christians and Muslims?"
Fr. Schall: I have
become a bit leery of the noble word "dialogue." It comes from the great
Platonic tradition and is a most delicate affair in any context. But often it
is rooted in a skepticism that maintains that no truth is possible. Indeed, any
claim to truth is "fascist" and dangerous. [Editor's note: See Fr. Schall's
IgnatiusInsight.com article, "Dialogue Is Never Enough"]
Islam has no central authority. It has a system of
"scholars," but there are many stands within Islam itself that emphasize
different sides of what they find in the Koran. Not all scholars agree with
each other. It is difficult to know with whom one would "officially" dialogue,
even though the Vatican dicasteries and various academic endeavors going on all
over the place seek to do so. One does not see the same initiatives coming from
within the Islamic world. If there is one academic growth industry these days
in the West, it is Islamic studies.
It seems to me that it is of great significance that this
endeavor of Benedict was an academic lecture. I must say there are very few
places, even within academia, in which such "lectures" can take place where
such truths can be spoken about. And if we have to worry about riots in the
street just for mentioning the problem, serious issues about intellectual
integrity arise. Indeed, it seems to many people that these violent reactions
even to state the issue are designed to curb any real discussion. I find the
so-called "hate-laws" in not a few western states to be, in practice, little
more than a capitulation to this pressure. We have to keep open the possibility
of speaking of these issues.
Benedict did, however, join the tradition of John Paul II
and argue that there must be a safe place where we can speak and hopefully
resolve real dangers before they reach violent proportions. The first battles
are in the mind. It has long been our tradition from Plato and Aristotle, that
we must pursue the theoretic order beyond politics. Our culture has been one
that has at least seen the need to have institutions that could pursue these
questions, however well or ill they actually did so.
If any thing, to any fair-minded person, I think, the
reaction to Benedict's lecture proved that his concern that this issue would
not be broached was well taken. There is little willingness or place for any
dialogue at this level. Not a few think that such is the inner mood within
Islam that it is both bootless and dangerous even to try and that Benedict was
wrong to bring the issue up. I suspect Benedict figured that the issue must be
brought up now. The peoples in the West have bee very slow and reluctant to see
there is any problem but one of politics. This must change, even for the sake
Murray: Although the Catholic Church has an identifiable
leader to look towards as it engages other religions in dialogues, Muslims (and
other religious groups) have less clear centers of authority. What are the
channels in which future dialogue can and should occur?
Fr. Schall: I have
already touched on this. It does make one wonder whether the Church, contrary to
popular belief, was not well founded after all. It has been amazing in recent
decades the degree to which the papacy has been present on the world scene,
whether we like it or not. But for all its lack of authority, at times Islam
seem startlingly unified. Many talk of restoring the caliphate, of continuing
on its world mission to have all subject to Allah as a praise of him.
Probably, what Benedict is doing is the best that can be
hoped for. In effect, his visit to Turkey and his efforts to speak in Muslim
universities--I have seen references to an initiative to speak in Cairo--bring
out the very problem. What is the understanding that must take place to have
this dialogue? I think the emphasis on reason is the right path. But then there
is the controverted question of the status of reason both in Islam and in the
West, not to mention in the Church. Does anyone really hold that there is such
a thing as "reason," that the world manifests it, that it is the basis of human
nature and not subject to our own making or remaking? Benedict pointed this
problem out by his brilliant exegesis of the Western mind in his lecture.
Someone in the National Review orbit, I forget who it was, the day after the violent reactions to the
Regensburg Lecture set in, remarked that what the Pope should do immediately is
to call a conference in the Vatican of Christian and Muslim leaders to put on
the table the simple question: "Does or does not religion support violence to
extend its domains?" Then, after this debate in Rome, the same debate should
take place in Mecca, Cairo, Tehran, and other centers of Islam with guaranteed
free and open presentation of arguments and all the publicity needed. The man
who suggested this did not think it could happen, but it did bring out the
point of the Pope's lecture. I found it interesting that the Regensburg Lecture
was not translated into Arabic by its own press before the reaction. And
evidently, the initial English translation was not the best.
Murray: One interesting feature of the response to
Benedict's lecture in the West is that it often criticizes the Pope for
denigrating Islam (and thereby undermining Christian-Muslim dialogue) even as
it denigrates Christianity and religious faith more generally. The harmony of civilization
to the future will depend not only on dialogue between Christians and Muslims,
but also between Christians and secularists in the West and between secularism
and Muslims. What are the prospects for these latter sorts of dialogue?
Fr. Schall: I have
enough political realism in my soul to think we should still walk softly and
carry a big stick on all fronts. The hope of "dialogue" resolving everything
sometimes strikes me as utopian from which nothing but something worse can
That being said, we might as well include the Chinese, the
Hindus, and others who also are experiencing problems with Islam, besides the
problems we already confront from other sources, including the residues of
Marxism. I actually think the Pope had all these issues in mind in this
Regensburg Lecture. This is really the import of his discussion of the relation
between Greek philosophy and revelation.
Incidentally, many have had a good time with the term "Greek
philosophy." Almost every great and nutty idea that the human mind could
conjure was already found somewhere in classic Greek mind. The Pope has a very
precise notion of reason, something that can best found best in John Paul II's Fides
et Ratio. There is such a thing as recta
ratio, on which everything else depends,
including our ability to grasp revelation, be it Muslim, Hebrew, or Christian.
This does not make reason itself a kind of human power to decide what God might
have to tell us. It does allow us to inquire on a frank basis whether "religion
approves of violence," the central question that the Regensburg Lecture brought
up. The subsequent dissertation on reason in the Lecture was meant to provide a
basis whereby we might answer this question. If we cannot answer it, then
indeed, as far as I can judge, violence is "reasonable," since reason has no
objective meaning, as all voluntarists never tire of telling us.
Western "scientific" reason, as the Pope indicated, since it
allows only one sort of reason, cannot defend the proposition that reason
should be defended. If reason is merely historical or multicultural, then we
can have no real reason to say that "violence is not reasonable" in this or
Murray: Since I am writing an article for a political
review, I am primarily concerned (for the purposes of my present project) with
exploring the political consequences of religious dialogue. What are the
political stakes of building understanding between Christianity, secularism and
Islam? To what extent is it possible to build such understanding? Is it
possible to construct a political future for the West that respects the
concerns of Christians, Muslims, and secularists alike, or is some form of
non-negotiable conflict inevitable?
Fr. Schall: Again,
what is most remarkable in our time is the rise again of an aggressive Islam
with its ambitions, at least from some of its quarters, of world conquest. At
the end of the cold war, who could have suspected it, except perhaps someone
like Belloc, who, much earlier, did suspect it? What we are witnessing is the
inability of the secular western mind, and the religious mind that imitates it,
to comprehend a centuries-long religious purpose about what ought to be.
Many think Islam can be "tamed" by western secularism. Many
in Islam think that this very secularism is the basis of its own attraction to
increasing numbers of souls in the West. We are beginning to see conversions to
Islam in the West, something that may begin to increase dramatically. Your
dream of a pious and peaceful co-existence of such systems is all very good but
does not really face the inner power of those movements when they want to
establish the Kingdom of God in this world. I would include China itself in
this latter category.
Christianity cannot look on a world so divided as something to
be called "ideal."
Moreover, secular ideologies themselves are aggressive and
seek to establish a public order in their image, when they have not already
done so. One of the services of Benedict's lecture was that it called attention
to the fact that the presuppositions of political peace must somehow be first
met in the theoretic order. Political living rightly cannot avoid the problem
of thinking rightly. And thinking rightly has something to with the desire to
know the truth. This desire means too that we cannot avoid the questions of the
truth found in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, secularism, and the other faiths.
We cannot avoid the falsity found in them either.
You ask: "Is some form of non-negotiable conflict
unavoidable?' It may not be. It is possible to establish a world coercive
system of several sorts, hopefully only for a time. But it is the essence of
political prudence to prevent this from happening. The history of the twentieth
century should not be lost in the twenty-first, namely, that some things are
worth fighting for. If free men allow such systems that deny freedom and truth
to take over, they cannot claim that their failures are virtuous simply because
no one was willing to fight for anything."
Murray: There are considerable disputes about the accuracy
of the Pope's statements about Islam. Can you comment upon this? Are the
differences concerning the relationship between faith and reason (and the
legitimacy of violence in the service of religion) in Islam and Christianity as
such as his address seems to suggest? If the differences between Christians and
Muslims are as fundamental as he suggests, is it possible to resolve these
differences, or, at any rate, to live peacefully in spite of the differences?
If the differences are overstated, how can we go about undermining
inter-religious stereotypes so as to promote understanding and respect?
the purpose of the Regensburg lecture was to pose the question in its most
radical form: "Is it true that Islam holds violence to be a religious act to
spread its faith?" Simply asking that question, especially in the light of
history and contemporary events, is not a crime. If the answer is, "Islam does
not hold this," the Pope would be delighted. We would all be delighted, except,
presumably, those within Islam who hold this violence is legitimate. What
Benedict wants to hear and why he so formulated the question in a Muslim
context, was that negative answer was correct.
But if the answer is affirmative, as not a few Muslim thinkers
and politicians, ancient and modern, have indeed thought and frankly told us
so, then the Pope must speculate on what is the philosophic reason for this
view? This is why he mentions the voluntarist intellectual tradition within
Islam (and the West). This is one possible explanation of it. That is, if Allah
is pure will and that will is not bound by anything but itself, there is no
"reason" why it could not make wrong right and right wrong.
Now, is there such a tradition within Islam? Is there not also
a tradition that is rather more Aristotelian? The Pope knows his philosophic
history. He is seeking to give a basis whereby Islam itself may agree that this
violence is either "unreasonable" or against the will of Allah. If it cannot do
that, however it is done, then this inability is what we need to know for our
But if Muslim thinkers do think that violence of this sort
is unreasonable, then, as the Pope intimates, they too can bravely confront the
violence within their own borders and souls. We can help them, but we too must
attend to our own souls. After all, the proposition that "violence is always
unreasonable" is not accepted in many a Western debate--abortion, for instance.
It is in this latter sense that the whole lecture had a unified intent, an
intellectual coherence. The systematic pursuit of the initial premise turned
out to be analysis of the whole of modern civilization and its roots.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Why Do We Need Faith? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Is Dialogue with Islam Possible? Some Reflections on Pope
Benedict XVI's Address at the University of Regensburg | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Relativism 101: A Brief, Objective Guide | Carl E. Olson
Intellectual Charity: On Benedict XVI and
the Canadian Bishops | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Author page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent book is
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006).
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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