We haven’t taken sufficient notice here of the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to abdicate. Pope Benedict has always labored in the shadow, so to speak, of his charismatic and highly consequential predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who we can rightly claim had a key role in bringing about the demise of the Soviet empire. I write about this a lot in my second Age of Reagan, and I won’t rehearse the story again right now, except to recall his famous slogan in his triumphant 1979 visit to his native Poland when he exhorted his audience of about 2 million in person and on television in his concluding Mass outside Krakow: “Be not afraid.” Be not afraid of what? It was clear what he meant. One of the more touching moments of my second visit to Poland in 2004 was the taxi driver in Krakow, engaged to take me to the airport, who drove out of his way to point to, and explain in very broken English, that this was the field where John Paul II had conducted that famous Mass and proclaimed, “Be not afraid.”
For all of John Paul II’s brilliance and courage, in many ways I regard Benedict as more significant intellectually, and perhaps will yet come to be seen as the equal to JPII in consequences because of a single deed, which was his own “Be not afraid” moment. I refer of course to his 2006 “Regensburg Lecture” that outraged the Muslim world for its criticism of its anti-rationalism. The clear implication of the lecture is that Islam needs to “re-Hellenize” as Christianity did if it is truly to live up to its slogan as a “religion of peace.” The Regensburg Lecture has been rightly compared to Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement address, and it is worth jumping into the chief offending passage:
In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to some of the experts, this is probably 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, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, 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 (σὺν λόγω) 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. The editor, Theodore 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 Hazm 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.
At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.
“An unavoidable dilemma” in the context of Islam is the understatement of our time! You may recall that Benedict’s call for Islam to embrace modernity rightly understood touched off riots in the Middle East, followed by a carefully worded non-apology apology from the Pope. (Good for him.) There’s much more in this amazing lecture, including some profound observations and arguments on post-Enlightenment rationality and science and how they should be regarded. Georgetown’s Father James Schall has the best book on Regensburg (pictured above), very much worth reading.