Pope Benedict at Regensburg II
Bill Long 9/16/06
The Really Offensive Lines
If the Pope had been speaking in the capacity of Professor Ratzinger, and had it been at Bonn in the 1950s or Tuebingen in the 1960s, where he taught, such words from the previous essay would have been explicable and even possibly helpful in order to generate a discussion. But the Pope was speaking as Pope and not as Professor Ratzinger. Thus, someone should have said to him at some time that it is the pastoral dimensions of what he said, the potential incendiary words that he used, that would be the stuff by which such a speech would be measured.
It was bad enough that he quoted Paleologus' words on Muhammad's commitment to violence, even as he tried to make the point the true religion eschews violence, but what he did in the next paragraph, it seems to me, was even more problematic. The reference to Muhammad might be "explained away" as simply a reference to what a 14th century Emperor thought, with the main point being that all religions should discard violence, but then he went on to mention a significant Muslim thinker: Ibn Hazn. Ibn Hazn was one of the most important Muslim thinkers from Spain in the 11th century. Here is what Benedict did to Ibn Hazn.
He mentioned that Ibn Hazn was committed to a doctrine of God's absolute transcendence. Ok, not bad. But, according to the Pope, Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is so transcendent that he is not even bound by his own word, not even obliged to act in accordance with the revealed truths of Scripture. Why? Because if we try to "limit" God to words that he says in Scripture, be it Bible or Quran, we are making an idol out of the book. We will study the Book rather than study God; we will develop our full understanding of God through the Book rather than through other sources, too.
When we understand what the Pope is trying to say here, we really can get offended. For, what he is saying is that one most important representative of Islamic thought (and not simply a Christian Emperor challenging an Islamic representative) stated quite boldly therefore that God was beyond all human categories, reason included. The unreasonable God, therefore, might be endemic to Islam.
Of course the Pope didn't expressly say this, but he hinted very broadly at it. By selecting an example of a most prominent Muslim scholar who argued for God's transcendence of reason as well as Scripture, he is in a good position (or others are) to argue for the basic irrationality of Islam. If someone so argues, it is a very short step to say that forced conversions are one example of an irrational religion that is irrational to its core. I think this argument is far more offensive, even though it is more subtle than the quotation about Muhammad that has been bouncing around the Internet in the past three days.
The Pope's "Method"
Recall, as I mentioned in the previous essay, that the Pope does all this in the first few paragraphs of his speech. He has not even gotten to the main point of what he is saying. In fact, this is a basic miscalculation on his part. He wants to link two huge topics (Muslim violence and reasoned investigation in Western universities) together, and he does so by the thin filament of various approaches to reason. It simply doesn't work. He wants to "deal" with Islam, as it were, in passing. But, how can you really do that? If there is one thing that we can't do in the modern world is to deal with Islam in passing.
But there is another troubling feature to his address thus far, and that is the method in which he argues. In short, he uses a polemical method of German dogmatic theology that really was shaped in the 19th century but has very little relevance, in my judgment, in the 21st. I know the method because I studied in Germany at theological faculties in the early 1980s (at Tuebingen, which bested even Bonn by having three theological entities--a Protestant, Catholic and "Ecumenical" faculty. The last, however, was principally a place for Hans Kung, the highly controversial Catholic theologian, to set up shop. Indeed, the "Ecumenical" institute was a massive, and funny, misnomer. It meant not that you talked to everyone but that, in fact, no one wanted to talk with you), and heard professor after professor use it. At the heart of the dogmatic method is to give the impression of balance and historical completeness while, in fact, only setting up straw men that you can easily cut down. This is precisely what the Pope does here. If you understand his method, you understand what is going on.
What is going on is that the Pope wants to make a point--that reason, rather than violence, is the thing most needed in the world right now. Notably, he doesn't define reason other than to say that it is something that grew up among the Greeks. Actually, this is a pretty weak point, for it is a "pre 1920s" point. A lot of classical scholarship in the 1920s and 1930s went into the idea of showing how irrational Greek religion and culture was. That is, the practice of rationality was only a thin patina over which irrational practices lurk. Witness Euripides' Bacchae. So, not only is the Pope (I want so much to call him Professor Ratzinger at this point) relying on outmoded scholarship, but he doesn't try to define his central category. Indeed, I think the whole idea of defining reason is a red herring. No one can say what reason is; all we can say is how we think about certain issues. Thought is such a complex process, which is informed by personal life experience, basic values, educational experience, temperament, etc. that just to say that reason is a Greek concept that Christianity accepted and Islam didn't (apparently) is not only simplistic but actually means nothing. And, not only does it mean nothing but in articulating nothing the Pope has managed to attack or at least characterize Islam as irrational. This happened because his basic orientation to his talk (perhaps it was the location) was as a polemical and dogmatic theologian.
Polemical theologians ought to expect a fight; indeed they provoke them. But this is where Benedict is confused. He is also Pope, and the Pope, at least if he is following John Paul II in his approach to Islam, would want to reach out in commonality rather than try to point to differences which actually are specious. But the polemicist has spoken, and now he will reap the whirlwind. And, he won't be able to understand why he has done so because, after all, he now thinks of himself as Pope. But, in fact, he is still Professor Ratzinger, still fighting battles with implements which are far out of date.
I will write one more essay to show you what his real point was.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long