Peter Kreeft and Robert Spencer Engage in Lively Debate on Islam

by Thomas More College on November 8, 2010

On Nov. 4, 2010, Thomas More College hosted two of the leading writers on religion in the English-speaking world: Philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, and internationally-known scholar and critic of Islam Robert Spencer, director of Jihadwatch. These two eminent thinkers came to the school’s New Hampshire campus on a rainy Thursday night and spoke to a crowd of more than 100 visitors , along with the whole of Thomas More College’s student body, crammed into the Newman Humanities room and spilling out into the hallways, as cameras rolled. The debate was chaired by Thomas More College’s Writer-in-Residence Dr. John Zmirak, author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010). Both Spencer and Kreeft contributed essays to Disorientation: How to Go To College Without Losing Your Mind (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2010), which Zmirak edited. Spencer’s essay criticized the anti-Western ideology of Multiculturalism, and Kreeft’s the heresy of Progressivism, or “chronological snobbery.”

Kreeft is author of more than 45 books about faith and philosophy, including such classics as Making Sense of Suffering and The Handbook of Christian Apologetics, and the provocative Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War. Spencer, a former philosophy student of Kreeft’s, has written ten books, including New York Times bestsellers The Truth About Muhammad and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades); he also edits the daily news site Jihadwatch, which tracks jihad-related violence and activism around the world, and consults regularly for the FBI and other national security agencies. While Kreeft is widely detested by dissenting Catholics and atheists for his agility at besting them in debates, Spencer is on a list of four Americans targeted by Al-Qaeda for assassination.

The authors came at the invitation of Thomas More College’s Edmund Campion Debate Society, which sponsors regular student debates on philosophical and theological issues—most recently the morality of the 18th (Prohibition) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the “just war” credentials of the American Revolution.

On Nov. 4 the topic was “Is the Only Good Muslim a Bad Muslim?” Mr. Spencer came to argue that Islam as codified in the Q’uran and explicated by all authoritative sources aspires to subjugate and oppress “unbelievers” and impose sharia law throughout the world; because sharia law is inimical to religious freedom and to human dignity, we as Catholics should hope that Muslims are not devout enough to advocate it, (as their own faith says they must) by either warlike or peaceful means.

Dr. Kreeft came to offer his own perspective on the religion of Islam. In his latest book, Between Allah and Jesus (Nottingham, England: IVP Books, 2010), Prof. Kreeft uses the figure of ‘Isa, a devout Muslim studying at Boston College, to highlight the commonalities Kreeft sees between Islamic and Catholic piety, and point up all that we can learn from truly devout adherents of Islam—set in stark contrast to the post-modern, dissenting Catholicism widely accepted at secularized Catholic colleges. Through ‘Isa (whose name is the Arabic form of Jesus, accepted by Muslims as merely a prophet), Kreeft argues that terrorism, military jihad, and the aspiration to subjugate “unbelievers” such as Jews and Christians, are not necessarily germane to the religious lives of Muslims. Isa insists that such manifestations of Islam are perversions of its true spirit, as witch-burnings, inquisitions, and religious wars were distortions of Christian faith.

Spencer agreed with Kreeft that since Islam is the faith of more than a billion people, he would also like to find a version of that religion which renounces religious oppression, the suppression and mistreatment of women, and the use of violence. “Having studied the source materials—the Qur’an, the authentic Hadiths accepted by all Muslims, and the teachings of the most authoritative scholars across the Islamic world, I regret that I must say: Such an Islam does not exist. I wish it did. So does Dr. Kreeft. But we must not settle for wishful thinking. There are many peaceful Muslims who do not engage in violent jihad and who support religious freedom, but in doing so they are acting like Catholics who practice birth control or support legal abortion. They are defying their religion, because they do not have the authority to reform it,” Spencer said.

Spencer went on to cite a number of Qur’anic injunctions to conquer, convert, or subjugate Jews and Christians—and noted that because these verses of the Q’uran were spoken by Muhammad later in his life, orthodox Muslims consider them more normative than his earlier calls for religious toleration. “Essentially, when Muhammad was weak and unpopular, he asked members of other faiths to live and let live. Once he controlled the city of Medina and led an army, he received new revelations that called for jihad and religious persecution. Islamic scholars believe that the later revelations abrogated (or overruled) the earlier ones. But when they are in a position of weakness—as they are today in America—Muslims like to cite the peaceful verses. Sad to say, they are merely being strategic. When they gain a position of power, they will always change their tune. Hamas, in the Gaza Strip, is already planning—once it defeats the Israelis—to collect the Islamic tax (or jizya) from that area’s remaining Christians.”

Kreeft reiterated his book’s focus on the theological essence of Islam, which is a radical submission (Arabic: islam) to the will of God, a stark theocentrism that subjugates all merely human concerns to the demands of obedience to the creator. That willingness to serve (Latin: serviam) is for Kreeft almost identical to the humility and obedience displayed by Christian saints, and ought to serve as a lesson to contemporary Catholics—who all too often treat the demands made by their own faith as mere suggestions, to be taken or rejected by the self-directed (and often self-serving) individual conscience. Kreeft spoke eloquently of the “fear of God” as an indispensable starting point in the life of faith. “As Chesterton wrote, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. For Christians, unlike Muslims, it is not the end. But if we do not have it at the beginning, we will treat God’s law with contempt, as so many of us nowadays do.”

Kreeft pointed to higher birthrates among contemporary Muslims, and their rejection of abortion and pornography, as evidence of their willingness to “postpone gratification, and pay forward the gift of life to new generations—something far too few Christians are doing in our time. That’s another lesson we can learn from Muslims.” Kreeft argued that “good Muslims” can prick our conscience on such issues, and serve sometimes as our allies in international culture wars—as Islamic countries have done in past years at the United Nations, when their votes helped the Holy See and a few Catholic nations such as the Philippines defeat anti-life population control programs supported by formerly Christian countries throughout Europe.

Spencer agreed that Catholics and Muslims can work together, but insisted that we act “with open eyes,” fully informed about the intrinsic intolerance of orthodox Islam. “Also, we have to be aware of the full range of Islamic beliefs and practices. Most schools of Islamic thought accept artificial birth control. And the Islamic practice of divorce is something even secular Westerners find appalling: A Muslim man can divorce his wife simply by telling her verbally. Then she must leave his home, with no rights to alimony or custody of children. Also, he can marry up to four women at a time, provided he treats them all ‘equally.’ Because the prophet Muhammad is seen as the perfect model of conduct, a Muslim man can marry a girl as young as 9 years old—since that’s what Muhammad did. That is why Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni lowered the legal age of consent for girls to 9 years. He was taking Muhammad’s example as normative. With sexual ethics like these, are Muslims really our natural allies? On a few issues, maybe.”

Kreeft did not dispute Spencer’s assertions about Islam, but insisted that we as Catholics should not prefer the secularism of modern Europe to the theocentrism of Muslims. “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.”

Responding to a question from Spencer, Kreeft expanded on what he wrote in Between Allah and Jesus about the divine revelation claimed by Mohammed: “Private revelations have happened all through Christian history, and the devil loves to get in there and distort the message, to filter it through human fallenness and fill it with flaws. Perhaps that is what happened—that God really did have a message He intended Muhammad to transmit to the Arabs, and a lot it got through, but it was admixed with other things, that were purely human and even sinful. I don’t claim to know. But large elements of Islam are identical with Judaism and Christianity—because that’s where Mohammad got them. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, all three of us worship the same God.” Spencer countered that the many distortions of the divine and natural law unique to Islam made its common origin with Judaism and Christianity essentially irrelevant.

A lively question period followed, in which Thomas More students and guests of the college challenged each author on his assertions, and expressed admiration for their books. In response to one question, about Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address, Kreeft pointed to the pope’s explicit comparison of Islamic theology and that of Calvinism—the faith in which Kreeft was reared. “They both, in the end, reject the use of reason in trying to understand God. In the West, this led to modern secularism, as Pope Benedict pointed out. Among Muslims, it led to the death of philosophy. In a profound sense, Islam and the secular West are mirror images of each other.” After the debate, both authors joined students and guests for a reception in the Helm Seminar room of the College.

Named for the great Jesuit martyr whose forensic skills flummoxed the most articulate Anglican spokesmen in his day, the Campion Society sponsors student debates in the Oxford format—extemporaneous, without notes or time limits, conducted in the style of the British parliament. Created to help students gain a deeper appreciation of Rhetoric as a liberal art, the Campion debates supplement Thomas More College’s traditional core curriculum, which extends through all four years, covers the Great Books of the Western world, and includes extensive training in Catholic philosophy and theology. More student debates will be held throughout the 2010-11 academic year, also chaired by Dr. Zmirak.

Previous post:

Next post: