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James V. Schall Dissects the West via Islam

In the wake of the furor which followed Benedict XVI’s September 2006 Regensburg address, perhaps the best book-length analysis of what will surely go down as one of the 21st century’s most important speeches was authored by the former Georgetown professor of political philosophy, Father James V. Schall SJ. In contrast to the superficial coverage by those Western commentators who plainly resented Benedict’s naming of the elephant in the room (i.e., that contemporary Muslim terrorism may owe something to Islam’s conception of God), Schall’s examination of the Regensburg address placed it in the wider context of a set of religious and philosophical challenges that many Westerners still can’t bring themselves to address.

Over the past sixteen years, Schall has written numerous articles on this more general topic, the most important of which have been gathered together in his latest book, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018. In one sense, the title is somewhat misleading. For this is really a book about the West and how its inability to think (let alone speak) clearly about the primary causes of Muslim terrorism reflects some significant intellectual pathologies presently plaguing Western intellectual life.

As the text’s subtitle indicates, these essays proceed chronologically. They begin with a 2003 article about Hilaire Belloc’s views about Islam, and end with a 2018 piece in which Schall presents some reflections about the Koran itself. Between these two essays are sandwiched 24 articles in which Schall explores questions ranging from how the physicist-priest, the late Stanley Jaki, regarded the natural sciences’ place in Islam, to how the secular mind grapples with Muslim terrorism.

Many of these essays were occasioned by specific acts of jihadist terrorism. These make for very depressing reading. They highlight not only a firm consistency of purpose on the part of Muslim terrorists, but also the equally unswerving failure by many Western secular and religious intellectuals to acknowledge Muslim terrorism’s religious roots. To that extent, Schall’s primary critique is less directed at Islam—which he treats in a scrupulously fair manner by taking the Koran and the long-standing dominant schools of Islamic theology to mean what they say—than it is at those Westerners who prefer to bury their heads in the proverbial sand rather than violate any number of politically-correct pieties.

Schall details how, in terrorist incident after terrorist incident, the perpetrators understood themselves to be acting in ways entirely consistent with Muslim theology, history, and practice. That suggests there are no solutions to Muslim terrorism which don’t put theological issues at the forefront of the discussion. Schall emphasizes that this is a subject in which a return to first principles and some fundamental theological questions cannot be avoided. There are few signs, however, of a willingness in either the Muslim or Western worlds to go down this path.

The core problem, according to Schall, is the “voluntarist metaphysics” which informs the choices made by Muslim terrorists. In general terms, theological voluntarism is the idea that God’s essence is some form of will (voluntas) whose decisions cannot be explained in terms of reason. A voluntarist thus believes, Schall writes, that “What is behind all reality is a will that can always be otherwise. It is not bound to any one truth.”

This means that God isn’t limited by any distinction between good or evil. What’s evil one day (such as cutting the throat of an 85 year-old priest, Jacques Hamel, as he celebrated Mass in his parish in July 2016) might be good the next day. As a consequence, Schall states, “We affirm that evil should not be done. But sometimes it should be done. In that case, evil becomes good.” Such thinking also makes any conception of natural law impossible.

The most basic principle of sound reasoning, Schall reminds his readers, is that “A thing cannot be and not be at the same time in the same way in the same circumstances.” Reason, in short, cannot contradict reason, human or divine—unless, of course, the essence of God is pure Will, in which case divine and human reason are inherently unstable, if not polite fictions. And if that’s that’s true, then God himself cannot be a Being who embodies Divine Reason.

It was on these theological foundations, Schall argues, that those Muslim scholars of the school which came to dominate Sunni Islam—the Ash’arites—reconciled evident inconsistencies in the book which they believe Allah himself wrote to manifest his mind. In Schall’s view,

The solution that such thinkers came up with, when spelled out, was remarkable. They did not deny that contradictions existed. They said that Allah could will one thing in Tuesday and its opposite on Wednesday. The latest affirmation is always the binding one, but it can change tomorrow.

All this is predicated upon a voluntarist view of God and an associated denial of any connection between divine or human reason and the Koran. That permitted the Ash’arite school to claim that Allah could, if he wished, let the wicked enter paradise and punish the virtuous.

Theological voluntarism is by no means an exclusively Muslim phenomenon. You can find traces of it in, for instance, the thought of the medieval Catholic theologian Duns Scotus. Voluntarist tendencies also lie just beneath the surface of claims such as that tweeted in 2017 by one of Schall’s fellow Jesuits who happens to be a Vatican consultor when he asserted, as Schall recalls, that “two plus two equals four in science, but in theology the sum could equal five.” The only way that a Christian could hold such a position would be to assume that God doesn’t really embody the Divine Reason that Christians call Logos (despite this being affirmed in the very first verse of the Greek version of the Gospel of John); that all truth is not in fact one (meaning that the search for coherence is pointless); and that God can in fact will truth and untruth at the same time (which implies that God is a liar).

Nor, as Schall demonstrates, is voluntarism only a religious and theological problem. It’s the default position of most Western secular philosophers. The thorough-going positivist, for example, ultimately maintains that whatever the state wills is the law. What reason tells us to be just is essentially irrelevant. Hence, the same positivist has difficulty explaining why a law that, say, allows some people to commit outrages against others is, as a matter of reason, unjust.

Likewise those who deny the idea of natural law—again, the vast majority of Western secularists and more than a few Christian moral theologians—don’t believe that humans are bound by any truths written into our reason itself. They will say that we must follow axioms like “maximize utility,” “be nice to others,” or “uphold respect-tolerance-diversity.” But the nature of these maxims is such that they can be used to justify one course of action, and its complete opposite an hour later. What’s useful yesterday, for instance, may not be so useful tomorrow. So do whatever seems useful to you at any given moment! In such a world, nothing is stable. Everything and everyone is subject to a type of “presentism” which is happy to cast aside traditions, institutions, constitutions, and any other incubator of wisdom and hard-won knowledge of unchanging truth that might get in the way of what’s perceived to be important right now.

It’s also the case that in a secular voluntarist understanding of the world, humans are viewed as subject only to their own will—not reason and truth. It follows that we can no longer reason together about what is the right course of action. Instead we end up deferring to whoever can muster the strongest collective will, whether it’s through tame democratic majorities or the barrel of a gun. In either case, it is might that makes what is right.

Western religious and secular thinkers who adhere consciously or otherwise to these views are woefully ill-equipped to deal with one very salient fact: that, as Schall comments, the Koran

in the eyes of many Muslims, means just what it says. It is a religion that continually seeks, whether it be gradually or quickly, to conquer the world for Allah by whatever means are at hand in a given century or a given place.

Refusal to acknowledge these facts helps to account for the insistence of many of the same Westerners that, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary, Muslim terrorism is essentially caused by economic poverty. This assertion certainly fits their penchant for materialist explanations for everything under the sun. But it also exemplifies how they literally cannot see what is happening in front of them. Thus, Schall observes, when Muslim terrorists

frankly explain what they are doing—namely, following what it says in their book—they are ignored because, while the explanation fits with the terrorists’ understanding of reality, it does not fit with what most people in the West insist on holding.

Such mindsets are of no assistance to those millions of Muslims who have no desire to hurt anyone, who want to live in harmony with their non-Muslim neighbors, and who have been murdered in the thousands by Muslim terrorists. Nor are these Western outlooks likely to encourage those believing Muslims perhaps willing to reengage the question of reason’s relationship to revelation in Islam. Equally unhelpful is the type of interfaith “dialogue” that declines to consider what Schall describes as those “basic theological and philosophical questions that simply will not go away until they are resolved in truth.”

However we proceed, Schall is clear on two points. First, pious Muslims who want to stop the violence must address head-on the question of the voluntarism driving the violence of some of their fellow-Muslims and the related issue of voluntarism’s place in Islamic theology. No doubt, that’s a difficult discussion. Among other things, it would involve reopening long-settled theological disputes and require presently-forbidden analysis of the Koran and its sources to be undertaken by believing Muslims in the Islamic world. Yet unless those central topics are addressed by Muslims, everything else is mere tinkering at the edges.

But, Schall adds, something analogous needs to happen in the West. Many Western Christians and secularists have to face up to the blindness generated by their own implicitly voluntarist conceptions of God and/or man. Failure to do so will only render them ever more ineffectual when it comes to understanding why intelligent and devout young men, some of whom have wives and children that they love, are willing to immolate themselves—and, in some instances, their wives and children—in order to slaughter others.

As a Christian, James Schall is a man of hope. Hope, however, is very different to wishful thinking. That’s why Schall can conclude by saying that “any prospect seems lacking of a coherent facing of the overall moral, political, and religious problems that the existence of Islam causes in the world, both to itself and to others.” Yes, those believing Muslims who want to head-off the violence of their co-religionists have formidable, perhaps impossible obstacles to overcome. But the greater challenge may in fact be for the West: a civilization that, as a consequence of its ongoing revolt against both logos and the Logos, has rendered itself intellectually helpless and morally impotent against a fierce, relentless and ruthless enemy bent upon securing its submission.

Today it takes courage to say such things. Father Schall is a courageous man. We are all in his debt.

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