Ken Masugi: What about Thucydides in regard to the education in the highest things? Consider that very curious ending in Leo Strauss's The City and Man, quid sit deus (what would God be?). Why does Strauss end it with the Latin question?
Father Schall: Strauss' ending was "quid sit Deus?" The only question that we can answer, however, as Aquinas maintained, is "an sit Deus?" (whether there is a God?"). It is on the basis of that question, "whether there is a God?", that the questions about the nature of this God, "what is God?" can in some sense be answered. But that is the whole issue about "negative" philosophy. We cannot know what God is unless we ourselves be God, which we obviously are not. We can know the perfections that exist in things. When we have said everything about them, we know God is still not comprehended by our understanding of what we know. We know thus what he is not. The whole understanding about unity and simplicity in God we arrive at negatively. What is is greater than what we know, even when what we know is a real knowledge and indeed great.
Through all of these existing things, we can know indirectly what God is, because real things analogously exist in our experience and do not explain themselves. Therefore, if they stand outside of nothingness, their causes must be in their origins more different than what we know and what we experience. As it says in the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas, to protect the human mind's own true knowledge rooted in things, it cannot directly know God, what He is (quid sit Deus?). Therefore, the question of Thucydides about what are the gods? About "what is God?," is the ultimate question. The question is central if philosophy claims to seek to know the whole.
Strauss' position about the relationship between reason and revelation maintains that they both have to come to some neutral accommodation. The one, reason, cannot reach or refute the other. revelation, or vice versa. They have come to an impasse with regard to each other. One cannot refute the other. Both have to say, "we cannot refute the other, so therefore let us live in respect toward one another." This proposed impasse seems quite unsatisfactory. That there need be no impasse is why I think these philosophers so gingerly treat St. Thomas. St. Thomas, though deeply respected, is never really treated quite fairly. He is said to have "preserved" Aristotle, but he does not become more Aristotelian than even Aristotle, as I would hold.
If there is this connection of intelligibility between faith and reason, it destroys the whole notion of an impasse. We have to reckon with the fact that there is something more that arrives to us that is not philosophy, though it is directed to our mind. Therefore, we should look for this "more." Our whole being cries out to do so. We cannot simply reject anything that is out there that answers valid philosophic questions. If we do refuse to consider the revelational answers on theoretic grounds, we then have to take the position that the answer to our philosophic questions cannot come from revelation, or better, from Christian revelation. This refusal is the origin of that kind of ideology (or counter explanation of reality) that arises out of the necessity to advance an alternative.
Someone sent me the other day an account of a Jewish rabbi, about why Christ, on a careful reading of the Hebrew Bible, could not have been God. This is a very interesting reflection. Pious Jews have to explain another kind of Messiah from the same book that the Christians explain their own account of revelation. The modern relation of Christians and Jews at its best is a serious reflection or consideration of the truths of these readings.
Generally the alternative to the Christian account of the last things — this is something Voegelin was good at explaining — will be a this-worldly Messiah, something that is characteristic of most modern ideologies. The Messiah, or whatever it is called, has to be someone or some thing that is looking for the good of everything. But it cannot include the notion of personal death, resurrection of the body, transcendent God. We cannot go that direction and still maintain that Christian revelation is false. Therefore we have to invent a philosophical or theological system that requires us to formulate another answer to these questions. Everyone has to protect intellectually from a position that claims to be true both in the order of reason and revelation.
KM: Now, to go back to the Thucydides. What struck me is that this book, The History of the Peloponnesian War is supposed to be this great book on war, which, of course, it is. But Strauss turns it into the ultimate question about the ultimate question, God. Today we are in a war of sorts, and you take it to be in a sense an extension of the Crusades.
JVS: The Crusades were a much-delayed defensive action that, had they not been undertaken, would have opened Europe to be conquered by a very aggressive Islam. The Crusades were a response to a religion that had conquered three quarters of the Mediterranean, mostly Christian, world, without much effective response. It would have conquered the rest of it had it not been repulsed. The Crusades, granted well-known problems, were a defensive reaction that, in a certain sense, prevented an Islamization of Europe. We seem now to witness a renewed effort again to expand Islam outside its desert confinements. One thing that I find especially interesting is that Islam would probably win this battle against the West if it did not choose to fight, if it just kept increasing in numbers before a declining western population.
There was a lead article in the Post the other day that said something like half of the new jobs in the United States are taken by immigrants, that is, by someone else's children. What does that mean? It means that the whole structure of society is changing right before our eyes and we fail to acknowledge the "culture of death" as a major cause. Even more so is this happening in Europe, because the Europeans do not assimilate new peoples easily. We tend to think, perhaps optimistically, that it is normal to assimilate immigrants. The point is that our immigrants in the United States, up until this time, have been mostly from the same broad culture. They are not anymore, except for the Latin Americans. One thing about the United States is that half of the immigrants here are, of course, Hispanic. They are from the same civilization. They are not from a different civilization. An Hispanic is not an "alien" in our civilization. He is simply a member of the civilization coming up from, say, Mexico. But if we talk about Muslims or Hindus or Chinese, then a deeper problem may exist. But even there, the Chinese and the Arabs in America are very often Christianized. They say something like 80 percent of the Christian Arabs have left the Middle East to the West.
KM: I believe the majority of the Arabs living in America are Christian.
JVS: I think that it is utterly naÃ¯ve to think this is that this is a fight about "terrorism." I am willing to say that the distinction between good Muslims and terrorists is politically a good or necessary move, a kind of "noble lie." But we should not be naÃ¯ve about what we up against. The reason we cannot see that there may be a more dangerous problem is because we are mostly all relativists today. Our relativism blinds us and does not allow us to say that there is someone so passionately interested in what he believes, that he does not care about his own life and death.
Aristotle had already said that if someone intends to kill us and does not care about his own death, it will be very difficult to stop him. We have no idea what to do with voluntary and arbitrary suicide bombers, something justified in some Muslim traditions. If someone does not care about his life, unless we get to him first, he can kill us if he wants to, especially if he thinks that he is a martyr in doing so. We see that every day, and it is incomprehensible to us. Why would some fool want to do that? For us often there is no such thing as an idea worth dying for, generally anymore including our own country. To turn around and say, "well this is just a question of a few odd weirdoes," does not work. They are not "weirdoes" in their own terms; their culture looks on them often as heroes.
KM: So how might such a disarmament of Islam occur, a more rational Islam, a sort of "enlightenment" of Islam?
JVS: You have the right issue. Namely, it does go back to the origins of science and modernity, the nature of Islamic rejection of Christianity and Judaism. No diversity, no Trinity, in the Godhead means that, for Islam, implicitly at least, Christians are "idolaters." Christ cannot be "true God and true man," as no distinction in the Godhead is allowed. Once we understand what obedience or submission to a divine will that itself has no other control other than its own pure will means, it seems to follow that there can be no natural law or even no secondary causality. Those who maintain the supremacy of divine mind or the reality of secondary causes are considered heretical in some sense. There has to be a recognition that this understanding of the Godhead as pure will has something wrong with it in principle. It is by no means a neutral principle.
The Pope has been so great on many things. He is always preaching the need of dialogue and of agreeing when possible, particularly with Islam. I think he has constantly propose discussion. We do have to find out what is good in any system, however strange it may seem. We have to work with that good and say we agree on those things that are common.
Remember that Maritain's chapter in Man and the State (Chicago, 1952) is about the practical Democratic Creed. He maintained that we need not care in public how someone philosophically arrives at an agreed-on principle of law or action, though Maritain did not deny that theoretic argument was important. But when we do arrive at practical agreement, we will, so Maritain proposed, all arrive at it together and agree to uphold what is agreed upon. We will live together in peace. I am not so sure that this agreement will happen. Unless we have a theoretical background of agreement, which is truth, we are unlikely to agree on practical things.
KM: Jumping to the current crisis in the church, and maybe possibly relating our natural law discussion to this, what is it that you think non-Catholics should be learning from the way the church reacts? In other words, how should the church be making use of this terrible situation to communicate its teaching?
JVS: It is always important to explain one's own doctrine in light of his own problems. The Catholic Church has never denied that any members of its own Church, whether Pope or peasant, is potentially, or actually, a sinner. Therefore, when Christ said that He came into the world, He affirmed that He did not come for those who did not need Him. He came for sinners. One of the primary purposes of Catholicism lies in the fact that the revelation is designed to address itself to sinners in order for them to stop as much as possible their being what they are, namely sinners. Such ceasing can only happen if the cause of the sin in the human will is in some sense acknowledged, whether it be publicly or privately, depending on the nature of the thing. There should always be a difference between private confession and public scandal. We seem to have arrived at that point where Scripture says that our sins will be "shouted from the housetops."
Normally speaking, we do not want to have people going on and on about their sins all the time. I mean, if we commit a sin, we commit a sin. Get rid of it, restore one's life, and live with it. But in the process of repentance, we must acknowledge that this act is a sin if in fact it is a sin. We must restore order in our souls, where all disorder begins. But once we claim that our sin a "right," a natural thing to do, instead of saying what it is, a sin, then we involve ourselves in an attack on the Church itself, or better, on the right order of things. Once we say that homosexual acts are, as such, an expression of love and devotion, that they have nothing intrinsically wrong with them, and that there is no disorder in the act itself, then we intimate that the only "disorder" is found in the discrimination of people speaking or acting against those practicing such acts. Once we arrive that position, then the whole notion of what one is doing deflects us from the issue itself.
I think that this whole issue in the contemporary scandal in the Church has been obscured in the sense that it is not primarily a pedophilia problem. Statistically and financially, it is a homosexual problem. That position goes against the modern notion of what is legally a "right," versus what is right. And therefore there is a conflict between the public notion of what is a "right" and the fact of sin. To disagree with such a "right," looks like a prejudice, because what one is saying is that, in my world, it is not right. Therefore, we cannot resolve the problem because no common standards can be found according to which the issue can be resolved. It either is or is not an aberration. That is why that George's book, In Defense of Natural Law, is such a wonderful book. He looks at precisely what is the objective issue involved in this activity.
One of the things that is revealed in this whole scandal is the refusal of bishops to be bishops, to be orthodox bishops. It is a failure of leadership. It goes back to who is appointed, how were they appointed, by whom? Why was not anything done about the issue long ago? Insofar as it is a reflection on the Pope, since he appointed most of these bishops, in some sense it shows that there has been a lack of attention to the governance side of the Papacy. That lack goes down the ecclesiastical line. The Church does not have an FBI to keep the Pope informed of aberrations in high places. The Pope is not a super mind who looks over at the United States automatically to find a really good priest to be a bishop. If the Pope says to existing episcopal advisors, "whom do you recommend to be a bishop?" they come up with three names. The three names they come up with are not names the Pope pulls out of the sky. They are three that someone presents him to select. The local authorities testify that they are acceptable. The Pope then appoints one.
The Pope is a charismatic man as teacher. When it comes to appointing bishops, he must choose someone for each open post. He must appoint this bishop to be in charge of a diocese for the good of the souls of the people entrusted to him. If the man fails him, the Pope, who has a generous heart and expects men to follow his example, is left holding the bag. He goes back and wonders to himself, "what do you expect of people who are sinners?" Obviously, he does not expect it to be something disordered that infiltrates the Church's most important training program in a seminary. But if it in fact comes to that, and it is that in certain areas, then something radical has to be done.
The idea of reprimanding or removing someone that the Pope himself has put in charge carries a certain embarrassment. The Pope depends on these men. The Pope does not knock heads, as it were, because he expects bishops, especially sinful ones, to change their ways so that he can do what he is supposed to do. There is something noble about the expectation that honorable men will do honorable things. But whether one can expect every bishop to do it, I don't know. We do not want the episcopal position to be just a temporary appointment. It is supposed to be a lifetime duty and service. The Church is not simply just a Pope. There is a whole structure. The Pope cannot substitute himself to do everything. He is not just a religious leader. Reading George Weigel's biography of John Paul II, one can only exclaim, "what a man!" But no one can help wonder, respectfully, why this Pope has let this scandal go on so long.
KM: Do you have any recommendations for Christmas reading books?
JVS: Yes, Ignatius Press published Chesterton's book, What's Wrong with the World. It is a very short book, written in 1910. It is about the woman, the man, the child, and the home. The most important thing we have to recognize today is what is it that goes on in the home? In spite of all our experiments to find something else, there is no substitute for it.
Also, I have been doing this class on Plato. The controversy about genetics is already in Plato. My view of Plato is that when he is wrong, as he was on the proposal for a communality of wives, children, and property, he is, nevertheless, very close to being right. I tried to spell this point out in an essay called "The Christian Guardians" (Downside Review [January, 1979]). We do need certain people to look out for the common good. They should not be there for greed or vanity or pride, vices often symbolized by wealth and honors. Rulers are to be there for service, as the New Testament teaches. Within the Church, the vow allows one to do this service, while at the same time, the vows are to protect the family. This suggests further the terrible wrongness of recent clerical crimes. Unlike Plato, this concept of service is not, in principle, antagonistic to the family; rather it arises out of it.
Christianity says that in order be a father or mother of a family, in order to have a family, one has to go all out for it, give his heart to it. One cannot be putzing around with something else. Whereas if someone is going to be a monk, he has to be a monk. He cannot be worried about a family, however good it is, because it interferes with what he should be doing.
What I naturally recommend for current Christmas reading, to return to your question, is Schall's On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs (ISI Books, 2001). I think that title points to the really crucial question. "The unseriousness of human affairs" is a Platonic phrase that comes from The Laws. When we get right down to it, human affairs, however noble, are not that important. The whole of modernity has been built on the notion that the most important thing is what we do in this world. But this is conceived to be all that there is. Behind most movements for the reformation of the world lies an ideological supposition: since this world is all there is, it must be of supreme importance.
That whole Epicurean argument about false fear of the gods lies behind much of this over-emphasis of the world. I think that Platonic philosophy can leads us to worship because Plato reminds us that God, not man, is truly important. Plato simply implies that, however great man is, which is not to be denied, God is much greater. To Him our highest attention is to be paid. In this matter, I am an admirer of Catherine Pickstock's book, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Blackwell, 1998). In the end, if there is a disorder in our cities, it is probably because there is a disorder in our souls. And if there is a disorder in our souls, it is because we do not seek the highest things, the ultimate seriousness, something that we are called to do in the very structure of our being. Augustine was right, our hearts are "restless" until they find an object worthy of our peace. This too was de Lubac's point that no one is actually created who does not have the Beatific Vision as that which alone will satisfy him.