Saturday, September 16, 2006

In Defense of Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI is being roundly attacked for being insensitive to Islam. Where does one begin with this? Well, how about with what the pope actually said, in his Regensburg lecture. He was arguing, in standard Christian fashion, that there is no disconnect between faith and reason. In fact, like science, authentic Christianity seeks obedience to the truth. But divorcing the two can be dangerous:

"As we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate."
And only if we realize that faith and reason should be not sundered can we entertain a true dialogue of cultures and religions. In this, Benedict's primary audience was the western Europe, and its dominant post-Enlightenment secular humanism. But in the course of the discussion, he quoted a debate between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the topic of faith and reason. This is what Benedict said:

"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."
The pope was making a simple point. Compulsion and violence in religion is incompatible with reason and hence is incompatible with God. In the words of the new Secretary of State, Cardinal Bertone, he was calling for "a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come". Before proceeding further, however, I need to clarify one thing: despite conceptions to the contrary, the Catholic Church is most assuredly not anti-Islamic. In fact, it describes Islam in rather favorable terms: "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims.." (Catechism of the Catholic Church #841).

But why did the pope even reference Islam in this context? This was no accident. Benedict was indeed making a point, issuing an intellectual and theological challenge. In the words of popular Catholic blogger Amy Welborn:

"He said, if you want to bring it all down to Islam, that in Islamic texts, there are passages that forbid compulsion in religion, but that historically, Islam has used violence to force conversions. This, the Pope said, leads to a conclusion about the image of God borne of holding these two realities as one: that God is not bound by his own Word. Such a belief would leave one beyond/outside of reason, for this God would then be totally unknowable."
To raise this argument to a more theological level, let me quote Daniel Larison:

"The crucial difference is that for Christianity, as expressed through the categories of Greek language and Hellenistic philosophy, God is His own Word, which is Reason (Logos), Who is His co-essential Son and eternally One with Him from before the ages, whereas AllahÂ’s word is the eternal QurÂ’an, which has no obvious or necessary relationship to reason, and which he could nonetheless repudiate at any time if he so chose. Put more dramatically, Christians believe that God gave His own Reason for our sakes that we might become like Him, while Muslims believe that they ought to obey and submit to the will of Allah even if he were to command them to do the most unreasonable things."
This is a beautiful summary of a key aspect of Catholic faith, the notion that the Word or Wisdom of God became human, so that humanity could become one with God. Or, as blogger Mark Shea puts it:

"For Christians, the Logos is the Word of Wisdom by which God spoke the universe into being. For this reason, nature cannot be the enemy of faith because the same God who created nature also entered that nature when the Word became flesh in Christ."
With this in mind, can we say the pope was attacking Islam? No, he was raising an issue for debate, issuing a challenge to the Islamic community, wondering how they saw the relationship between faith and reason in the specific context of compulsion in religion. How are these tensions and contradictions reconciled in a religion that denies the incarnation and the resurrection? As pointed out by Egyptian Jesuit Fr. Samir Khalil, the verse the pope quoted from the Qu'ran was a positive one, one that denied compulsion in religion. He did not quote those verses that call for killing those guilty of al-fitnah (sedition). What the pope proposed was that violence goes against Reason and God, the source of Reason. We know where this comes from in Christianity; where does it come from in Islam? This is the question the pope was dared to raise, even if in a rather roundabout and indirect manner.

Modern Islam certainly needs to address these issues. Just look at the frenzied reaction to the pope's remarks across the Islamic world (how many have actually read this speech?). There's something quite ironic about violence, or threats of violence, in response to a belief that the pope was calling them violent. As with the Danish cartoons fiasco, we need to stand up to this kneejerk reactionary nonsense. And how should we do this? How about the Bush way, with talk of "islamofascists" and the axis of evil? Frankly, I prefer the pope's way, a gentle intellectual prodding: what does your tradition say about faith and reason and how they come together on the issue of violence and religious compulsion? After all, as Fr. Khalil points out, there was once a golden age of learning in Islam, where religion and rationality co-existed easily. As happened with Catholicism, Islam needs to address modernity, taking what is good, discarding what is bad, but always remaining open to reason. And religious compulsion is a key part of it.

If he looks out, Pope Benedict can see a mosque in the hills overlooking the Vatican. When will we see a church overlooking Mecca? And why is even asking such a question out of bounds?


Intolerant Secularist said...

Some of your points are well-taken and I think Islam needs a reformation. However, nothing can excuse the Pope's insensitive and poorly worded comments (reflections of his true beliefs perhaps). This is the main problem with institutionalized religion -- it proves its superiority by putting other relgions down often quite overtly (i.e. the Pope's comments).

Morning's Minion said...

I would dispute your first point: Islam most certainly does NOT need a reformation. In fact, the reformation brought about by Luther and Calvin in Christianity was a reformation of doctrine, not behavior. In rejecting the papacy, they invented a concept of sola scriptura, saying that all truth comes from a witten text the bible. This is far more in accordance with Islam than historic Christianity, where the word of God is a person, Jesus the Christ, and lends itself to fundamentalism (texts can't change). In fact, one could argue that the Saudi-funded fundamentalist revival is indeed Islam's "reformation", and what is needed is a return to the past, to sufism and the impressive learning and intellectualism that underpinned the golden age of Islam.

As for "institutionalized religion", there can be no honest dialogue if we brush aside obvious theological differences. We believe we have the fullness of revelation; so does Islam. Let's have an honest courteous probing debate about the issues. What's wrong with that?