Thursday, September 21, 2006

Not Acting Reasonably is Contrary to God's Nature

Pope Benedict XVI gave an address last Tuesday at Regensburg University. By now you have heard the sad news about the angry response by some Islamist extremists, which included acts of violence. In the Northern Nigerian town of Dutse, almost all the churches, including St. Peters Anglican Cathedral, have been torched.

What gave rise to such outrage? A small segment of the Pope's address, in which he quotes Manuel II Palaiologos, the Byzantine emperor from 1391 to 1425:

...In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point -- itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself -- 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 ("diálesis" -- controversy) edited by professor Khoury, the emperor 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.

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels," he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: "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 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 is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably ("syn logo") 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...."
Before saying anything more, we need to recognize some problems with this English translation of the German text. Instead of "turned to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely" the German text reads, "He addresses his interlocutor in an astoundingly harsh — to us surprisingly harsh — way." The other difficulty is found in the line that seems to have caused the most offense; "things only evil and inhuman" was actually "things only bad and inhumane". Perhaps minor points, but worth noting.

There are a couple of historical inaccuracies in the above section as well. Most scholars now agree that Sura 2:256 is not from the early period, but from the middle period, which negates the point he seems to have been trying to make. The other minor correction would be that most likely Manuel wrote those words while being held hostage by the Turkish sultan, not duirng the seige of Constantinople.

Was this an unfortunate quote for the Pope to use? In context, with the rest of Manuel's quotation, it is certainly relevant to the remainder of the address. Maybe he could have distanced himself a bit more from it; saying clearly, as he did in his apology, that this was not his personal view, or possibly also mentioning examples of "things bad and inhumane" done in the name of Christianity. History certainly offers of plethora of examples of that.

But he didn't. And so, primarily thanks to the news media's need to deal only in sound bytes, some extremists respond with violence to the perceived accusation by the Pope that they are violent. I believe they missed his point.

The crux of what the Pope was trying to communicate is contained in the very next paragraph after the above passage:

...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...
We have talked about this before, in our discussion of Charles Hefling's article How Shall We Know? in which he offered the following pearl:

God is not at odds with our best moral judgement. The human capacity to know the good is not only a capacity that he has created but also, what is more, a likeness and a taking part in his eternal Word, the true light that enlightens every man and woman.
Pope Benedict also draws our attention to the Word:

...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, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the 'logos.'"

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...
It is the erroneous attempt to separate faith from reason (the "de-Helenization" of Christianity) that is the primary focus of the remainder of his essay:

...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...

..."Not to act reasonably (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.
The generalizations made regarding Muslims, the Reformers and the Modernists are troubling, but read in its entirety, it is an insightful piece of work.

I am not a big fan of Pope Benedict. There is much irony in his speaking of a "reasoned faith" while also using a heavy hand to stifle discussion on various topics within Catholicism. But to assume that he marches lock step with George Bush and the rest of the neocons is to misjudge him. He has consistently spoken out against the war in Iraq and does not hesitate to condemn Israeli violence against the Palestinians. Even if you disagree with him on some issues, his consistency on all sanctity of life issues gives his words added validity.

The religions of the world, but especially at this time the extremists within Christianty and Islam, are viewed by many to be sanctioning violence in the name of God. I don't believe that those who seriously engage themselves in either tradition would ever consider violence to be the will of God. But, unfortunately, we have allowed the extremists to define us.

To quote Pope Benedict, "Violence is incompatable with the nature of God and the nature of the soul." May we reveal the nature of God to the world by rejecting violence, and by reasoning together.


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