September 16, 2006

The Pope's line in the sand

As the flap over the Pope's address at the University of Regensburg spread, it seemed time to take a good look at what he actually said (transcript in German here, English version here). From initial reportage, it seemed as if this might be somewhat akin to the Lawrence Summers affair, where certain opinions had been deemed so unacceptable that even mention of their existence was grounds for execration. Yet upon closer examination, there's much more going on here.

For Benedict's address does fault Islam quite forthrightly -- but chiefly and centrally regarding a point apparently overlooked by all the most vocal protesters, and most journalists. The point is however noted here:

Benedict . . . [discusses] the Greek roots of reason in Christianity, which he contrasts with Islam's view that God is "absolutely transcendent," including above reason . . .

Near the end of the address, Benedict said that only by recognizing the "rationality of faith" do people "become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today."

The central theme of the Pope's message at Regensburg is a defense of human reason. In a long and carefully constructed essay, the Pope condemns conversion by violence, celebrates the rapprochement of faith and reason ("Biblical faith and Greek inquiry"), defines that rapprochement as "the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe", and faults both reason without faith and faith without reason -- making Islam, for the latter, example number one.

In terms of theological disputation, this is a sharp thrust. Unfortunately, if there has been a reasoned response, it has been lost amid what Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, termed "crying foul" as opposed to engaging in real dialogue. Nor does it seem likely that this Pope will pay much heed to those cries: although a number of apologists have objected that Benedict's quotation of Manuel II Palaeologos does not indicate endorsement of the Emperor's views, that simply doesn't fly. For Benedict places the quote front and center, using it as the launch pad for a broader condemnation of the furthering of religion by violence in which the Emperor's words segue cleanly into his own. Noting the "startling brusqueness" of Manuel's words is not so much a repudiation as Benedict's bow to the proprieties of academic detachment -- a rather disingenuous bow, given the approving analysis of the reasoning underpinning those words that follows.

The language of Benedict's address is academic, and may not be easily comprehended by impatient or unskilled readers. For those who can comprehend it, his message could not be clearer. Look at the rest of the passage excerpted above, which is nothing less than a reductio ad absurdam against Muslim irrationality:

The decisive statement in this argument . . . is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
Benedict then continues by reasserting the necessity of that reason he has just found lacking in Muslim teaching:
At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.
Nearly all of what follows -- the bulk of the address -- is devoted to consideration of the changing roles of faith and reason in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, from the Hellenistic era up to the present. Is this a divagation? Or were his introductory reflections on Islam, forced conversion, and Manuel II Palaeologos a poorly chosen lead-in? I think not: the address as a whole is a discourse on identity, on who we are, and who we aren't -- "we", here, of course, being Benedict's unapologetic "we".

This blunt willingness to draw lines between "us" and "them" is radical, at least in this day and age. But where Benedict chose to draw his line may yet transform the terms of discussion. At last report, many leaders of Europe have come to the Pope's defense, and though the Vatican has issued a conciliatory message (full brief text here), it is far from an apology, let alone a retraction -- and it seems doubtful that any substantive retreat is in the offing. As the Times of London noted today:

In May, the Pope told a Vatican conference on immigration that although he favoured “dialogue” with Islam it could only be conducted on the basis of “reciprocity”. Christians should “open their arms and hearts” to Muslim immigrants, but Muslims in turn had to overcome “the prejudices of a closed mentality”. As L’Espresso magazine observed yesterday: “This is not exactly a diplomatic pope” . . .

Vito Mancuse, lecturer in theology at the San Raffaele University of Milan, said: “The message of Regensburg is that logos — reason — is at the heart of Christianity, whereas the God of Islam is more arbitrary, and in the absence of reason lie the seeds of war. For Christians, God is love. Muslims don’t know what God is, only that he exists and dominates the world.”

To be continued . . . .

Posted by David on September 16, 2006 8:36 PM


Being a member of that Canterbury church noted, the three legged stool of the Episcopal Church has been and remains: "Faith, Reason, Tradition." Without Faith there is no reason for the Church - or any religion. Without Reason there is no need for the Mind - a definite loss of individuality as persons of creativity and will. Without Tradition, there is no connection with our Spiritual History - there is just the rootless now. This is a far cry from strict Islamic teaching: Obedience. I look forward to your future writing here on this topic.

Posted by: Patrick on September 17, 2006 2:29 AM

Just a musing from an amateur observer:

It's curious that we make the Greeks into the source of rationality in religion. I do understand what the Pope is saying here, but much of the Greek's own religion was profoundly irrational of course. When I read above that "Muslims don’t know what God is, only that he exists and dominates the world," I thought, "That sounds like the Greek gods to me."

Can we learn anything about our current situation by thinking less about Greek rationality and more about Zeus-as-Allah?

Posted by: Visitor on September 18, 2006 1:04 AM

It's Greek philosophy, not Greek religion, that Benedict identifies as the wellspring of Western rationalism.

That rationalism ended up permeating both Jewish and Christian theology. Had it had the same influence on Islam, the world would be a very different -- and probably much more peacable -- place today.

Incidentally, educated Greeks and Romans had a very different view of their pantheon than one might expect from reading compilations of classical mythology. For them, the myths were either folk tales or allegories, to be understood literally only by the simpleminded. But even if one were to ignore the mediating influence of rationalist philosophy on Greco-Roman religion, there remains a fundamental difference between the absolute obedience required of the Muslim and the optional, nonexclusive veneration of Greco-Roman religion. The classical deities were basically human in nature, and believers freely recounted familiar and often irreverent tales about them. Not so, the god of Muhammed.

Posted by: David on September 18, 2006 9:56 AM

I'm far from a philosopher or a theologian and will admit that there were parts of the Pope's speech that I wasn't too sure of. However, I had thought he was more directly challenging Islam than many of his defenders (Fr. McBrien in today's NY Daily News, etc.) are willing to admit. I thought the last paragraph made that clear:
"Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God," said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.

The Pope is clearly saying that Islam cannot co-exist with the rational. He believes Christianity requires rationality. (Again, I'm no philosopher.)

I actually think this speech is the Pope's mission statement: "To combat the forces of rigid secularization and offer a spiritual alternative to Islam in Europe."

Posted by: Irish_eagle on September 19, 2006 12:18 PM

I don't think the Pope said or meant to say that Islam cannot coexist with the rational; rather, that real dialogue between faiths requires an essential common rationality.

And while the Pope's address noted that the rationalism at the core of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is not an integral part of Islam, that he cast his address as an invitation to dialogue (and reemphasized this in subsequent statements) clearly implies that he believes in the possibility and indeed the necessity of a rational Islam.

Posted by: David on September 20, 2006 11:45 AM
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