Fr. James Schall, S.J., died on April 17. A prolific author in the mold of his great influence, G. K. Chesterton, Schall offered a vision of intelligent and sober holiness even amidst the chaos of the modern world. Schall taught that, equipped with the mind God has given him, man has the possibility of negotiating this baffling context with simplicity, grace, and some sort of joy.
Constituents of the Abbey might be surprised to learn that Schall (he often referred to himself in the third person) visited the Abbey several times over the course of his life. This writer observed him on campus at least twice, most memorably during the 2004 Ingersoll Symposium at which the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton received the Richard Weaver Prize for Scholarly Letters. (Yes, Scruton was on our campus, as well!)
At the 2004 symposium Schall delivered a memorable paper, “Culture is Never Neutral.” This paper faithfully reflected the tenor of his long labors at Georgetown University as Professor of Political Science (1977-2012). Insights from that paper still instruct us.
“[An] ‘openness’ to all positions [present in the modern world] is said to prevent ‘fanaticism,’ the worst of evils in a culturally neutral world, since it implies some dogged suspicion of a standard. From this perspective, ‘fanaticism’ is generally said to be any claim that there is an objective truth in things, including human and divine things. We can therefore praise each other’s ‘values’ without going to any effort to determine whether they are worthy of praise according to some standard that can undergird all meaning.”
Schall argues for a “universal” culture that can be “incarnated” in a multiplicity of ways, always tethered to the claims of truth. Human intelligence, of course, does not seek empty abstraction, even if it resists total immersion in particulars. “Cultures do need to stand the test of philosophy and revelation.” Even if we differ from each other in many ways, we do not want to differ about the truth. “What is ‘diverse’ is not the truth, but how we express it.”
In short, “no culture is neutral” in the sense that it is indifferent to the truth and “no culture is neutral” in the sense that it is bland, colorless, and non-identifiable. The abundance of God, world, and mind forbids these outcomes.
In the face of modern propensities to destroy culture–either through Nietzschean “will to power” or the relativism of ill-defined, self-aggrandizing “values”–Schall revives the humble and humane understandings of Genesis and of Cicero: culture is a field, simply given to us, which we must tend with care, if we desire the fruit on which our lives depend. Our “embodied souls” cannot live by abstractions, but rather only by hard labor, over time, by a multiplicity of good wills operating unselfishly. Such is the wholesome “perfection” on offer to man, who in his beginnings was a gardener.
In the abundant harvest of culture(s), right praise much be given to the right god(s)–a proper “cult”–for no culture may remain closed in upon itself. The problem of right worship, Schall avers, “is not avoided by, through democratic tolerance theory, ignoring the question of the right cult, the question of where there is valid worship.”
Clearly for the Christian, whose convictions about the encounter of God with the world represent the highest, most intimate, most thorough effects of divinity upon humanity, the Word Made Flesh conditions culture in its universality and in its particulars. “Get [this] wrong, and no cultural adjustment or expression can save the truth contained and its consequences in how we live and conceive our destiny.”
James Schall himself “incarnated” the culture Christ came to instantiate and the redemption He came to enact. Schall’s attractive character and lively mind nourished all who came to know him, giving them new reasons to believe and rejoice. For this accomplishment, we can be certain that his entrance into the culture of heaven will be no neutral thing, especially as he began his participation in that realm so vividly here below. For the likes of James Schall, our Lord himself extended praises: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Dr. Ronald Thomas
Department of Theology
Fr. Father James Schall SJ at 2010 Graduation where he received an honorary degree from Belmont Abbey.
Fr. Schall was also interviewed for Crossroads Magazine. You can read his interview here.