Fall 2006, Vol. 9, No. 2

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Pope Provokes

Muslims in America

As We Forgive Those...

Polygamy Returns

At Cross Purposes in San Diego

The Passion of the DUI

Maybe the Center Holds After All



From the Editor:
The Pope Provokes
Mark Silk

 It is hard to resist seeing the commotion stirred up by Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at the University of Regensburg as an example of the perils of putting professors in positions of power. The temptation to value provocation over discretion, to wing it on subjects outside your proper ken, to show that you’re the smartest guy in the room—these would appear to have gotten the better of a pontiff returning to the academic podium where he discoursed on theology to all comers 35 years ago.

What got Benedict into trouble was his quotation of a nasty put-down of Islam by the learned Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, delivered in a debate with a Persian professor on the relative merits of Christianity and Islam near the end of the 14th century. But even before trotting out the quote, which he culled from a modern edition of the emperor’s account of the debate, the pope took aim at the principal proof text used today to claim that Islam is committed to religious tolerance.

Manuel, Benedict mused, must have known the Koranic verse (Sura 2.256) that proclaims, “There must be no compulsion in religion.” Explained the pope, “According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Muhammad was still powerless and under threat.”


Actually, the pope’s own expert begged to disagree. “The consensus of scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, is that Sura 2 is from the Medinah period, when Muhammad had increasing political power,” said Kevin Madigan, S.J., president of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, in an interview with Commonweal Magazine September 25. Perhaps Benedict was thinking of the early Christian church, which argued strenuously for religious toleration until, in the late fourth century, it was sufficiently powerful to bring the hammer down on Jews and pagans.

As for the emperor’s now world-famous put-down, it went like this: “Show me just what Muhammad 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.”

This has “a brusqueness that leaves us astounded,” Benedict said, yet he did not venture an opinion on its accuracy. One could be forgiven for concluding that he considered it really bad manners by our lights but not untrue.

(To be sure, after the firestorm broke, he explained that what he’d quoted from the emperor did not “in any way express my personal thought.” And on October 9, the official text of his speech was altered to say that Manuel II had spoken with “a brusqueness that we find unacceptable.”)

In the debate, Manuel goes on to criticize holy war as displeasing to God because it is contrary to reason (logos)—and “not to act with reason (to m¯e syn logo poien) is alien to God.” He continues:

“Faith is a fruit of the soul, not of the body. He who undertakes to lead someone to faith needs a skillful tongue and right thinking, not violence….For just as, when there is need to compel an unreasoning nature, one would not have recourse to persuasion, so in order to persuade a reasoning soul, one cannot have recourse to the fist, nor the whip, nor any other death threat. Nor can one pretend that one has recourse to violence in spite of oneself, because God ordered it.”

Now, Manuel’s devotion to the cause of reason may have been enhanced by the fact that he was writing up the debate several years after the fact during a lengthy siege of Constantinople by the Turks. Be that as it may, the text’s modern editor, Théodore Khoury, opines in a footnote that the sentiment came naturally to him because he had been raised on Greek philosophy. By contrast, the Persian professor would have held to the Muslim doctrine that God “is absolutely transcendent, his will is not bound by any of our categories, including that of reason.”

This was enough for Benedict to embark on an extended riff celebrating the Christian intellectual tradition for applying the rationalist categories of Greek philosophy to biblical faith. Epitomized in the writings of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, this commitment to a reasoned approach to faith stems, according to the pontiff, from the first sentence of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the logos...” It is the absence of such commitment that, he implies, accounts for the Muslim doctrine of jihad.

Benedict did admit that there were medieval Christian theologians who succumbed to the view that God transcends the categories of human reason. But moving quickly on to the post-medieval era, he launched into a critique of what he claimed was a progressive de-Hellenization of Western thought, beginning with the Protestant Reformation and ending with modern secularism. His polemical purpose was to show that only classical Christian thought can sail safely between the fideist Scylla of the Muslims and the atheist Charybdis of the secular rationalists.

Let us leave aside the pope’s de-Hellenization thesis and focus instead on the critique of Islam that created all the commotion. For starters, a look at the text of Manuel’s dispute shows that, far from rejecting a reasoned approach to faith, the Persian professor is at pains to show that it is Christianity, not Islam, that is unreasonable. For example, he argues that, by contradicting what God intends for men and women, Christianity’s preferential option for celibacy is exo te logo—“contrary to reason.”

More importantly, the flat claim that Islam is in thrall to an image of God as utterly beyond our rational categories paints a varied religious tradition with far too broad a brush. Precisely the opposite point of view came to characterize Shiite (in contrast to Sunni) theology. As Roy Mottahedeh emphasizes in his widely acclaimed book on Shiism in contemporary Iran, The Mantle of the Prophet, “The Shiah in general believed that human ways of reasoning were not essentially different from God’s ways of reasoning and that humans could therefore decode much of the reasoning behind the construction of the natural and moral world.”

Indeed, what led Mottahedeh, a scholar of medieval Islam, to write his book was the realization that the mullahs and ayatollahs of contemporary Iran are schooled in the very same Hellenism that once shaped the entire “Abrahamic” intellectual world. “Here,” he writes, “was a living version of the kind of education…that had produced in the West men such as the saintly and brilliant theologian Thomas Aquinas…and in the East thinkers such as Averroes among the Muslims and Maimonides among the Jews.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if Pope Benedict wants to see the kind of intellectual formation in action that he celebrated at Regensburg, he would be best advised to pay a visit to Qom, the capital of Shiite education in Iran.

However, the problem with the pontiff’s discourse is not so much that he fails to reckon with intellectual diversity within Islam as that, German theologian that he is, he grants religious abstractions far more efficacy in the world than they deserve. Can a proper theoretical balance between faith and reason really be proof against the use of violence to advance a religion’s cause?

To take but one notable medieval Christian counterexample, it was Aquinas’ own religious order, the Dominican, that provided the religious muscle for the crusade against the Albigensian heretics in the early 13th century—just the time when faith that human categories of reason could capture God’s intentions was at its apogee in Western Christiandom.

More to the present point: By Benedict’s lights, Shiites should be just the sort of reasonable folk for whom violent jihad is a dead letter. But you couldn’t make the case on the evidence of the words and deeds of such current Shiite luminaries as Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army in Iraq; Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon; or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran. Would that you could.


Hit Counter