“Faith, Reason and the University” Benedict XVI

Constantinexidragases "The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry."  Benedict XVI


Gripping stuff isn’t it?  Not for most of us. For a theologian it must be like catnip.  I reproduce below the entirety of Benedict’s address to the University of Regensburg (where he was once vice-chancellor).  I do that so that those who are fascinated by his quotation from the dialog of Manuel Paleologus and the Persian scholar may see the quotation in its proper context rather than in the sensationalized and irresponsible isolation that the mass media placed it in.

0006b5d2f79a1265be3780bfb6fa0000 In fact, Benedict quoted Manuel not to make points about Islam, but, rather to make points about Manuel and the intellectual tradition of Hellenistic thought in which Manuel resided.  This pope is engaged in a defense of the rigor of theological discourse within the Christian world.  He is certainly one of the leaders of Christendom.  He believes that we Christians have become slovenly and confused thinkers and he seeks to restore the clarity of our ideas.  I would say that this should not be surprising considering that he is a German university professor by "trade."  In other words, this talk was not about Islam at all, and the Byzantine/Persian dialog quotation was incidental to the argument.  If that was so, then why have we seen such a fierce and heated response from so many (not all) Muslims?

I would offer the opinion that this happened because the great mass of Muslims are not Persian scholars like the emperor’s interlocutor.  The Persian was probably someone who had a wide ranging knowledge of the intellectual world from which the emperor came, and who, although he might reject the bases of the emperor’s argument, nevertheless was susceptible to rational discourse within the emperor’s framework.

The high culture of Islam has been exposed throughout its history to the "blandishments" of Hellenistic philosophy and rationality.  Within two hundred years of the emergence of Islam (Sadr al-Islam) there was a fateful competition in learned circles over this very issue, the issue of whether or not Islam would be saturated with Hellenistic thought as Christianity was, and is.  This contest was won by the pietists, traditionalists and scripturalists who in my opinion have bound Islam (especially Sunni Islam) in golden chains ever since.  The losers in this struggle, and here I am thinking of the "Mu’tazileen," were variously disposed of and others of similar inclination toward "reform" were later exiled or marginalized.  That process continues to this day in one form or another although there is now some measure of debate in learned circles as to what it means to be Muslim in the 21st Century.

As a result of domination of the religion by the pietists, the view of Islam and the world that is held by a great many Muslims does not contain much of the traditions of freedom of opinion and discourse which have generally dominated much of our lives and history in the West.  (Yes.  I know about the Nazis and the Inquisition)  In the idea of Islam held by the masses, no one in Christendom (or anywhere else) has the right to say anything that raises the possibility that Islamic practise or past belief might have been in error theologically.  Such expressions are simply not acceptable to those who think of Christianity as the "house of war."  As a result, Benedict’s illustrative use of this ancient quotation in his argument in favor of Hellenistic thought became for them a declaration of hostility and disrespect by someone whom they think of as the "leader" of the "kuffar." (the unbelievers, the polytheists)

Should the pope have apologized?  No.  He should not have done so.  There was no reason for Muslims to be offended by this academic discourse.   The lecture was not really about them at all.  By apologizing, Benedict encouraged those in the Islamic world who wish to believe that the West is in decline and that in time Islam will become a truly universal phenomenon through the disintegration of Western societies.  The danger in this tendency of thought lies in the simple reality that, in fact, the West and particularly America are not in decline, in fact are stronger than ever and that a general belief in the necessity to act in response to the call to Jihad  can lead to actions that "trigger" the world war that the neocons like to talk about.

The pope should not encourage such delusions.

Pat Lang

"Faith, Reason and the University
Memories and Reflections

Your Eminences, Your Magnificences, Your Excellencies,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a moving experience for me to be back again in the university and to be able once again to give a lecture at this podium. I think back to those years when, after a pleasant period at the Freisinger Hochschule, I began teaching at the University of Bonn. That was in 1959, in the days of the old university made up of ordinary professors. The various chairs had neither assistants nor secretaries, but in recompense there was much direct contact with students and in particular among the professors themselves. We would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties. Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas – something that you too, Magnificent Rector, just mentioned – the experience, in other words, of the fact that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason – this reality became a lived experience. The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the "whole" of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. 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 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 (???????? – controversy) 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, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, 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…".
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry.

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the ?????". This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, ???? ????, with logos. Logos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a "distillation" of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

In point of fact, this rapprochement had been going on for some time. The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply declares "I am", already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates’ attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy. Within the Old Testament, the process which started at the burning bush came to new maturity at the time of the Exile, when the God of Israel, an Israel now deprived of its land and worship, was proclaimed as the God of heaven and earth and described in a simple formula which echoes the words uttered at the burning bush: "I am". This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Ps 115). Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature. Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria – the Septuagint – is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity. A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act "with logos" is contrary to God’s nature.

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which – as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated – unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, "transcends" knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul – ?"?????? ???????", worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity – a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the programme of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.

Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this programme was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal’s distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959, I tried to address the issue, and I do not intend to repeat here what I said on that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was new about this second stage of dehellenization. Harnack’s central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message. Fundamentally, Harnack’s goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, as he saw it, restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific. What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university. Behind this thinking lies the modern self-limitation of reason, classically expressed in Kant’s "Critiques", but in the meantime further radicalized by the impact of the natural sciences. This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty. The weight between the two poles can, depending on the circumstances, shift from one side to the other. As strongly positivistic a thinker as J. Monod has declared himself a convinced Platonist/Cartesian.

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

I will return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology’s claim to be "scientific" would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science", so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, 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.

Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.

And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is – as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector – the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit. The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding. Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: "It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being – but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss". 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 programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "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 invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university."

* * *

NOTE: The Holy Father intends to supply a subsequent version of this text, complete with footnotes. The present text must therefore be considered provisional.

© Copyright 2006 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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37 Responses to “Faith, Reason and the University” Benedict XVI

  1. lina says:

    “. . .for the Pope argued that in Muslim teaching, because “God is absolutely transcendent”, He is “not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality”. In other words, there is no reasoning in or with Islam. Which, surely, is another way of the Pope saying how dangerous he thinks Islam is.
    This is why the Pope’s remarks look rather more than just a slip or a casual mistake. The speech concludes with a further reference to the views of the Byzantine emperor: ‘ “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 invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.’
    Weblogs have been buzzing with the thought that the Pope may have the president of Iran in mind when he speaks of Manuel’s Persian interlocutor. But we don’t need to speculate upon a contemporary casting for this speech to recognise its dangers. For in claiming that Islam may be beyond reason, and then to claim that to act without reason is to act contrary to the will of God, is pretty close to the assertion that this religion is godless. And that’s not how different faiths ought to speak to each other – especially when we all have each other’s blood on our hands…”
    [The Giles Fraser Column, 9/16/06]
    For my money, in a public forum, unless the Pope is quoting Jesus of Nazareth, he should shut the hell up. We don’t need the most visible public figure in modern Christendom making the world worse instead of better.

  2. W. Patrick Lang says:

    My position would be that sound arguments outweigh political considerations. pl

  3. Lars Smith says:

    The pope didn’t apologize. He said, “I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims”

  4. lina says:

    “…sound arguments outweigh political considerations.” pl
    I would agree if he were a professor, a pundit, an author, or any other private citizen. But he’s not. His public utterances have impact beyond academic discourse. He should know that and act accordingly. The world could use a peace maker in his position, not a rabble rouser.

  5. Dave of Maryland says:

    There was no reason for Muslims to be offended by this academic discourse.
    If the speaker was still a professor, this would be true.
    The speaker is in fact a major world leader & major world leaders do not make these kinds of discourses, for the very simple reason that such statements are likely to be misinterpreted. Cherry-picked for offending comments, exactly as Bennedict’s statement was.
    The solution would be to delegate such an address to a worthy underling (such as Bennedict once was), giving him the glory as well as letting him be the target for any hostile criticism. This also gives the pope deniability.
    The pope’s public utterances, like those of the president, must be equal to the position he holds. This is fundamental.
    It seems to me the current leader of Iran has much the same problem. Underlying both of these men (and many newly-minted US presidents) is sudden elevation without proper preparation.

  6. BillD says:

    Pray tell, how did the Pope make the world worse? And why should he not speak his mind simply because a small minority (so we are told) of the muslim world disapproves?

  7. Duncan Kinder says:

    According to a report in today’s Wheeling (W. Va.) Intelligencer, the Belmont County (OH) Sheriff’s Dept. has recently procured an M113 armored personnel carrier.
    In the unlikely event that Hezbollah should infiltrate Appalachian Ohio, we can only conclude that the deputies would be in for an unpleasant ride.

  8. Duncan Kinder says:

    Message to Col. Lang.
    Dear Col.
    It appears that my comment about the Beruit rally – pertaining to the Bemont county OH deputies’ procuring an armored personnel carrier – may have mistakenly be posted to your Pope Benedict thread.
    If so. I would appreciate your moving it from the Pope Benedict threat to the Lebanon rally thread.
    Duncan C. Kinder

  9. Yohan says:

    While no one should be surprised by a Pope making a fundamentally Catholic assertion(“We’re wonderful, the rest of you are going to hell!”), it should also be no surprise that people would react the way they did. What is surprising is that the Pope would think he has any leg to stand on in accusing others of not engaging in reason when he himself represents an unscientific, irrational authority and an institution grounded in revelation.
    I don’t see how quoting a 14th-15th century Byzantine Emperor as an expert on Islam is rigorous scholarship, especially in a post-Orientalism world.
    If he truly wanted to encourage dialog, he could have used any number of different examples or quotes, but instead he used one that included, “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.” Not only is that recklessly inflammatory, but it’s factually wrong since forced conversions to Islam were rare and unsupported by Islamic teachings while forced conversions to Catholicism were not rare and officially encouraged by the Catholic Church. I also don’t see what possible context can make that quote into a good start for calm, rational dialogue. Again, he could have used a non-inflammatory example, even a Christian example, but he chose this one because he did intend to attack Islam, or rather his idea of what Islam is.
    The Pope likes to appropriate the achievements of secular reason when he can use them as a club to attack those “irrational” Muslims, but he doesn’t like those achievements when they turn the same critical eye on his own, irrational position(as with the speech he gave only a few days before this speech). In that case he thinks us “westerners” could learn a lot from irrational Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The fact of the matter is that (pagan) Greek philosophy and rationality survived to this day and flourished in spite of, not because of, Christianity. The current process in Europe of abandoning Christianity(that the Pope laments) was begun in the Renaissance and Enlightenment when thinkers decided to choose reason over irrational revelation and tradition.

  10. Babak Makkinejad says:

    In my opinion, the Pope deliberately chose this text to denigrate Islam and through that instrumentality, the post-Christian culture of Europe and North America.
    Had he been interested in a dialogue he might have mentioned the replies of the Persian Scholar to the Emperor’s provocations.
    Additionally, the Pope is also wrong. He is trying to elevate the human reason and put it on the same par as faith. This was explicitly rejected in Christianity: “All that is not Faith is sin.”
    It was long ago understood that human reason cannot fathom God’s actions. This idea was explicit in Judaism through the allegory of “Book of Job”. And the stroy of Job is recapitulated likewise in the Quran for exactly the same purpose.
    Additionally, Faith is beyond Human Reason. When Abraham intended to sacrifice his son (Issac or Ishmael – depending on Judaism or Islam) he had absolute Faith in the powers of the Al-Mighty to restore his son. Quran repeats this story to make the same point: one has to have the Faith of Abraham to hear and obey. And that the Infinite Being is interested in the Finite Beings and will restore them to life.
    From the point of view of human reason, Abraham is mad to intend to sacrifice his son based on a command from God. And it is precisely here that Faith steps.
    Incidentally, to the extend that Judaism and Islam share the same views on Faith and Human Reason, the Pope thus has attacked both religions.

  11. walter says:

    Thanks Pat!
    This is the most sound and most correct blog post on this controversy that I have read. Agree with you whole heartedly.

  12. rst says:

    Politically, this controversy seems to resolve into two claims: (1) the Church champions a God of reason, and (2) Islam puts forward a God beyond reason, ie One who can be unreasonable, or even “unfair.”
    The media stress the unreasonableness of Muslim reaction to this claim. But by the logic of the argument (the media’s argument, not the Pope’s), Muslims are only protesting the claim that they and/or their God are unreasonable. How unreasonable of them!
    Politics aside, the question of whether God is accessible through reason, or faith alone, is a thorny one for any religion. And though the Church may resolve this by denying any contradiction, I have Protestant friends who feel otherwise.
    The Pope alludes most directly to this tension through the example of Duns Scotus (beatified, incidentally, by his great predecessor in 1993, almost 700 years after his death):
    “In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness….”
    For the Pope, this issue was resolved by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (more than 50 years before Duns Scotus was born) – and far be it from me to disagree.
    In the Muslim case, Colonel Lang contextualizes the debate by invoking the battle within Islam over the influence of “Hellenistic philosophy,” ultimately and unfortunately spurned by the pietists.
    But the mention of Hellenistic philosophy made me think of another Scotus (another Irishman), John Scotus or Erigena, who was at once a great champion of Hellenistic philosophy (in his case, Neoplatonism), and even of “philosophy,” should it come to that, over “religion.” As paraphrased by Bertrand Russell (A History of Western Philosophy, pp. 377-378):
    “God’s essence is unknowable to men, and even to angels. Even to Himself He is, in a sense, unknowable: ‘God does not know himself, what He is, because He is not a what; in a certain respect He is incomprehensible to Himself and to every intellect.’…Dionysius is right in saying that no name can be truly asserted of God. There is an affirmative theology, in which He is said to be truth, goodness, essence, etc., but such affirmations are only symbolically true, for all such predicates have an opposite, but God has no opposite….”
    Shades of Ibn Hazm! A God greater than “affirmative theology,” whether practiced by eastern crowds or western media! Mysteriously, obscurely at work…

  13. W. Patrick Lang says:

    He did not claim to be appealing for a dialog with Islam in his lecture at Regensburg, although I think he would welcome one. pl

  14. Grimgrin says:

    I’m actually offended by this speech, not because of his comments about Islam but because of his comments about science.
    “the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science””
    This is absolutely false. Human origins are one of the most active fields of evolutionary biology. The fact that people are uncomfortable with the answers that science gives us to these questions doesn’t invalidate the answers.
    As for human destiny, the scientists who work on ecology and climatology are providing some very well founded and very alarming answers to what’s in store for us in the next 50 years at least.
    Now, I may be oversensitive to this issue because I follow the Intelligent Design and Climate Change debates fairly closely. However, in my experience, whenever you hear someone talking about ‘the limits of science’, they are in fact talking about limiting science to keep it out of their areas of interest. The Pope seems to be asserting that religion, specifically the Catholic Christian tradition he comes from, is the only acceptable guide to understanding the world. It’s a proposition I very much disagree with.

  15. Will says:

    Unbeknownst to many, modern Catholic doctrine does not define Hell as a an eternal torment in the fiery lake. It is “separation” from God. Likewise, Heaven is “closeness” to God.
    Moreover, modern doctrine says anybody can “go” to Heaven, that is be close to God. This includes Protestants, Muslims, and even Atheists.
    Best Wishes

  16. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Col. Lang:
    If he is not inetrested in dialogue he ought to have chosen a different straw-man than Islam to make his (faulty) point.
    This view of Ibn Hazim is strongly endorsed as well by Jewish thinkers (albeit unaware of Ibn Hazim.) For this see: “Athens and Jerusalem” by Shestove & “Our savage god” by Zaehner.
    Science has not shed light on the origins of humanness: it has not been able to explain “Man”. Its reducionist approach can neither explain human evolution (it may be able to describe it), nor his consciousness, nor his mind. Here is an elementary question over which science fails: “Why can humans percieve beauty?” The Pope is correct in his summary judgement.

  17. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Perhaps he was not specifically interested in dialog with Islam in that lecture but I agree that he should have picked a different example of what he wanted to talk about. pl

  18. parvati_roma says:

    Babak and rst – thank you for your knowledgeable and illuminating discussion of the theological issues raised in the Pope’s speech, thanks also for the stupendous quotations.

  19. Frank Durkee says:

    Oneof the ironies in all of this is that a good bit of Greek Philosophy, particularly Aristotle, was comveyed to the West by Islamic texts’ and commentaries. At the time of the quoted conversation if you wanted a decent education you opted for an Islamic university rather than a Christian one. Islam was profoundly influnced by the Greek philosophic tradition. Even so one of Islam’s profound insights is the transcendence of God, the power and otherness of God. That also exists but perhaps as a lesser emphasis in both of the other Abrahamic faiths, This is a fight among cousins the Jewish faith and Christianity with a deep intertwined and troubled set of interactions over time. Fundamentalisms of any of these groups can be emotional, rigid, and destructive. That’s a function of the fundamnebtalist orientation not the religious belonging per se.
    the pope made some decent points and now almost any statement that some one in the ME doesn’t liie can lead to trouble. We should defend free speech rather than castigating it and/or seeking to thwart it. Perhaps if there were more of it in the ME fundamentalism would be less attractive.

  20. Ingolf Eide says:

    Struggle as I might to find a more generous interpretation, those particular comments of the Pope’s seemed gratuitously offensive. If indeed they were made in full innocence, it points to a startling unworldliness.
    While we all might wish the reaction from some in the Muslim world had been less emotional, I don’t think we ought to forget that much of that world has been subjected to continual interference from the west, by both word and deed, for a very long time. Frustrations do tend to build over time.
    What did surprise me was the lack of any real rigour or originality in the balance of Benedict’s speech. The core message, such as it was, had to be dredged out of great mounds of verbiage. He frequently dressed up simple assertions as if they were the result of careful reasoning. False dichotomies were created through the frequent conflation of reason and science. And, as Yohan and Babek pointed out so well, he seemed largely oblivious to the internal contradictions in his own thesis.
    A disappointing effort, I thought, needlessly inflammatory, fairly pedestrian in academic terms and entirely lacking — for me at least — in any redeeming spiritual ethos.

  21. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Ingolf Eide:
    The reaction to Pope’s remarks in the Muslim world has been quite muted. A number of ambassadors to the Vatican have been recalled and a few demonstrations with hundreds of people have taken place. Considering the fact the most of these cities (Mulsim) have millions of inhabitants, I would say that most Muslims did not react at all. The few violent incidents may be traced to lawless places like Somaila or the Palestinian Territories.

  22. larry whalen says:

    Benedict’s personal journey of empathy and experience is what it is, but I’m sure he could find a displaced Chaldean rite priest to help him in the future with his audience.

  23. galloglass says:

    Why hasn’t anyone answered the substantive questions raised by Pat Lang or the Pope? Just ad hominem attacks. Is the Moslem god a rational god? Is violence proscribed by Allah? Is not acting in accordance with reason contrary to God’s nature? Is God pure love? Or is he pleased by decapitations and forced conversions?

  24. Col. Lang it’s a brilliant and learned speech and thank you for printing the whole thing. The import of the Pope’s chosen example is pretty clear. Then going on to explain why reason should be acceptable to Christians, and demonstrating to others why the acceptance of reason need not denature the faith, is very clever indeed. We can hope that the Pope intends to use this argument for a major ecumenical outreach to his counterparts in Islam. The mullahs and ayatollahs would be compelled to respond in kind, and their strictures might command millions to mitigate the jihad. It could throw a real wrench into the thing. What I find most surprising is how oblique it all is. It makes you realize the religions have never spoken to each other before. That these religions have not had an earlier rapprochement is something of an embarrassment to both of them. I am interested to know if there is an available history of official contacts between the two.

  25. daCascadian says:

    Pat Lang >”…Should the pope have apologized? No. He should not have done so. There was no reason for Muslims to be offended by this academic discourse. The lecture was not really about them at all…The pope should not encourage such delusions.”
    I agree with Pat as he stated above; this wasn`t about Islam and those that think so really need to do some deeper though about Ratzinger`s words as presented here
    I must note that I came away from reading this w/a completely different slant on what daPope was going on about & here is the money quote for me :
    “…if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable…”
    Ratzinger is pitching for more credibility for religion which has taken such a beating from science over the last few centuries BECAUSE of “the empirically verifiable”
    He is suggesting that only if we do as he suggests in my “money quote” can Christianity/Western World hold a successful dialog with Islam
    He`s arguing for more credibility for religion & less for science; the rant of a placeholder figurehead leader of a decadent bureaucratic institution
    “All successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

  26. W. Patrick Lang says:

    As you probably know,the White Fathers were in charge of much having to do with RC/Islam matters for a long time and Francis Cardinal Arenze Has had the charge recently. pl

  27. Bob M says:

    His Holiness has an interesting official biography.
    His career has been marked by intellectual precision. That leads me to believe that he said precisely what he meant to say, and would have put a great deal of thought into the preparation of remarks for the occasion.
    He has put himself at the centre of discourse between Islam and Christianity.
    After all, during these troubled times, the centre of that discourse is precisely where His Holiness belongs.

  28. Babak Makkinejad says:

    galloglass & Lee:
    God is not bound by (human) rationality. He is God, he can do whatever he wants.
    The Absolute nature of God means that he is both Absolute Good and Absolute Evil.
    The mullahs and ayatullahs begin their studies with the Platonic Trivium: Logic, Rhetoric, and Grammar. To suggest that they need to be lectured on Rationality & Reason by the Pope or Christains is the epitome of ignorance of their intellectual millieu.
    I also take exception to the whole notion of “outreach” to Muslims. Muslims have their own traditions; cultural, intellecual, etc. Accept them the way they are or leave them alone.
    I am not unsympathetic to Pope’s attempt to prevent, or at least delay, the on-coming Dark Ages of Neo-Paganism (a.k.a. Secular Humanism, Scientism, etc.). However, he ought to have done it without denigrating Islam.

  29. galloglass says:

    Well Babak, there’s the crux of the problem…God transcends moral boundaries? God is absolute good and evil?
    So if tomorrow Allah said that murder was actually good, and charity evil, you’d agree with him? Nothing is intrinsically good or evil? By its very nature? When Christians and Moslems can’t agree on a basis for morality, then we will never agree on anything.

  30. nil says:

    Shorter Makkinejad: the pope was right, reason is held in little regard in Islam. But he should have said it more respectfully.
    Oh, and he’s not qualified to comment on Islam, but I can lecture him on Christianity (which he gets all wrong).

  31. Babak Makkinejad says:

    You have mis-stated my views, please refrain from doing so.
    Christians and Muslims can agree on the basis of morality for human beings and not require, at the same time, for God to be moral in human sense.
    The basis of that agreement is the idea that Man is made in the image of God and thus his being is valuable; that thus he is not a thing or an instrument.

  32. This was amazingly only one of a few sites that I could find the Pope’s text in it’s entirety and in the context which it was delivered. For that I thank you and the dialogue which ensued. Educating ourselves so as not to be reactive is important – so is wisdom.

  33. Babak:
    The Pope didn’t say God was bound by human rationality. He said that humans are to be bound. Specifically he said that for Christians, “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” He outlines the role of reason, and its place as a basic, indispensable, Greek addition to the Christian faith. There is even a short discussion of the challenges to Christian faith posed by the modern movements to devalue reason in faith –“dehellenization”– on the one hand; and of science –“the delimitation of reason to the empirically verifiable”– on the other hand. Make of that what you will! But I think this direct and high-level adumbration of the Church’s position on reason may find a wide interest among the profoundest thinkers of Islam, because this is the sort of thing they think about, too. Now, it is true that by specific indication — the story of Paleologus and the Persian — the Pope is in fact hoping for a similar lecture from that tradition. (Indeed one which, due to the lack of translation from the Arabic, may have contents unknown to Western theologians. Perhaps there is someone here, now, who can tell us the history of how Muslim theologians have approached the entire issue of the relation of reason to faith?) And it might be that a conversation instead of a war, as has often been noted before, would be a useful thing? However, far beyond mere “outreach” to the mullahs and ayatollahs, I think the Pope may hope to find common cause with them… If it looks like “peace,” so be it.

  34. Peter Eggenberger says:

    Muslim intolerance is deplorable. So, too, is the long history of Catholic intolerance. You reduce that history to the Inquisition and the Church’s relations to the Nazis, but they are merely chapters (the latter a very short one) in that history. If you compare the intolerance of the Catholic Church to the intolerance of Islam, over their long histories, you find that the Church wins indisputably.

  35. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Lee A. Arnold:
    I think I have understood the Pope’s point.
    About Islamic Philosophy it was Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (450-505 AH/1058-1111 AD) http://www.ghazali.org/
    who denigrated Reason (at least in the from of Aristotelian Metaphysics) and became a (rigid) champion of Faith.
    I am not familiar with the current Mulsim thought on the subject. The only place that I know in which Muslim Philosophy is still alive is Iran and one has to go there to learn of the state of the art.
    Personally, I think this sort of dialogues and exercises are useful but the issues of the day are political and related to power and the exercise thereof.
    For example, for decades USG has been convinced that she has to be the hegemon of the Persian Gulf; no amount of religious and philosophical discussion can alter this posture.

  36. al-Ghazali reminds me always of Augustine. Neither one denigrated reason — they produced many, many volumes using it. They denigrated the philosophies that it led to.
    Now we are in a war that uses ideas and beliefs as well as political power. If we don’t attend to all of it, we will make mistakes.


    I believe that certain parts of the mass media delibertly took out of context, misquoted, and spread this, out of context, to generate fury and hate between the Christian and Muslim nations. There are many war-mongers that feed on this kind of stuff, and as an optimistic person I think most people will eventully see through them.

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