Friday, September 15, 2006

# Posted 7:45 AM by Patrick Belton  

POPE STICKS A WHITE SLIPPER IN IT: One of the world's leaders has just stirred immense debate by a controversial public address, leading to riots in such distant parts of the world as the Middle East, South Asia and Zone 4. I refer, of course, to OxBlog's good friend Rod Dacombe, who appeared on Radio Open Source to talk about the Blair succession crisis.

Also controversial was a speech given by the Pope in Bavaria on Tuesday (or, if you want to see it misquoted, read it in the NYT instead). A pope who bears an uncanny resemblance to Palpatine, conservative religious attacks upon a major religion which don't even have the advantage of involving a cartoon, leiderhosen - this had it all, at least all the ingredients for either tragedy or farce. The response has been predictably subdued and scholarly. The head of Turkey's IRP party has already compared Benedict XVI to Hitler and Mussolini (not fair! he was only in the anti-aircraft corps...*), the pope has been denounced by Pakistan's parliament and foreign office, and undoubtedly later this afternoon the head of the BNP will become a Catholic. It's a far cry from his predecessor's rock concerts and pope on a rope. We do live in fallen times. And this blog did after all endorse Cardinal Martini.

But to back up a second. I'd hope, on grounds of decency, to be among the first to stand up against attacks upon my Muslim neighbours, friends and messy flatmate, and upon their faith. I sat down, in fact, expecting to write a post rather critical of the Pope. But in reading the actual transcribed text when I'd dug it up online, my initial response was that it was politically inelegant in its ability to be quoted extracontextually for effect, but not substantively repugnant to Islam.

To look more closely at the text, the Pope is simply setting up the Euthyphro dilemma, and contrasting a view of natural concordance between the divine will and rationality which he finds in John, against the divine command view of the theologian Said ibn al-Musayyib ibn Hazn, or indeed, the Binding of Isaac.
It is a moving experience for me to stand and give a lecture at this university podium once again. I think back to those years when, after a pleasant period at the Freisinger Hochschule, I began teaching at the University of Bonn. This was in 1959, in the days of the old university made up of ordinary professors. The various chairs had neither assistants nor secretaries, but in recompense there was much direct contact with students and in particular among the professors themselves. We would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties. Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas: the reality that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason - this reality became a lived experience. The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the "whole" of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God. 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 probably 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 the responses of the learned Persian. 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 of the "three Laws": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an. In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself - 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, 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 threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without decending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he turns to his 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 ... 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.

As far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma which nowadays challenges us directly. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the logos' This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts with logos.
There are two things going on here, it seems to me. There is on the one hand a colouring of Islam with irrationality and compulsion, not directly but by mere proximity of quotation, and unfortunate citing of the emperor's 'evil and inhuman' remark from what is otherwise constructed as a respectful dialogue between accomplished intellectuals. On this, public response has seized. But there is something else also; the emperor's 'evil and inhuman' derision is qualified by the Pope as 'brusque'. And setting aside the note of religious violence which is introduced but not pursued, the Pope returns to relating faith to rationality, a point where theological traditions, including here ones within religions, differ (c.f. Kierkegaard v Aquinas). A bit ham-handed perhaps, but one might even have argued that in the second aspect here we have a respectful pope attempting in a somewhat bumbling manner, and without the political grace of his predecessor, to engage theologically with the Islamic tradition and its contemplation of God - just the sort of engagement between West and East people of good will ought applaud. It seems to me in this second regard the pope is attempting a dies academicus between religious traditions, which is something much more clever and respectful than the saccharine anodyne of most interreligious activity as it tends to be conducted. It's at any rate in a different register of intellect and intention to 'islamic fascism', altogether.

So mixed reviews, but I'll step in for partial defence of the pope, to note what he was doing was a bit more complex than slathering the Qur'an in pork fat.

*More chillingly, a Ratzinger cousin was killed for eugenic reasons because of his Down's syndrome, in 1941.
(13) opinions -- Add your opinion

Leather pants are "lederhosen". "Leiderhosen" translates roughly as "pants of misfortune". May you never have those.
"*More chillingly, a Ratzinger cousin was killed for eugenic reasons because of his Down's syndrome, in 1941." Why is that especially chilling - don't we abort for that reason routinely? I mean, amniocentesis is performed for eugenic reasons, isn't it?
Benedict has some nerve. No Muslim has tried to kill a pope for over 20 years now.
t's at any rate in a different register of intellect and intention to 'islamic fascism', altogether.

'Islamic fascism' refers to a species of totalitarianism advocated by Muslims on the grounds of its fidelity to Islam, which has for both those reasons obtained no small amount of support in the Muslim world. What is wrong with that label, besides the fear that it will anger the 'moderate Muslisms' into remaining just as quiet as ever rather than denouncing their coreligionists?
"pants of misfortune"

Whatever, Muslims seems to grasp at anything to get frothy at the mouth about.
Whatever, Christians seem to grasp at anything to get frothy at the mouth about.
Whatever, Jews seem to grasp at anything to get frothy at the mouth about.
Whatever, anonymouses seem to grasp at anything to get frothy at the mouth about.
From what I have seen in the Arabic press, this reflects general sentiment amongst liberals.

i mean the above does.
So much for Papal Infallibility.
Considering the emperor's city was under siege by Muslims, the whole conversation ought to have an edge.

That would be reasonable. What is unreasonable is to find anything offensive about a potential victim claiming his tormentor lacks certain of what are generally considered the gentler virtues.
Post a Comment