Dead Men Left

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Funny thing with this Pope business: those usually keenest to prove their secular credentials by poring over the alleged utterances of Muslim clerics for the slightest whiff of Indecency and Badness, irrespective of context and the inadequacies of translation, suddenly become keen to defend that notorious secularist, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, and desperate to exonerate the Holy Father: his remarks were out of context, they were only illustrative, it's an obscure theological point anyway.

Madeleine Bunting is spot on here:

Some say this was a case of naivety, of a scholarly theologian stumbling into the glare of a global media storm, blinking with surprise at the outrage he had inadvertently triggered. The learned man's thoughtful reasoning, say some, has been misconstrued and distorted by troublemakers, and the context ignored.

But such explanations are unconvincing. This is a man who has been at the heart of one of the world's multinational institutions for a very long time. He has been privy to how pontifical messages get distorted and magnified by a global media. Shy he may be, but no one has ever before accused this pope of being a remote theologian sitting in an ivory tower. On the contrary, he is a determined, shrewd operator whose track record indicates a man who is not remotely afraid of controversy. He has long been famous for his bruising, ruthless condemnation of those he disagrees with.

And, if you do get round to reading the Vatican's translation of the Pope's remarks, it is clear that the musings of an ill-remembered Byzantine emperor were chosen precisely because they fitted Papa Rat's argument so well:

[Regensburg University] was also very proud of its two theological faculties... That even in the face of... radical skepticism 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 (Muenster) 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 Koran, 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 Koran...

In the seventh conversation ("diálesis" -- controversy) edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 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 Koran, concerning holy war.

Without descending 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 debate is established as concerning the necessary harmony of reason and faith; into which, after the vaguest of nods towards more liberal - indeed, mainstream - interpretations of Islam, the Pope immediately throws in a quotation describing Islam as "evil and inhuman" from an long-dead emperor perhaps best known for his battles against the Muslims. It's hardly a Jesuitical argument - subtle, it ain't.

But the key points are in later paragraphs:

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 practice idolatry...

So: Islam is not bound by any rationality, claims the Pope; whereas, in the arguments following, the Pope attempts to establish - on the basis of the dual meaning of the Greek word, "logos", "word" and "reason" - that Christianity is inherently tied to reason, and a Greek view of reason at that: "In the beginning was the logos", as John's Gospel has it. Arguments attempting to deny the unity of word and reason, therefore, aim to break this divine link:

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God's "voluntas ordinata." Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.

This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.

As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language... [emphasis added]

Let's be clear about this: the Pope begins his argument by citing an obscure Byzantine Emperor, given to warring with Muslims, on the "evil" of Islam; he then claims that Islam is not bound to rationality; he then further claims, arguing against other Christian theologians, that Christianity is tied to a specifically Greek rationality.

He is, in other words, repeating the crudest Orientalist stereotypes about the irrational, sensuous East, and deliberately counterposing it to the rational (and therefore more god-like) West. One of his concluding paragraphs is absolutely clear on this:

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 program with which a theology grounded in biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

It is, in other words, necessary for "the West" to defend its rationalist heritage through "biblical faith". This is the argument alleged secular liberals use when lining up with Bible-bashing US Presidents; it is the logic of the Clash of Civilisations with a Catholic twist. Is it any wonder it has caused such alarm?