When I heard of Pope Benedict XVI's unfortunate comments about Islam, uttered via the voice of an ancient Byzantine emperor, my initial supposition was that the pontiff had simply been a bit ham-fisted, making an ill-advised choice of source material to illustrate a point about the nature of God. Then I actually read the
speech that has set the Islamic world aflame.
At best, the address delivered by the pontiff to what the Vatican calls “representatives of science” at Germany's University of Regensburg is an act of mischief rooted in chauvinism. I cannot see how any Catholic of good will -- one who values peace over war, or favors compassion over condemnation -- can accept the pope's actions in delivering such remarks as in any way divinely inspired, especially if one applies to Benedict the very standard he sought to illustrate with his once-removed insult of Islam as evil, inhuman, and unoriginal.
The point His Holiness was trying to make -- and I can't imagine how this was overlooked by Muslims and the media -- is that God abhors violence, even violence done in His name, because it is an unreasonable way to behave, and God represents the essence of reason. But to throw a rhetorical bomb such as that the pope tossed into the teeming cities of the Muslim world is to commit an act tantamount to violence. It appears to be a taunt designed to provoke a response, and provoke one it did. In the ensuing uproar, the pope has issued a string of explanations for his comments, as well as what can only be viewed as a target=resource window>non-apology apology (I'm sorry you're so upset).
In examining the pope's speech to the scientists, I initially set aside the inflammatory anecdote recounted early in the speech, about an exchange between Manuel II, the Christian emperor of Byzantium and "an educated Persian," in which the emperor is quoted as 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." Continuing with the story, the pope said, "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...'"
News reports indicated that the anecdote was a mere aside, a virtual throwaway shtick, to the main thrust of the address, which was an examination of the role of reason in faith, and vice versa. But encoded throughout the speech in his exultation of Greek philosophy as the underpinning of Christian thought is a comparison with the unknowable and transcendent God of Islam (and, by implication, the scary and unknowable God of Judaism, as well) that is designed to be less than flattering to those who embrace that concept of the Almighty.
Greek philosophy, Benedict told the scientists, had already matured as a body of thought even as the Hebrew bible “developed.” Christianity, he explained, represented a "rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry." By Benedict's telling, however, the contest between faith and philosophy appears to have resulted less in rapprochement than the triumph of the Greek philosophers over the faith of a desert people. In fact, Jesus the Jew seems barely present, if at all, in the pontiff's version of the Christian faith. But Plato is everywhere.
Developing in our own time has been the idea of a current clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic world. Conservatives Samuel
Huntington and Robert W. Merry define this clash as it exists today as the result of the fundamental irreconcilability of such Greek concepts as individualism and the distinction between the secular and sacred realms (Give unto
Caesar, etc...) on the one hand with the Islamic ideal of the unity of all things in the divine, and the primacy of community before the individual, on the other.
Add to these profound differences a recent history of Western colonial domination, the resulting economic domination by the West, as well as America's present assertion -- via bombs and occupation -- of Western ideals as universal and superior to all others, and the recipe for worldwide Muslim rage is complete. Surely Pope Benedict, a learned theologian himself, is aware of these conditions. With that awareness, the pope must have taken into account that, in the Islamic worldview, there is no separate, "secular" realm; it's a worldview that offers no distinction between the bombs of Bush and Blair, and the pope's assertion of the God of the Greek philosophers as superior to the mysterious but "most merciful" God of the desert peoples. The bombs and moral condemnation all serve a common end: the shaming of Islamic civilization, with the assertion, by the sword, of Western culture as superior.
The irony of the pope's anecdote, of course, is its focus on the spread of Islam through violence, and the omission of the spread of Christianity by the same means. (Note the campaigns of King Charlemagne, and the href="http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04543c.htm">Crusades against Islam -- not to mention the href="http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14783a.htm">Inquisition.)
As if that wasn't enough, Huntington, in his iconoclastic 1995 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, points out:
During the 15 years between 1980 and 1995..., the United States engaged in 17 military operations in the Middle East, all of them directed against Muslims. No comparable pattern of U.S. military operations occurred against the people of any other civilization.
Like Eris, the Greek goddess of strife who had a snit when not invited to an important wedding, Pope Benedict XVI seems a bit miffed to have been left out of the party being thrown by the 21st century crusaders, so he has tossed an apple of discord -- one ingeniously designed to give the appearance of merely proving his point.
Violence in the name of the Most High is the predictable result of the pope's sophistic ordnance. Concluding his speech in Germany, the pope quoted Manuel II:
"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."
Adele M. Stan is the author of the weblog, AddieStan.com, and the book, Debating Sexual Correctness.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.
Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.