The thrust and purpose of the now famous (infamous) lecture Pope Benedict XVI gave at Regensburg University was that, by abandoning a comprehensive understanding of rationality in favor of a truncated rationalism characterized by naïve empiricism and vulgar subjectivism, Europe was surrendering the resources indispensable to the survival of Western civilization. The lecture was a forthright critique of Western secularism run amok.
In the speech, the pope used the word “reason” 46 times, recalling, as he often has, the insistence by the Fathers of the early Church that the truth Christians proclaim is accessible to reason and that, consequently, Christian evangelization must rely on persuasion and never on violence or intimidation. Benedict is too keen a student of history to deny that Christians have sometimes failed to live according to this ancient understanding, but in his Regensburg University speech he was less interested in expressing remorse over the past sins of Christians than in critiquing the present folly of post-Christian Europe.
Though his primary concern was the moral and intellectual coherence of European civilization, the pope’s call for a return to a fuller and more spiritually attuned rationality had a bearing on the growing problem of interreligious tensions. For if there is to be true dialogue between religions and religious believers, the partners to that dialogue must be able to appeal to intellectual criteria not exclusively internal to their religious beliefs. In other words, only when the dialogue partners are willing to account for their religious claims in rational terms can there be a genuine dialogue. Benedict made that point perfectly clear in his lecture: “Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”
The West needs to revive a more robust form of rationality, one not allergic to theological thought, if it is to become once again a truly rational civilization and not, as it has become lately, a hodge-podge of platitudinous sentimentality determined to wish away historical challenges it no longer has the moral and spiritual wherewithal to meet.
Benedict’s only reference to Islam was made, I think, for two reasons: First, to remind his audience that the alternative to rational dialogue – in contrast to the feel-good politically correct charades of recent memory – is coercion and, ultimately, violence, and secondly, as a highly pertinent reminder that the fate of European civilization will be determined either by the restored fervor of Christian faith or the zeal and reproductive superiority of its Muslim newcomers, and that the present status quo is quickly disappearing. In short, that the European moment of decision has come.
It was in this context that Benedict quoted from a recent book on Byzantium of the Middle Ages wherein is quoted the Byzantine Emperor in dialogue with a Persian Muslim. The Emperor alluded to an undeniable historical fact: Muhammad was a military conqueror whose implacability in the field of battle was widely celebrated and later emulated by his followers down through history. But the Emperor’s main point was also Benedict’s, namely that “violence is something unreasonable … incompatible with the nature of God …” The Vatican has made it clear that the pope meant no offense; his purpose was to warn of the dangers of irrationality, whatever form it might take – whether a ferocious jihadist form or a fatuous multicultural form.
Apropos of which, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was quoted by Reuters as saying: “There is no such thing as a moderate Muslim. We are fundamentalists in Malaysia. We follow the true teachings of the religion and the true teachings do not teach us to bomb and kill people without reason.” Which invites reflection on the difference between “reasons” for violence and reason itself, which is swept away by violence. Reasons don’t lead to violence; violence (or more precisely the lust for violence) leads to reasons. Whether it is Slobodan Milosevic’s invocation of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 or the jihadist invocation of the Battle of Vienna in 1683 or the Twin Towers massacre in 2001, any idiot can find a reason, especially once the lust for violence has been aroused. Only a certified psychopath will kill for no reason, but the reasons typically used to justify violence have precious little to do with reason and everything to do with unleashing the lust for violence. Once unleashed, everyone involved will have reasons aplenty for joining the fray. In the midst of such a social contagion, Jesus said: “They hated me for no reason” (John 15:25).
When one sees the angry mobs protesting Benedict’s remarks, knowing that none of those with their fists in the air have read them and few of those reporting their rage have understood them, one thinks of these words of Christ.