Reaping the Whirlwind
(My Note - The single most intelligent piece of writing I have found to date on this troubling matter)
Benedict's meaning in his Regensburg speech has been misinterpreted by almost everyone — by those who condemn him, but also by his defenders.
Back on May 14, 1999, in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II bowed as “a sign of respect” toward a copy of the Koran which was being brought to him as a gift. When the book was officially “presented to him,” the pope (perhaps a bit perplexed concerning the appropriate protocol for such an official gesture), kissed it.
On September 12 in Regensburg, Germany, Pope Benedict XVI, in a lecture to 1,500 university professors and students, cited an obscure medieval emperor engaged in a dialogue with a Persian Muslim, as saying with regard to the Islamic faith, "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."
We all know what happened next. Protests throughout the Islamic world and in Europe and in America (the New York Times "pontificated" that the pope should immediately apologize for his remarks).Sheik Malin of Somalia called for the pope's murder. Churches were set on fire in the Holy Land. An Italian nun was shot to death in Somalia (though it was not clear that the shooting was related to the pope's words).
In Iran, Islamic newspapers suggested there was an Israeli-US plot behind the pope's words. The daily Jomhuri Islami said: "If we do not consider Pope Benedict XVI to be ignorant of Islam, then his remarks against Islam are a dictat that the Zionists and the Americans have written (for him)." Fellow hardline daily Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief is appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said there were signs of Israeli inteference aimed at creating conflict between Islam and Christianity.
In Israel, Jewish rabbi Shlomo Amar (the Chief Sephardi rabbi) weighed in, expressing sorrow over "the deprecating things said against Islam" by the pope. "Our way is to respect all religions, nations and peoples according to their customs," Amar said. And (last but not least) in the Vatican itself, a monsignor (anonymous) was cited as saying, "Under John Paul II, this would not have happened."
So the pope was attacked by secular humanists (the New York Times), by conservative Muslims, by a leading Jewish rabbi — and by a monsignor in the Vatican itself.
Talk about being isolated.
Benedict had (in a sense) "sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind."
How can all this be explained? Did Benedict, a gentle German theology professor who has spent his pontificate being thoughtful and kind, preaching to children and writing an encyclical about love, intend to "insult" Islam, or Mohammed, as claimed?
Sometimes words have unintended consequences. Taken out of context, interpreted in a way the speaker did not intend, they can cause confusion, shock, anger, violence.
And that was the case for Pope Benedict XVI. His address is not a "bashing" or "blasting" or "indictment" of Islam but rather a profound reflection on the need for the West to return to religious faith.
Benedict's main point — and few have noted this — is that the West, unless it recovers a vision of God, cannot engage in a fruitful dialogue with the other great cultures of the world, which have a basic religious conviction about reality. Among these great cultures, of course, is Islam. His entire talk is focused on this point.
He attempts to persuade his academic audience that giving theology a voice in the modern Western university would be of immense benefit to Western society, because it would lead to a rational dialogue on the central meaning of human existence; namely, an investigation of the nature of God. Such an inquiry, he says, would counter Europe's destructive denial of its own origins.
Yes, Benedict did cite a few explosive words from a medieval Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus (Emperor of Byzantium from 1391 to 1425). And the world's media focused on those few words, highlighted them and interpreted them as an attack on Mohammed and Islam, and in so doing inflamed Muslim emotions worldwide.
But are these words — in context — an attack on Islam and Islam's prophet, Mohammed?
No. No, Benedict did not attack Islam, or Mohammed. This is a misunderstanding of what he said, and this is precisely what the pope said on Sunday that he regretted: that he had been misunderstood.
Let us consider very carefully what Benedict does with regard to Islam in this speech. First, he focuses on one very specific point in the Emperor's long dialogue with the Persian, the issue of jihad, or holy war. He writes: In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, 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.
Now, the first striking thing we note here is that Benedict is citing the Koran. Rarely in the history of the papacy (if ever — I am not aware of other cases) has a pope of Rome cited the Koran in a public address, and in a positive way. I say "in a positive way" for Benedict here, like the Emperor himself, evidently agrees with the verse of the Koran which says "There is no compulsion in religion."
The second striking thing we note is that Benedict characterizes this passage of the Koran as "one of the surahs of the early period," a period "when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat." What is Benedict doing? He is setting up his argument that this passage has more authority for Islam (because it is earlier) than the later passages which seem to contradict it, and call for compulsion in religion. In an oblique way, he is inviting Muslim theologians to undertake a type of textual criticism of their own sacred scripture, the Koran, to uncover its deepest meaning.
That this is what Benedict is doing is proven by the next phrase: "But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war."
Benedict uses two words to characterize the Koranic passages on holy war: he terms them "instructions" and he says they were "developed later." It seems to me that he is suggesting that these passages on "Jihad," because "developed later," could possibly be — he does not say this, but, in a very unpolemical way, I think, suggests it — of less binding force than the "earlier" surah which quite clearly says "There is no compulsion in religion."
Then he writes: "The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature."
At this point in his talk, Benedict has barely begun. He has 90% of his 30-minute talk to go. And during the entire remaining 90% of his talk — the vast majority of the talk — he doesn't talk about Islam or jihad at all, but only about how man can come to know God's nature. This is the main thrust of his talk, because Benedict is arguing that only by seeking to know God's nature better and more completely can mankind come to walk in the ways God wills.
But this final 90% of the talk becomes, not an indictment of Islamic jihad, as so many seem to think, both in the Islamic community and in the secularized West, but an indictment of the West itself, for eliminating the transcendent, the holy, the divine, from modern consciousness. Benedict's talk is first and foremost a call to the West to convert, to return to its own deepest religious identity.
Then, in addition to being a call to the secularized West to return to faith, it is also a call to both Jews and Moslems to come to recognize a Christ whom Benedict presents as the culminating "Logos" (the "meaning" or "reason"), not only of the ancient world, but of all history.
So in his Regensburg talk, Benedict is actually preaching to all mankind — first to the secularized Western elites, then to both Jews and Muslims — saying that what is needed today to overcome the threats facing humanity, to overcome the threat of a "clash of civilizations," is a conversion to Christ as the "Logos," the "Reason" ("the Word") of God.
It is true: preaching Christ is, in and of itself, offensive to everyone today, to secular humanists, to Muslims, to Jews — even to some Vatican monsignors. But that is what the pope was doing at Regensburg.
The pope said, toward the end of his Regensburg speech:
While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, 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.
Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.
With regard to Islam, he was appealing (in a oblique way, since the talk was not addressed directly to Muslims at all) for reflection on those teachings of Islam which seem to be not in keeping with an understanding of God as loving, reasonable, and good.
He was appealing to the "better angels" of those in the Muslim world who take their faith very seriously, asking them whether they did not think that resorting to violence was opposed to their own deepest understanding of God.
It is a call by the successor of Peter to the whole world to consider and, if it might be possible, to accept what he proposes: a profound understanding of the "Christo-centric" ("Logos-centric") nature of all reality, which is ultimately, in terms of human affairs, summed up in a few words: love one another; be at peace with one another; renounce vengeance; lay down one's life for one's brother; be peacemakers.
Some, like Professor Khoury, have suggested that Benedict could have "contextualized" Manuel's charge that Mohammed brought the world only coercion and evil in his new religion.
Perhaps if Benedict had thought a bit longer he would have been very careful to distinguish between Manuel's words and his own views. But then again, perhaps this raging controversy is precisely what is needed to bring all of us — Jews and Gentile, Muslim and Christian, atheist and believer — to a deeper reflection on the nature of our faiths. For it is far better that we debate these matters with words, than with weapons, and all the sorrow that comes with them.
Dr. Robert Moynihan is the founder and editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, a monthly journal on Church and world affairs from Rome. He is regarded as one the world's leading Vatican analysts and has interviewed Pope Benedict XVI over 25 times. A world-renowned commentator on Catholic issues, Dr. Moynihan has appeared on Fox News, CNN, ABC, EWTN and other media to discuss the legacy of Pope John Paul II, Vatican affairs and what to expect from Benedict XVI.