17 September 2006

Pope Goes the Weasel

An offensive title? Well, I regret if you were offended; I was merely quoting an early text...

But weasel words worthy of a true politician are what we heard from the Vatican today (actually Castel Gondolfo, but why quibble?) as the Pope formerly known as Ratzinger attempted to spin his recent, very unfortunate and exceedingly insensitive - not to mention incendiary - remarks.

Last evening, I had a conversation with someone who pointed to the extreme reaction throughout much of the Muslim world, noting that this was nothing more than a cartoon reaction to an otherwise innocuous citation in an academic lecture to a relatively closed audience (hopefully I've captured the tenor of the person's argument). I wasn't so sure; I wanted to see the controverial sentence in the context of the entire lecture. Was the Pope making an important and useful reference - perhaps a retrieval of a now inappropriate view to illustrate a commentary on ecumenicalism?

I read the full text of the Pope's remarks, and I am left deeply disturbed. Allow me to quote the controverial section, in context:
That even in the face of such radical scepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between - as they were called - three "Laws" or "rules of life": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole - 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 ("controversy") edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this 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 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 addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "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, after having expressed himself so forcefully, 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", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably 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...".

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. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
Here we see the Pope making the connection between Islam and spreading the faith by sword. He goes on to say that this defies both reason and the nature of God, and suggests (through what I find to be somewhat convoluted logic) that the Islamic view is somehow that God could will man to commit violence to spread the faith, despite such a will being incompatible with His nature.

That the head of a Church that will forever be tainted with the blood of the Spanish Inquisition accuses another faith of spreading by the sword simply boggles the mind. Certainly I don't have to remind the Pope of John 7:53–8:11 - the Pericope Adulterae in which Jesus famously says, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." But aside from the hypocrisy - or shall I more gently say the gap between espoused theory and theory-in-use - that seems to stick to many organized religionists like schmaltz to matzah, I am deeply disturbed by the seeming lack of awareness of such a prominent political figure as the Pope to anticipated effects and outcomes of his pronouncements.

Being infallible and all, one would expect Il Papa to choose his words and citations with extreme care. His words are treated almost as if they came from on high, and nuance is invariable read into his encyclicals and letters. And yet, such utter disregard for offense. Unless, of course, there is another purpose.

Consider the framing of the entire piece. The lecture seeks to mitigate the attacks on faith by reason and cold rationality, pushing aside the dominant, positivist worldview that pervades Western culture. Post-positivist and constructivist standpoints maintain that there are many ways to construct knowledge, and that reality is mediated by experience and known by effects. This stand is an important one for the Church to hold: only through non-positivist approaches can religion co-exist with empiricism, and Catholicism have a hope of participating in a meaningful way in the wider world community. Indeed, the Pope concludes:
"Not to act reasonably, not to act 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.
He must - at least now - realize that acting reasonably means considering the standpoints of others when choosing one's sources. And while were talking about acting reasonably, if not decently, a direct apology for creating the offense (not merely regretting that others were offended) and an invitation for dialogue with those whom he offended is called for. A little mea culpa, perhaps?

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Harold Jarche said...

Thanks, Mark, for some informed commentary on this event, instead of the drivel in the mass media.

Anonymous said...

dal New York Times,
non da qualche sito anticlericale,
condividiamo appieno:

"Nella parte più provocatoria del suo discorso di Ratisbona, il pontefice ha citato un imperatore bizantino il quale diceva 'mostrami quali sono le novità che Maometto ha portato, e tuti accorgerai che sono solo cose malvage e inumane, come il suo comandamento di diffondere la fede attraverso la spada..'. Il Vaticano poi ha diffuso un comunicatonel quale precisa che il Papa non voileva offendere i musulmani. Ma questa non è la prima volta che il Papa fomenta la discordia tra cristiani e musulmani...nella sua dottrina conservatrice, quello che sembra il timore più grande per il Papa è la perdita della identità cattolica tradizionale:non è proprio il punto di partenza migliore per affermare la tolleranza e il dialogo inter-religioso.
Il mondo ascolta con cura le parole di qualsiasi Papa. E questo è tragico e pericoloso quando queste parole seminano dolore, sia che sia fatto intenzionalmente sia per superficialità. Il Papa deve offrire scuse profonde e convincenti."


Anonymous said...

On one side I agree with you Mark. The Pope is tryin to gain consensus within the majority of the western population that is rationally driven and, at least here in europe, not religious at all.

but on the other side it seams he wants to follow his guide, and propose himself for crucifission. He started his visit in germany by saying "I will not come back here again, I am old and my time is near",
and finished it by politically suicide himselg. 3 weeks before flying to Turkey.
Not mentioning the over exposure that rome is gaining now in terms of terror risk, this move seams to aim at a Christian response to violence, and by christian I mean soffering the cross.