Allah Is Great; God Is Good - July 1, 2013

I have been reading a few sections from Fr. James Schall’s wonderful The Regensburg Lecture, which explains the background and gives the reader a journey through the thought that Pope Benedict XVI gave in his lecture of September 12, 2006. I remember very well the lecture itself. A friend called me on the 13th and said I should read it. When I did so, it was an astonishing experience. I actually felt blood rushing from my head, which had happened to me only once before in reading, when I read “The Grand Inquisitor” section of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

I knew then that we should publish a work that would explain the greatness of Pope Benedict’s lecture, and I knew immediately that I wanted Fr. Schall to do it. The result is remarkable. Much of what confounds us when we think of the problems (in our estimation) of the Mideast and the trials that we have and are likely to have there in our more-and-more global world are answered in this lecture.

Let me deal with but one aspect, the nature of man’s understanding of his relationship with God. The West, as we know, is growing further and further away from seeking such understanding, of seeing itself as needing a relationship with God, of doubting either the existence of God or, at least, of any need for relationship. Sometimes I fear that in Europe the most we can hope for as a whole is a modern view of deism, which might be stated overly briefly by saying that God created the world and then got out of our way. There is a much greater variety of thought in our country than in many others among the First World, but scholars nevertheless refer to our time as “Post-Christian.”

If there is one certainty among us regarding the Mideast, it is that Muslims do not seem to be in any way deists. God is a living reality there and not merely a something that turned on the switch and then disappeared.

We in the West have been centrally influenced by what some scholars have noted as Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, by the Jewish God, the ancient Greek rationality, and the Christian Messiah. The fact that so many have departed from this great gift or have devolved into a near Dr. Seuss view for explanation is disheartening but perhaps not entirely unexpected. One of the results of this has been a very confused (I’m being nice here) appreciation or, perhaps better, understanding of the Muslim world.

What the lecture gave to us is a reminder of the notion of voluntarism, whereby man understands god as not only without equal but as not bound by any action, logic, or history, whose greatness means that he cannot be contained by anything, even including his own pronouncements, so that nothing need oblige him to reveal the truth to us. He would not be bound, for example, to the law of non-contradiction, a law that presumably he gave us. He would not be constrained by the elementary laws of mathematics, so that if one day he decided that 2 + 2 = 5, it would remain that way . . . until such time as he decided on a different number.

This is a far cry from the God who has purposely limited himself, who acts within the rules he himself wrought upon the world, who withholds his hand, who promised Noah never again to bring about the destruction Noah witnessed, who allowed his own son to face an ignominious and horrible death, who has done these deeds out of a love that we don’t deserve.

Would he be great if all the laws that he gave were such that he could change them as he pleased without explanation? Yes, he would be great, but it would be a greatness like that of the lion, great because he is unpredictable and dangerous and devastating.

His choice, though, was not for the great but for the good.

The trust that we yearn for from God must be based on our intelligence, our experience, even our hope. Man is not born to receive a different world with each awakening from slumber. Even if he could do this, it would dispel any notion of trust, any notion of security, any notion of the good. True, he might stand back in wonder, praising the god who changes, the god who is great. One is left to wonder whether such a god is pleased with his own creation.

The God who holds back his power, who creates a world that applies to him also, who has shown his own power in refusing to use it, who has purposively lived within the rationality that guides our own minds and hearts and actions, who has suffered and died when he need not have so that we may know the full extent of his love for us, we who will suffer and die too . . . has bestowed upon us the answer that we need: There is, in the end, nothing greater than good.

Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. That is why philosophers say it is impossible on earth to conceive the essence of things. God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it. So I think.

Feodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Part II, Book Six: The Russian Monk;
Chapter 3: From Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima;
(g) Of Prayer, Love, and the Touching of Other Worlds