Published in This Rock, 13 (December, 2002), 10-13.
James V. Schall, S. J.
Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200
TRUTH IN THE DIFFERENCES
Evidently, the University of North Carolina requires all incoming freshmen to study the basic teachings of Islam, or at least a sanitized version of the Koran. Probably, the University of Cairo or the University of Beijing does not require every incoming freshman to study even a sanitized version of the Bible. Indeed, a student in such universities may well be arrested for even possessing a Bible. Christianity can be “studied” in our universities if it is not “advocated.” I know of no university that requires students to know something of the Hebrew or Christian bible as summer assignment before entering freshman year or for graduation, for that matter.
We can, in our universities, talk about Christianity provided we do not maintain it is true -- which, indeed, may be the only reason why it is worth talking about. That is, Christianity is dangerous if one really holds it is true and would propose it as such, would hold that there are solid arguments in its favor. We indeed can “study” Islam -- in fact, it is a growth industry in academia today, almost a fad. We can “study” Hinduism. We can “study” Buddhism. We can “study” Judaism. We can study “paganism.” We should “study” the widespread decline of population in Western European nations and wonder why. We have invented a form of “objective” study that eschews the question of truth. It is not unlike “studying” that two and two are four, but denying any probative value to the proposition on the grounds that we would not want to “impose” our values on anyone.
Both for geopolitical and domestic purposes, we take for granted that a knowledge of Islam is required to understand what goes on in about a fifth of the world, if nor more. If we are going to do business with them, we have to know how they operate. The Koran is a clue. We should likewise “study” the widespread, but little talked-of, civil disabilities of Christians in Islamic countries. It is difficult to call what goes on in the Sudan as anything but a Muslim persecution of Christians. Islam is certainly the most aggressive of the political religions. A majority of military “hot spots” in the world have a Muslim component. We are indeed at war with it, give or take some distinctions that claim, on unclear grounds, to separate “terrorists” from “non-terrorists.”
We certainly should know what other religions teach, provided we do not study just some politically correct version that makes it seem that no issues of importance arise because of the diversity of religious positions and doctrines. We should know their practice also. Why is it, for instance, that mosques can be built in the West but not churches in Islamic lands? Is it sufficient to say that these are different “cultures,” with different “ways” of doing things? Is there no “standard?” All of this effort to “understand” other religions or ideologies (Chinese Marxism still exists with power) is made doubly difficult for Catholics who are, at the moment, in an “ecumenical” mode with regard to all other religions and philosophies. At its best, this approach means that we should seek to find those aspects of other religions or philosophies with which we can agree. We seek to find some correspondence in our own doctrinal heritage with what is taught or done in other religions or philosophies. We should seek areas of cooperation. We sometimes seem to act, however, as if “understanding” all is the only thing we need to do, that there are no other forces at work in the human soul but brains. Aristotle long ago suspected the adequacy of the Socratic notion that all turmoil was a problem of ignorance, a lack of “education” or “knowledge.”
Logically, an adequate understanding of other religions or ideologies should also mean that we identify and state clearly those things that we do not hold in common, those things with which we do not agree. And while it may be true that a religious aspiration exists in all men at all places and at all times in history, it is not true that all religions and philosophies are identical, that their differences are merely incidental matters. That about which they differ usually is what spells out their variance in ways of living, what causes them to clash. It is dangerous to act as if religious or philosophical differences have no impact. We have been adept at finding and emphasizing ways in which we are alike, though I suspect this is not a two-way street. Little study of Christianity goes on in Islam, in China, or even in India. Our “culture” is in that regard different. Western culture is a universal culture both on its philosophical and its religious side. It addresses all men in all times and places with a claim of precisely truth.
The very idea of some universal mission to all men is Christian in origin, though it also has Greek philosophic roots in the natural law tradition. Islam seems to have acquired its world-conquering aspirations from a this worldly interpretation of Christian sources. Even in the modern Western understanding of itself, we find a reluctance to admit the degree to which the culture itself is now based on propositions and deeds that are not in agreement either with Christianity or with the classic philosophic tradition. No culture, including our own, is “neutral.” All cultures also embody positions and practices that are in fact at odds with reason or revelation, things that ought not to be praised or accepted as human ways of doing things simply because the culture does them.
Moreover, “fanaticism,” as it is called, is now proposed as a reason for not taking seriously claims to truth. Stated in its extreme form, “fanaticism,” itself an aspect of “multi-cultural” theory, means that anyone who holds a religion or philosophy to be true is a “fanatic,” an extremist. It does not refer to an unbalanced or distorted way of holding what is in fact true, but to any claim of truth as such. Someone identified as a “fanatic” is therefore dangerous to the public order of any society, indeed to the world itself.
“Universality” of peace is thus said to be built on a certain and firm denial of truth or its possibility. Historicism or multi-culturalism becomes itself an ideology about the structure of reality. There is no truth. Any claim that truth exists is politically dangerous. In this sense, all current violence in the world is said to be caused by Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Communist, or Buddhist “fanatics.” The civil agenda, as a result, becomes one of increasing civil disabilities in all aspects of public life, including schools, to such “fanatics.” The theory is that the more we reduce the degree or intensity with which someone holds that something is true, the more peaceful he will be. Such a position obviously is directly contrary to the idea that it is truth that makes us free, that we should love and live for what is indeed true.
A “fanatic” version of this essentially secularist proposition also can be identified. Its basic proposition is that, in principle, nothing can be true. The human mind is not made for such a thing. No one should be allowed to claim that something is true. All is relative. It must be so. This doctrine must be “established” as the public philosophy. What is called “cultural relativism” is but a refined expression of this position. No question can arise from outside a culture about its own adequacy or truth. We are not freed by such a thought or thesis about truth but imprisoned by it.
Whether some middle ground exists between “fanaticism” and “relativism” is an ancient question. Are there things that art true but also things that can change? This was generally the view of Thomas Aquinas. If we insist that nothing can be true and that those who claim that truth is worth striving for are “fanatics,” we are striking at something very basic in human nature. We are indeed denying to ourselves the very purpose of our intellects.
Moreover, we have, sometimes grudgingly, long acknowledged the valor of those who are persecuted and die for what they hold to be true. The reality of martyrdom exists in our time. We have had more martyrs in the past century than in the rest of history put together. Was their sacrifice in vain? Foolish? Martyrdom still implies that there are things we must not do, must hold. The death of a martyr is not foolish. Rather it prevents relativism. It states that some things are to be upheld. The death of the martyr upholds the truth for which he was killed.
Several years ago, the Church thought it wise to set down in the clearest and most coherent terms possible just what it held about itself. This effort resulted in the General Catechism. The Church proposes what it understands about itself to be true. It claims to hand down what was taught to it. This is its mission. But it wants to be sure that what it proposes is stated accurately with enough surrounding clarification to limit itself to what is essential. The longer arguments or the broader background are left to others, to books, discussions, or schools..
Catholicism is an intellectual religion that intends to state in clear and adequate terms what it understands about God, man, and the world. Those who are Catholics are also expected both to understand what is to be believed and to live accordingly. However, it is part of the faith itself that most people are not sinless. All are tempted; many fall. The credibility of the Church in one sense depends on whether Christians live as they believe. On the other hand, the reason Christ took on a redemptive role was because He knew that all men, including believers, would at times sin or fail. The procedure within the Church to deal with this aspect of human reality is ancient and part of the essential structure of the Church. A good part of the sacramental life of the Church, in one way or another, is designed to define and deal with actual sins.
So, it is both an intellectual Church and a Church of sinners. But it is not a Church that is free to decide on its own what is or is not a truth or a sin. It can identify and promulgate the commandments, but it cannot make what is a sin to be a virtue or vice versa. It can, through Christ, forgive sin, but it cannot change what is a sin. The fact that there are acknowledged sinners in the Church, including in the episcopacy and clergy, is not an argument against the truth of Catholicism. Rather it is an argument in its favor. That is, at one level, why the Church exists. Almost the very first thing that Christ said to us was, “repent,” almost as if to inform us about what was immediately necessary for us to look into before we did anything else.
This attention to what the Church teaches about herself brings us back to the question of the real diversity of religion and philosophy. Christians have been and are persecuted for maintaining or living what they believe to be true. Put in another manner, those who reject this teaching or its freedom to exist in any society will often seek to prevent this teaching to be made known. At times Christians will be threatened with civil sanctions or even with death if they continue to hold or practice what is handed down to be believed. From their own sources, Christians are not to be surprised at this eventuality. They are to do everything they can to be patient and reasonable, but they are not free to deny what they hold. What in fact surprises many people today is how little Christians themselves seem to be concerned when Christians are persecuted and civilly disabled in other parts of the world. It makes us wonder if there is an operative universal Church.
This background brings us to an obvious, but seldom asked, question. Why does the Gospel insist that the Church is to make itself known to “all nations?” Why cannot we let others be? Why cannot we say, as many, even Catholics, now say, that we should cease missionary work, God will provide? The Gospel does say that when someone rejects those sent by the Lord, they should brush the dust of the local streets off their feet and proceed to those in a more hospitable town. Yet, to us moderns, we find this truth upsetting that there are things that should be held or believed, things that can be precisely stated, things that ought or ought not to be done. There is an urgency about this need to know what is revealed, handed down. While we may tolerate or ignore those who refuse to consider what the Church teaches, none the less, people who, either by their own fault or the results of cultural or historical movements, do not have the faith should have it. Indeed, we would say, they implicitly want it, not forgetting that the faith can be and is often explicitly rejected because of what it is, a claim to truth.
Something even more sinister often seems to be at work here. We are told that our struggles are not so much against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. The Church is built on a Rock, but the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. This “not prevailing,” however, does not mean that no hostility, hatred, or bitterness will occur because of the truth that is contained in revelation. We are not simply engaged in a calm intellectual exercise, reasonably working things out among ourselves, though we are engaged in this enterprise too. Oftentimes, every effort is made to prevent from being known any fair or reasonable presentation of the faith and what it holds. We can “study” it, but not present it as true. But if we cannot present it as true, it is not really worth holding or even explaining.
What I conclude from these reflections is the counter-cultural position that we have reached a time in world history in which the most essential thing that the Church must do is to explain, not what it has in common with other religions and philosophies, but how it is different and why. In the end, I think, in these differences is found what mankind most needs to know about itself and its destiny. It is still true that we all need to know the truth.