In the news: B16 drops a bomb

The Islamic world (is there really such a thing) has been responding furiously to what it regards as insulting words from Pope Benedict XVI. Speaking to representatives of science at the Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg in Germany, the Pope gave a rather abstruse speech lauding Greek rational influence on Christian thought. It was one of those boring, philosophically-oriented speeches that I'm sure wowed these specialists.

Boring, except for one poorly chosen erxample.

Illustrating the difference between Catholic Christian thought and Muslim thought, the Pope read from a letter written by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, describing his conversaion in 1391 with "an educated Persian":
In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this 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 descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he 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 (F×< 8`(T) 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...".


Though the Pope made it clear that that Emperor Manuel's words were brusque and forceful, he did not repudiate them, either here or in the rest of the speech. Muslims have reacted strongly against these words and demand an apology from the Pope. Riots and attacks on churches have followed.

On the one hand, the Muslim reaction seems overly dramatic. To take one sentence out of context and to use it to make the Pope's own point -- that violence in the name of religion is intrinsically absurd -- is silly and misguided. It plays into the hands of Muslim and leaders eager to see themselves as victims of a vastly superior Christian West.

On the other hand, the quote given above, in its entirety, has little to add to the Pope's point. His point was that Greek thought is intricately woven into the fabric of the New Testament. As such, it is not a merely accidental inculturation from the dominant culture, but says something about God himself. A God who chooses to use Greek language of rationality is a rational God who can be approached through the use of reason. The God who reveals himself as Logos -- meaning "word" and "reason" -- is a God who is not beyond the human ken, and who is not fundamantally capricious.

Frankly, some of the Pope's other remarks were far more bothersome to me. Quoting from Muslim scholar Ibn Hazn, the Pope explains:
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.

It's hard not to see this paragraph as a criticism of Islam and of its understanding of God. I have no idea whether the Pope is right about Ibn Naz, or whether Ibn Hazn's viewpoint is accepted by some, most or all Muslims. But the urge to criticize Islam seems at best peculiar at this time of global instability.

The Pope is the great teacher of Catholic truth. But in this case, he seemed incapbale of determinng that his words might have an impact far beyond the hallowed halls of the university. Playing on a world stage, his every word and action is scrutinized. His predecesdsor knew this and made his entire papacy a kind of media theater with himself as the principal actor. B16, without a dramatic bone in his body, seems to be blundering from one mistake to the next. I suspect that he will soon give up his attempt to be replay the papacy of the gregarious John Paul II, and retreat into sullen and confused isolation.

And perhaps not a moment too soon.