Pope Benedict and Islam
Bill Long 9/16/06
His Address in Regensburg, Germany on 9/12/06
In the Magna Aula (Great Hall) of the University of Regensburg on Tuesday, September 12, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and, before that, Professor Joseph Ratzinger, held forth on the topic of reason and faith in the modern world. To paraphrase a great speech, the world will little note nor long remember what he did in Regensburg, but it will never forget what he said there.
In this speech, designed as an academic address to fellow professors and theologians, he made three significant errors. First, he "forgot" that he was the Pope and tried to return to being Professor Ratzinger for an hour. Because professors don't have to be as attuned to the "pastoral" context in which they might speak they often approach ideas with little impact on how the implications of what they say might be heard. More on that below. Second, he tried to introduce two significantly different ideas in the speech and then attempted to paper over the difference between the ideas by a flimsy intellectual connective tissue of thought. That is, he wanted to try to say something to and about the use of reason in Islam but, in fact, he really wanted to challenge the Western university (and Regensburg was as good and example as any--but it does have a reputation in Germany as having one of the more conservative Catholic theological faculties) to expand its notion of what "reason" or "reasoned inquiry" is. Trying to connect the two ideas got him into trouble. Finally, he mistook the source of his authority when he spoke. He has authority now not because of his razor-sharp mind or because he can shuffle Christian and philosophical doctrine with the skill of a Las Vegas dealer, but because he represents an institution with a tradition far longer than the Western university and a history far more complex. Thus, he was tone deaf to the way that people might hear him. Let's begin with his comments that have caused so much offense.
His Holiness--Speaking of Islam
His words on Islam come surprisingly early (second and third paragraphs) in his 14-page speech. But the speech begins well enough. In the first paragraph he recalls the "good old days," when he began his teaching career in theology at the University of Bonn in 1959. At that university, despite the fact that everyone had his/her own specialty, the faculty would get together on occasion to consider a common topic--it would be an example of reasoned inquiry into a subject. By inquiring as a full faculty into a subject (and Christian faith was one of the subjects), the university showed itself as a place where reasoned inquiry was applied to all fields, theology included. He even told a joke at this point, which is rather funny. Bonn had two theological faculties at the time--Protestant and Catholic. One skeptical colleague at Bonn once observed that it was rather strange that Bonn would dedicate not one but two faculties to a subject that didn't exist: God. Nevertheless, reasoned inquiry was the order of the day.
So far, so good. But now Benedict sticks the papal shoe in the reverend mouth. He says that he was reminded of all this because of some reading he was doing lately (do Popes have time to read?). And, what did he just happen to be reading? Why an edition of a 14th century dialogue, edited by a German theological colleague, between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. Surely that is what a person of his eminence spends time reading--theological dialogues from 1391. Therefore, as I was reading the address, I had to stop myself at this point and say, "My Benedict, you have traveled a long distance in ONE PARAGRAPH. Reasoned inquiry in Bonn in 1959 and then, boom, back in the last days of the Byzantine Empire. Something must be 'up'."
Well, of course, something was 'up.' Benedict wanted to quote from the dialogue between this Byzantine Emperor and a Persian gentleman. One should know, as background information, that the Byzantines absolutely hated the Muslims at this time. Indeed, one of the great sieges of Constantinople/Istanbul occurred between 1394-1401, at the time of the dialogue, and to expect the Emperor to have a positive view of Islam in those days would be like expecting Rudy Giuliani to have praised Shia Islam on September 12, 2001.
Now that we know the "context" in which this dialogue must have been spoken, we understand the comment that Manuel II Paleologus made. It is only a "marginal" one, as the Pope says (why are you focusing on marginal points from marginal texts, Your Holiness?), but the Pope decides to go for it. Before he gets to the offending passage, however, he talks about the Quran, the notion of compulsion in religion and the idea of holy war. He mentions these "in passing" (a favorite academic trick of professors) as he journeys toward the point he wants to make. Then he quotes the "startling brusqueness" of the Emperor:
"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."
Thus, the Emperor, in this "dialogue," was putting out for discussion the point that Muhammad had only contributed evil and inhuman things to the human family. A parenthetical comment. Anyone who has studied the history of religions sympathetically recognizes that one of Islam's signal contributions to religous thought was a clarity not only in expressing the concept of the One God but coming up with a system of exercises and practices (the Five Pillars) that so effectively remind a person of this fact that his/her faith is never more than a breath away. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of Christianity, Protestantism in particular, is that it doesn't really have "exercises" in which all participate on a regular basis to "remind" people of how real God is. Here ends my parenthetical comment.
Conclusion--Where Benedict Was Heading
Actually, the point of the Pope's remark was not on the issue of whether or not Muhammad had contributed anything positive to the world but on the last few words of the quotation--the notion that faith can be spread by violence. Then he goes on to quote the Emperor to the effect that violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God is not pleased by blood--and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature." This, then, is where the Pope was really going in his address. Reasonable action, rather than violence, is the way of true religion. But he had unnecessarily inflamed the discussion by trying to "set the context," which is what professors love to do. But, in my judgment, what really is problematic is his next thought, to which I now turn.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long