The Soul of the West | An interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J | by Justin Murray | November 9, 2006 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, 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. Schall.

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 time.

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 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 of politics.

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 ensue.

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 that culture.

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?

Schall: Remember, 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 own protection.

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 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)

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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