A Muslim’s Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture

ON SEPT. 12, 20?6, THE PONTIFF OF THE CATHOLIC Church of Christianity, Benedict XVI, delivered a lecture, “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” at the University of Regensburg in Germany.1

His lecture triggered a deep and painful rupture in Catholic-Muslim relations on the diplomatic, political, and, most intensely, popular fronts. The superficial media coverage of the lecture and the intensity of popular reactions to that coverage largely prevented clear-headed considerations and critiques of its content. This article strives to conduct a thorough study of the lecture.

In a cruel world of wars and strife, it is extremely important that all religious leaders speak and act responsibly. The gravity of responsibility is directly correlated with the importance of the religious office from which one speaks. All sorts of university professors say all sorts of unpleasant things about Islam and Muslims. They are often simply, and rightly, ignored.

It is one thing to consider the Regensburg lecture as that of Joseph Ratzinger qua Benedict XVI, pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church and world leader of all Catholics. It is another to consider it as that of Joseph Ratzinger qua German professor of theology. The nostalgic tone of the lecture’s opening passages and the reference to lectures of the 1950s make it clear that Ratzinger is, to some extent, speaking as German theology professor. However, having been “created anew” as Pope Benedict XVI, and noting the ecclesiastical garb in which he gave the lecture, it is only natural that, despite the charming nostalgia, receivers of the lecture cannot simply suspend Ratzinger’s ecclesiastical role. This is why the lecture cannot be ignored and must be engaged at all levels.

It is also important for Muslims, in the spirit of fairness dear to Islam, to appreciate and support whatever is positive in the lecture. One such aspect is the discourse – unfortunately relegated to the end – on the importance of deepening and widening the notion of Western reason to include and accommodate the contribution that revelatory religiosity can make. The anti-positivist critique of common Western university understandings of reason can be readily appreciated and accepted by many Muslims. Such a critique is not original in that it follows from the anti-positivist developments of the philosophy of science, since at least Karl Popper and his students wrote their important works. Nevertheless, the use of such anti-positivist discourse for making way for revelatory discourse is fruitful for all.

There is no doubt that Benedict is very much interested in Islam and that he takes it very seriously. However, the study materials and sessions he engages with seem to be very particular and narrow. Being a Catholic scholar who respects specialization, Benedict seems to rely heavily on the works of Catholic Orientalists, some of whom are not particularly sympathetic to Islam.

Late last year, Benedict devoted his annual retreat with former doctoral students to the study of the concept of God in Islam. The topic and content of the retreat is of direct relevance to his Regensburg lecture.

It would have been helpful for Benedict to hear Muslim theologians discuss Islam’s concept of God. Instead, he invited his students to learn from two Catholic scholars specialized in Islamics and Christian-Muslim relations: German Jesuit Christian Troll and Egyptian Jesuit Samir Khalil Samir, both of whom tend to be deeply suspicious of “traditional Islam.” Troll is convinced that Islam must be reformed and is an active supporter of non-traditionalist “reformers.” Samir is less charitable toward Islam, be it traditional or “reformed,” and is often quite hostile. Samir, along with some other close advisers of Benedict, such as American Jesuit Joseph Fessio, takes an Islamophobic approach that may explain the direction of the Regensburg lecture.

Some of Benedict’s closest advisers on Islam believe that the religion is inherently violent and fear its expansion. Several Catholic and secular advisers who know better than to instill Islamophobia into the pontiff’s heart have generally been marginalized, retired or ignored. Some, such as Bishop Michael fitzgerald, have been moved to other respectable, but less central positions. The subsuming of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue under the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the continued deterioration of the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies, have created a situation in which Benedict is increasingly being advised on Islam by those least sympathetic to it.

Muslim scholars should strive to intellectually and theologically engage Benedict, and the Catholic pontiff should select his advisers more widely. He should be wary of narrow and prejudiced views, even if they are held by so-called experts of Islamic studies. He should also be careful of trusting the purely ethnic claims to expertise of some Arab Catholic scholars. Members of minorities within a larger culture are sometimes not expert on its full richness because they may be obsessed with feelings of persecution and fears of destruction.

On the other hand, there are Arab Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic, who can provide the pontiff with very good advice. Respected and fair figures such as Bishop Michel Sabah and Metropolitan Georege Khoder can offer Benedict a deep understanding of Islam and Muslims. There are also several non-Arab Catholic Orientalists who can be of great help, such as Maurice Bourmans, Michel Lagarde, Etienne Renault and Thomas Michel.

In times of war and strife, we tend to trust the views of those who make us fear a perceived enemy and mobilize our energies against it. It is thus dangerous that Benedict’s advisers on Islam say things like:

The West is once again under siege. Doubly so because in addition to terrorist attacks, there is a new form of conquest: immigration coupled with high fertility. Let us hope that, following the Holy Father’s courageous example in these troubled times, there can be a dialogue whose subject is the truth claims of Christianity and Islam.

Such views are mirror images of the beliefs of pseudoIslamic terrorists. It is essential that Muslims and nonMuslim, serious-and-fair scholars engage the pontiff in a scholarly and intellectual discussion of a kind he praises at the beginning of his lecture.

Once a semester, there was a dies academicas, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas . . . The experience, in other words, of the fact that despite our specializations, which at times makes it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason – this reality became a lived experience.

Benedict clearly appreciates the experience of universitas through the periodic encounter with the other. He clearly sees that specialization can lead to a dangerous narrowing that closes horizons of true communication. It is important to point out that just as there is a universitas based on our common humanity and reasonableness, there is a monotheistic universitas based on our common belief in the one true God.

Benedict then points out the importance of engaging radical skepticism in discussions about the reasonableness of faith. “Even in the face of such radical skepticism, it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context ofthe tradition ofthe Christian faitJi: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.”

Recognition of the importance of such discussion is the very foundation of the field of Islamic studies called Hm al-Kalam, or Muslim systematic theology. Many Kalam manuals start by establishing the validity of seeking out reasons in support of religious faith. In doing so, they open with extensive considerations of the position of the skeptics. All great Kalam scholars recognized that discussions and disputations with others can only be conducted on the basis of a shared human reasonableness that forms a kind of universitas scientiarum.

Kalam manuals are full of extensive reasoned discussions with Skeptics, Atheists, Naturalists, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Hindus, Aristotelians, Platonists and a host of other religions and philosophies.

It is unfortunate that Benedict’s appreciation of discussions based on universitas scientiarum does not seem to extend to Islam and Muslims. Although many Muslim scholars and institutions responded positively to the Catholic Church’s newfound openness to dialogue (as expressed in the documents ofVatican II), and worked hard in many dialogue settings, Benedict seems to think (in later parts of his lecture) that such reasonable discussion is only possible within a European/Christian/Hellenistic setting. This is historically and presently untrue and unfair.

After his fairly benign opening, Benedict suddenly conjures up a most troubling legacy.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part ofthe dialogue carried on – perhaps in 139 1 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.

It is not clear how Paleologus’ dialogue “reminded” Benedict of “all this.” I would like to believe that he was reminded ofthe value of reasoned discussion, based on common humanity, by the fact that a Christian and a Muslim were having one in the middle of a siege. Alas, I think a more likely reading is that Benedict was reminded of the presumed intimate relationship between Christian faith and reason by the fact that a Christian, faced with a violent Islam, still focused on the equation of his faith with reasonableness.

Benedict, starting with a “siege” setting, resurrects a scene from the siege of Constantinople, with all its associated symbolism.

It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur’an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between – as they were called – three “Laws” or “rules of life”: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point – itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason,” I found interesting and which can serve as the starting point for my reflections on this issue.
It is strange that Benedict selected a “marginal” point from an obscure medieval dialogue written at a particularly tense moment in history, as a “starting point” for his reflections on “faith and reason.” Many an alternative starting point could have helped him make his main points about faith and reason without using a disfigured straw-man Islam. The connection between the medieval dialogue and the main point of the lecture is so strained and distant, invoking the dialogue unnecessarily damages Christian -Muslim relations.

Then, of all the sections of the emperor’s book, the pontiff chooses to focus on the one concerning holy war, or jihad.

In the seventh conversation ((ProQuest:… denotes formulae omitted.) – controversy) 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 the experts, this is one of the surahs of the early period, when Muhammad 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.

It is interesting that Benedict, invoking the authority of anonymous “experts,” summarily dismisses the clear and still normative Qur’anic ruling, “There is no compulsion in religion,” by claiming that it was only upheld by the Prophet Muhammad in times of weakness.

Instead of cherishing this ruling and challenging Muslims today to live up to it, the pontiff dismisses an important Islamic resource for reasonableness by seeing it as a fake Islamic stance. This is most unfortunate. The no-compulsion verse has never been revoked and has always been binding.

At no point in history did Muslim jurists legally authorize forced conversions of people of other religions. The verse was foundational for Muslim tolerance toward Christians and Jews living among them. It is very dangerous for the pontiff to dismiss a Qur’anic verse that formed, and still forms, a juridical and historical guarantee of safety to Christians and Jews living among Muslims.

Furthermore, Benedict’s disheartening claim that the Prophet Muhammad changed Islam’s principles and juridical teachings depending on his weakness or strength, is an echo of prejudiced, unfair views that have surfaced many times in Christian and Western polemics against Islam.

Benedict goes further: “Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the ‘Book’ and the ‘infidels.’ ”

Again, he dismisses, in passing, yet another Islamic resource for tolerance toward Christians and Jews. Islam has always distinguished between “the People of the Book” (Christians and Jews), and pagans. The People of the Book living in Muslim communities were always granted the right to worship in peace largely based on this important distinction. It is very important to note that some of tJhe hateful discourses of recent pseudo-Islamic terrorists have worked hard to dilute the distinction between Christianity and Paganism (by calling Christians “Cross Worshippers”) to remove the juridical protection granted to Christians and Jews under Islamic law. Benedict seems to imply that such distinctions are minor and only obscure Islam’s purported intolerance.

He then quotes one ofthe most disturbing passages in the emperor’s discourse:

He addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Muhammad 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.”

This passage is what the media picked up and broadcast the most, and what most of the backlash was in reaction to.

Benedict, having invoked this piece of hate-literature from its historical dormancy, fails to distance himself from its author’s opinion. He uses such language as “brusqueness,” “leaves us astounded” and “expresses himself forcefully.” However, none of these expressions constitutes a negative judgment or rejection ofthe opinion. As a matter of fact, they may even be read as indicative of a subtle support of a supposed bravery that may be a bit reckless.

When one gratuitously invokes an obscure text that expresses hateful things, one has a moral obligation to explain why it was invoked, and a further obligation to respond to it and to dismiss the hate expressed in it. Otherwise, it is reasonable to assume that the person invoking the text shares the views expressed in it.

To later claim there was no hurtful intent and that Muslims simply did not understand the text, adds insult to injury. This is why Benedict’s quasi-apology was not considered adequate by many Muslims. All the Vatican’s statements to date, including Benedict’s address, express regret that Muslims supposedly misunderstood the pontiff’s lecture and reacted badly.

Such an approach, instead of meekly and humbly admitting the hurt one has caused, blames those hurt for taking die insult the wrong way. Many devout Catholics have, unfortunately, seen Muslim rejections of the quasi-apology and emotional reactions to the words about their Prophet as indicative of Benedict’s correct and heroic stance.

Benedict goes on:

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 ((ProQuest:… denotes formulae omitted.)) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born ofthe 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.”
Interestingly, if one consults a reliable, classical Qur’anic exegesis book (tafsir) for an explanation of the verse, “There is no compulsion in religion,” one would find explanations similar to the emperor’s point about the heart or soul being the abode of faith. All Muslim theological treatises have a section on faith (iman). There is unanimity among Muslim theologians that faith resides in the heart or soul and that no physical compulsion can affect it.

It is interesting to note that Benedict was for many years the Catholic Church’s Prefect ofthe Faith, a distant modern version ofthe Inquisition, which seldom respected the sanctity of the human heart in matters of faith. Tragically, for Muslims and Jews, especially in Spain, the Church used physical torture to convert them to Christianity. The Inquisition never heeded such advice as that ofthe emperor: “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.” We could all learn from this advice.

It is Qur’anically normative for Muslims to call to the path of God through wisdom, wholesome advice and proper discussion. There is no Islamic sanction for torturing people into conversion. Indonesia and Malaysia have more Muslims than all Arab countries combined. No Muslim army ever entered diese lands. How, then, did Islam spread there?

It will be dishonest, however, to claim that no Muslim army ever conquered any land. Yet Muslim conquests seldom translated into forced conversions. The evidence is clear: Muslim dominated lands still have Christian minorities. How many Muslims or Jews were left in Spain after the Catholic King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella reconquered it?

Interestingly, Muslims, as immigrants, re-entered Europe under the multicultural policies of secularism. Would that have been possible if the Catholic Church had its way? Benedict is famous for rejecting Turkey’s plea to enter the Europe Union for lack of the right religious and cultural credentials.

In some past Vatican statements, Muslims were called upon to forget the past (when it comes to the Inquisition or the Crusades). In Islam, acknowledgment and regret are necessary pre-conditions of true repentance and forgiveness. Benedict, by self-righteously invoking the hurtful accusations of a long-dead emperor, is astonishingly oblivious to the use of torture, cruelty and violence in the history of the Catholic Church, not only against Muslims, but also against Jews and even fellow Christians.

The violence inflicted or supported by the Catholic Church extended to modern times through support of European colonial conquests. Missionaries, especially Jesuits, went with colonialists to the Americas, Africa and Asia. As late as the 1930s in Libya, Italian fascist armies and death squads were blessed by local Catholic authorities in the Cathedral’s square before hunting resistance fighters. The Ethiopian soldiers who were force-marched in the front of the Italian army bore large red crosses on their chests as the knights of St. John did when they slaughtered Tripoli’s inhabitants in the 1500s.

The image of a non-violent, Hellenistically “reasonable” Christianity contrasted with a violent unreasonable Islam is foundational for Benedict’s lecture. This self-righteous image is oblivious to many painful historical facts. It is important that we all begin to see the poles in our own eyes, rather than focus on the specks in the eyes of our brethren.

Benedict continues:

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 practice idolatry.

Benedict’s “decisive statement” – “Not to act in accordance to reason is contrary to God’s nature” – is very complex and is open to many interpretations and discussions. What is amazing is the ease with which it is used to make up what amounts to a deeply disturbing, false contrast between a peace-loving, reasonable Christianity and a violent-loving, unreasonable Islam.

Such a contrast is a famous one taken from the so-called contrast tables- -which put Christianity at the top of one column and Islam at the top of the other. One then fills the table with such polarities as: Love/Law, Peace/Violence, Freeing/ Enslaving, Women-liberating/ Women-oppressing and so on.

They are related to the tables the Athenians, Romans and even German Idealists (who influence the Bavarian pontiff) often developed to contrast the “civilized” with the “barbarian,” the “European” with the “non-European.”

Unfortunately, such tables never work. They are grossly over-simplified and create contrasts at a great cost to truth and fairness. In Islam, just as in Christianity, it is not human calculative reason that is salvific, but rather the free, underserved grace rahma) of God, one of which is the gift of reason.

Reason as a gift from God can never be above God. That is Ibn Hazm’s whole point, which was paraphrased in such a mutilated way by Benedict’s learned sources. Ibn Hazm, like the Asha’rite theologians with whom he often contended, insisted upon God’s absolute freedom to act. However, he recognized, like most other Muslim theologians, that God chooses freely, in His compassion toward His creatures, to self-consistently act reasonably so we can use our reason to align ourselves with His guidance and directive.

Ibn Hazm, like most other Muslim theologians, held that God is not externally bound by anything, including reason. However, at no point does Ibn Hazm claim that God does not freely commit Himself and honors such commitments. Such divine, free self-committing is Qur’anically propounded, Kataba rabukum ala nafsihi al-Rahma. (“Your Lord has committed Himself to compassion.”) Reason need not be above God and externally normative to Him. It can be a grace of God that is normative because of God’s own free commitment to acting consistently with it.

A person who believes the last proposition need not be irrational or unreasonable, with an irrational or whimsical God. The contrast between Christianity and Islam on this basis is questionable.

Although the pontiff strives to convince a secular university that theology has a place in that reason-based setting, he should not go so far as to make God subject to an externally binding reason. Most major Christian theologians, even the reason-loving Aquinas, never put reason above God.

When Muslim theologians make a similar move, they should not be accused of irrationality or unreasonableness. Such misunderstanding is the direct result of simplistic contrast tables of which scholars like Khoury are apparently fond.

Benedict goes on:

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?

Benedict’s way of phrasing this issue is again open to interpretation. Talk of the “nature” of God is itself problematic, as is talk of reasonableness and unreasonableness. What is this reason we are talking about? Is it a human faculty of understanding? If so, what kind of understanding? Is it cognitive? Emotive? Spiritual? Or is reason some sort of an ontologically primary agent or emanation, as the Neo-Platonists taught? Such questions need deeper reflections.

The ambiguity of “reason” allows for the amazing leap of unifying the Greek and the Christian by appealing to the very Hellenistic prologue to the Gospel of John.
Here we come close to getting a definition of what Benedict means: “a reason which is creative and capable of selfcommunication.” This is indeed close to what John speaks of. However, this is not the same as the reason of the Greek philosophers. For them, reason was associated with pure contemplation or theoria, rather than creative activity or poesis reason was about self-communication.

Therefore, the great unifying vision of Benedict, which brings together the Greek with the Christian, is a move made possible through the ambiguities of such rich and loaded words as logos or reason. Of course such moves have often been practiced in the past within the theological, exegetical and spiritual traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

A great deal of medieval discourse depends on this kind of ambiguity-fueled leaping. It is strange that this medieval leaping tactic is used to bridge the gap between the cool rationalistic reason of the German University and the logos of the Catholic Church. Benedict then makes an astoundingly Hegelian statement:

John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis.

Benedict makes the Hegelian claim that biblical faith took a “toilsome” and “tortuous” path to culminate in this Johannine synthesis. I leave it to Christian theologians to comment on this claim. In light of the cumulative findings of historicalcritical researches into the Bible, it is strange that it is still possible to make such critically debatable statements about a biblical faith that is supposedly going to culminate in a GrecoChristian synthesis.

I am sure Jewish scholars will also find difficulties with the implicit claim that Torah threads of faith are “toilsome” and “tortuous,” and that John was needed to make it all culminate into a true and final biblical faith. Although Hegelian synthesis and culmination sounds wonderfully exciting to the one with the culmination results, it is sure to bother those being culminated!

Then, again, the argument leaps into Hegelian speculation, but this time introduces a dangerously “European” claim to Christianity:

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of St. Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream, saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10) – this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

The Asia versus Macedonia contrast is used to justify the strange claim that there is an “intrinsic necessity” of rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.

Thus in Europe and not in Asia, and with European reason and not with Asiatic reason, does Christianity unite with “Greek inquiry.” This Hegelian talk suffers from the same Eurocentric tendency of much of Germanic idealist philosophy. This tendency is very dangerous for it demotes versions of Christianity that manifest themselves in non-Greek and non-European milieus (for example, South American, African and Asian theologies).

It also makes a claim to reason in general, and to Greek reason in particular, and appropriates it to make it purely Christian. Thus the historical facts of even clear, let alone partial, Jewish-Hellenistic syntheses (as in Philo of Alexandria), and Muslim-Hellenistic syntheses (as in Al-Farabi, Ikhwan al-Safa, Ibn Sina) are simply denied as impossible. Only the Christian is united with the Greek in a Johannine Hegelian European culmination.
Muslims, like Christians and Jews before and after them, worked out many profound philosophical and theological systems to harmonize the claims of human reasoning and the truths of divine revelation. Theologians of the Mu’tazili, Asha’ri, Maturidi, Ithna Ashri, Isma’ili, Ibadi and even Hanbali schools all strived to articulate their faith as reasonably as possible. Even introductory texts of Islamic philosophy and theology make this clear. The intricate dialectical and logical works of Abdul Jabbar, Asha’ri, Baqillani, Juwayni, Ghazali, Razi, Maturidi, Nasafi, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sabain among others are testaments to the Muslim interest in reason and reasonableness when it comes to articulating matters of faith. Even the most conservative of Hanbalites, Ibn Taymmiyya, wrote important works on non-Aristotelian logics and has anti-Aristotelian arguments akin to those of Sextus Empiricus.

Benedict, in the closing section of a long passage that would fit very nicely as a preface to Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion or Philosophy of History, claims:

A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos”’ is contrary to God’s nature.

The Septuagint is, thus, accorded a primacy that I am sure will sound strange to many Christian ears. The synthesis of biblical faith and Greek reason is simply accorded ultimate value as the culmination of a process through which all other ways of religiosity are relegated to things subsumed and superseded.

Yet Benedict, being a scholar of medieval theology, knows he cannot deny certain facts:

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages, we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism, which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which He could have done the opposite of everything He has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind His actual decisions.

This passage, while serving its author’s ultimate goal of undermining the theologies mentioned in it, at least indicates that Benedict is somewhat aware that other possible theologies exist, and that Muslim theologians were not alone in caring about the affirmation of God’s sovereignty against human pretensions to govern Him with human criteria.

Unfortunately, he goes on to undermine such theologies as not being the true “faith of the Church.” In a follow-on passage, Benedict affirms a love that transcends knowledge, but he then re-interprets that affirmation by claiming it is logos that loves. Thus, he synthesizes logos and reason. It turns out to be reason that actually loves.

Then, in clear and unambiguous terms, we see the actual foundational claim of Benedict, and the ultimate reason for his troubles with Islam:

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 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.

He clearly claims that Europe is the only place where Christianity and reason culminated in a great synthesis that is European civilization. Europe is Christian-Greek and rational, and Christianity is European-Greek and rational. If Europe-Christianity is to be kept pure, all non-European and non-Christian elements must be kept out. This is why Islam and Muslims have no place in this great Hegelian synthesis. This alarming set of neo-colonial ideas supports the thesis of the barbarous (non-Greek) and non-European nature of Islam. According to this kind of thinking, Islam is “Asiatic,” “non-rational” and “violent.” It has no place in “Greek,” “rational” and “reasonable” Europe.

Now that Benedict has reached his thesis of the synthesis of the Greek and the Christian into a single logos, he proceeds to undermine all attempts to deny this synthesis. He criticizes three phases of what he calls “dehellenization.”

The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity – a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the program of dehellenization: although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.

It is better to leave it to Christian theologians to comment on how fair and accurate Benedict’s assessment is of the Christian tradition. However, it seems astonishing that he seems to sweep all of the reformers’ efforts as a dehellenization that undermines the true synthesis he earlier celebrated.

Benedict then blames theologian Von Harnack for the second dehellenization, which strikes me as strange. Following Karl Barth, I believe that Von Harnack was instead Hellenizing. He may even be seen as reducing theology to a kind of Aristotelian phronesis.

Benedict’s the third and last type of dehellenization is worthy of more attention.

Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary enculturation, which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that enculturation, in order to enculturate it anew in their own particular milieu. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. 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.

For a Church that is international, the pontiff is going out of his way to alienate all who are not into Greek-European culture. He is claiming that such Greek and European elements are fundamental to Christian faith. I find the whole claim dangerously arrogant and believe that this lecture should alarm Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.

This alarm is extenuated by the fact that the position is not that of just a professor or a theologian, but of a Roman Catholic pontiff who leads millions of people. It is, therefore, urgent and vital that Muslim, Christian, Jewish and secular scholars engage the pontiff and challenge his views not only on Islam, but also on what it means to be a reasonable human being and what it means to be European.

  • Most Viewed This Week on TIM

  • Latest comments on TIM

  • About the autor

    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

    Latest at tim

    See our Current issue

    Join our Newsletter

    Enter your e-mail address below to receive periodic updates from The Islamic Monthly.

  • Follow us on


    Comments are closed