Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pope, an emperor, and a Persian go to a university...

This speech has been rendered into a controversy between the Vatican and religious leaders in the Muslim world. This is an oversimplification, if not a misinterpretation. Overwhelmingly, this speech concerns the roles of faith and reason. It begins and ends with reflections on the Pope's personal experience at the university that was the location of this speech.

I would like to point to a lengthy exerpt (with some material removed, and other material emphisized) from the Pope's speech on September 12. The speech should be read in its entirety by anyone wishing to comment on it with any sense.:
This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.

[...]

Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.

And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific ethos, moreover, is - as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector - the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit. The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought - to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding. Here I am reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations, many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says: "It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being - but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss". The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "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. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.
Now, it would have been a prudent edit to remove the "brusque" quote from Manuel II. Yet, this speech is hardly an offense to any religion or intellectual tradition when viewed as an entire effort. It is a very dense read that explores the definitions of the Christian faith.

Pope Benedict had a reaction, Sunday, to the controversy over his remarks:
I hope that this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect.
Some, such as my favorite interlocutor, Doctor Victor de la Vega, are right in their critique of Benedict's effort. The Pope is no expert on Islam and he has an awkward grasp of the media's potential benefit or harm in this age. Benedict, though perhaps not intentionally, groups Islam into a uniform movement and contrasts it to a Catholic-focused Christianity.

There are many religious traditions in Islam and many of them are informative to philosophy and theology no matter the creed. The Pope made remarks similar to that in his conclusion:
For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.
The ultimate goal of the Pope in this address was to foster dialogue. It is a goal common to those who have studied religions, such as Karen Armstrong (as interviewed by Bill Moyers):
MOYERS: What appealed to you about Islam? Because in the context of 9/11 ... there's so much talk about Islam as a violent religion. We saw those suicide bombers, heard those suicide bombers invoking the name of Allah, saying they were doing this in the name of ... of God, and the name of their own faith. So you're saying, there are good things about this religion, that helped you rediscover your own spiritual journey.

ARMSTRONG: Ironically, the first thing that appealed to me about Islam was its pluralism. The fact that the Koran praises all the great prophets of the past. That Mohammed didn't believe he had come to found a new religion to which everybody had to convert, but he was just the prophet sent to the Arabs, who hadn't had a prophet before, and left out of the divine plan. There's a story where Mohammed makes a sacred flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, to the Temple Mount. And there he is greeted by all the great prophets of the past. And he ascends to the divine throne, speaking to the prophets like Jesus and Aaron, Moses, he takes advice from Moses, and finally encounters Abraham at the threshold of the divine sphere. This story of the flight of Mohammed and the ascent to the divine throne is the paradigm, the archetype of Muslim spirituality. It reflects the ascent that every Muslim must make to God and the Sufis, when I started talking ...

MOYERS: The mystical sect.

ARMSTRONG: The mystical branch of Islam, the Sufi movement, insisted that when you had encountered God, you were neither a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim. You were at home equally in a synagogue, a mosque, a temple or a church, because all rightly guided religion comes from God, and a man of God, once he's glimpsed the divine, has left these man-made distinctions behind.
I think we can all agree on the Pope's strategic aim. His tactics were not exceptional. The need for dialogue could not be greater. AP:
CAIRO (AP) — An al-Qaeda-linked extremist group warned Pope Benedict XVI on Monday that he and the West were "doomed," as protesters returned to the streets across the Muslim world to demand more of an apology from the pontiff for his remarks about Islam and violence.

The Mujahedeen Shura Council, an umbrella organization of Sunni Arab extremist groups that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq, issued a statement on a Web forum vowing to continue its holy war against the West. The authenticity of the statement could not be independently verified.

The group said Muslims would be victorious and addressed the pope as "the worshipper of the cross" saying "you and the West are doomed as you can see from the defeat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere. ... We will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose head tax, then the only thing acceptable is a conversion (to Islam) or (killed by) the sword."
UPDATE 1530 EST

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Christopher Hitchens attacks the Pope's speech, which is worth reading as it counters (or purports to counter) much of what I have tried to express:
The Muslim protesters are actually being highly ungrateful. When the embassies of Denmark were being torched earlier this year, Rome managed a few words of protest about … the inadvisability of profane cartoons. In almost every confrontation between Islam and the West, or Islam and Israel, the Vatican has either split the difference or helped to ventriloquize Muslim grievances. Most of all, throughout his address to the audience at Regensburg, the man who modestly considers himself the vicar of Christ on Earth maintained a steady attack on the idea that reason and the individual conscience can be preferred to faith. He pretends that the word Logos can mean either "the word" or "reason," which it can in Greek but never does in the Bible, where it is presented as heavenly truth. He mentions Kant and Descartes in passing, leaves out Spinoza and Hume entirely, and dishonestly tries to make it seem as if religion and the Enlightenment and science are ultimately compatible, when the whole effort of free inquiry always had to be asserted, at great risk, against the fantastic illusion of "revealed" truth and its all-too-earthly human potentates. It is often said—and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate—that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way. Now its new reactionary leader has really "offended" the Muslim world, while simultaneously asking us to distrust the only reliable weapon—reason—that we possess in these dark times. A fine day's work, and one that we could well have done without.
I could go for some footnotes on his reading of Greek. Ratzinger's entire speech is an effort to explain the need for a rapproachment between faith and reason, not "asking us to distrust the only reliable weapon — reason — that we possess in these dark times." You may argue that Ratzinger is disingenuous or unrealistic with this goal.

Hitchens notes the complete failure that this speech has been in the Muslim world.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Charles Bannerman said...

Based on Muslim reaction all over the world, it looks like The Pope's comments are well founded. Rational and reasonable people don't burn churches, kill old nuns, threaten to kill the Pope and non believers or to obliterate Israel.

In my opinion there is no way to reach a permanate accomedation with the Muslims. Things may cool down for a while but in the long run they will try to destroy all non Muslims.

5:41 AM  

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