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Examining Benedict’s remarks

Charles Rice | Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The original New York Times story on the Pope’s University of Regensburg address was headed, “Pope Calls West Divorced from Faith, Adding a Blunt Footnote on Islam.” That footnote, three paragraphs in a 30-minute academic speech, prompted the violent response in the Muslim world.

Let’s look at what Benedict XVI actually said. The address was essentially on the West’s divorce of reason from religion. Benedict first noted that when he began teaching at the University of Bonn in 1959, it was “accepted without question,” within the university as a whole, that one could “raise the question of God through the use of reason … in the context of … the Christian faith.” He said that he was “reminded of all this recently” when he read the fourteenth century dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and “an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.”

“[T]he emperor,” said Benedict, “touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ It 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 Koran, concerning holy war.” Benedict stated that the emperor put to the Persian, “in these words … the central question on the relationship between religion and violence: ‘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,” continued Benedict, “goes on to explain … why spreading the faith through violence is … unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. ‘God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably … is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not of 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.”

Benedict then stated that Theodore Khoury, editor of the dialogue, observed that “for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with … rationality.” Benedict did not state this, or the emperor’s view, as his own opinion.

Benedict went on to note that God acts with “logos,” which “means both reason and word.” God is reason, which is not the same as saying that reason (our reason) is god. From “Christian faith” and … “Greek thought now joined to faith,” said Benedict, “Manuel II was able to say: Not to act ‘with logos’ [with reason] is contrary to God’s nature.”

The dialogue between Manuel II and the Persian was relevant to Benedict’s main theme, a critical analysis of the Western divorce, dating from the late Middle Ages, of reason from faith and religion. Benedict discussed the “sola scriptura” approach of the Reformation; the later distinction between “the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”; the presentation of Jesus as merely “the father of a humanitarian moral message”; and the “modern concept of reason” with “mathematical and empirical” certainty as the measure even of the “human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy.” That method “excludes the question of God [as] unscientific or pre-scientific.” Therefore questions of religion and ethics have nothing to do with “reason as defined by ‘science.'” They are “subjective.”

Benedict’s intent is one of “broadening our concept of reason and its application … 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 … [T]heology rightly belongs in the university and within the … dialogue of sciences … as inquiry into the rationality of faith.”

Pope John Paul II described Faith and Reason as “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Benedict’s address gave a new dimension to that insight. “I am deeply sorry,” Benedict said, “for the reactions in some countries to a few passages … which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These were a quotation from a medieval text which do not in any way express my own personal thought … [M]y address … in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect.”

Those who react with violence to this address validate Emperor Manuel II’s opinion of Islam. Benedict, as the Vicar of Christ, has done the world an important service. It would be a good idea to read this address. And anything else Benedict says. Habemus papam. Deo gratias.

Professor Emeritus Charles Rice is a member of the Law School faculty. He can be reached at (574) 633-4415 or at rice.1@nd.edu

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