18 September 2006

Attention angry (and ignorant!) Muslims: The Pope has nothing to apologize for.

My man Pope Benedict continues to to take heat for supposedly quoting a Byzantine Emperor to take a swing at Islam. The way some have carried on, one would think that the Pope’s lecture was on Islam. It wasn’t. It was on the place of reason in discussing matters of faith. You wouldn’t know it from all that is being said, but the lecture was styled, “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”. His topic was the ‘dehellenization’ of the Christian faith. (He’s opposed to it. I’m for it—for whatever that’s worth.)

Here in its full context (read the entire thing for yourself
here) is what the Pope said:

[The] profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God. That even in the face of such radical scepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between - as they were called - three “Laws” or “rules of life”: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole - which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason, I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2: 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed 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”. The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...”
(emphases mine).

That amounts to the only mention of Islam in a 7 page speech.* Awful, isn’t it? You’d think the entire lecture was about Islam. You’d think that his entire lecture was a comparison of Christianity and Islam.

Now, what the Pope said was that reading this dialogue (i.e., between the Emperor Paleologos and a Persian scholar) reminded him of the importance of something. And what was that something? That Christianity is rational and Islam is irrational? No. How awful Islam is? No. How violent Islam is? No. He was reminded of the importance of the necessity and reasonableness of raising the question of God through the use of reason, and doing so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith. And he was reminded of this by reading a dialogue between two men who were discussing—get this—the same darn thing: the relation of reason to matters of faith. Horrible, isn’t it?

In the end, what the Pope said are words. Even if he quoted Paleologos approvingly (which he certainly did not) it would amount to a truth claim. One who objects to such a claim has only to present a rational refutation. It's that simple.

But what do those peaceful adherents of the religion of peace do in response? Take to their pulpits and refute? No. Publish letters to the editors of local papers? No. Call in to a nationally syndicated radio talk show? No. Blog? No. (Now, before you bleeding heart types remind me that most of these people live in places and in circumstances where these activities are not options, recall that NOT TORCHING STUFF still reminds an option.)

They burn churches. They kill nuns. They present their objections to being called violent (which really didn’t happen) by being--get this--violent. It staggers the imagination.

Ironic, isn’t it? That in response to a lecture on the importance of reason to discussion of matters of faith, people would respond so irrationally? It would almost be laughable, but for burned churches and dead nuns.

Getting back to last week's news: Rosie O’Donnell can say all she wants about the dangers of ‘radical’ Christianity, but in the end she knows it isn’t true. She still has her head. And her house hasn’t been torched.

Note, for clarity: The designation, ‘angry (and ignorant!) Muslims’ refers only to those Muslims who are angry with the Pope at present, due to their ignorance of what he actually said. It does not refer to all Muslims indiscriminately, especially those Muslims, if any, who actually know what the Pope said and are therefore not angry with him.
* Technically, he does say some more about Islam, specifically the thought of the Muslim scholar
Ibn Hazn. But he does so by way of pointing out similarity between the thought of Hazn and the Christian scholar Duns Scotus. I doubt any Muslims, even the ignorant ones, will have a problem with that part of the lecture.

† UPDATE: This original link got screwed up somehow. Here is a link to the Vatican’s posting of The Pope’s Regensberg lecture.


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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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