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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.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on August 07, 2018 at 09:16:06 am

"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."

One can know through both Faith and reason that Truth cannot contradict Truth. Just as every element of Love will serve to complement and thus enhance The Fullness of Love, so, too, every element of Truth will serve to complement and thus enhance the fullness of Truth.

Caritas In Veritate; Veritate In Caritas.

God Is Love. If God were evil, Love would not exist. Love is the absence of evil. Love is not coercive, nor is it possessive, nor does Love serve to manipulate for the sake of self-gratification. Love is a gift given freely from the heart, that always, in serving God, serves only for Good.

It is thus irrational to suggest that God, The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), "could let the wicked enter paradise, and punish the virtuous", or decide that four plus four equals five".

http://www.drbo.org/x/d?b=drb&bk=21&ch=8&l=4-#x

Thank you, Father, for your "Caritas In Veritate," your Veritate In Caritas!

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Nancy
on August 07, 2018 at 10:26:34 am

Samuel Gregg sounds a practical alarm that has been sounded loudly and heard repeatedly yet continues to fall on the deaf ears of the overwhelming majority of Muslims for whom it is existentially-dangerous and of the West's clueless political, spiritual and moral leaders (such as the befuddled Pope Francis) for whom the alarm is politically-unfashionable or psychologically overwhelming. It seems that Fr. Schall's alarm, "Islam is a threat; Islam does not mean what you think it does; Islam does not mean what they're telling you it means!" must continue to be ignored if Muslims in the East and Westerners in Europe and North America are not to lose the false political security of the false psychological meanings to which their lives and their purpose in life have become anchored.

To look the terror of awesome reality in the face is literally to volunteer to undertake what is self-terrorizing, willingly to undertake for one's self-defense the psychological-terror of denying a false foundational truth on which the very meaning of one's existence has come to rest. Doing that requires the utmost courage. Most people most of the time cannot do it; they simply lack the courage.

A man who has the requisite courage is William Kilpatrick who courageously directs the intellectually- enlightening, psychologically-liberating "Turning Point Project" which is "dedicated to educating Catholics and other Americans about the threat from Islam by arming them with the information and analysis necessary to meet the challenge."
https://turningpointproject.com/about/

Gain hope from reading Fr. Schall's collection of essays so well-reviewed by Mr. Gregg and follow the regular emails of Mr. Kilpatrick. You will be honestly informed about Islam and Western Civilization.

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Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on August 07, 2018 at 13:10:59 pm

There are many kinds of voluntarism, and throwing in Duns Scotus in an offhand way without explanation is misleading. In this Schall merely follows Benedict XVI and catholic intellectuals since Aeterni Patris, but it is misleading nonetheless. Scotus is quite explicit that God cannot will a contradiction. His sense of voluntarism is that the act of the will is not necessarily determined by the intellect. Which is a position one needs, if one wants to have sin be something other than error in the intellect. Scotus thus would have nothing to do with Islamic theology (is Schall alleging a causal link?) or the infamous Spadero mathematical thesis.

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lee faber
on August 10, 2018 at 23:35:05 pm

JMJ
Gregg's description of Fr Schall's book, Islam: A chronological record, inspires us to read it. We admire Fr Schall's work. And Gregg's review of the book is excellent. We will return to this review after reading the book.

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Image of Luis Howard
Luis Howard
on August 13, 2018 at 09:30:05 am

[…] year later, Father James V. Schall SJ wrote a book about the address which, as Acton Director of Research Samuel Gregg says, placed it in the wider context of a set of religious and philosophical challenges that many […]

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Image of James V. Schall on Islam and the West – Acton Institute PowerBlog
James V. Schall on Islam and the West – Acton Institute PowerBlog
on August 13, 2018 at 22:23:32 pm

I have often wondered how terrorists reconcile their ideas with Allah's sovereignty. If I understand Islam, it teaches that the world is as it is, with the West dominating, because Allah has willed it to be that way. So if they fight against it they are fighting Allah. What am I missing?

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Image of Roger D. McKinney
Roger D. McKinney
on August 16, 2018 at 12:26:30 pm

“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.”

True, for in Sharia Law, unlike Catholic Canon Law, there is no final authority, thus anything can become permissible.

For Catholics, “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion “, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, for It Is Through, With, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), that Holy Mother Church exists. Truth will not contradict Truth, In Heaven or on Earth.

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Image of Nancy
Nancy
on January 21, 2019 at 18:30:35 pm

[…] From Muhammad to ISIS, which you can get here. Fr. Schall, a great scholar of Islam and author of On Islam: A Chronological Record 2002-2018, emailed me when his review was published, saying: “your book is really good. No wonder they do […]

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Image of “Your book is really good. No wonder they do everything they can to shut you down.” - NoPaperNews
“Your book is really good. No wonder they do everything they can to shut you down.” - NoPaperNews
on January 22, 2019 at 02:23:06 am

[…] From Muhammad to ISIS, which you can get here. Fr. Schall, a great scholar of Islam and author of On Islam: A Chronological Record 2002-2018, emailed me when his review was published, saying: “your book is really good. No wonder they do […]

read full comment
Image of "Your book is really good. No wonder they do everything they can to shut you down." | US News.com
"Your book is really good. No wonder they do everything they can to shut you down." | US News.com

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

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