September 21, 2006
The philosopher Plato wrote a series of dialogues, mostly between Socrates and some other person. In each dialogue, the speakers disagree either explicitly or implicitly. And the whole purpose of their conversation is to resolve the disagreement. Real dialogue requires honest speech. Truth needs to be stated and probed, questioned and applied before differences disappear. Yet ever since the 9/11 terror attacks on America and the war in Iraq, the ability for Christians and Muslims to enter into a true conversation remains a serious challenge. When some individuals resort to violence to speak their hatred of another group of individuals, it takes more than time to heal the wounds.
People take religion seriously. Rightly so. The world has hardly forgotten how sensitive Muslims are about their religion ever since the violence erupted over the publication in a Danish newspaper of offensive cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad. The caricatures were re-printed in a number of Western countries in the name of freedom of the press. The price was high: riots and acts of violence. Once again, the many Muslims and others are taking offense. This time the words of Pope Benedict XVI in an academic speech in Regensburg have unleashed a torrent of protests.
Like waves pounding on the shore, angry words have been hurled against the Pope. Hamas official Ismail Radwan incited some 5,000 protestors with the remark, "This is another Crusader war against the Arab and Muslim world." The 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference accused the Pope of a smear campaign and a character assassination of Mohammad. And in Turkey, the ruling party compared Pope Benedict to Hitler. These words are strong. They express outrage. But they do little to offer a bridge to true understanding and respect. In the wake of such inflammatory rhetoric, Palestinian Muslims hurled firebombs and opened fire at five churches in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Saturday. On Sunday, two more churches were torched. And just hours after a Muslim cleric in Somalia denounced the Pope, an Italian nun was gunned down. Shot four times in the back. Hardly an act of valor!
The Pope was giving a major lecture where he once taught between 1969 and 1977. His subject was not centered on Islam. Rather, he gave a brilliant exposition of the fundamental problem facing Western civilization. He spoke of the divorce of faith and reason and the subsequent secularization of our culture.
In the theology of Benedict XVI, faith and reason are gifts of the same God. And it was no accident that the biblical message encountered Greek thought in its origin. It was providential. When Paul had his vision of the roads to Asia barred and saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf.
Acts 16:6-10), God was bringing reason to the service of faith. The Pope said, “This vision can be interpreted as a ‘distillation’ of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.”
As a true scholar and good teacher, the Pope mined the field of historical research for a dramatic example to make his point: reason and faith cannot be divorced. The Pope quoted the 14
th century erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus. The emperor’s words belong in the context of his dialogue with an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam. The Pope introduced the dialogue of these two men by repeating twice “I quote.” And the citation itself climaxed in the precise point the Pope wished to make. And it was this: “God…is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably … is contrary to God's nature… 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 Pope expressed a truth needed to be heeded. Religion cannot be the reason for war. Since the outbreak of terrorism on the United States, Christians in many countries have suffered at the hands of some radical Muslims. From Indonesia to Nigeria, Christians are persecuted for their faith. In the Sudan, the radical Islamic regime in the north has waged a civil war against the non-Arab population in the south. Some two million people, mostly Christians, have been killed. But, as Muzzamil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, California, commented, "The Koran enjoins Muslims to treat everybody with dignity and compassion." Some Muslims may use religion to foster discord. But not all Muslims do. In any religion, there are fanatics and radicals.
The Pope’s words are very timely. Only last month, radical Muslims kidnapped FOX News journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig. They were released after nearly two weeks of capture. But not before the militants aired a video in which the hostages said they had converted to Islam. Radicals believe in forced conversions. This, too, is violence. Violence to the soul. To man’s freedom of conscience. As the Pope said in his speech, “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..." Again his point was clear. Religion cannot use violence. And when religion is tied to reason, this does not happen.
Perhaps those who so vehemently criticize the Pope would do well to remember the admonition of the second century B.C. teacher in Jerusalem: “
Do not find fault before making a thorough inquiry” (Sir 11:7). In his university address, Pope Benedict XVI was attempting to lay the solid groundwork for a true dialogue. He reaffirmed the need for religion and reason to work together as prerequisite for dialogue among the great cultures of the world. His words cannot be ripped out of context without distortion.
The Pope ended his address with the point he wanted his audience to remember. “
From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act "with logos" is contrary to God's nature.” In other words, human conduct that is consistent with the very nature of God himself must also be rational and, therefore, non-violent. This truth remains the rock foundation of any dialogue among the religions of the world. This is exactly what the world needs to hear today. And there is the irony. The violence and anger in the wake of his words sadly prove his point!