In honor of Benedict XVI’s resignation, I am reposting an article I wrote analyzing his first big speech as pope and the controversy surrounding it. This was originally published in TIA Daily, then later in The Intellectual Activist, with the following cover image, for which John Cox and Allen Forkum combined Raphael’s “The School of Athens” with his depiction of the “transfiguration” of Christ.
When Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Istanbul in late November, his visit offered a fascinating microcosm of the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.
Radical Islam is a rising force in traditionally secular Turkey, and the pope’s visit was met with mass protests by Turkish Muslims in response to comments the pope made several months earlier.
In a September 12 speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Benedict had quoted a dialogue written between 1394 and 1402 by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who ruled in what was then Constantinople as his empire continued to crumble under a siege by the Muslim armies that would eventually conquer the city in 1453. According to Benedict, Manuel’s philosophical tract, written as a dialogue between the emperor and “a learned Persian,”
ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur’an…. In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point—itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself—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…, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion.” It 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 turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words:
“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 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 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 focus of Muslim outrage has been narrow and superficial: Benedict’s quotation of Manuel’s description of Islam as “evil and inhuman.” But the speech itself is actually about the relationship between faith, reason, and force, and it has wide implications for the nature of the clash between Islam and the West, for the relationship between religion and secularism within the West, and for judging the relative threats posed by Islamic and Christian fanaticism.
This speech is all the more important because Benedict is a more philosophical and readable pope than his predecessor. Popes always operate on a broad philosophical level (especially relative to Bible-thumping American Evangelicals), but in his speeches and papal encyclicals John Paul II never seemed fully comfortable with philosophical argument. His writings always vacillate between philosophical argument and quotations from scripture, as if John Paul II were vacillating between appeals to reason and appeals to Biblical authority.
Benedict, by contrast, is at home in the realm of philosophy, and with the exception of an overly scholarly vocabulary, he is capable of setting forth a clear and readable argument that is understandable to the non-believer.
The reason for this is revealed in the opening of Benedict’s speech, when he recalls his experience as a theology professor at the University of Bonn in 1959. The faculty of the university, he writes, shared the ideal “that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason.” Theology, then, is presented as being based on the same rationality as secular academic disciplines. In that spirit, Benedict also describes his tolerant reaction to an atheist colleague: “even in the face of such radical skepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason…: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.”
This statement is the context in which Benedict introduces his comments on Islam. He introduces Islam’s belief in spreading religion through the sword as a contrast to contemporary Christianity’s dedication to defending the faith through persuasion.
Much of Benedict’s contrast between Christianity and Islam focuses on the theological issue of whether God is bound by reason (the official Catholic view) or inscrutable to reason (the Muslim view). He describes Manuel’s view that “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature” as “the decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion.” He then quotes a commentator on the text of Manuel’s dialogue: “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.” If the Muslim god is not bound to obey the dictates of reason, then his followers are not required to respect reason in the minds of their fellow men.
But Benedict has larger goals for which this theological difference is merely a springboard. Those goals are revealed by his reference to Manuel’s Christian religious views as being “shaped by Greek philosophy”—something of which Benedict approves. In fact, he makes the connection between Christianity and the Greek philosophical tradition the main subject of his speech.
Previous Catholic theologians and philosophers, from Thomas Aquinas on down, have argued that Christian religious faith and secular Classical learning are compatible. Benedict goes a step further.
The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (Acts 16:6-10)—this vision can be interpreted as a distillation of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry….
[D]espite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature.
Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria…is more than a simple…translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity. A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. 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” [i.e., according to reason] is contrary to God’s nature. [Emphasis added.]
What is really radical about Benedict’s speech is not its references to Islam, but its attempt to argue that the Classical Greek tradition of reason is an indispensable part of Christianity. The idea that Christianity did not spread to Greece “by chance” and that the Greek translation of the Old Testament is an “important step in the history of revelation,” together with his later claim that the New Testament “bears the imprint of the Greek spirit”—all of this implies the absorption of the Greek tradition into the foundations of the Christian faith. In effect, Benedict is adopting the works of Plato and Aristotle as part of the revealed word of God.
Benedict spends much of the rest of his speech decrying the “dehellenization” of Christianity—that is, attempts to separate Christianity from the Greek influence.
The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity—a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age.
He argues against these various attempts, including the most recent one, “which is now in progress.”
In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux.
Translated into more familiar terms, Benedict is arguing against a kind of Christian Multiculturalism, in which Greek-influenced Christianity is just a European variant on Christianity, with other regions free to adopt non-Western interpretations of the faith. (This may be an attempt to legitimize a growing African variant of Christianity that tends to be more mystical and emotionalist—that is, more un-Greek—than European Christianity.)
Benedict has some tart words for this Christian Multiculturalism.
This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed…. [T]he fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself.
The integration of Greek philosophy and Christianity, in Benedict’s view, is the foundation both of Christianity and of Western Civilization in general.
This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history—it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.
In Benedict’s view, the founding tradition of the West is not the Judeo-Christian tradition but rather the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman tradition—as one unified tradition.
This is an extraordinary claim, and one that departs from much of the history of the Church—and one that is, as the rest of Benedict’s speech will demonstrate, philosophically untenable.
The early Church father Tertullian (c. 155–230 AD), despite being born into the late Classical world, was contemptuous of secular Classical learning and once asked, rhetorically, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church?” (This is the same Tertullian who said, of the doctrine of the Trinity, “I believe it because it is absurd.”) In his view, the philosophical tradition of Athens was irrelevant to and incompatible with the religious tradition of Jerusalem. Yet that is precisely the view that Benedict is turning on its head.
Thus, reversing Tertullian’s question, we may ask of Benedict: what has Jerusalem to do with Athens ?
Historically, it turns out that they have a surprising amount to do with one another, and this is the basis for Benedict’s claim.
The fact that Christianity spread first, not in the more mystical East, but among the Greeks and Romans means that Christianity was brought into direct contact with the Greek philosophical and literary tradition during the years in which its basic doctrines were formed. As a result, Christianity does bear an inescapable imprint from the Classical world into which it was born.
This can be seen most clearly in the works of the Christian writers of the late Classical era, writers whose topics and methods were shaped by the Classical context in which they were educated. In Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition (a dry academic tome that nevertheless provides a good overview of the Classical Christian era), Marcia Colish describes how the early Christian writers found the need to “recast” Christian doctrines “in Classical literary and conceptual forms,” so that “the Church found itself beset by heresies within the fold resulting from the tendency of pagan converts to try Christian ideas on for size and to tailor them to fit pagan assumptions, whether religious or philosophical.”
Most of the theological controversies of the early Church can be explained as attempts to decipher the doctrine of the trinity, in which God is supposed to be one entity and three entities at the same time, or the idea that Jesus was both mortal and divine at the same time, or the Christian attempt to combine free will and the doctrine of original sin. A less sophisticated, less Greek-influenced culture—a culture that had not learned from Aristotle’s Metaphysics that “the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect”—would not have felt the need to reconcile these philosophical contradictions. But the Romans of the first few centuries AD did feel that need, and the resulting attempts to make philosophical sense out of Christianity from a Classical perspective drove most of the theological heresies of the day: the Nestorians, Adoptionists, and Monophysites puzzled over the conundrum of how Christ could be both human and divine at the same time; the Arians puzzled over the conundrum of how the Christian God can be one god and three gods at the same time; the Pelagians puzzled over the question of how man could have free will yet still be subject to original sin; the Manicheans puzzled over the question of how an all-powerful God could permit the existence of evil; and so on. In response to these proliferating interpretations of the faith—or misinterpretations, as the Church claimed—Christian writers borrowed and adapted certain Greek philosophical ideas, particularly from Neo-Platonism.
But given the theological problems the Greek outlook created, it should be no surprise that the attitude of the early Christians toward Classical learning oscillated from attempts at reconciliation to outright hostility to the Classical tradition. The oscillation is captured in this incident recounted by Colish: “In one of his letters, [Jerome (c. 340–419)] speaks of a nightmare in which he is called before the judgment seat and asked by God whether he was a Christian or a Ciceronian. The internal conflict posed by this question awakened him with a start, he relates, and he vowed to purge his writings of references to the classics. For, as he observes, ‘What has Horace to do with the Psalter?’” In similar terms, Tertullian had expressed contempt for Athens and the Academy—yet later Christian writers such as Boethius (c. 480–526), who translated Aristotle’s Categories into Latin, were important transmitters of Classical ideas.
In the late Roman era, the hostility to Classical ideas ultimately won out. But the confrontation with the Classical tradition was so central to the writings of the early Church Fathers that it could never be fully purged from Christianity.
Thus, when Charlemagne ended four centuries of chaos in Europe and re-established a system of schools at the beginning of the ninth century, he intended this to be a revival of Christian learning—but the Classical tradition inevitably followed. Classical learning was officially tolerated only as a practical necessity for teaching scholars the Latin and Greek needed to understand Christian texts. But these ideas, once tolerated, had a tendency to take on an appeal of their own. Colish notes that “The overall attitude to the liberal arts…conveyed by Carolingian authors show them going well beyond the utilitarian application of them to biblical exegesis and Christian education, as ordered by Charlemagne, to personal appreciation of the arts.” For example, many of these scholars produced Classical-inspired poetry with secular themes, alongside their official Christian scholarship.
A more subtle legacy of this history is the fact that the Christian god became a “god of the philosophers.” The meaning of Christianity was determined, not just by the scripture of the Old and New Testaments, but also by the philosophical interpretations offered by Christian theologians, from Augustine to Aquinas. Aquinas in particular formulated the idea of a harmony between Classical philosophy and Christian religion—and he remains the official philosopher of the Catholic Church to this day.
In Benedict’s Regensburg speech, he defends this philosophical attitude toward religion, particularly in a section where he decries the first attempt to “dehellenize” Christianity.
Dehellenization first emerges in connection with the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the 16th century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura [“by scripture alone”], on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word.
In other words, the Protestant Reformation sought, as Benedict puts it later in the speech, to go back from “the God of the philosophers” to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”—an attempt to revert to a more primitive, pre-Hellenic version of religion.
This is what forms the strongest contrast between Christianity and Islam. While study of Greek philosophy flourished among Muslim scholars beginning in the middle of the eighth century, it was introduced from the outside, from the lands conquered by the Muslims, and it was never incorporated into the Islamic religion. As Colish explains, “the tension between [philosophy and theology] in medieval Islam stemmed not only from the gulf between theological and philosophical education but also from the fact that important developments in Muslim theology occurred before Greek philosophy became available.” The result is that philosophy always remained an “alien discipline.” Allah was always the god of Mohammed and never the god of the philosophers.
Worse, the Muslim world would have its anti-Aquinas: the 11th century writer al-Ghazali, who defended orthodox Islam by railing against “the incoherence of the philosophers” (in the words of the title of his most famous work) and by denouncing Greek-inspired philosophy as heresy. As a form of unbelief, secular learning would eventually be suppressed across the Islamic world. Colish concludes, in her overview of the last great Greek-influenced Muslim philosopher:
While Averroes was immediately hailed as providing the most accurate introduction to Aristotle in his day by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim philosophers alike, and while he had considerable influence…on the thoughts of Jews and Christians…, in Islam he represented everything that was most to be feared from philosophy. In his own community his doctrinal innovations were rejected as incompatible with the Muslim faith.
This is the deepest level on which Benedict is confronting Islam. While Islam rejected and stamped out the Classical philosophical tradition, Benedict seeks to make the “Greek spirit” into part of Christianity.
Yet to state this goal is to grasp the problem with Benedict’s claim: nothing more clearly violates the Greek spirit than to regard it as a chapter in God’s revelation to man—because the distinctive essence of Greek philosophy was the replacement of faith and revelation with rational inquiry and observation of this world.
The essence of the Greek spirit is captured by one example from the climax of the Athenian Golden Age, around 400 BC: an essay titled “On the Sacred Disease,” attributed to Hippocrates, the father of Greek medicine. Addressing the nature of epilepsy, which was believed to be the result of possession by spirits, Hippocrates wrote:
I do not believe that the “Sacred Disease” is any more divine or sacred than any other disease but, on the contrary, it has specific characteristics and a definite cause. Nevertheless, because it is completely different from other diseases, it has been regarded as a divine visitation by those who, being only human, view it with ignorance and astonishment.
The essence of the Greek spirit—in medicine, in astronomy, in physics, and in philosophy—was the rejection of appeals to the supernatural in favor of natural causes, the very opposite of a religious world view. Tertullian was right: the spirit of Athens is incompatible with the spirit of Jerusalem.
This is a contradiction that Benedict and his Church cannot escape—as the final section of his Regensburg speech demonstrates.
The attempt to integrate the Classical tradition into Christianity is part of the Catholic Church’s longstanding attempt, going back to Aquinas (and before) to find some form of harmony between faith and reason. It is in the last section of his speech that Benedict hints at how he thinks this is possible.
He sets the context while he is complaining about the second of the three attempts to “dehellenize” Christianity. The main example he cites is Adolf von Harnack, a turn of the 20th century German theologian who argued against philosophical theology, instead attempting to reshape theology as the historical study of the life and message of Jesus Christ. Benedict complains, oddly, that this is too scientific.
Harnack’s central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization…. The fundamental goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God…. [T]heology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific.
There is clearly something strange about Benedict’s view of what constitutes “modern reason” and “scientific” inquiry. It is, in fact, a view derived from the late 18th-century Counter-Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Benedict criticizes Kant’s approach—while nevertheless accepting it as synonymous with a contemporary secular outlook.
It is ironic that Benedict would criticize Kant, because Kant’s philosophy was an attempt to defend religion from the Enlightenment onslaught of science and secular philosophy. He did this through what Benedict describes as the “self-limitation of reason.” According to Kant, reason and science can only give us knowledge about the realm of “appearances,” but not about “things in themselves.” The function of reason is to impose order on a jumble of subjective sensations inside our minds—but it cannot give us direct knowledge of things as they really are, independent of our consciousness. Kant “defended” reason as being valid within its own legitimate realm—as a narrow kind of rationalistic, mathematical processing of sense data—but not as giving us access to “real reality.”
This is the source for Benedict’s view of “modern reason,” not as a science for understanding the nature of entities out in the world, but as “the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements.” He then complains that “by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question.”
Kant sought to redefine reason so that he could “deny reason in order to make room for faith,” in the famous words from his preface to The Critique of Pure Reason. By “limiting” reason to the description of subjective “appearances,” Kant meant to leave the real world, the world of “things in themselves,” as the domain of faith. But that’s not the main historical effect Kant’s ideas had. Later philosophers accepted his argument that reason couldn’t tell us about reality—but they did not turn to faith. Instead, they concluded that there is no reality, that there is only the world of subjective appearances. This is why Benedict criticizes Kant: not because he tried to deny reason to make room for faith, but because he failed at his goal of making room for faith—and only succeeded at denying reason. Benedict criticizes Kant, in short, because Kant unleashed the skeptics instead of the religionists.
Here is Benedict’s summary of how the Kantian view of reason and science led to skepticism and subjectivism.
[T]he specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science” and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.
This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it.
As opposed to this “reduced” view of the role of reason, Benedict ends his speech by arguing for a “broader” conception of reason which allows reason to include moral and religious issues. This view, he says, “has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age…. The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application.”
What does this mean?
While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity [due to secular science], we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons. In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith. [Emphasis added.]
Here is the chain of obfuscation by which Benedict reaches this conclusion. First, he equates the “limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable” with Kantian-inspired skepticism. Then he offers, as the alternative to skepticism, the “broadening of reason” to include that which is not based on evidence. Thus, he concludes that “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.” Claims of religious revelation and the stories from the Bible are to be taken as sources of knowledge that are just as “rational” as scientific observation and experimentation.
In case his analysis of post-Kantian philosophy is too abstract, Benedict falls back on the old saw that science is based on “faith” in an orderly universe, which requires faith in a God who created that order.
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.
The implicit premise behind this argument is that the rules of reason and mathematics were somehow arbitrarily dreamed up by man in the absence of observation of reality—and then when men decided to look at the world, they were amazed to discover that it actually obeys these arbitrary rules. Thus, the “rational structure of matter” is regarded as an amazing coincidence that needs to be explained, and God is the deus ex machina summoned to explain it.
In actuality, the rules of reason, mathematics, and science were induced from observation of the world. The world does not “reflect” a rational outlook; a rational outlook is derived from observation of the world and “reflects” the nature of reality.
But don’t bother to examine a folly; ask only what it accomplishes. In this case, what Benedict’s whole argument accomplishes is to achieve what Kant said he wanted to achieve: to deny reason in order to make room for faith. Benedict grants that “scientific reason” is appropriate for measuring the orbit of the moon or inventing quadruple bypass surgery—but when it comes to the deepest philosophical questions about the nature of man and the universe, “scientific reason” must “remand” these questions to “other modes and planes of thought.”
If Benedict is trying to appropriate Greek philosophy as an “integral part” of Christian revelation, giving secular philosophy a foothold in Christian learning, here is the price he asks in return: the attempt to smuggle in revelation as an integral part of “reason.” He wants to “broaden” reason to include that which is not “empirically verifiable” and to win recognition for the “science” of faith. He wants to “expand” reason to include its opposite.
This is what gives the lie to Benedict’s claim of a harmony between faith and reason. All he has done is to combine, under the name “reason,” two opposite and irreconcilable methods. “Scientific reason” is driven by evidence and logic, while philosophy and theology employ “other modes and planes of thought,” in which “the great experiences and insights of the Christian faith”—i.e., claims of mystical revelation accepted in the absence of evidence—are “a source of knowledge.”
While he views himself as an opponent of subjectivism, Benedict is arguing that reason rests on an inherently subjective foundation: claims of mystical intuition and Biblical authority.
But then how is any rational discussion on these religious and philosophical issues possible? How can disputes be argued collegially among fellow rational beings, when the arguers’ ultimate recourse is not to the observable facts of reality, but to the subjectivity of faith?
The history of Christianity gives us the answer. Modern Western Christianity may have renounced the goal of spreading religion by the sword, but this has not been true throughout the history of the Church, especially after Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
In Christianity’s early centuries, Tertullian had asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church?” Centuries later, in 529 AD, the Emperor Justinian provided his own answer to that question when he closed the Academy —the philosophical school that was the last successor of the Classical philosophical tradition—in order to consolidate Christianity’s monopoly on the philosophical questions that Benedict still wants to set aside as the exclusive domain of religion. This was just one episode in a long string of persecutions of secular learning by the Church, lasting through the Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, and up through executions for sacrilege and blasphemy as recently as the 18th century.
This is why it is futile for Benedict to cite his view of reason as a way of seeking amicable relations between Christians and Muslims. In his Regensburg speech, Benedict offers the following analysis of the cause of Muslim hatred for the West:
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.
Thus, if Muslims find themselves incapable of “dialogue” with the West—and prefer instead to communicate with us by hijacking airplanes and crashing them into our buildings—that is the fault of the West for refusing to make enough allowance for faith in our secular culture.
By contrast, Benedict extends the following invitation to the Muslims:
The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur—this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably (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.
Benedict should not be surprised that the invitation was rejected. On the one hand, to invite the Muslims to combine reason with religion is to invite them to make religion into a matter for rational discussion—a process that ultimately led, in the West, to the Renaissance. On the other hand, by arguing that reason must ultimately be “grounded in Biblical faith,” Benedict is inviting the Muslims to a debate that cannot be settled rationally, but only as a matter of competing arbitrary claims. The Christian believes in Christ and the Muslim believes in Mohammed, and there the discussion ends—and the riots, shootings, and beheadings begin.
So does Benedict’s contradiction mean that he is really an enemy of reason and that all of his pro-reason rhetoric is just irrelevant lip service? Not quite. Benedict’s attempt to embrace reason and secular philosophy and to make it compatible with Christianity is not without effect. He does renounce the tactic of spreading religion through force, and he even accepts “without question” the idea that it is “necessary” to respond even to the most strident atheist with “the use of reason.”
In trying to embrace reason and persuasion, on the one hand, and to mark out the deepest philosophical questions as the exclusive domain of faith, on the other hand, Benedict is upholding a contradiction—and it is a contradiction that has historically torn Christianity apart. It is this contradiction, the very connection between Christian dogma and Classical philosophy that Benedict applauds, which undercut the worldly power of the Church and left an opening for the explosion of secular learning that became the Renaissance and Enlightenment and secularized the West.
Even today, because the Catholic Church is more philosophical than most American Protestant sects, the pope has an enormous influence on the American religious right, providing intellectual cues that the American Protestants follow. Thus, Benedict’s appeal to reason and his renunciation of force in matters of religion found its echoes in the writings of American Catholic and Protestant conservative commentators. The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger, in a December 1 column titled “Western Civ 101,” chose to highlight the pro-reason pronouncements in Benedict’s Regensburg speech:
Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg mentioned “reason” and “rationality” repeatedly. He went so far as to claim that the “rapprochement” between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry (reason) was “of decisive importance” for world history. “This convergence,” said Benedict, “created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.”
Very simply, he is talking about and defending what we call “the West”—both the place and the classically liberal idea, which radical Islam wants to blow up.
A similar line was taken even by such arch-religious-conservatives as Pat Buchanan, whose September 19 column on the controversy focused on “the harmony between faith and reason, and the disharmony between force and faith,” applauding Benedict for arguing “that true faith and right reason are never in conflict, that force is intolerable in advancing God’s word”—though not without a discernible note of envy for the violence of Islam, which marks it as “a rising, not a dying, faith,” in contrast to the “de-Christianization of America.”
In all of these cases, as in Benedict’s speech, the appeal to reason is contradicted by other parts of these writers’ political agendas (particularly so in the case of Buchanan). But that is itself a crucial point. Both the pope and those in America who are influenced by him feel the need to acknowledge the validity of reason and to explicitly renounce force in favor of persuasion. This is an enormous obstacle to anyone who wants to lay the cultural foundation for a return to religious authoritarianism in the West.
This also suggests the widest lesson for defenders of secularism and intellectual liberty in today’s culture. It is less important to attack religion than it is to defend reason, to applaud the achievements of science, and to demonstrate how secular reason can be used to address the most profound moral and philosophical issues.
If we demonstrate the power of reason, even the pope will feel the need to acknowledge it—and those whose basic loyalty is to Jerusalem will feel compelled to live and to argue on the terms set by Athens.