Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI Need Not (Yet) Apologize

Iraqis set fire to an effigy of Pope Benedict XVI during a protest in Basra
Photographer: Nabil Al-Jurani
September 18, 2006
(Image from USA Today)

Since the Pope's recent remarks on Islam have sparked intense anger among Muslims -- to everyone's surprise -- I decided to look more closely at what the pope actually said.

The Pope was speaking at the University of Regensburg on the relation between reason and faith and had recounted a brief anecdote about his experience teaching in the 1950s at the University of Bonn, which had two theological faculties (presumably, Catholic and Protestant), concerning which a colleague -- possibly not a theologian -- observed that "there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God."

This anecdote led into the Pope's discussion of reason's role in Christian thought, which he introduced with a reference to a Medieval discussion between a prominent Christian and a prominent Muslim, and I'm providing here that reference within its larger context in the Pope's talk:

I was reminded of ... this [issue of reason and faith] recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Muenster) 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 ... 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 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 Hazn 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 have marked in red the phrases used by the Pope to distance himself from the source that he is citing.

By characterizing as brusque and forceful the words criticizing Muhammad's teachings, the Pope indicates that he does not fully agree with the way that the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus has formulated the issue.

How, precisely, he would differ in his own formulation, the Pope does not say. Presumably, we will find out later, for a note at the end of the Pope's text states: "The Holy Father intends to supply a subsequent version of this text, complete with footnotes."

While we wait for that, we might also wait for the inevitable, inadvertent ironies in reactions to the Pope's speech.

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At 10:56 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Thanks for this post. I tried to find the Pope's actual words, but was unsuccessful. The Vatican website is not exactly user friendly. (Even in the English part, you can end up with a page of what I assume is Italian.)

From what I see on Drudge, the so-called Arab Street is reacting to a perceived insult to their "religion of peace" by rioting, burning, and warning of more violence.

The Pope may be a scholar, but he must have a deaf ear when it comes to politics and political correctness.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, you're welcome.

The 'Muslim Street' (since it crosses ethnicities) is anything but spontaneous, and those demonstrating likely have no understanding of what the Pope actually said. All they know is that the Pope uttered some words that refer to Muhammad as "evil" and "inhuman." Perhaps many of their leaders themselves can't distinguish between "mentioning" and "using" an expression.

The more astute Muslim religious leaders will recognize the distinction, but the radicals among them are unlikely to care since they find it in their interest to galvanize opposition to the West, whereas the moderates among them are too fearful to speak out.

As for the Pope's ear, I suspect that he may have expected harsh criticism, but that only underlines his query, doesn't it? -- namely, the place of reason vs. violence in religion.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:25 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Yes, that "underlines his query." But I wouldn't want to be a Catholic minority in a Muslim country just now. (Hell, ever.)

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Or any Christian minority since the radicals among Muslims won't be ones interested in making fine distinctions.

I'm hoping that the Muslims' attention will remain focused on the Pope, not directed against the poor Christian minorities of Muslim countries, who -- as you perhaps imply -- live in "Hell, ever."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:08 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

It appears that Christian churches in Palestine are already being attacked.

I'd agree that the pope didn't intend his words to be taken as they were, and that the current anger is the result of several factors, including (1) a constant Muslim readiness to be offended and (2) a possibly deliberate lack of clarity in the Western media's portrayal of what the pope said and meant.

But I can't let this pope off the hook for his historical ineptitude when it comes to interreligious dialogue. Benedict was elevated to the papacy because many in the Catholic hierarchy saw his attitude as a corrective to a generally liberal swing in the Church's theology and its lay adherents' behavior. His credentials as prefect of the CDF militated in his favor. What we're seeing now, however, is that his attitude-- which seemed a boon to conservative Catholics-- is probably going to get him in trouble with the rest of the world-- not merely with Muslims but also, I predict, with Jews, Buddhists, and the rest.

The pope probably shouldn't apologize for this particular flap (and I'm sure he won't), but he does, I think, need to consider more carefully what dialogical strategies he adopts.


At 5:28 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, I think that you've touched on a central problem that we all -- not just the Pope -- face, namely, how to speak honestly and intelligently about Islam while knowing that stating anything that does not put Muhammad, Islam, and Muslims in a positive light will be taken as an insult.

I would note, however, that the Pope could also have been better served by more accurate translations of his German words. That fault lies with someone in the Catholic hierarchy who failed to ensure that the translations be absolutely precise.

Even the expression "evil and inhuman" should have been rendered "bad and inhumane" -- given that the Pope quoted the Byzantine emperor as saying "Schlechtes und Inhumanes."

Muslims wouldn't have liked that either, but it sounds softer to my ear.

Perhaps I'll blog on this again tomorrow, using the German original.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:03 PM, Blogger SparkingTheWorld said...

The Pope's lecture on the relationship of God and rational thought is not being protrayed fairly in the press.

Islamic reaction shows great weakness as well. It is a sadder and deeper weakness than the sloppy and shallow critizism of some of the press in the West.

The Pope's purpose in quoting the dialogue between the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus and the educated Persian is to set the stage for a discussion on whether God must perform rationally or whether He has no limits whatsoever.

Pope Benedict quotes Theodore Khoury as saying
'for the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement (that God is rational) is self evident. But for Muslim teaqching, God is absolutely trqanscendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.'
The reaction of the Muslim world is so sad because it protrays so clearly how difficult it is to express thoughts in that world. The Muslim rejection of binding God to categories is not trivial to me. Instead of burning effigies of the Pope, I would love to hear Muslim scholars answer the Pope's statement with rational argument.

I feel that it will be generations before world culture will have that benefit.

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Say Hi There, thanks for the comment. You summary of the Pope's main points in his speech looks accurate to me.

Unfortunately, there seem to be too few Muslims capable of or willing to engage with the Pope on an intellectual level. Intellectual critique seems to be taken as merely a pretext for jihad.

We can hope that some Muslims will try to meet the Pope on his level, but that wouldn't stop the large-scale, violent protests, which are being orchestrated for purposes of power anyway.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi, i am a student at the american university in cairo and am doing a presentaion on the pope's speech and am a muslim. i have to admit that people might have misunderstood the pope's speech or even as u mentioned the translation wasnt accurate but in both ways it would probably still sound abit insulting because muslims look at the prophet mohammed as an ideal human being, so the pope should never have mentioned mohamed in his speech cuz its a sensitive isuee. like did u ever hear a shakh mention any prophet of any other religion in a speech with any negative words or anything like that ? no .and a pope should be fair and respectiable of other religions and not bias thats what i think a pope should be like.
so i think the pope should have thought twice before bringing up this issue and i do admit that some muslims use violence but that is because they dont understand religion or islam well enough cuz islam should be representing peace and all good. but i still also think that the viloence is in the character not related to religion at all like there are violent christians, jews...etc... so islam doesnt have anything to do with it. and those people who claim to be muslims do nothing but harm islams repitation which used to be a good one among the countries long ago. plus i just wanted to clarify that my best friend is a christian and christains do not live in hell in egypt. if u ever visited egypt you would find the people very friendly and helpful and am seriously not being bias or anything. thanx.

At 4:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, in the West, criticism of religious leaders has been allowed, more or less openly, since the Enlightenment, and I hope that this right to free speech remains uncurtailed.

As for the Pope's actual words, they were in German and show that the Pope expressed himself very carefully, far more carefully than the English translation.

If you haven't yet looked at my other posts on this issue, then you might want to look at the posts that follow this one that you've commented on.

As for violence and Islam, while I think that most Muslims are peaceful individuals, Islam does officially sanction violence in the cause of religion. I'm no expert, and limits to the acceptable kind of violence or to the degree of violence within the acceptable kind remain unclear to me.

My impression, however, is that the limits are rather broadly set.

To take one example, suicide bombing of Israelis seems to be widely accepted, both by religious leaders and by Muslims generally.

If suicide bombings of civilians is considered acceptable in Islam, then Islam has a very big problem with violence, one that Muslims themselves need to face up to and solve.

Jeffery Hodges

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