I was involved in three radio debates and phone-ins about the Pope’s recent speech, in which he quoted a Byzantine Emperor to the annoyance of some of the world’s Muslims. This means I actually read the speech in full. It’s interesting that the main challenge he presented to Islam was never confronted or commented on. Early on in his speech, just after the controversial bit, he said:
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.
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?
To paraphrase, the Christian view of God is bound up intrinsically with rationality, the Muslim view of God is disconnected from rationality. Is the Christian view correct always?
Or, in other words, are Muslims in error with their view of God? He thinks they are. That’s unsurprising: the Pope is, after all, a Catholic. And this is from his closing remarks:
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 programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.
Subtle phrasing doesn’t disguise the import of this – he is inviting Muslims to “this breadth of reason”, to the Christian view of God.
The Pope was suggesting that Muslims should become Christians, abandon their view of a “transcendental” God and embrace the Christian God of “logos” – reason, and the word.
This is much more challenging and controversial than the quote from the ancient Emperor. There can have been no shortage of perceptive Muslim readers of this speech. So what are we to make of their reaction?
To be simplistic about it, does perpetual outrage make you stupid, or is perpetual outrage a device to avoid debate, and bully your opponent? In a more reflective period, there might have been a reaction along the lines of “Don’t try to convert me, meet me as an equal”. That didn’t happen. I think it’s the latter of my two simple alternatives.
The Pope spoke on a Tuesday. The fuss really kicked off on the following Friday, following the weekly prayer/kill-all-the-infidels sermon-fest. The fuss was contrived. It was political in inception and in intention. And the purpose of this political outrage is the intimidation of non-Muslims. There was a debate to be had, but it was ignored.
There was also an alliance on offer, an alliance against the secular world. Also from his speech:
In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.
It’s not surprising that he is emphasising the Christian faith, given his position, but the money quote in that section is:
listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.
He was trying to say that rationality – the whole edifice of technology, science, empiricism, cannot be divorced from religion; that to try to divorce it is “unacceptable”. It is true that he couched this in terms of Christian theology, but the whole point of any theology is to reconcile the absurd with the self-evident, to reconcile obviously incorrect tradition with the observed and experienced world. Muslims can do that too.
If the Muslim world does ever manage to see beyond its habit of taking offense, and posturing, and ally itself with this brand of Catholicism, there will be a profound challenge to secularism.
That’s why even if the outrage was deliberate and political, it wa still stupid and self-defeating. It’s also why secular, humanist, rationalist, enlightened people of the world have to remember that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend, and the Pope is an enemy of that reformed, enlightened tradition, even if he is a target for Islamists at the moment.
What’s really strange is that, in the search for temporary, tactical alliances, the Islamists have gone for the fascist left – a traditionally atheistic movement that has fellow-travelled with a lot of causes – gay rights, feminism – that conflict directly and absolutely with their values. Maybe that’s the really stupid decision, to take the convenient, offered alliance rather than one – with the world’s conservative religious movements – that would have had genuine mileage in it.
For that, moderate secularists can be thankful. Religious supremacism has occluded tactical thinking and they have teamed up with a bunch of people who think that nude bicycle rides will affect the political landscape.
Maybe they are stupid after all.