Regensburg Revisited

Author: ZENIT


Regensburg Revisited

Part 1

Interview With Father James Schall


When one interprets Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture, which he delivered more than one year ago, as simply an address on Islam, one misses the point, says 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 this part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Schall comments on the Pope's remarks regarding Islam question, but then more importantly, the deeper point of the lecture.

Parts 2 and 3 of this interview will appear Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

Q: Just over a year has passed since Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture was delivered, followed by an international outcry from some Muslim circles. Was it the Islamic response that prompted you to write this book or was there something else?

Father Schall: Actually, I had read the address before the Islamic response, which took some time to orchestrate. I do not think it was a "spontaneous" reaction.

When I first read the lecture, a day or so after it was available to the public, I went to my class and told them frankly that it was the most important address in modern times. It put everything together. I was not exaggerating.

The Islamic context of the lecture was merely an introduction to what has proved to be an insight into Benedict XVI's overall agenda, namely, the grounds on which we approach all religions, cultures and philosophies in the name of their truth, in the name of all truth, including the truth of revelation.

Benedict XVI's sights are by no means narrow. He knows that besides the world of Islam, where most Christians have either left or been driven out, Christianity has only a minimal presence in the great Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist and modern philosophical worlds.

The Pope is seeking a way to see what these worlds have in common and to establish a basis from which each can be addressed in well-grounded terms that cannot be ignored.

Of course, the Islamic reaction quickly made this lecture known throughout the world, something the militants might have had second thoughts about had they realized what they were doing. Many wanted to chastise Benedict XVI for being "imprudent" or "insensitive." But he was neither.

He addressed an issue that did, to be sure, come to world attention because of Islamic militancy. This issue was stated succinctly: "Is it reasonable, or does God will, to spread one's religion by violence?" This was a question asked by practically everyone in the world who thought of the implications of "suicide bombings," or about the earlier holy wars — jihad — in Islamic history, wars largely, though not exclusively, against Christian lands. The issue is the deliberate choice of violent means as the proper way to propagate a religion, together with a theological justification to do so.

The Pope pointed out that within the Koran itself we can find two different answers to the question: one that says "no," one that says "yes." The current turmoil in the world is caused by those in Islam who answer "yes" to this question.

The Pope showed a singular courage in his response to the uproar. He did not back down. He merely said that if anyone was offended by the very posing of the question, he was sorry. But it is not legitimate to be "offended" by a serious question, formally posed, in search to the truth of an issue in an academic setting.

But what first interested me in this lecture was Benedict XVI's more basic concern. This was Europe and the modern scientific mind.

To think that Islam was his main target misses the more penetrating issue that the lecture raised, namely, is the same root cause that justifies suicide bombings at work among us theoretically justifying, by the same philosophic principles, the widespread violent killing of innocent lives?

Militant Islam makes no bones about the idea that it intends to conquer the world for Allah. Thus, there is something starkly simple about Islam, its constant effort since its beginning to submit the whole world to Allah. We tend to think this is fanatical or outlandish. But to many Muslim minds, it is perfectly logical and indeed a basis of action. What the Pope was concerned about was the basis of this claim.

Q: In the book, you compare Benedict XVI's visit with Pope John Paul II's first visit back to Poland. What are the similarities?

Father Schall: John Paul II's first visit to Poland was the revelation of the power of truth against a tyrannical system. It was more than that.

Together with U.S. President Ronald Reagan's insistence of showing the Soviets that they could not keep up in the area of military balance, and the internal decline of morals and will in the Soviet citizens, the Polish Pope's brave and firm presence was something that Poles and the world simply wanted to see, wanted to be there. It was a sign that there was something else in the world but political power. Very few western thinkers predicted the collapse of the Soviet system.

By the time of Benedict XVI's Regensburg visit the whole focus of the world had shifted to suicide bombers, to efforts to pacify Islamic terrorism, either by war or by covert or political action.

The initial political reaction to 9/11 was one that sought to find the terrorists who irrationally caused this astonishing feat of blowing up, before our very eyes, two of the world's largest and most famous buildings in one of the most famous cities in the world.

Subsequent bombings in Madrid, London, Bali, Paris and elsewhere suddenly made the war not between opposing armies but, like the famous raids of the Barbary Coast pirates, sudden incursions out of almost anywhere on almost any target.

A new form of war has been developed which cannot really be explained in traditional western sociological or moral terms. This situation suggests, as the Pope understood, that a much more fundamental analysis of what is going on is required.

What is of importance is that what he found to be the central cause was not something peculiarly Islamic, though it was that too. Islamic philosophy and western philosophy, not to mention Eastern philosophy, often had similar intellectual roots and presuppositions. This is why it is not correct to view this lecture as simply concerned with Islam. It strikes very much closer to home.

Just as John Paul II's first visit to Poland was a kind light in the darkness of despair about ever doing anything about Marxism, so the Regensburg visit of Benedict XVI was a brilliant flash over the whole of intellectual history telling us what was really at stake. Good politicians trying to do something about terrorism cannot proceed, really, until they know exactly what it is they are opposing.

The fact is, it is not terrorism, a sort of vague abstraction. In this sense politics depends on mind. The Regensburg lecture, as Socrates reminded us in the "Gorgias," addresses real politics by addressing the issue of why men act as they do and their reasons for doing so.

Q: You called the lecture "one of the fundamental tractates of our time." Why is that?

Father Schall: The Regensburg lecture has this quality of suddenly illuminating whole fields of knowledge because it knows what belongs where, what the issues are, what is at stake in understanding our times in theoretical terms.

I have even suggested that this lecture brings up again the medieval issue of the harmony of the two swords. That is, what is lacking in the civil discussion is intelligibility of what is at stake, of what in fact is going on.

If we reduce the issue to one of violence by fanatics, we will never understand why political or military solutions, however also needed, as here, will not get to the heart of the problem.

This heart consists in understanding what is going on from a theoretical and theological point of view. The political order is disordered because the order of the soul is disordered, as Plato taught us. It is no accident that Benedict cited Socrates twice in the lecture and found the heart of what he has to say on the side of reason coming from classical Greek philosophy.

Part 2

Interview With Father James Schall By Carrie Gress

ROME, 10 OCT. 2007 (ZENIT)

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 of this interview appeared Tuesday. Part 3 will appear Thursday.

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.

Part 3

Interview With Father James Schall WASHINGTON, D.C., 11 OCT. 2007 (ZENIT)

Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture not only pinpoints the heart of the current international situation, but also reality itself, says Father James Schall.

In the third and final part of this interview with ZENIT, Father Schall, a professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University, comments on what he says is one of the most important discourses of modern times.

He is the author of "The Regensburg Lecture," published by St. Augustine's Press. Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday, Part 2 on Wednesday.

Q: How do you see the Regensburg lecture in relation to John Paul II's encyclical "Fides et Ratio"?

Father Schall: What Benedict XVI sees is the fundamental importance of "Fides et Ratio" on a world scale, not just with Islam, which was something new in John Paul II's time.

John Paul II was rightly taken up with fascism, Marxism and the moral status of the West. John Paul did collaborate with Muslims in several U.N. conferences — Cairo, Beijing — especially about the family, in spite of the differences between Muslim and Christian views on what the family is.

"Fides et Ratio" is the consequence, as it were, of the other two stages of de-Hellenization in Western thought. The second step was with von Harnack who took the consequences of denying that Jesus was divine. He was just human, a nice man. He was a leader or prophet or voice, but he was not the God-man, not the incarnate "Logos." Thus we did not need theology to understand him; rather, we need the social and historical sciences.

Benedict XVI, as he indicates in his book "Jesus of Nazareth," is often concerned with the claim of scholarship to unearth the fundamentals of faith by science's own methods alone. All it can unearth is what is known by the methods, so more and more fundamental things are left out as such scholarship claims priority.

"Fides et Ratio" is a long, incisive analysis of modern philosophy alongside of the question of what kind of philosophy will enable us to understand what is really revealed.

The very notion of a "Christian philosophy" arises from the need to understand in terms of reason just what was said in revelation. The use of a Greek word, not a scriptural word, at the Council of Nicaea, as the Pope said, indicated that under the pressure of understanding revelation, the philosophical experience could be fundamental.

Faith and philosophy are not in contradiction, but are related to grasp the whole of reality. Both are necessary. This is why pure Scripture is not enough even to understand Scripture's own positions. As Chesterton remarked at the end of "Heretics," it would be revelation, not reason, which, in the end, said that the grass is green, that reason in faith alone would affirm the ordinary things of reality that the modern philosophers could no longer comprehend.

Q: In your book, and in the Holy Father's lecture, there is no effort to "turn back the clock" and deny the achievements of modernism. In what ways do you see an integration of the old and the new?

Father Schall: First of all the term "modernism" is generally meant to be a declaration of independence of modern thought from what is past, Greek or scholastic. However, thought in modernity more and more loses its moorings in an ordered reality.

As the Pope points out, the third de-Hellenization is what we call "multiculturalism," a belief that there is no real truth in any culture so that there are no fundamental issues between civilizations or religions, only a kind of tolerance about truth's impossibility.

Despite the claim that multicultural tolerance does not involve violence, its very system contains within itself a tradition within history that does claim that violence is in fact justified by voluntarist premises. In other words, on a purely multicultural theory, there is no reason why voluntarism is not a legitimate position as there is really nothing to oppose it except power.

The Pope repeats several times that he does not want to "go back," but he does wish to distinguish what is good and what is not in modern thought and culture.

Rommen said that the natural law is perennial, that is, it keeps coming back when we reach positions within a culture that normal men of common sense can see clearly wrong. The objective standard keeps calling disorder and injustice to our attention. The Regensburg lecture is an intellectual challenge. This is why it is precisely an academic lecture and not an encyclical; it insists we face the truth and falsity in any culture on the basis of "logos," of reason.

You will notice that the Pope brings in the notion of the fascination with mathematics that we found in Plato. He addresses the scientific mind directly and tells it that its discoveries are based on the fact that mathematics and its many sophistications work in reality. There must be a correspondence between principles of reality and principles of mathematics.

Why is there this correspondence if there is not a realistic philosophy to explain why? And if there is this correspondence, why is there not an ultimate mind that orders all things found with mathematics as well as with its own systems? Much current literature is based on the claims of a new kind of atheism, one that often lacks the intellectual rigor of more classic forms. The confidence of modern atheism does not face the strange correspondences between mind and reality that even science cannot avoid.

The problem with science is not only what it is, but what are we going to do with it? The classic Greeks were said to have known all sorts of inventions but chose not to pursue them because they understood the dangers they might entail for human living itself.

The Regensburg lecture gives science and technology their due by pointing out that they are not everything, but what they do is valid for a certain aspect of things. They can only explain what falls to their competence.

Philosophy, ethics, theology and poetry all reach to realities that are not direct objects of science, to things that are essentially spiritual and nonmaterial. The human intellect transcends its own being to be concerned with all that is.

We are bewildered if we think that science can explain everything, but this does not mean that what it cannot explain is therefore not explicable. It rather means that other insights and ways of knowing have their own validity.

The word of the Pope to science is not "don't be scientific" in the proper sense. It is rather to stop limiting itself to only one concept of reason, a very narrow concept. This concept is good as far as it goes. But it is one that excludes by definition most of the important things men are concerned with.

The Regensburg lecture takes us to the heart not only of current events, but also to the heart of reality itself. Philosophy and revelation are not enemies of each other, but are directed at one another. The exaltation of man by revelation does not imply that he is not what he is created to be, a rational animal, one who does all he does by "logos," by reason.

Man is the glory of God in the sense that God can address his word to him and he can know and comprehend because he is created with the power to know the truth of things. The moral and political life of man is designed to enable us to know what is addressed to us from reason and even, if it happens, from revelation.

What seems clear about the Regensburg lecture is that the best place to understand our times is in the heart of Rome itself. Here, in the native tongues of recent Popes, in Polish, or German, and, yes, Latin, they speak to us of what it means to be human, to be beings addressed by God in both reason and revelation.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field