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 . . .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.
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."
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” . . .To be continued . . . .
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.”
Posted by David on September 16, 2006 8:36 PM