Friday, September 15, 2006

Benedict XVI and the Howls of Protest

On September 12th, Pope Benedict XVI gave a lecture at the University of Regensburg, where he once taught and served as university vice president. The lecture was almost exclusively focused on the history of Western rationality and its lamentable degeneration in recent centuries into aridity, subjectivism , and suicidal forms of relativism. In raising this issue, however, Benedict alluded to a text which both captures the problem he addressed and sets in precisely the contemporary context most relevant to it. The howls of protest were not long in coming. In the passage that provoked them, Benedict made reference to a recorded dialogue about Christianity and Islam between the late 14th century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II and an educated Persian.

In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις - controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that surah 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 threaten. 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 turns to hi s 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 (σὺν λόγω) 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....

With this, the pope turned his attention to the crisis in Western culture generally and in European culture specifically, arguing, as he has on many prior occasions, that Christianity integrates faith and reason, that it is the synthesis of religion and the philosophical critique of religion. In Christianity, he went on to say, "reason and faith come together in a new way," and Christian theology is an "inquiry into the rationality of faith."

The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest of the many forms of jihadist fanaticism which the Brotherhood spawned, was but one of many outraged at the suggestion of a connection between Islam and irrationality and violence.

Christians have committed every sin known to mankind, irrational violence included, but orthodox Christianity has always maintained that the truth it proclaims is morally rational and intellectually accessible to rational inquiry. Even though Christian truth could never have been arrived at in the first instance by merely rational means, Christ is the Logos, and the Christian God is never irrational. By allowing rationality to degenerate into empiricism and subjectivism, the West has abandoned the key to its historical greatness, without which it will not withstand the rising tide of religious irrationality which now threatens to engulf it. That was Pope Benedict's point.

Those most offended by the pope's lecture are those who have refused to unequivocally condemn the intentional and indiscriminate mass murder of innocent civilians and the ritual beheading of infidels. They are indignant at the suggestion that their equivocation might be related to Islam's belief in a God who refuses to be constrained by any rational and moral principles, and who therefore has no compunction about compelling the imposition of religion by force.

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