16 September 2006 - Saturday

"God is not pleased by blood"

Benedict XVI seems to have outraged people again. And once again, some people who were not personally offended are getting offended on behalf of other people.

I find this situation very strange. The pope is now being criticized for saying that Christianity is more peaceful and reasonable than Islam, an allegation that seems to offend many Muslims. Many secular observers seem to think it was bad form for Benedict to say this. Perhaps I am missing something, but isn't it generally a good thing to have religions arguing over which is more peaceful and reasonable?

Here's how the pope's remarks, delivered at a university in Bavaria, unfolded [please see the update at the bottom of the post for a significant qualification]:

That even in the face of such radical scepticism 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 (Münster) 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 presumably 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 those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between - as they were called - three "Laws" or "rules of life": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole - which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason", I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

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 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...".

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? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.

Now, I agree that Benedict, citing Khoury, is oversimplifying Muslim beliefs. Islam is not monolithic; it has multiple rich traditions of Quranic interpretation. As Juan Cole points out, some of these traditions actually played a central part in the development of Catholic scholasticism. And surah 2:256 cannot be explained away as easily as Benedict's "experts" tried to do.

However, we should also remember that European Christian impressions of Islam have always been shaped by memories of Muslim wars of conquest, just as the Crusades have tended to shape Muslim impressions of Christianity. Benedict is highlighting one medieval Christian's philosophical response to that context. That response was a rejection of violence as a means of conversion.

The fact is, Benedict was describing a book he read recently. He was using it as "the starting-point" to discuss faith and reason, tracing (however imperfectly) developments in the relationship between Christianity and philosophy across the centuries. And in a world where both Muslims and Christians have frequently been guilty of religious coercion, is it not encouraging to hear the pope denounce religious violence as "contrary to God's nature?" And is it not encouraging that Muslim spokesmen around the world are implicitly agreeing with him?

If the pope's speech is significant for its characterization of Islam as violent, then this controversy is silly because the characterization is nothing new. (Kuwaiti politician Haken al-Mutairi is particularly mistaken in calling Benedict's remarks "unaccustomed and unprecedented." Nothing could be less true; in fact, the question is only in Benedict's speech because it was an important part of a debate in the 14th century!) On the other hand, if the address is significant because it stresses that tolerance and reason are mandated by the law of God, then the controversy is a very healthy sign. I could get used to having religions try to outdo each other on tolerance and rationality, I really could.

All that is left is to criticize the pope for oversimplifying Islamic philosophy -- just as he necessarily oversimplified every other perspective that shows up in the speech. The Vatican has admitted as much, and Benedict seems to have been genuinely displeased to find his address interpreted as an attack on Islam. In fact, here's how his speech ended:

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. 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. [...] It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.
How many other "profoundly religious cultures" do you think Benedict had in mind, if he was somehow excluding Islam from his "genuine dialogue of cultures and religions"?

Update: According to Horace Jeffery Hodges, the Vatican's preliminary English translation of the pope's remarks tends to obscure the extent to which Benedict tried to distance himself from the words he was quoting. In the original speech, Benedict emphasized that Manuel II spoke "with an astonishing brusqueness, for us an astounding brusqueness, bluntly" and that he "expressed himself so very forcefully."

| Posted by Wilson at 13:46 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk