Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Pope Benedict weighs in on Faith & Reason, and Jihad

A serious, grimly-determined looking Pope Benedict celebrates Mass in Regensburg.

Today, on NPR’s Morning Edition, Sylvia Poggioli reported about a speech Pope Benedict delivered yesterday in Regensburg, Germany.

Speaking at the university, the main theme of Benedict’s speech was how the development of science and philosophy in the West had caused it to marginalize and separate itself from faith, which has led to the secularization of Europe and fear in other continents. He said,
The world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion from 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…

Today, when we have learned to recognize the pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason, and the ways that God’s image can be destroyed by hatred and fanaticism, it is important to state clearly the God in whom we believe…

Only this can free us from being afraid of God — which is ultimately at the root of modern atheism. Only this God saves us from being afraid of the world and from anxiety before the emptiness of life.

What really raised a few eyebrows in the speech, however, were some brief remarks he made about Islam and violence.

Making reference to a debate in Constantinople in 1391 between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and “a learned Persian”, he quoted the emperor as saying,
”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 the sword by the faith he preached.”

In the Islamic world, these remarks may turn out to be incendiary. On the Lebanese website Campaign for Good Governance in Lebanon. The Center for Democracy and the Rule of Law, they carried the New York Times article written by Ian Fisher with the headline Pope Benedict, in inflamatory speech, assails all: secularism, Jihad, Islam and the Prophet.

Marco Politi, the Vatican expert for La Republicca said of the speech,
The text reveals his deep mistrust regarding the aggressive side of Islam…

Certainly he closes the door to an idea which was very dear to John Paul II — the idea that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same God and have to pray together to the same God.

The Holy father’s upcoming trip to Turkey, whose proposed entry in the European Union he spoke out against, is going to be very interesting.

On NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, Sylvia Poggioli reports on how Benedict has been urging a return to faith in Germany.


friar minor said...

Wow, Jeff, thanks for alerting us to this...I can't listen to NPR because it brings back childhood memories of being in the car on the way to school :(

Liam said...

I'll have to listen to the NPR show when I get a chance. I did read the Times article and it left me astounded. Why refer to a work by a Eastern Roman Emperor about Islam written at a time when the Turks were breathing down his neck? I would like to see the context it was put in. I mean really, refering to a Christian text about the violence inherent in Islam written shortly after the period of the Crusades? It's hard to see it as anything it as anything but inflammitory.

Benedict seems to be closing more doors than opening them. I agree with many of his critiques about modern society, but I don't think anything is to be gained by simply rejecting modern society. There has to be a way to dialogue with it. I had my problems with John Paul II's authoritarianism and centralization of the church, among other things, but I did like how he reached out to other faiths. We need that spirit now more than ever.

Liam said...

Benedict's speech can be found at the Vatican website. As I suspected, he was quoted out of context, but at the same time, he was contrasting what he believed to be rationality which came to Christianity via Greek philosophy with a more absolute idea of God in Islam. It was, in other words, much more subtle and intelligent than reported, but perhaps equally insulting to Muslims.

I will have to read the speech more carefully -- I may be mistaken.

Greek philosophy, after all, did come to the West through Arabic translations.

Jeff said...

Hi Friar,

Good to see you again. I enjoyed your Book Meme. Good choices.

I can't listen to NPR because it brings back childhood memories of being in the car on the way to school

LOL. “People’s Republic Radio”, eh? You know, I bet a lot of the same cast of characters who were there when you were in school are still there… Carl Kasell, Daniel Shore, Terry Gross, Nina Totenberg, etc… I find that it really is the only place you can hear about stuff in depth without people screaming and shouting all the time.

Hi Liam,

Yes, I was a bit surprised that of all the things he could have said that he would choose to use that anecdote, but he doesn’t do anything by accident. As for the context in which Benedict made the remarks, everyone should read the full text and make their own judgement about the spirit in which it was stated. Zenit has the full text, but they are notorious for re-using their URL’s. Here is a link to a blog that has the full version of the speech.

Relativism is a problem, but as I stated in a previous post, I do think that the Vatican has a tendency to misdiagnose the problem in Europe. I think they have a tendency to mistake anti-clericalism with a lack of faith, or spirituality, or an ability to believe in God. Speaking of the Europeans I know personally, they do not seem to have a problem believing in Jesus or even in sacramentalism, but they do have a problem with the institution. As they would put it, they have trouble listening to a Church institution they percieve as not having listened to them. I think the Church needs to find a new way to talk to them. Relatavism is decried, but there should be sensitivity to the fact that Europeans have reasons to have doubts about absolutes. In Central Europe they trod every day over ground that was fought over in vicious “Holy Wars” between Protestants and Catholics over Truth that left a third of the region dead.

I think there is a double-effect going on, the latter half of which is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because of anti-clericalsim, many people there checked out on listening long ago, which means there have been a few generations of un-catechized people who have scant knowledge of what it is they are even rejecting.

Jeff said...


I see we crossed in the mail...

Greek philosophy, after all, did come to the West through Arabic translations.

Yes, they "re-discovered" and assimilated Aristotle before we did.

Steve Bogner said...

I heard the same on NPR (and, the kids do listen to it as I take them to the bus drop-off). I do need to read the whole thing - thanks for the link Jeff - that saved me some time!

The Pope may have been able to say it with more tact, but I see his point. I think that as we build a platform for conversation with Islam, we have to remember our own Christian legacy of violence. One doesn't have to look too hard to find forced conversions, anti-Semitism, religously-inflamed/justified/driven wars and so on. We don't have to live/dwell in the past, but having an awareness of it helps.

Jeff said...

Today this news is really starting to heat up.

Hi Steve,

How are you? I agree with what you say. I'm a little bit puzzled though, by his approach here. As a self-described Augustinian, he should be well aware of Augustine's exhoratation to "compel them to come in" in the wake of the Donatist controversy, which provided a rationale for centuries of forced conversions. It seems to me that the Muslims could say "right back at you", at least as far as 1391 was concerned.

Hey, don't forget that I tagged you for a Book Meme (scroll all the way down on my page) :-)

Mike McG... said...

I'm stunned, much more by Benedict's citation of the Byzantine emperor's commentary re: Islam than by the 1391 words themselves.

This isn't about truth claims. Benedict has every right, even obligation to assert the fundamental truths of the faith. Perhaps there are sectors within Christianity willing to mute all doctrinal differences on behalf of a faux concept of tolerance.

The issue is context...time, place, pulpit...and consequences. Why on earth, when so many Muslims feel marginalized and so many Christians seem inclined to demonize them, would he makes such indendiary comments?

I fear that many will conclude that the Benedict persona was a ruse, that the Ratzinger of old is back.

I wonder also at his loss in standing to challenge Muslim intolerance of Christians in Nigeria and elsewhere.

Sad, very sad.

Liam said...

Things are heating up, and Benedict should really address this whole thing immediately and personally... Though it could be he is one of those people who accept the idea that there will be an inevitable clash of cultures and it's not worthwhile trying to build bridges.

I agree with you about Europe, Jeff. Benedict and much of the heirarchy refuse to even consider the problems people have with the way the Church has behaved. As we have mentioned when discussing the abuse crisis, they will not listen.

My faith tells me the intense centralization and clericalism we're seeing now will, in the long run, be seen as a brief reaction to the revolutionary opening up of the Church to the people at Vatican II.

crystal said...

Things are heating up. It doesn't seem like the pope to make such a comment without realizing the probable reaction ... I wonder if it was intentional, to bring the issue out in the open? At any rate, the last news story I read siad the Vatican was worried about his safety.

Jeff said...


Is it ever... Oh, boy. Here we go...

From what I can see a lot of the traditionalists are really liking this. It looks to me, though, like the Holy Father is in quite a pickle. What will the people who love this say if he apologizes?

Liam said...

Yes, I have read more than one comment about how B16 is "telling it like it is." I can't get over how quickly so many people are eager to hate 900 million fellow human beings.

Jeff said...

Hey Mike McG,

Great to see you, btw...

Your comments are right on the money again, as usual.

cowboyangel said...

Juan Cole (Informed Comment) has been covering the speech and reaction in the Muslim community. See especially: The Pope Gets It Wrong on Islam He says, "The address is more complex and subtle than the press on it represents. But let me just signal that what is most troubling of all is that the Pope gets several things about Islam wrong, just as a matter of fact." He then goes into depth on several issues of misunderstanding. He then concludes by stating: "The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations."

My feeling is that the Pope didn't intend to sound so strong on the issue. He seems genuinely flustered by the reaction. (Which is a concern in itself, as if he just doesn't get it.) But he's going to have to find a way to smooth things over, probably displeasing some of the Traditionalists you mention.

What's interesting to me is that he made several strong statements against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and no one paid attention at all. Then he says this and, voila, world-wide coverage.

By the way, if anyone knows of a diocese looking for a script-writer, I have feeling there's one available now. Previous experience at the Vatican.

Jeff said...

Hi Cowboyangel,

Yes, he does seem flustered by the reaction, and that is what surprises me. I don't think he has ever needed or wanted a speechwriter. From what I can tell from his ecclesiastical career, he has always carefully planned and thought out everything he's ever said. It seems to me he's never said anything without a carefully thought-out reason behind it. I'm still trying to figure out what he was trying to get across with this anecodte when there is such a clash of civilizations going on. He could just have easily delved into Christian history for problems with compulsion and tension between faith and reason.

cowboyangel said...


Thought you might be interested. Karen Armstrong comments on the Pope's speech.

Well, somehow, the Jets had a minor shot at tying the Pats in the last minute of the game. I wouldn't have thought that when it was 24-0 in the 3rd quarter! Congrats.

Jeff said...


The Jets almost did climb back on us, didn't they? Great comeback. Knowing Pennington's lack of an arm though, I was just waiting for him to throw up a duck like he did at the very end.

Laveranues! Who do we have to trade to you guys to get Laveranues Cole? That guy is unbelievable.

Thanks for the link to the Karen Armstrong article. It was interesting and informative, as were the reader comments.

I've read a couple of her books; A History of God and The Battle for God. She's a brilliant scholar and writer, but as an ex-nun, I think she's carrying a lot of bitterness towards the Church too. I do confess that I think that out of her admiration for the beauty of the Koran spoken in Arabic, she tends to give Islam more of a pass on things than she does with Judaism and Christianity. She made great points in her article, but I think the readers made some good points as well. I think there may have been more violence involved in the spread of Islam than she thinks. North Africa, Egypt, Syria, the Levant, Anatolia... These regions were heavily and intensely Christian at one time... I don't suspect that Islam won over those areas so quickly by persuasion and reason alone. I don't think Christian fear and resentment of Islam started with the Crusades. I admit I need to study up on it more. I need to see how much the origin of Islam was tied up with Ebionite forms of Jewish Christianity, Arianism, Nestorianism, and the like...