Monday, September 18, 2006

Pope Provocateur

Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal:
Five days: That's how long it took Pope Benedict XVI to express regret for all the offense caused by his speech last week at the University of Regensburg, in his native Bavaria. But maybe his apology -- on Sunday, he said he was "deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages in my address" -- was as sly as the speech itself.

That speech deserves to be read in its totality, and not simply as the spark that set fire to churches across the West Bank because some Muslim fanatics object to the suggestion that there is too much violence in their religion. And yes: Contrary to nervous Vatican disclaimers, Benedict plainly implies that Islam is a faith of the sword, though he makes the point abstrusely, in the form of an anecdote about the late-14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus. READ MORE

But that is neither the central theme of the address nor the main purpose of the anecdote. Benedict begins by recalling his own days as a professor at the university, when every semester faculty members from every department would convene before the student body, "making possible," he says, "a genuine experience of universitas." He goes on to note that the faculty included believers and unbelievers alike: "This 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 is the immediate prologue to the story he tells about a conversation between the "erudite" Byzantine emperor and an "educated Persian" in the winter of 1391. In it, the emperor condemns the notion of holy war, calling it "evil and inhuman." This is the line in the speech that inspires the current controversy. Yet the emperor's point -- and the Pope's -- is that "God is not pleased by blood. . . . Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats."

This story, and Benedict's personal recollections that precede it, have something in common: Both involve dialogue between men of radically different beliefs. The dialogue is possible, Benedict suggests, because despite their differences the respective sides are bound by a "single rationality," capable of inquiring broadly into all fields of knowledge, including the "reasonableness of faith." The more important point for Benedict, however, is that genuine dialogue is possible only if there is a shared conviction among the speakers that the alternatives to dialogue -- violence, forced conversion and so on -- are "contrary to God's nature."

These reflections lead Benedict to a much graver indictment of Islam: "For Muslim teaching," he says, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality." Citing the 11th century polymath Ibn Hazm, Benedict adds that in Islam, "God is not bound even by his own word."

Let's play that again, since the rest of the media failed to notice: Pope Benedict suggests that the God of Mohammad is, or may seem to humans to be, "not even bound to truth and goodness." Who knows whether that really reflects a consensus view down the ages among Muslim theologians -- Benedict makes his case about Islam by citing one scholar who cites another scholar who cites another. The more interesting question is why Benedict goes out of his way to use Islam as an example, since he also warns against similar tendencies toward insisting on God's radical "otherness" within the Catholic tradition itself. So why can't he simply illustrate the controversies of faith without going outside the boundaries of his own?

In fact, Benedict saves his sharpest barbs for non-Muslim targets: Protestantism, which seeks a "primordial" form of faith; liberal theology, which reduces Jesus to "the father of a humanitarian moral message"; scientific rationalism, the ethics of which are "simply inadequate" to answer the "specifically human questions about our origin and destiny"; and what might be called Catholic pluralism, a culturally adaptive notion of the faith that Benedict denounces as "false" and "coarse."

These aren't mere provocations. There is an overarching philosophical architecture to Benedict's critique, expressed in the notion of the "de-Hellenization of Christianity." Christianity, in his view, is shaped and defined by the great dialogue between Athens and Jerusalem, reason and revelation. When the Apostle John says "In the beginning was the Word," the "word," literally, is logos -- which is reason, or argument. This, according to Benedict, expresses "the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry."

That rapprochement -- a triumph of dialogue -- lies at the heart of Benedict's theology: Strip faith from reason (as scientific rationalism does), or reason from faith (as Protestant literalism does), and "it is man himself who ends up being reduced."

There is a political subtext. Precisely in the middle of his speech, the Pope describes the convergence of faith and philosophy as decisive to the character of "what can rightly be called Europe." He does not mention Europe again, nor, except obliquely, Islam. But near the end of his speech he warns that the "exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason" may be seen by other cultures "as an attack on their most profound convictions." "Reason which is deaf to the divine," he adds, "is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures."

A Europe that cannot understand its own religion, except as a form of subjective irrationalism, cannot possibly engage another. A Christianity that voluntarily recuses itself from reason cannot sustain a belief in the goodness of its convictions, to say nothing of its truth. A West that abandons a critical dialogue between faith and rational inquiry ceases to be the West. It becomes, in a peculiar way, guilty of the same errors Benedict accuses Islam of making. This is the Pope's teaching, and it requires no apology. Notice that he offers none.