Saturday, September 30, 2006

Lee Harris: Why the Pope Quoted Emperor Paleologus

Lee Harris's 2004 Publication
...unread by me, but it offers a provocative iconic gambit to my post
(Image from Wikipedia)

Lee Harris, in "Socrates or Muhammad? Joseph Ratzinger on the destiny of reason" (The Weekly Standard, 10/2/2006, Volume 12, Issue 3), has offered an interesting analysis of Pope Benedict XVI's controversial lecture. It is not the Pope speaking as Pope "but simply as Joseph Ratzinger, an intelligent and thoughtful man, who makes no claims to any privileged cognitive authority .... [and who] has come, like Socrates, not to preach or sermonize, but to challenge with questions."

Harris notes Ratzinger's provocative quote from Manuel II Paleologus -- "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" (though I would translate the German expression "Schlechtes und Inhumanes" as "bad and inhumane") -- and he offers his understanding of why Ratzinger chose this quote:
Ratzinger's daring use of this provocative quotation was not designed to inflame Muslims. He was using the emperor's question in order to offer a profound challenge to modern reason from within. Can modern reason really stand on the sidelines of a clash between a religion that commands jihad and a religion that forbids violent conversion? Can a committed atheist avoid taking the side of Manuel II Paleologus when he says: "God is not pleased by blood -- and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature . . . . 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."
In Harris's view, Ratzinger's quote was not primarily directed at Muslims but at modern, self-critical, rational Westerners. In effect, he was asking them, "What sort of God would you prefer, one whose nature is supremely rational or one whose nature is absolutely willful?" Now, Ratzinger might also, secondarily, be asking Muslims, "Which sort of deity is Allah?" -- and if so, he has received a preliminary answer -- but he's more centrally concerned with what Westerners think about this.

Harris is an atheist, but he replies to Ratzinger's provocative question by affirming that he prefers a reasonable deity because a religion based upon such a God will produce a community of reasonable individuals:
Modern reason, to be sure, cannot prove scientifically that a community of reasonable men is ethically superior to a community governed by violent men. But a critique of modern reason from within must recognize that a community of reasonable men is a necessary precondition of the very existence of modern reason. He who wills to preserve and maintain the achievements of modern reason must also will to live in a community made up of reasonable men who abstain from the use of violence to enforce their own values and ideas. Such a community is the a priori ethical foundation of modern reason. Thus, modern reason, despite its claim that it can give no scientific advice about ethics and religion, must recognize that its own existence and survival demand both an ethical postulate and a religious postulate. The ethical postulate is: Do whatever is possible to create a community of reasonable men who abstain from violence, and who prefer to use reason. The religious postulate is: If you are given a choice between religions, always prefer the religion that is most conducive to creating a community of reasonable men, even if you don't believe in it yourself.
For Harris, the choice is to support Christianity, for early in its intellectual development it joined Greek rationality to the Hebraic tradition and created a reasonable faith.

Even within Christianity, there have been theological developments that sundered faith from reason by emphasis upon God's radical willfulness, such as the nominalist theology of Duns Scotus:
For example, Ratzinger notes that within the Catholic scholastic tradition itself, thinkers emerged like Duns Scotus, whose imaginary construction of God sundered the "synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit." For Scotus, it was quite possible that God "could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done." If God had willed to create a universe without rhyme or reason, a universe completely unintelligible to human intelligence, that would have been his privilege. If he had decided to issue commandments that enjoined human beings to sacrifice their children, or kill their neighbors, or plunder their property, mankind would have been compelled to obey such commandments. Nor would we have had any "reason" to object to them, or even question them. For Scotus and those who followed him, the ultimate and only reason behind the universe is God's free and unrestrained will. But as Ratzinger asks, How can such a view of God avoid leading "to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness?" The answer is, it cannot.
The insightful German philosopher Hans Blumenberg has argued in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age that Christian theology led more or less inevitably to the Scotus position because its initial overcoming of Gnosticism had merely repressed rather than solved the possibility of a deceptive God and that the modern world had decisively overcome the Gnostic problem by centering reason in the self-assertive human being and disregarding the absolutely willful God.

Ratzinger and Harris disagree, arguing that Modernity's rationality stems from Medieval Christianity's mainstream understanding of a rational God and that our current imperative is to recognize this fact.

Whether modern reason can be severed from that Christian tradition and yet survive is the question reasonably posed by both Ratzinger the Christian and Harris the atheist.

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At 8:05 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

[WARNING: Looooong comment.]

I wish I knew more Christian history so I could comment more substantively on this post. I vaguely recall some textbook passages about Duns Scotus, but I can't say I ever dwelt on the man's thought.

My question, rather, is one of translation. While I don't speak German (unless we count two mostly-forgotten semesters of German as "speaking German"), I wanted to ask you about the ambiguity of the adjective "schlectes" based on what I know from English and French. Since you're able to translate French, we can use that language as a point of departure, move into English, and then I'll cede the floor to you re: German.

In French, the words "bien" and "mal" can be adverbs, nouns, or adjectves. If I ask someone, "Ça va bien?", I'm asking whether everything is going well. A reply of "Ça va mal" will mean that things are going badly. Obviously, then, in practical, everyday discourse, "bien" and "mal" just mean "well" and "badly/poorly."

In their nominal incarnations, i.e., "le bien" and "le mal" (especially when paired together in the phrase "le bien et le mal"), these words are more likely to be read as "good" and "evil." That much is clear. Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal is therefore "the flowers of evil" or "evil's flowers" and not the more pedestrian "bad flowers."

This isn't to say, however, that there's a clear semantic demarcation between "mal" as "bad(ly)/poor(ly)" and "mal" as "evil." To be "malmené," for example, means something like "violently mistreated," quite a difference from an expression like "mal poli," which merely means "very impolite." Violent mistreatment contains something of the malefic, whereas mere rudeness doesn't necessarily connote evil. So "mal" obviously straddles semantic borders.

In English, too, the semantic fields of these words overlap. "This food is bad" has a pedestrian meaning: "This food is of poor quality [i.e., poorly prepared]." However, when when someone asks during a movie, "Which one's the bad guy?", they're asking about who the evil party is (in French, this is usually marked by the ambiguous noun/adjective "méchant," which can mean [a] "naughty," "bad," or even "wicked" [person/animal]).

My question, then, is whether German also has this sort of ambiguity between, say "gut" and "schlecht." If it does, then I want to know what makes you opt for the more pedestrian "bad" as opposed to "evil" in your translation of the German rendering of the Paleologus quotation. My instinct is to say that Paleologus, speaking about deep and serious matters, might well have intended the stronger "evil." But again, that's an intuition based on almost zero knowledge of German.

Ah-- come to think of it, I do have a more substantive comment!

You wrote:

"Now, Ratzinger might also, secondarily, be asking Muslims, 'Which sort of deity is Allah?' -- and if so, he has received a preliminary answer -- but he's more centrally concerned with what Westerners think about this."

I'm banging my head against the wall here-- not because I disagree with your insight, but because Benedict, as Ratzinger, has gotten himself into trouble with other religions in precisely this manner before.

The 2000 CDF document Dominus Iesus (a document I regularly flog on my blog), spearheaded primarily by Ratzinger, ended up offending people of many religions, but especially Jews. In a sense, it was merely a reaffirmation of the Church's post-Vatican II stance toward other religions, but many non-Catholics saw the strident language-- and the more obvious exclusivism pervading it-- as a great leap backward from the 1965 Nostra Aetate document of Vatican II.

In its defense, the CDF said that Dominus Iesus wasn't intended for non-Catholics-- a defense I've always found disingenuous when we consider the hyper-connected, mediatized world in which we live. News of such a document can and will spread quickly. How can it possibly be "for Catholic eyes only"? Displays of surprise and professions of innocence are hard to trust. Even if such displays and professions are sincere, they still betray a great naivete about the power of technology and global culture. Any document crafted for a community will inevitably have to take into account that the document's release will not occur in a vacuum. If the current pope is saying that his words weren't meant for Muslim ears, then... I'm not sure what to think.

There's a good deal of speculation going on right now as to whether the pope quoted Paleologus "with implicit approval." I suppose we'll never know the answer to that question. I agree with you that Benedict has "received a preliminary answer" from certain elements in Islam, but I'm still wary of fully exonerating him. He's a man who has put his foot in his mouth before.

Let me put it this way:

Suppose the KKK promulgates a document titled "Solving Our Black Problem." The document is uploaded to a public KKK website, where anyone in the world can see it. Public outcry is immediate, but the KKK's Grand Dragon, pleading wide-eyed innocence, calls a press conference and says, "This document is merely a statement of a position everyone is already aware of, and was never intended for anyone other than KKK members." This may be true, but because the document pertains to people outside the KKK, such a defense is untenable.

While I certainly don't equate the Catholic Church with the KKK (I have far too many Catholic friends and acquaintances to do something that silly), I hope my extreme example has made the point that a document (or speech) by a member of one religion cannot reasonably be construed to have coreligionists as its sole audience.

OK... I've gone on far too long. I've done more commenting than blogging today, and I might just copy and paste the day's comments on my own blog. Heh.

Apologies for length. Feel free to ignore.


At 8:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, as for "Schlechtes und Inhumanes," I doubt that I'd ever think of translating the former as "evil," though there might be contexts in which one could.

The word for "evil" is "Böse."

Concerning "Inhumanes," I'm less sure. One might translate it as "inhuman" or as "inhumane," but the precise word for "inhuman" is "unmenschlich." So, I'd go for "inhumane," the lesser of the two evils ... so to speak.

On Ratzinger and Catholicism, you know a lot more than I do, Kevin, so you may be correct about the Pope having a poor sense of what's appropriate.

I don't, however, think that the analogy to the KKK quite works -- though I understand your basic point, and maybe we all have to be more careful as we become more influential. I'd probably write even more carefully if I knew that thousands of people were reading my blog each day.

I think that the Pope likely figured that his prefatory remarks about the shocking nature of the quote, especially since he emphasized this twice, would signal his distance from the Byzantine emperor's statement.

Perhaps if the English translation had been precise, some of the reaction could have been avoided.

But radical Muslims might have protested anyway, for this controversy was manufactured -- and we should always keep this point in mind -- much as the Danish cartoon controversy was manufactured.

Anyway, I support free speech ... even for the Pope ... and I happen to think that this is one of the best ways to counter the Islamists.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:31 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I suppose that's the essence of it: the manufactured nature of the controversy. Point taken.

If that's the case, though, then Benedict probably faces a crisis. It's not in his nature to make a retraction (and the running joke about the Catholic Church's revisions is that the new documents often begin with "As we have always contended..."), and he's going to have to take a firm theological stand that will pit him directly against Muslim theological claims.

I see Benedict as less of a "pontiff" (in the bridge-building sense implied by the Latin root of that word) and more as a "defender of the faith" exhorting people, especially Europeans, to remember their Christian heritage and to reappropriate Christian virtues.

[QUESTION: If Benedict is speaking thusly to Europeans, is he speaking to European Jews and Muslims and Buddhists?]

Benedict does have a choice as to how he goes about this, however. Christian theological claims have been public knowledge for centuries, and the Muslim world hasn't risen up as one to stamp the theology out. Dialogue, then, is possible, but it takes two to tango. I'm wary of absolving Benedict of all responsibility in how he proceeds, even as I acknowledge that you're right about how oversensitive the other side is.

Ah, yes-- I think Duns Scotus's thinking meshes with my own ideas about the God of the classical theists. God can't be absolved by free-will theodicies claiming that people are the source of evil: God could have made things otherwise in a universe that followed totally different rules (or no rules at all?). If God could not have made things otherwise, then in what sense is God free? I've never bought into the "God is constrained by logic" position. I'm not a classical theist, but it strikes me as bizarre whenever theists give logic primacy over God.

OK-- definitely shutting up now.


At 9:36 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Damn-- I forgot to add: the word for "evil" is "Böse"? Yikes! Isn't there a high-end brand of stereo speaker called "Bose"?

"Flowers of evil" indeed! What are we letting into our houses and cars!?


At 10:25 PM, Blogger Dorian Gray said...


I would love to talk to you (we have a lot in common :)

What is your email?

At 3:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dorian Gray, did you mean me or Kevin?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Not only speakers, Kevin.

In physics, there's even something called the Bose–Einstein Condensate, which sounds like it means the Evil-Einstein Condensate -- as if there were a fearsome Anti-Einstein lurking in the world who had developed some sort of horrible ... uh, "Condensate."

They might have chosen a scarier name...

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, on your question, I think that the Pope was primarily directing his remarks to the Christian West.

As for logic having primacy over God, those who consider God to have a rational nature wouldn't consider this reason something separate from God and imposing itself upon him. But I'll let you thrash that out with Wild Bill Vallicella.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

I doubt the policies and worldview of the U.S. will ever be severed from Christianity. As for modern reason, that's a different story. Unfortunately, reason doesn't have as much charisma as God and ranks low in the polls of public opinion.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jessica, there's a strong element in Protestantism that emphasizes God's utterly free will -- nearly to the point of willfulness.

That might account for some of what you note.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 2:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Harris: "If you are given a choice between religions, always prefer the religion that is most conducive to creating a community of reasonable men, even if you don't believe in it yourself"

Aaah, Harris and the Weekly Standard: Always seing Leo Strauss' thoughts (subscribe to the 'noble lie' etc.) in the unlikeliest places. So Harris is arguing that the pope asking the rationalists/thewest/the atheists/whomever to be more like a Neoconservative? I call that wishful thinking. Leaving the rest of Harris' argument intact, and accepting that some sort of reconciliation or even logical and fruitful cohabitance (Vatican and pretend believers) is what is pope is asking for: qui bono?
And my answer would be: the pope needs his potential partners (as far as at least Europe is concened) more that the other way round. Is this an invitation for an alliance of convenience, born out of an embattled position vis-a-vis the christians in muslim lands? Is this an admission of weakness from the Vatican, an admission that the past attempts to uphold catholicism via 'interfaith' with Islam against Europe's atheism was probably worse for catholics than an alliance with these atheists against 'unreason', now in the form of Islam? I wonder.

At 4:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, as I noted in my comment to your remarks on the Tarik Ramadan post, I'll have to think about your suggestion concerning the Pope's ulterior aims, for I've not thought much -- or at all -- in this direction.

But I would note that the Catholic Church is much stronger than it appears to be to Western eyes (if yours are 'Western') because it's growing very rapidly outside of the West.

(So is evangelical Protestantism, but that's another matter.)

I suspect that the Pope is more concerned about reining in the theology of the growing Catholic Church outside the West, which accounts for his critical analysis of the third stage of dehellenization currently going on.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:32 PM, Blogger Dorian Gray said...

You, Horace Jeffery Hodges!

Email me plz,


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