Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Pope versus the World

Reading the New York Times editorial, it sounds like the Pope really put his foot in his mouth, apparently calling Muslims "evil and inhuman".  An obvious insensitive remark requiring an immediate and heartfelt apology, right?

My first reaction is to think how could a leader with as much public experience as Benedict XVI say something so stupid?  So I read the speech transcript and now I wonder the exact opposite:  How could journalists or thinking Muslims possibly interpret his remarks as offensive?

The speech, addressed to scientists at the University of Regensburg, is about religion and reason and a response to the question posed by some scientists for why universities would have theology and religion departments with faculty devoted to the study of something (God) that doesn't exist.

The Pope's answer is that in the West, with its Greek-inspired traditions, God and reason (science) are fundamentally bound together.  By contrast, he quotes the Islamic philosopher R. Arnaldez who argues that God is absolutely transcendent and unbound by anything at all, even reason itself.  The remark about Muslims, quoting from a 14th Century dialog between a Byzantine emperor and an educated Persian, is given as an example for how under the Greek tradition, you couldn't convert somebody through violence -- only through reason.

Here's the full quote:

[The 14th Century Byzantine emperor] 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.

If an apology is justified, the Pope has to first understand what he said that makes people angry.  Should he apologize for saying or implying that:

  1. It is evil and inhuman to spread faith by the sword?
  2. Islam advocates such behavior?
  3. Something else, like the hypocritical assumption that Christians never use the sword?

 I hope nobody disagrees with the first statement. Presumably we all agree that forcing someone to convert is evil and inhuman.

He should apologize if people misunderstood him as saying that Islam advocates violence. It's not his place to pontificate (so-to-speak) about Islam. Note that his real point, however, was not about Islam but rather about the idea that God transcends reason. I wonder: do Muslims agree or disagree?

The third statement -- that Christians are sometimes hypocritical -- is something I bet the Pope would not deny.  But he would say that Christians fail their Greek-inspired heritage of reason when they resort to violence.

 Either way, I wish I understood the logic of those people who are firebombing Christian churches over this. "You defame us by calling us violent, so we're going to kill you!"

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