It’s a strange commentary on our times that, 10 years after 9/11, while most writers, scholars and politicians are still reluctant to talk openly about the central question of the War on Terror — Does Islam condone violence? — one of the few men who is willing to talk about it is an 83-year-old Jesuit priest.
His name is Father James Schall. Schall is a legendary figure at Georgetown University, where he went to grad school in the late 1950s and where he started teaching in 1977. Schall, the author of over 30 books, teaches classical philosophy and political theory. “My main goal,” he tells his politics class of about 100 students on the day I came to visit (video here), “is to not let you leave this university without reading some Aristotle.” A skinny man who has survived cancer, Schall is still spry and funny. He can talk cogently about virtually any topic, from Plato to Chesterton to baseball and the joys of walking.
He is also one of the most reasoned and perceptive voices when it comes to Islam. In 2006, liberals attacked Pope Benedict for a small part of a lecture he gave in Regensburg, Germany. The pope quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, who claimed that all Mohammad brought into the world was evil and violence. The point that was lost on liberals — who love to lose such points if indeed they ever attempt to understand them — is the question of the reasonableness and rationality of Islam. For the larger points of the pope’s lecture are about forced conversions, religious violence, the reasonableness of God and how Christianity differs from Islam.
Shortly after the pope’s lecture, while liberals were still screaming about the pope being “insensitive,” Schall published a book, “The Regensburg Lecture,” which analyzes the pope’s address. For me, “The Regensburg Lecture” remains one of the most insightful books about 9/11 and the War on Terror.
According to Pope Benedict and Father Schall, what makes Christianity unique is that when it was spreading it was forced to justify itself in terms of Greek philosophy. St. Paul traveled west, not east, to spread the gospel, and his road took him to places filled with Greek philosophy. As Schall explained it to me, according to Christianity, God is bound — even if it is God himself doing a kind of self-binding — to human reason. God wants to be known, wants us to understand him, and in order for us to understand him he has to make himself intelligible to us.
To be sure, we believe that God reveals himself through revelation, but, as Schall notes, that revelation must be explored, fulfilled and truly understood through reason. It’s not a coincidence that Catholicism, the most intellectual wing of Christianity, found believers in philosopher-intellectuals like Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and John Paul II. It’s also why Christianity, at least the more cerebral, non-yahoo varieties, works so well in a democratic republic like America. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed not only to God and the conscience, but to human reason. It’s no mistake that he quotes St. Thomas Aquinas in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s why we see God in nature, music, human love, art and joy.
In Islam, God binds himself in no way. Schall notes that in this view, “God can make good evil and evil good tomorrow.” He is beyond reason itself. This may be why Islam is such a killjoy religion — what reason is there to think God delights in art, music or dancing? He is capricious, beyond all that, impossible to understand. The only duty the believer has is submission. It is also why many Muslims believe in forced conversions. If all that matters is submission, if God can contradict himself and turn moral categories on their heads, then converting someone at the end of a sword is not a problem.
This is the problem with Islam. It’s the question that, 10 years after 9/11, the dictatorship of political correctness has made impossible to explore with any real depth and seriousness. Schall agrees that in the West we are increasingly also rejecting human reason. In “The Regensburg Lecture,” Schall sounds a note of frustration at the intolerant blowback that occurs whenever someone wants to raise honest questions about Islam and violence.
“The angered protest over even asking the question about violence made it seem to most people that few in Islam will face the objective purpose of the question asked — that is, does or does not Islam in principle approve violence?” he writes. “The medieval query is a contemporary query. The reaction proves it.”
Schall continues: “To make it an insult, blasphemy, or crime even to ask the question is itself a problem with the most serious consequences. Logically, it means the question can never be answered on the basis of reason. One cannot imagine that Mohammad himself would have been insulted by someone wanting to know the foundation and implication of his own teachings.”
So, 10 years on, the question remains: Does Islam condone violence? If not, why not? If an 83-year-old Jesuit has the guts to ask it, we should as well.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.