In a new work exploring the connection between revelation and political philosophy, Fr. James Schall argues that revelation is an answer addressed to questions raised, but unable to be solved, by reason alone.
“Political Philosophy and Revelation,” by the Jesuit priest who is emeritus professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, is a collection of 21 essays, as well as an introduction and conclusion, which consider faith and reason, and the place of both philosophy and Christian revelation in the public sphere.
The book, published by Catholic University of America Press, is dominated by the thought of Plato, and by Plato's consideration of the trial and death of Socrates: in “all the dialogues that Plato wrote, he asked the question, 'was it necessary that Socrates be executed by the best city?'” Fr. Schall said in an interview with CNA about the work.
“That particular question is the foundation of political philosophy.”
Fr. Schall explained that a Christian reading Plato will be struck by the fact “that the death of Christ and the death of Socrates are paradigmatic to each other: … they are both in a trial, both are in the best cities of their time.”
“So the question,” central to political philosophy, is “how is it possible that the two best men were killed by a trial?
“That enigma of the similarity in their deaths has always been in my mind the link between reason and revelation, and why (the two deaths) must be considered both together, and uniquely in themselves.”
The deaths of these just men raise this problem, Fr. Schall explained: “the just man will be persecuted, and the unjust will have rewards in this life.”
Plato's solution to this problem of injustice in the world is the immortality of the soul: with an immortal soul, even though “no political institution has produced a situation where all good men have been rewarded, and all bad men punished … then ultimately after death there is a judgment, which sorts out those who are good and those who are evil.”
Fr. Schall explained that reason and philosophy can get this far – to the immortality of the soul – in addressing the problem of injustice in the world.
“Yet Plato leaves you with a question,” an incompleteness, he continued. “The resurrection of the body … has to be a part of this whole political philosophy question, as it appears in Plato, and the reason is that we don't sin as minds alone: it's our whole being, body and soul.”
“The question (of injustice in the world) is unanswerable without revelation, but revelation's idea of the resurrection of the body brings to completion several strands of thought.”
“Christianity doesn't say you can argue from reason to the resurrection of the body,” Fr. Schall clarified. “You can't do that. But, it also says the resurrection of the body, once it is revealed to you by the source of intelligence, is understandable to you, if you are asking the right questions.”
The book “Political Philosophy and Revelation” then, “is designed to show that revelation and reason are designed to go together,” but that “unless you pursue reason as far as it will go under its own powers, you will not recognize that revelation has been addressed to reason.”
If you pursue philosophy and reason as far as they will go, Fr. Schall said, “you have to get to a point where you don't understand something: 'my mind understands that there ought to be an answer to this, but it doesn't know what it is,'” and that any philosopher, not just a Jew or Christian, can see that the Bible “is an appeal directed to reason.”
“It is directed to precisely those questions which the human mind can't figure out by itself … reason, when it is understanding as much as it can by itself … can at least see that the Christian answer to the question of justice in the world … is a reasonable answer.”
The relevance of all this to today's world, the priest said, is that we're seeing “a reduction of that link between reason and revelation,” in which governments are denying that religion has a role to play in the public square, or that religious people have a right to act in accordance with their conscience: religion is being relegated to the private sphere.
“When they cross that fine line, it was a momentous thing for us, in Aristotelian terms, of tyranny. People think that a tyrant is … all kind of terrible things. No; if you read Plato, the tyrant is a rich, well spoken, well-educated, very attractive person who … becomes himself the decider of what is right and what is wrong; there is nothing higher than he is.”
Fr. Schall described the “dramatic scene” in Plato's dialogue the Gorgias, where the would-be tyrant, Callicles, who believes in power over reason and argument, says, 'I will no longer talk to you, Socrates, I'll let you go talk by yourself.'”
“What he does is one of the most momentous things in the history of thought,” Fr. Schall explained.
“When you come to that moment … you know Socrates is dead at that point, because Socrates’ only defense is if the tyrant will engage him in thought and argument. And in our context right now, we are seeing that they won’t engage us in argument any longer, and they'll simply say, 'no, we will do this whether you like it or not.'”
In the face of court cases involving religious freedom, Fr. Schall suggested that at times, we “have been arguing on the wrong basis … it should not be argued on the basis of religious freedom, but on the basis of what's reasonable.”
The reasonableness of revelation, he said, is what Catholics are called to share with the rest of the world. And this sharing is what we must first be concerned with, rather than whether it will be accepted.
“The essence is not 'how do we convince people this is so'; that is a legitimate question, but the broader question is, 'are you teaching the truth or are you afraid to teach the truth?'”
Political philosophy, Fr. Schall concludes in the book, is a question of what place philosophy has in the polis, the public sphere. Philosophy is meant to come to know reality, and revelation's role as an answer to the questions of philosophy mean that both these do have a place in the public square.
“All persons reach, or fail to reach their transcendent end in a manner that includes their freedom and how it was used in the polities of their time,” Fr. Schall writes in the conclusion of “Political Philosophy and Revelation.”
“Political philosophy eventually confronts issues that it cannot fully answer by itself, by its own methods and competency … the knowledge of politics includes the knowledge of its intrinsic limits. In this sense, the purpose of revelation is to free politics to be politics and not a pseudoreligion or metaphysics.”