Not Saussure

September 15, 2006

The Pope in trouble

Filed under: Catholicism, Islam, Philosopy, press, Religion — notsaussure @ 12:35 pm

His Holiness is in trouble for a speech he gave at Regensburg University, speaking to ‘the representatives of science’ (to quote the copy of the English translation of the speech which is on the Vatican website) in which, according to the BBC he

explored the historical and philosophical differences between Islam and Christianity, and the relationship between violence and faith

Unsurprisingly, many Muslims are upset by this development; the Parliament of Pakistan has passed a resolution to the effect that

“The derogatory remarks of the Pope about the philosophy of jihad and Prophet Mohammed have injured sentiments across the Muslim world and pose the danger of spreading acrimony among the religions,”

while in India,

Minority Commission Chairman Hamid Ansari said: “The language used by the Pope sounds like that of his 12th-Century counterpart who ordered the crusades…”It surprises me because the Vatican has a very comprehensive relationship with the Muslim world.”


In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood head Mohammed Mahdi Akef said the Pope’s words “do not express correct understanding of Islam and are merely wrong and distorted beliefs being repeated in the West”.

In a statement, he was “astonished that such remarks come from someone who sits on top of the Catholic Church which has its influence on the public opinion in the West”.

Sheikh Youssef al-Qardawi, a prominent Muslim cleric in Qatar, rejected the Pope’s comments, in remarks reported by Reuters.

“Muslims have the right to be angry and hurt by these comments from the highest cleric in Christianity,” Mr Qardawi reportedly said.

‘Crikey,’ I thought, ‘what on earth was he on about?’ So I read the speech — available both on the Vatican website and, in pdf, on the BBC — and I’m beginning to wonder if he actually gave two speeches, because there’s little relationship between the one I read and the one everyone’s so fussed about.

The one I read certainly contains the offending remarks; he quotes a dialogue between the

Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.

He’s not, he says, going to go into the dialogue between Christianity and Islam in any detail; ‘It is not my intention,’ says the Pope,

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.

He is, remember, talking to ‘the representatives of science’ at the university, whom he has just told in his introduction

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.

Anyway, here’s the passage that’s caused all the fuss:

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he [emperor Manuel II Paleologus] 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.

The exchange, for the Pope, is interesting because it raises the point he wants to discuss:

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. 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.

and off he goes, discussing the development of different ideas on the relationship between reason and faith in Christian and Western European thought; it’s the last time he mentions Islam. If he’s having a go at anyone in his lecture, it’s logical positivists (though happy-clappies won’t find much to agree with there, either).

In a way, it’s a bit like the fuss over The Satanic Verses, where millions of people who hadn’t read the book took great offence at words that Salman Rushdie had put into the mouths of Mohammed’s enemies but which they attributed to Rushdie himself.

Two points occur to me over this. First, I can see that reporters would find it difficult to make a speech on the relationship between faith and reason in Catholic theology appear interesting or newsworthy to the general reader, so it’s perhaps understandable that they should use some ingenuity to take a passage out of context and turn it into the rather more reportable ‘Pope attacks Islam’. Can’t blame them, and can’t really blame Pakistani MPs for reacting to the news reports rather than checking what the man actually said, though I do rather blame the BBC for describing the lecture as ‘a speech about the concept of holy war’ when five minutes looking a link on their own website would have told them it was nothing of the sort.

Second, though, I assume this must work the other way round; that is, Muslim leader makes a pretty innocuous speech about something, reporter picks on something that can, by taking it out of context, be made to sound alarming and newsworthy, Western readers pick up on the utterly misleading news reports and get upset about it.


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