A Warning to the West, Not the East


Pope Benedict XVI got himself in trouble this week when something he said in a speech ticked off large chunks of the Muslim world.

Benedict has apologized, which is the polite thing to do (your mother said so, right?), even if he didn’t mean the offense and even if most of the people protesting in Karachi, Jakarta, Ankara and elsewhere have no idea what it was he actually said or why.

During a speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, the offending passage was actually an introduction to a much more dangerous subject (and one I suspect most journalists wouldn’t really know how to write about) — the connection between faith and reason in the Christian West and the essential role Greek philosophy and Greek concepts played in the creation and evolution of the Christian faith. At least I’m fairly certain this is what the speech was about. Benedict XVI’s writing is fairly dense and he tends toward understatement, and I always need to read anything of his at least three times to get his point.

Based on an unofficial rush transcript I downloaded from the BBC World Service web site, this is the offending passage:

In the seventh conversation [between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an unnamed "educated Persian" on the subject of Christianity and Islam sometime in 1391] edited by Professor [Theodore] Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that [S]urah 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…."

Now, I wouldn’t have picked this quote, not because it would be misunderstood, but because while it may accurately reflect what Manuel II Paleologus actually said, it isn’t really true. The emperor, like many Christians, failed to properly appreciate the distinction between spreading Islam and spreading the rule of Islam. The latter was easily spread by the sword, and when Islam emerged from the Arabian peninsula, a region peripheral to the empires of the time, conquer it did. But the Muslim conquerors neither demanded nor expected conversion initially, and the Christians of the Levant and North Africa, who were mostly heretics on the matter of who Jesus was, were happy to exchange a hostile authority with one indifferent to disputes over Christology. Conversion would come, slowly, later, and generally not by compulsion.

This whole notion of spreading the faith of Islam by the sword can easily be put to a test. If Muslims did indeed believe that they were required, by their scripture, to compel all the people under their rule to convert or die, then there would have been no Hindus left in India or Indonesia, no Christians left in the Balkans or North Africa (or the Levant, or Greece, or Hungary, or Spain, or Sicily, or anywhere else), no Jews left in Morocco, Iraq or Yemen. (Or else they were very bad at it, in which case no one really has to worry.) The only Muslim place largely bereft of non-Muslims is the Saudi part of the Arabian peninsula, and this — as I understand it — is (with the exception of the holy cities of Makkah and Madina) a fairly recent occurrence, something that happened only in the last century. (And not really true anymore either thanks to the large presence of Christian expatriate labor from near and far.)

This is not to say that the spread of Islam was without its fair share of violence and atrocity. The early spread of Islam in Africa was, often times, a product of coerced conversion, just as Islam and Judaism were the deep wells for what would become much of the Christian West’s racist views toward Africans. Sunnis and Shia, especially after the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the codification of Twelver Shiism by the Saffavid Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries A.D., could go at each other mercilessly, tossing around the word "heretic" and demanding conversion upon pain of death. (After the merger of Al-Saud power and Ibn Wahab’s ascetic revolutionary theology in the late 18th century, even strict Wahabbis tolerated infidel Christians and Jews as they persecuted heretical Shia.)

Compare this by looking at the number of Muslims left in Spain and Portugal after reconquista in 1492. Or in Sicily after the reasonably tolerant reign of Roger II. Christendom is as much built on the conquest of peoples and their often times forced conversion to the faith. While Manuel II’s words about the evil of compelling faith are beautiful and inspiring, the decaying empire he presided over had itself been fond of threatening violence against individual human beings over their unwillingness to accept the "orthodox" Christian faith. (Remember all those Monophysite Christians in the 700s more-or-less happy to accept Muslim rule?) The only significant Christian society that tolerated Muslims and Islam was Orthodox Russia. (That said, I do not know how many Muslims lived in the Austrian Empire, nor do I know what their legal status was.) Throughout much of the history of the encounter between Christendom and Dar al-Islam, non-Christians have fared poorly within Christendom, while non-Muslims have generally been much better off within Dar al-Islam.

And that is why I would have picked a better way of starting my talk about the role of faith and reason working together. Benedict has this problem of picking very poignant but somewhat problematic examples. In his beautiful essay on the role that conscience has in confronting the brutal reality of power, then-Cardinal Ratzinger used the example of the de Las Casas and the native girl to show how powerlessness, as powerlessness, can move the conscience of the powerful. The only problem with the argument, as well drawn and moving as it is, is that de Las Casas’ answer to the horrible treatment of the natives of the Americas by their Spanish conquerors was the importation of enslaved Africans. His conscience moved him to solve one grave injustice, one evil, with another.

Were I advising Benedict XVI, I would tell him to lay off references to Islam because he simply does not understand Islam, just as most Muslim theologians, historians, scholars and "clerics" (for lack of a better term) simply do not understand Christianity. (Can he truly assume that the Muslims who translated the works of the Greeks, and thus saved them for eventual rediscovery in the West, were simply scribes who never bothered to read or consider or comment on or be inspired by what they were reading?)

But I am not the pope, and clearly Benedict XVI had bigger fish to fry. The whole point of the reference, I think, was to suggest a Christendom under threat — both from without and within — by quoting the leader of a dying empire surrounded on all sides by Muslims who would, within a century, take its capital and hold that city up to the present day.

In his speech, Benedict XVI was also clearly interested in noting exactly what Europe — and the Christian West — truly is and the debt it owes to the marriage of reason and faith in Christianity:

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. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.

And here the pope is on much more solid ground (though one must never forget the opposition of the likes of Tertullian and Tatian to the intertwining of Greek learning and philosophy with scripture). Benedict XVI sees reason in logos, the Word made flesh as Christ. He sees "a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry" in the Macedonians’ request to the Apostle Paul for help. He even sees this meeting in the Septuagint, the translation of Hebrew scripture into Greek for the many Hellenistic Jews who no longer could function effectively in Hebrew that also made the scripture available to non-Jews, where there is "a profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion."

In fact, Benedict XVI goes on to say that while the Gospel is a universal message (and Christianity did in fact spread in several directions from the Middle East), it only really became the edifice most of us understand as Christianity in Europe, where that melding with Greco-Roman ways of thinking and reasoning would also eventually give rise to Christendom:

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.

It is this Europe, and particularly the detachment of reason from faith (a process he calls "dehellenization") that particularly exercises the pope. In this, he notes three important processes: the rejection of metaphysics as "derived from another source" and something faith needed to be liberated from (taking a nice sharp swipe at Protestantism); the reduction of Jesus to the status of preaching a "humanitarian moral message" in line with "modern reason" (the merger of Cartesianism and empiricism); and a science that reduces certainty and truth solely to those things which can be verified empirically or mathematically.

This detachment of faith from reason, and all the ways it has manifested itself in Europe, is dangerous because:

… [I]t is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the 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," so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective.

Indeed, science and the civilization it has spawned cannot properly contemplate the what and how of the world without also coming to come conclusions about why:

The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. 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.

He continues:

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. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, 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, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.

Benedict XVI is doing several things in this speech. By provoking Muslims (needlessly but not, clearly, pointlessly), he is telling largely secular Europe and its intellectuals that "we Europeans, religious and secular, are in this together." He emphasizes again his belief that Europe is Christendom, and that non-Christians really cannot be Europeans. He says a secular Europe is essentially a meaningless place, a non-human or even anti-human place where life can have no real meaning. And he also notes that without a solid and confident faith, Europeans cannot conduct any kind of real dialogue with different cultures and religions that do not differentiate so brutally between reason and the divine (such as, ahem, Islam).

The pope, in short, wants a West possessed as much with metaphysical certainty as it is with physical and scientific certainty. Perhaps because he believes that confidence, and only that confidence, will allow Europe and Islam to meet each other equals. Or perhaps because he believes only that certainty will allow the Europe to avoid the fate of the Byzantines more than five centuries ago.

And who knows, maybe he is right.

But there are a couple of problems with what Benedict XVI wants. First, he ignores the fact that men certain of "the Truth" tend to find it much easier to kill, subjugate and plunder other men. Or to be mobilized to support death, destruction and violence. Or, ahem, to compel others to believe. The Cross of Christ was a banner under which much blood was shed and much suffering inflicted by sword, cudgel, pike and rifle. Even if the metaphysical certainty invoked not God or Church but Nation or State or Working Class or Race or The Oppressed of the World, it was still a faith in a "Truth" that could not be touched nor seen or otherwise empirically proved but was nonetheless very real for every true believer who set out to do good by killing others. En masse if necessary.

Europe has been possessed by a lot of metaphysical certainty in the last 200 some-odd years since the French Revolution inspired a whole new kind of idolatrous faith in Humanity and the State. And it may be, in fact, after many centuries of killing for firmly believed intangibles — God, church, state, party, revolution — and especially the carnage of the last 100 years that Europeans have grown tired of the kind of metaphysical certainty that leads to sacrifice and suffering, to pain, destruction and death. Such certainty was always a balm to statists (and churchmen) who believed the minds of men — and their souls — somehow were public property. After such a history, who can blame Europeans for wanting to breathe deeply of peaceful and non-aggressive uncertainty?

Benedict XVI is trying something very difficult, thinking he needs to instill enough backbone to allow people to be strong and confident in who they are without making them arrogant and cruel. I don’t know whether Europe is in need of Benedict’s backbone, so I don’t know whether he will succeed or fail. Most likely the pope will not live to see the results. He is an old man — a brilliant man, but an old one, and the leader of a church whose dynamism has shifted far away from the stone citadels of Christendom.

From the vantage point of North America, parts of Europe seem drenched by an existential dread that it will drown and disappear, the victim of fecund immigrants who neither understand nor want much of what Europe has to offer and surrounded by people who desperately want to live as Europeans without any comprehension of just how much hard work Europeans had to do in order to get there.

That may all be true, but note this — people plagued by existential dread are not particularly confident ones, and they rarely make good or humane decisions. A Europe (one could add North America to this) prompted to inhumanity in order to save itself would not be terribly Christian, and probably not worth saving. A fierce critic of state power who has openly questioned the justness of just war theory, Benedict XVI ought to keep this in mind.

Perhaps nothing can save Europe or the residue of Christendom it represents. That is not necessarily a bad thing, for not only will the Gospel and the Church survive, but Europe’s ideas will survive because they essentially drive the world. Europe was exceedingly successful at conquering the planet, not only physically but intellectually, and its ideas and ways of thinking have been imported to all corners and adopted by people hither and yon. Oh, they may not mean quite the same things in India or South America or China as they mean in the West, but is the West really the same place it was 10 centuries, five centuries, a century or even 10 years ago? In order to work in India, imported Western ideas would naturally be altered by Indians for their own ends, just as Christians "altered" Greek ideas and made them work with and even essential to Christianity. Could the Axial Age Greek thinkers have ever conceived of Paul of Tarsus and what he did with and to their ideas? Or Augustine? Or Aquinas? Or Martin Luther? Or Thomas Jefferson?

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a seminarian and freelance editor living in Chicago. Visit his blog.