Regensburg Revisited (Part 2): Interview With Father James Schall

Regensburg Revisited (Part 2): Interview With Father James Schall

By Carrie Gress

ROME, OCT. 10, 2007 ( Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture, given Sept. 12, 2006, was not only directed at the question of Islam, but also the weaknesses of modern Western philosophy, says Jesuit Father James Schall.

The professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University is the author of “The Regensburg Lecture,” published by St. Augustine’s Press.

In Part 2 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Schall comments on what he says is one of the most important discourses of modern time.

Part 1

Q: The Holy Father included in his lecture a discussion of the roots of voluntarism, a theological idea that attempts to put no limits on God, defying even reason. What role does this factor play in Islam as well as in non-Muslim thought?

Father Schall: This question, of course, was already in Greek and medieval philosophy. It exists as a perennial issue for the human mind to resolve. Voluntarism did not originate with Islam, except perhaps in the sense that nowhere else has it been carried out with such logical consistency and backed by such force. “Voluntarism” here means not the spontaneous effort to do something to help others of which the Pope spoke in “Deus Caritas Est,” but the philosophic and theological idea that the will is superior to the intellect and is not subject to reason.

The Pope is quite careful to note that the same problem exists in the West via Duns Scotus, the great medieval philosopher and theologian. It goes from him to William of Ockham, to Niccolò Machiavelli and to Thomas Hobbes, and onward into modern political philosophy. I have just been reading with a class Heinrich Rommen’s most insightful book “The Natural Law,” which spells out in much detail why legal voluntarism stands at the basis of modern positivism and historicism, subjects that Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin were concerned with.

From this point of view, the Regensburg lecture was directed at the heart of Europe and America, to those “justifications” that are in fact used by its laws and customs to justify the killing of the innocent. The Socratic principle that “it is never right to do wrong” still remains the bedrock of a philosophy not based on pure will.

Pure will can justify anything because it has evaporated any nature or order from man and the universe. Voluntarism allows no grounding for absolute principles of human dignity. If it is asked, if I might surmise a guess, why the Pope chose to begin his lecture with the conversation of the Greek Byzantine Emperor in the 1300’s with a Persian gentleman, it was because it enabled him graphically to state the most pressing issue of our time, not merely “is it reasonable to extend religion by violence,” but is it reasonable to use this violence on any innocent human being.

This is where the Islamic problem, in fact, is substantially the same as the Western problem. Both systems have to resort to a voluntaristic theory of state and being to explain why they are not immoral for using violence against those who are innocent and protected by the divine and natural law itself.

We miss the point if we think voluntarism is not a theoretic system that seeks to praise God in the highest possible way. Voluntarism means that there is no nature or order behind appearances. Everything can be otherwise. Everything that happens occurs because God or Allah positively chose it, but who could have chosen the exact opposite.

Some philosophers, not just Muslim, think that God cannot be limited in any way, even by the principle of contradiction. He can make right wrong, or even make hatred of God his will. It sounds strange to hear this position at first. But once we grant its first principle, that will is higher than intellect, and governs it, everything follows.

This theory is why so-called Muslim terrorists claim and believe that they are in fact following Allah’s will. They might even be acting on a good, if erroneous, conscience. Allah wants the whole world to worship him in the order laid down in the Koran.

The world cannot be settled until this conversion to Islam happens, even if it takes centuries to accomplish. This submission to Allah is conceived to be a noble act of piety. There is in voluntarist principles nothing contradictory if Allah orders the extension of his kingdom by violence, since there is no objective order that would prevent the opposite of what is ordered from being ordered the next day.

Again, I must say, that behind wars are theological and philosophical problems that must be spelled out and seen for what they are. This spelling out is what the Regensburg lecture is about.

Q: Explain why the Pope cites the recovery of a particular kind of reason? He speaks of a “re-Hellenization,” or a return to Greek philosophy, as the solution to the current crisis of civilization.

Father Schall: Actually, the central part of the lecture was rather on the “de-Hellenization” of western culture and what it meant.

The Pope indicated three states: 1) the Reformation position that there was too much philosophy in Catholicism, so that what was needed was a return to the pure Jesus, without the philosophy.

2) The second was the result of the denial of the divinity of Christ, so that, with Adolf von Harnak, Christ was just a man to be studied by science in the universities.

3) The third was in effect multiculturalism, that there was no possible unity on the basis of principle or reason. Everyone was right within his own system.

The tradition from even the Old Testament, as the Pope sketched out, was rather that revelation itself pointed to Greek philosophy. In the case both of Genesis and the Prologue of John, the very term “Logos” was the form in which God chose to speak to us, in the word.

The very definition of God — “I Am” — was clearly something that was comprehensible in a philosophy itself based on reason. The Pope is quite careful to note that Paul’s turning to Macedonia and not to some other culture had to do with a providential decision about what it means to comprehend revelation, particularly the Incarnation and the Trinity, the two basic doctrines that are denied in all other religions and philosophies.

It is because of the unique contribution of Europe that this relation was hammered out, particularly by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and their heritage. To receive revelation of the word, of the inner life of the Godhead, we must have a preparation, a philosophy that allows us to comprehend what it being revealed to us. Not all philosophies do this, which is why it makes a difference what philosophy we understand to be true.

The Pope pointed out that for Kant, reason and revelation are not any longer directly related as being addressed to each other. Faith and reason are two separate things, with no possibility of mutual comprehension, however minimal. Kant is the origin of much subsequent philosophy that has been perplexed, as Gilson showed in his famous “Unity of Philosophic Experience,” by how to put things back together again.

The small error in the beginning leads to a large error in the end, as Aristotle taught us. This Kantian, and before it Cartesian, background too is the origin of the two different concepts of “reason” that the Pope made the key question of modern intelligence and of intelligence itself. The logic of the Reformation’s position on philosophy and its relation to theology led to an attempt to have a pure human Jesus without any real basis in reason to explain why it is credible to believe in him.

The Pope wants to do two things. First he wants to defend science within its own competency, and second he wants science to abandon the “self-limitation” of itself that cannot see the reality of nonmathematical things because being is not limited only to things that can be measured.

This broader openness to human truths that can be known by intuitive reason, love, friendship, suffering or hope is why the Eastern and other religions think the West because of its scientific narrowness has lost its soul, as it appears from their vices, that they have.

Scientific reason, which is not coextensive with reason in its fullness, cannot speak to what really counts in human existence. This distinction between two kinds of reason gives an even greater insight into what this Pope is about. What he is really doing is seeking for grounds, which have to be reason, by which we can approach all religions and cultures, including Europe itself, busily losing not only its soul but its very bodies, as population decline shows.



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