Friday, September 15, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI and Islam

The Islamic world is once again in uproar, this time at the Pope. On Tuesday, September 12, Benedict XVI returned to the University of Regensburg, Germany, where he had once been a member of the faculty, and there he addressed a gathered audience, presenting a paper that dealt with the relationship between faith and reason, with some personal reminiscences thrown in.

Today, Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, there are protests and renunciations all over the Islamic world, accusing the Pope of dishonoring their faith. In places like Egypt and India there are street protests with the burning of effigies of the Catholic pontiff, while in Pakistan troops are guarding Roman Catholic churches. The Palestinian Prime Minister said, "In the name of our Palestinian people... we express our condemnation of the statements of his Excellency the Pope, against Islam as a belief, sharia, history, and a lifestyle."

What on earth is it that so careful a man as BXVI has done to merit such an outcry? Well, he seems to have used a rather unfortunate illustration in the context of a closely argued and philosphical speech so that the whole weight of what he said has been lost under the welter of fury. I spent some time this morning reading Benedict's paper and I have to say to the Palestinian leader and others of his ilk, "Come on, guys, read with care the words the man said, not what you think he said."

In 1391, probably somewhere close to modern Ankara, Turkey, the erudite Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, was involved in a dialogue with a Persian academic about Christianity, Islam, and the truth of them both. In the debate the emperor said that there should be no compulsion in religion, for compulsion tended to compromise the rationality of faith, and in the midst of these long conversations he questions the tendency of Islam to violence, describes this as unreasonable, and "incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul."

In the midst of the cut and thrust of debate around this topic the emperor is reputed to have said, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Benedict quotes this. At this point it needs to be remembered that this man grew up in the midst of the violence that once was Germany, which helps put his own detestation of violence into perspective.

He then goes on in his paper to talk about the Christian faith and its rootedness in reason, with the suggestion that because for the Muslim God is "absolutely transcendent... his will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality." He continues closely arguing his case, drawing on the Reformation, liberal theology of the 19th Century, and 21st Century pluralism by way of further example and illustration. It is a tightly argued case, too, and I suspect that for many of the media who might have been present, the Muhammad illustration could have been one of the few parts that they thought they understood!

There is nothing in this paper that gives the slightest suggestion that Benedict shares the mindset of Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, merely that he is philosphically presenting the rationality of God, and this he thought was a good springboard into the point he is making. Yet now there are tens of thousands of people, egged on by certain leaders, very few of whom will have read (or understood) the Pope's argument, condemning him for his hatred of Islam.

The trouble is that there is nothing in the paper or in much of the conduct of Benedict XVI toward Islam which suggests hatred. If by their fruits you shall know them he has been working hard to understand Islam - which seems to have been undone by a mixture of inadequate (perhaps irresponsible) reporting of the Pope's remarks and their context, as well as the hot-headedness eagerness in certain corners of Islam to condemn what they thought might have been said.

Was the Pope wise in his choice of illustration? Even popes have occasional lapses of wisdom, and I suspect he could have given this a little more thought; but he was probably naive enough to believe that what he said would not be as badly misrepresented in the media as it is. I have garnered most of my information from the BBC Website (, and think that they have been less than helpful in the extracts of the paper that they have published when put alongside the full text( this is text out of context stuff.

I wonder how many members of Pakistan's parliament had even looked at what he was saying before passing a resolution which contained the following renunciation, "The derogatory remarks of the Pope about the philosophy of jihad and Prophet Muhammad have injured sentiments across the Muslim world and pose the danger of spreading acrimony among the religions."

I do not see that the Pope has anything to apologize for, although he is probably rather sore that something said (he thought) in all innocence has been blown up out of all proportion and damaged bridges he thought he was building. All this demonstrate that when it comes down to it, there are large swathes of people in the Islamic world who are determined to misunderstand, and have elevated their Prophet to a level that is above study, analysis and contradiction. This can hardly be said to be rational behavior -- but then the same thing goes on in the West, too.

Toward the end of his paper the Pope says of ourselves that, "The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur -- this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time."

He concludes by saying, "'Not to act reasonably, not to act 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 invate partners in the dialogue of cultures..."

My response to that comes from the culture of Southern religion, "Preach it, Brother Benedict, preach it!"

1 comment:

Craig Goodrich said...

It rather seems to me that when publishing a cartoon in a Danish newspaper or recounting an anecdote from Medieval history in the course of a fairly deep lecture on philosophy can cause worldwide rioting and put lives at risk, apologizing and trying to avoid further provocation is utterly fruitless; there will always be a "next time."

It also seems to me obvious that these riots are orchestrated. After all, how many educated middle-class Germans (or Americans), Catholic or otherwise, follow press reports of Papal academic presentations -- to believe that all this arose more or less spontaneously among third-world Muslim masses is just silly.