Last week I was privileged to moderate a debate between two of the best writers on religion in the English-speaking world, Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft and Jihadwatch director Robert Spencer. How was I able to land two eminent speakers on the same night? Easy: I was their editor. Both Kreeft and Spencer contributed eloquent essays to the collection I compiled: Disorientation: How to Go to College without Losing Your Mind. The debate took place at the wonderful little Catholic liberal arts academy where I teach, Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, which accounts for the atmosphere of amity and clarity that prevailed at the event. It could have gone much differently, since the speakers were handling nitroglycerine.
The topic was, “Is the Only Good Muslim a Bad Muslim?” which was drawn from Professor Kreeft’s book Between Allah and Jesus — a graciously written account of the interactions at Boston College of several composite characters: an orthodox, pious Muslim; a black dissenting Catholic; an Evangelical Christian; and a wise old faithful Jesuit philosopher. In his winning way, Kreeft uses the Muslim character to point up the gaping hole at the heart of liberal, postmodern religion: the absence of the “fear of God.” I’m not vain enough to think that I can improve on Kreeft’s own prose, so I’ll let him speak for himself:
Yes, Islam is “primitive.” Chesterton says: “The Fear of the Lord, that is the beginning of wisdom, and therefore belongs to the beginnings, and is felt in the first cold hours before the dawn of civilization; the power that comes out of the wilderness and rides on the whirlwind and breaks the gods of stone; the power before which the eastern nations are prostrate like a pavement; the power before which the primitive prophets run naked and shouting, at once proclaiming and escaping from their god; the fear that is rightly rooted in the beginnings of every religion, true or false: the Fear of the Lord, that is the beginning of wisdom; but not the end.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dumb Ox)
That Fear of the Lord is the foundation of our religion, though it is not the capstone. It is the beginning, though not the end. But if we try to erect a building on another foundation, it will fall. The most beautiful thing about a plant is its fruit or flower, not its root. But the plant will not grow from any other beginning, it will not grow backwards. Without justice, no real charity. Without the fear of God, no real love of God.
It is this primal vigor that Kreeft finds admirable in Islam, and throughout the book he skillfully shows how it contrasts with the haughty, narcissicistic skepticism that prevails throughout the post-Christian West, even among many who claim to be somehow Catholic. (This problem is surely worse in Boston than almost anywhere else on earth, except perhaps Louvain.) And that is the message Kreeft repeated at Thomas More College — reiterating what he suggested in Between Allah and Jesus: that terrorism, military jihad, and the use of violence to subjugate “unbelievers” are perversions of Islam, as witch-burnings, inquisitions, and religious wars were distortions of Christianity.
Robert Spencer, the author of ten painstakingly researched books on political Islam (such as The Truth About Muhammad), replied that Kreeft was playing a dangerous game, scoring points against liberal Catholics — who surely deserve it — at the price of soft-pedaling the truth about Islam: that it is every bit as much an ideology as a religion. Orthodox Islam, as codified in the Koran and propounded by every authoritative school of interpretation, demands that Muslims seek to dominate the world, imposing on polytheists (such as Hindus) the simple choice of conversion or death. Christians and Jews face a third option: accepting with “willing submission” a second-class, servile status called “dhimmitude,” which is comparable to the status African-Americans had under Jim Crow laws. Under sharia law, which every faithful Muslim is commanded to advocate by peaceful or warlike means, no non-Muslim house of worship may be built, and no old one may be repaired. No other gospel may be preached, and no non-Muslim may hold any authority over Muslims — relegating Christians and Jews (when the latter are tolerated at all) to the lowest, most degrading professions in society. The Copts in Egypt currently live in much this status, even as their government pays lip service to secularism.
When sharia is fully enacted — as it was for centuries under the Ottomans, until Western military pressure forced some reforms in the 19th century — non-Muslims must pay a special tax (the jizya) from which Muslims are exempt. As Spencer explained, Islamic gangs in Baghdad are already hammering on the doors of terrified Christians demanding the jizya, and the terrorists of Hamas have announced their plans to collect the jizya, as soon as the “Zionist enemy” is defeated.
Kreeft deferred to Spencer’s account of Islam in practice, but insisted on his main point: that the heritage of the Western Enlightenment is far more dangerous to the Church than the faith of Muslim immigrants. While orthodox Muslims threaten our bodies and our freedoms, the Enlightenment threatens our souls. “Our real enemies, as Christians, are demons. It’s all too easy, as we have done in past centuries, to think that Muslims or Communists are the problem, and if we can only defeat and subjugate them the Church will triumph. I would say that today the spirit of the secular Enlightenment — which rejects God altogether, and encourages us to worship ourselves — is far more dangerous to our souls than a world religion that is devoted to worshiping the same God as Christians and Jews, albeit in a partial, somewhat primitive and distorted manner.”
It’s a fascinating exchange between two men with first-rate minds who love the Church. I urge you all to watch it for yourselves: