being Pope means never having to say you’re sorry

I have now read the full text of Pope Benedict’s Sept. 12 lecture, a passage of which provoked global controversy and violence. I read it with an open mind and genuine interest, but it seems to me that the section on Islam is gratuitous and rather poorly argued.

As the Pope said in his quasi-apology, he meant his discussion of Islam to be incidental to his main theme, which concerns the relationship between faith and reason in Christianity. This is the skeleton of his argument:

The Greeks, being philosophical, decided that God could not (or would not) act “unreasonably”: in other words, against logos. On this basis, Socrates and other sophisticated Greek thinkers rejected myth, which had described gods acting arbitrarily. Their equation of divinity with reason already influenced Jewish thought before Jesus’ time. The Hebrew Bible evolved from mythical thinking toward an abstract, rational, omniscient deity (first evident in the words from the burning Bush: “I am”). The association of reason with divinity was also essential in the Gospels, as shown by John’s prologue: “In the beginning was ho logos.”

According to Benedict, the union of faith and reason naturally took place in Europe, where reason had been born, not in the irrational East: “Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe.”

However, faith and reason have come apart in Europe since the 16th century. First Protestants tried to strip the Bible of Greek metaphysics and treat it only as a sequence of literal events. Liberal theologians (including some Catholics) reinforced this tendency when they advocated a “return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization.”

It is a mistake to drive philosophical reason out of religion, Benedict argues, because God is rational and can be understood by means of philosophy. It is also an error to imagine science without faith:

[The] modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.

Because modern rationality assumes that nature has a mathematical character, science hints at transcendence. But because it views empirical verification as the criterion of rationality, it rules out the possibility of God. This is a contradictory position, Benedict thinks. He recommends that we “acknowledge unreservedly” the benefits of science, yet we must “[broaden] our concept of reason and its application” so that it can encompass faith. By reuniting faith and reason, the West will reopen a dialogue with “profoundly religious cultures,” which cannot fathom “a reason which is deaf to the divine.”

All of the above seems fairly mainstream for a conservative Catholic theologian. But the Pope chooses to illustrate his argument with a digression about Islam. He says that for the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, “spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” This “statement is self evident” to “a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy.” In contrast, for an “educated Persian” who debates Paleologus, “God is absolutely transcendent …, not bound even by his own word.”

This is a very odd example to support Benedict’s major point. Did Paleologus really emphasize that conversion by the sword was “unreasonable”–incompatible with logos–and thus alien to God? Or did he simply say that it was wrong? Did the Persian really reply that God was “absolutely transcendent,” and therefore it was appropriate to convert people forcibly despite the dictates of reason? Or did the Persian agree with the Emperor about forcible conversion, citing Qur’an 2:256: “There shall be no compulsion in religion: the right way is now distinct from the wrong way.”

Benedict calls this passage from the Qur’an “one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.” Later, according to Benedict, Mohammed preached holy war. I am not competent to assess that interpretation of the Qur’an. But I would note a resemblance between Paleologus and the young Mohammed: both led groups who were very vulnerable to conquest. Indeed, Byzantium soon fell to a Moslem army (one that tolerated Christians and Jews). On the other hand, when Christians have been triumphant, they have not always been eager to argue that faith must be voluntary.

David Cook writes, “Islam was not in fact ‘spread by the sword’?conversion was not forced on the occupants of conquered territories?but the conquests created the necessary preconditions for the spread of Islam.” One could write exactly the same thing about Christianity. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes the advantages enjoyed by the first Franciscans in Mexico: “The fact that they had found the territory conquered, and the inhabitants pacified and submissive, had greatly aided the missionaries; they could, moreover, count on the support of the Government, and the new converts on its favour and protection.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia denies that Mexican natives were converted by force, but there were certainly wars declared for the purpose of converting countries to Christianity. As the Encyclopedia itself states: “The meaning of the word crusade has been extended to include all wars undertaken in pursuance of a vow, and directed against infidels, i.e. against Mohammedans, pagans, heretics, or those under the ban of excommunication. The wars waged by the Spaniards against the Moors constituted a continual crusade from the eleventh to the sixteenth century; in the north of Europe crusades were organized against the Prussians and Lithuanians; the extermination of the Albigensian heresy was due to a crusade, and, in the thirteenth century the popes preached crusades against John Lackland and Frederick II.”

Thus I can imagine the “educated Persian” (a patronizing description, by the way) arguing that mass conversions to Christianity have often followed conquest. He could have observed cases in which Moslems tolerated Jews and Christians and cited the Book of Revelations to illustrate Christian bloodthirstiness: “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.”

The Pope was widely criticized for his lecture. As we know, he issued a new statement:

At this time, I wish also to add that I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims. These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought.

I by no means condone violent reactions to Pope Benedict’s lecture. However, it strikes me that:

1) The digression about Islam and violence was gratuitous in an essay supposedly about faith and reason;

2) The Emperor Paleologus was obviously quoted to express Benedict’s personal thoughts;

3) The equation of Europe with reason (and the East with arbitrariness) is disturbing; and

4) It shows bad faith to depict Islam as a religion spread by the sword without at least noting the advantages that Christianity has reaped from violence.