It is hard not to be aware of the current furore over the Pope’s speech in Regensburg and the universal reaction of sulking Muslims. Rather than allowing Islamists to set the agenda from the onset though, let’s see what God’s rottweiler actually had to say. The full speech is available here in English and here in German. For those in a hurry, here is a summary in my own words:
Theology has a place in western Universities and raises the question of how God relates to reason. In a historic account of a conversation between the Byzantine emperor and a Persian Muslim, the former is reported to have criticised Islam for attempting to spread by force when religion should spread peacefully, through reason. This account can be seen against the background of the views of western theologians who attribute to Islam a view of the nature of God as transcending all categories, including that of reason.
Christianity has traditionally involved in an interaction of religious faith with the Greek rational tradition, a tradition which is at the heart of European culture. From the late middle ages onwards, there have however been tendencies towards a separation of faith and reason. The first such tendency materialised during the reformation with the call for a direct connection with God, circumventing the existing body of knowledge from a theological and philosophical tradition.
The second instance of the trend toward separating faith and reason emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries with a call to return to the simple beliefs of Jesus and accept theology as an academic discipline akin to the study of history. The latter view leads to demands for logical and empirical consistency for scientific inquiry, thus excluding inquiries into the nature of God from the realm of science.
The third and current manifestation of this secularising trend aims at the adaptation of Christianity in a multicultural context. However, while there is some room for cultural adaptation, the nexus between faith and reason lies at the heart of Christianity and must not be abandoned.
What is needed, is a re-connection of faith and reason. Science operates within the confines of empirical reality and philosophy and theology should investigate the nature of this encompassing reality. Theology should do so as a faith based religious discipline, not as a sub-form of history.
Religion is needed as a basis for ethical guidance. The renewed nexus of faith and reason in scientific inquiry is a precondition for a dialogue of cultures and religions. Once this condition has been met, other cultures can be invited to take part in the dialogue.
It should be instantly obvious, that this is not a speech against Islam nor mainly about Christianity vs. Islam. The main target of the Pope’s critique are people like me who think that religious belief has no place in scientific methodology. (Somehow I don’t feel the urge to go and angrily protest in front of the Vatican’s embassy though.) The main message to Christian Europe can be summarised as: ‘Return to religion and then peacefully reach out to other cultures and creeds on this basis.’ It is not a message I agree with but offensive it aint.
Having dealt with the real contents of the speech, let’s look what little is actually said about Islam. First of all, the two passages relating to Islam are first a quote of a quote (i.e. a historical account quoted by another scholar) and then the opinions of other theologians who seem to have studied Islam in some depth. This is just how university lectures are normally structured: if you touch on a subject that is not your speciality you briefly report a competent opinion on it before turning to your area of expertise.
The most offending passage seems to be the historic account, and Ratzinger notes the glaring lack of diplomacy quite explicitly:
“The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur’an (…)
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, this is not exactly hate speech is it? It is a historic quote and for a scholar it would be unacceptable to mellow it down to appear more diplomatic. Historic records are quoted as they are –anything else would be seen as fraudulent in an academic setting. The most the lecturer can do in this case is express his regret about the lack of diplomacy contained in the quote, and that the Pope has done. Moreover, he didn’t use this passage gratuitously, but to put the main topic of the lecture into a historic context. Add to this the fact that he was not addressing an anti-immigration rally but an audience of academics and clerics in a University and it becomes difficult to see why anyone would get irate over this.
The widespread angry reactions to the Pope’s speech are very revealing about the real Islamist agenda though. Anyone who wanted to avoid offending Islam under these conditions would literally have to request permission to speak from any part of the umma that might otherwise be offended. Parallels to the cartoon affair are frequently drawn, but this is quite misleading: the cartoons at least were an intentional if mild provocation. Ratzinger’s speech was just a theology lecture. If you can’t say something like that without causing Muslim outrage, then by now it should have become clear where appeasing Muslim demands for censorship will lead. This is not even a matter of suppressing isolated acts of frivolous blasphemy. The ultimate consequence of censorship will be an erosion of free speech in one of the places where it arguably matters most: in our Universities.
Note: in the initial version of this post the Byzantine emperor was wrongly referred to as the emperor of Constantinople in the summary of the speech.