"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, September 22, 2006

Why the Pope's main point is irrefutable

Yesterday I promised a post "analyzing" Pope Benedict XVI's Regensburg speech that set the Umma off once again. Herein I shall keep that promise. But first I note that, also yesterday, a friend of mine e-mailed the recent photo at the left. I hope that many of you get the black humor. If you do, you know that the main point of the Pope's remarks is irrefutable.

For those who don't, I point out that the man whose death is being called for by the devout Muslim holding the sign, namely the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, has been dead for nearly 600 years. (To be charitable, I'm willing to allow that the demonstrator wants to emulate how one ninth-century pope treated his dead predecessor: he had the body disinterred, tried before a mock court, convicted, mutilated, and dumped into the Tiber. Plays to the gallery pretty well.) It was the Pope's citation of a remark made by Emperor Manuel which occasioned the latest paroxysm across the Umma, in which of course have been heard not a few threats on the Pope's life. Such threats are now understood to be a matter of course when somebody offends Muslims. We've learned the ground rule for dialogue: "Islam has been a religion of peace since 622; say otherwise and at least one of us will feel obliged to kill you." But it is well nonetheless that the Pope cannot unsay what he said. His choice to quote the Emperor was doubtless very carefully weighed to make a point that desperately needed to be made but also required plausible deniability from such a globally important figure. Many otherwise sympathetic people have taken the Pope to task for that. But they forget the significance of the fact that the very uproar he caused proved his point. Which is what?

Like everything the Pope says to or among academics, of which he was a star, the point is not immediately obvious. Perhaps the best way to unearth it is to consider how Benedict praised his old university.

[It] was also very proud of its two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily part of the "whole" of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God. 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.

Such a vision of faith and reason is not only quintessentially Western but universally valid. Whether or not we believe we have a true answer to "the question of God," theology is a reasonable discipline, fit for a university, because the questions theology considers are reasonable ones meriting the most assiduous inquiry. But within both religious and secular culture, there has long been a certain theological tendency undermining the role of reason in the life of faith and in society as a whole.

To philosophers, the most familiar label for that tendency is voluntarism. In theology, voluntarism in its strong form is the notion that divine sovereignty is so absolute that God is not bound by anything at all—not even his by own goodness, and not even by reason itself. God wills what he wills what he wills: if he wills that good be evil and evil good, then it is so; if he wills that contradictions be true, then they are true. In Catholicism, certain late-medieval thinkers such as William of Ockham and Nicholas of Cusa were strong voluntarists, as have been not a few Protestant thinkers since. All that is old hat to philosophers and theologians, and the Pope alluded to it right after his discussion of the Emperor's words. But the striking thing about the lecture is the connection drawn between Muslim and Christian voluntarism, and how each relates to the problems of today.

Here's what the Pope said about the Muslim part of it (I have added the emphasis):

In the seventh conversation-controversy, edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that Sura 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.

[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."

Well then: if, as remains common Muslim theology, God is "not bound even by his own word," then there can be no problem about religious violence or contradictions in the Qu'ran. In one sura we read that there's "no compulsion" in religion; in others, we read about all the conditions under which killing "infidels" is justified. This is why Muslims say with a straight face that Islam is a religion of peace and a religion of jihad, violent if need be, against infidels. This is why, though the majority of Muslims are not warlike, they have only weak arguments against those who are warlike. According to them, the Qu'ran is the literal words of God; if God is not bound by his own word, then of course he is not even bound by the logic of his words. But we are bound by his words; so if his words are illogical, then we are bound to be illogical.

That's quite pertinent to current events, and quite bad enough in itself. But such unreason is not the only sort of unreason that voluntarism has caused. The West is guilty too, albeit in a very different way.

I shall cut to the chase since you can read the lecture for yourself. The Pope's chief complaint is how the West, starting with medieval voluntarism, has ended relegating religion and ethics to the realm of the subjective, which may be interesting and even inspiring but cannot contain objective, rationally knowable truths. The Muslim way of divorcing faith and morality from reason leads to intolerance and violence; the Western way of doing so, which expresses itself as relativism and subjectivism, leads to cultural decadence. It is just such decadence that Muslims most dislike. And it's all the worse because it makes the bulk of contemporary Westerners unable to understand the Muslim challenge and react accordingly.

The only way to deal with that challenge is to restore a vision of reality in which religion and morality form part of a unitary vision of truth along with the science of which we are rightly proud. Such is what the Catholic Church continues to uphold—at least among those of her children, like the Pope, who think about such things and are able to appreciate their importance. In such a vision, God is bound by his own goodness and wisdom, which are dimly expressed in our virtues, our logic, and our science. To borrow a phrase from the American Declaration of Independence, science helps us understand "the laws of nature"; religion and natural morality help us to understand "nature's God." Together, they all form a unitary vision of truth. And it's one that excludes violence aimed at enforcing religious tenets.

It took Christians quite a long time to learn that. Most Muslims have not yet learned it. That is the main point of the Pope's lecture. It ought to be obvious. Too bad it isn't.

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