Herewith a potpourri of reflections on the Regensburg lecture by Pope Benedict and reactions to it, intermixed with a bit of my own commentary. As many commentators, Muslim and other, do not know because they manifestly have not read the lecture, it was not chiefly about Islam. It was a considered reflection on the inseparable linkage of faith and reason in the Christian understanding, an incisive critique of Christian thinkers who press for separating faith and reason in the name of "de-Hellenizing" Christianity, and a stirring call for Christians to celebrate the achievements of modernity and secure those achievements by grounding them in theological and philosophical truth.
I have had the opportunity of many extended conversations with Ratzinger-Benedict over the years, and he is a man of great gentleness and deliberation and extremely careful to say what he means. What he said at Regensburg he has said many times before. Contrary to many reports, he has not apologized or retracted his argument. He has indicated sincere regret that many Muslims have reacted to his statement as they have. The response of those who are properly called jihadists is, "If you don’t stop saying we’re violent, we’re going to bomb more churches, kill more nuns and priests, and get the pope too." In short, the reaction has powerfully confirmed the problem to which Benedict called our attention.
Some think that Benedict was not as judicious as he might have been in quoting a medieval emperor of the East who, faced by Islamic conquest that succeeded in turning Christian Constantinople into Islamic Istanbul, declared that Islam has produced only inhumanity and evil. That is arguable. Benedict did say at Regensburg that the emperor’s words were excessively "brusque." But the citation was also a way of reminding everybody that this conflict with Islam bent upon conversion by the sword is very long-standing.
It can be argued that the Regensburg lecture will turn out to be the most important statement by a world leader in the post¯September 11 period. Of course, not all Muslims are jihadists, whether in the Middle East or the rest of the world. But jihadism is the ominous threat we face, and I again wish that more people would read Mary Habeck’s sobering book now out from Yale University Press, Knowing the Enemy . Habeck, who teaches international relations at Johns Hopkins, is unlike so many students of Islam, in that she takes very seriously what these people actually say they believe, and how they intend to act upon what they believe. Jihadism is the religiously inspired ideology that is committed to employ whatever means necessary to destroy the West (which its proponents view as the Christian West) and force the world’s submission to Islam.
The editors of the New York Sun compare the current controversy with John Paul II’s courage and candor with respect to communism. They write: "The current pope, like his predecessor, is fighting a two-front war. He must take on radicals outside his faith while also convincing his co-religionists of the seriousness of the fight. In this sense, Benedict’s decision to quote the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus is an apt one. Manuel was the penultimate eastern emperor, who presided over a drastically diminished realm in the face of the mounting threat of Islamic conquest. Manuel was also one of the many emperors who were unsuccessful in persuading western Christians to aid the failing empire. The pressing question is not only whether Islam will take up Benedict’s challenge but whether well-meaning Christians, who have sometimes wanted to feel removed from the battle, draw strength from the pope’s leadership."
That may strike some readers as excessively belligerent, but I think it is, in the main, a fair statement of the question before us. Please note that Benedict has addressed these questions many times before. Especially instructive is his 1980 book of essays, Church, Ecumenism and Politics . What is Benedict’s proposal to Islam? Just last summer in Cologne, in connection with World Youth Day, he spoke to these questions, and what he said is very much worth reading with care.
It is in this spirit that I turn to you, dear and esteemed Muslim friends, to share my hopes with you and to let you know of my concerns at these particularly difficult times in our history.
I am certain that I echo your own thoughts when I bring up one of our concerns as we notice the spread of terrorism. I know that many of you have firmly rejected, also publicly, in particular any connection between your faith and terrorism and have condemned it. I am grateful to you for this, for it contributes to the climate of trust that we need.
Terrorist activity is continually recurring in various parts of the world, plunging people into grief and despair. Those who instigate and plan these attacks evidently wish to poison our relations and destroy trust, making use of all means, including religion, to oppose every attempt to build a peaceful and serene life together.
Thanks be to God, we agree on the fact that terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel choice which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence.
If together we can succeed in eliminating from hearts any trace of rancour, in resisting every form of intolerance and in opposing every manifestation of violence, we will turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress towards world peace.
The task is difficult but not impossible. The believer¯and all of us, as Christians and Muslims, are believers¯knows that, despite his weakness, he can count on the spiritual power of prayer.
Dear friends, I am profoundly convinced that we must not yield to the negative pressures in our midst, but must affirm the values of mutual respect, solidarity and peace. The life of every human being is sacred, both for Christians and for Muslims. There is plenty of scope for us to act together in the service of fundamental moral values.
The dignity of the person and the defence of the rights which that dignity confers must represent the goal of every social endeavour and of every effort to bring it to fruition. This message is conveyed to us unmistakably by the quiet but clear voice of conscience. It is a message which must be heeded and communicated to others: should it ever cease to find an echo in peoples’ hearts, the world would be exposed to the darkness of a new barbarism.
Only through recognition of the centrality of the person can a common basis for understanding be found, one which enables us to move beyond cultural conflicts and which neutralizes the disruptive power of ideologies.
During my meeting last April with the delegates of Churches and Christian Communities and with representatives of the various religious traditions, I affirmed that “the Church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and of society as a whole.”
Past experience teaches us that, unfortunately, relations between Christians and Muslims have not always been marked by mutual respect and understanding. How many pages of history record battles and wars that have been waged, with both sides invoking the Name of God, as if fighting and killing, the enemy could be pleasing to him. The recollection of these sad events should fill us with shame, for we know only too well what atrocities have been committed in the name of religion.
The lessons of the past must help us to avoid repeating the same mistakes. We must seek paths of reconciliation and learn to live with respect for each other’s identity. The defence of religious freedom, in this sense, is a permanent imperative, and respect for minorities is a clear sign of true civilization. In this regard, it is always right to recall what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council said about relations with Muslims.
“The Church looks upon Muslims with respect. They worship the one God living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to humanity and to whose decrees, even the hidden ones, they seek to submit themselves whole-heartedly, just as Abraham, to whom the Islamic faith readily relates itself, submitted to God . . . . Although considerable dissensions and enmities between Christians and Muslims may have arisen in the course of the centuries, the Council urges all parties that, forgetting past things, they train themselves towards sincere mutual understanding and together maintain and promote social justice and moral values as well as peace and freedom for all people” (Declaration Nostra Aetate , n. 3).
For us, these words of the Second Vatican Council remain the Magna Carta of the dialogue with you, dear Muslim friends, and I am glad that you have spoken to us in the same spirit and have confirmed these intentions.
You, my esteemed friends, represent some Muslim communities from this Country where I was born, where I studied and where I lived for a good part of my life. That is why I wanted to meet you. You guide Muslim believers and train them in the Islamic faith.
Teaching is the vehicle through which ideas and convictions are transmitted. Words are highly influential in the education of the mind. You, therefore, have a great responsibility for the formation of the younger generation. I learn with gratitude of the spirit in which you assume responsibility.
Christians and Muslims, we must face together the many challenges of our time. There is no room for apathy and disengagement, and even less for partiality and sectarianism. We must not yield to fear or pessimism. Rather, we must cultivate optimism and hope.
Interreligious and intercultural dialogue between Christians and Muslims cannot be reduced to an optional extra. It is in fact a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends.
Of course, we must cultivate optimism and hope, or at least hope. (Readers know that I have a thing about "optimism"¯which is often simply a matter of optics, of seeing what you want to see and not seeing what you don’t want to see.) But many of our influential commentators in the West are in deep denial, believing that candor in the quest for truth is dangerously provocative, and we must therefore conform to the violent demands that we say nothing to offend Muslim sensibilities. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, to surrender in advance.
William Doino is a student of misguided attacks on the Catholic Church, and he says this in an email:
The Crusades were matched if not exceeded in brutality by Islamic aggression (See “Crusaders and Historians,” by Thomas Madden, First Things , June/July 2005), though it is quite true that certain historical actions by Catholics/Christians were and remain inexcusable, and have been recognized as such by conscientious believers (the Anglican historian Steven Runciman once called the Crusades a “sin against the Holy Ghost,” and whether one agrees with that judgment or not, it is noticeable that it was made by a Christian); moreover, the Catholic Church has already¯and repeatedly¯acknowledged its particular sins in this regard, whereas modern, extremist Islam relishes its role in them, and in fact continues to make threats about more crusades, to spread its extremist ideology. Ditto the Spanish Inquisition, though let it be noted that historians like Henry Kamen have exploded a number of myths about the Inquisition, showing the number of victims to have been wildly exaggerated (which doesn’t lessen the gravity of individual abuses, however).
There have been major papal statements, books, debates, seminars, and Catholic courses on the importance of religious liberty and tolerance and mutual respect; and many declarations of remorse regarding how certain Catholics/Christians have behaved¯almost to the point of overdoing it. Sensitive Catholics and Christians are still debating, if not rebuking, many military and political actions (or non-actions) by the Allies during the Second World War, even as they believe it was a just and necessary war.
Where is the similiar public soul-searching from the Islamic world? Today, Christians have debates raging about their culture, and the West’s conduct (especially in the Middle East), asking whether/if/how it measures up to Christian standards; our major institutions are being criticized and cross-examined all the time (and that is the way it should be); many Islamic countries, in contrast, don’t even know what self-examination or debate is. Those brave Islamic writers and individuals who have had the courage to speak out about extremism have been exiled, attacked, persecuted, jailed, and even killed. The great, Nobel Prize¯winning Egyptian novelist, Naguib Mahfouz (1911¯2006), was a devout Muslim but was stabbed by a militant jihadist in 1994, because of Mahfouz’s support for the Camp David Peace Accords and his opposition to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (even as he was critical of Rushdie’s disrespect toward religion in general). The injury made his last years quite painful.
The deliberate, explicit targeting of innocent human beings, via terrorism, and the celebration of their deaths; the ritual execution, torture, and beheading of helpless hostages; the routine, often blatant violation of human rights, especially against women (including mutilation of their genitals)¯it’s difficult to find anything quite like this throughout religious history, including the worst abuses of Christians, when you at least had other Christians, often popes, rebuking and condemning them for their crimes, and calling for reform, which eventually came about.
I’m not saying there aren’t many honorable Muslims who, in addition to having perfectly legitimate grievances about the West, are even more outraged by such Arab behavior, and want reform¯there are, but most of them are terrified to speak out, lest the axe fall upon them, too . . . . When Muslims themselves are free to reject the radical form of Islam, without having to fear for their lives or their loved ones, then Catholics and other Christians will be happy to start listening to the pope’s critics in the Arab world.
Somewhat over the top but nonetheless not without interest is the following open letter to the pope from offended Muslims. I assume it is fictional.
Dear Pope Benedict XVI:
We Muslims are not at all violent, not that you said we were, but who needs to read your speech when the local imam, who hasn’t read it either, can tell us what it says? Since peaceful efforts to convince you of our commitment to peace have failed, we hope that the mass riots, burnt effigies, cries of “Death to the Pope!” and a smattering of grenades in assorted churches will exorcise every ghost of the rumor that we are violent, and prove that Mohammed pitched a tent big enough to include interfaith camels. It is hoped that you will rescind your position, even if it wasn’t yours to begin with, lest our peacefulness escalate even further.
A reader sends this from Etienne Gilson’s History of Philosophy :
Like Christian faith, Islamic faith soon felt the need of an intellectual interpretation, be it only in order to correct the literal interpretation of the Koran upheld by the fundamentalists of those times. The early contact of Islam with Greek philosophy gave rise to a philosophico-religious speculation which is represented by the "mutazilite" school. The “mutazilites stressed the need of resorting to reason in the interpretation of revelation. They were especially concerned with establishing the absolute unity of God . . . . Moreover, they insisted on the justice of the divine will and refused to admit that good and evil were only such because God had willed them to be either good or evil. Last but not least, they fought against all anthropomorphic representations of God by consistently applying the negative method ( tanzih ), which consists in denying of God all the determinations that apply to his creatures. These positions had far-reaching applications. For instance, to submit the will of God to an intrinsic law of justice was implicitly to admit the existence of an objective good and an objective evil which reason is able to discover and to which men must conform their acts. In short, these Moslem theologians were endowing man with moral liberty.
That was written more than fifty years ago. Obviously, the Mutazilites and those of like mind seem to be losing the battle for the soul of contemporary Islam. In his Regensburg lecture, Benedict was siding with today’s besieged Muslim thinkers who are trying to articulate an Islamic way of breaking the connection between faith and violence. That can only be done by Muslim thinkers.
Benedict’s responsibility is to set forth clearly and uncompromisingly the Christian understanding. At Regensburg he said: "God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word¯ reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John [the Evangelist] 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."
As history is turning out, this theological truth is at the very core of what is likely the greatest political and cultural struggle of this century, and maybe beyond.