Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Papal Fallibility

The Pope sure stepped in it this time, didn't he? One offhand remark about the Prophet Muhammad preaching "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached," and the whole world goes apeshit.

But let's give this thing a little context. Last Tuesday, Pope Benedict stopped by his old teaching gig at the University of Regensburg for a bit of discourse with the science faculties. In an erudite, if somewhat opaque address, the Pontiff called for re-integration of theological questions into the realm of rational inquiry. He suggested that the natural sciences necessarily give rise to questions beyond the scope of their methodology, and that only through such a synthesis can we achieve “that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”

The beginning of the speech more or less tracked Toastmasters International Opening 2A: pleasantries about the venue, followed by a personal reminiscence, followed by a joke foreshadowing the thesis, followed by a statement of the thesis. (Yes, the Pope did tell a joke of sorts, relating a colleague's quip that the University of Bonn, with its two theology divisions, possessed two entire faculties devoted to something that did not even exist.)

The trouble started when the Pope moved into Toastmaster's Transition 3C: "I was reminded of all this recently, when I read..." 3C of course requires a quotation, and the one Benedict chose came from that well-known personality, Manuel II Paleologos, Byzantine emperor from 1391 to 1425. Manuel's point, essentially, was that religious conversion by violence is irrational because "faith is born of the soul, not the body." The Pope used Manuel's statement about Muhammad as a launching point for an examination of the historical relationship between rational inquiry and religious faith. His address never returned to the subject of Islam, nor to the question of enforced conversion.

I think we need to chalk this one up to the "everyone's an idiot" category. On the one side, you have Benedict who, needing a quotation on the theme of rational spirituality, chose one that not only denigrates the central figure and entire belief system of a 1.4 billion-member religion, but trots out the most problematic stereotype plaguing its adherents today. On the other side, you have a Simpsons-like raging horde of reactionaries, setting the world on fire over a mistaken belief that the Pope had endorsed Manuel's viewpoint.

Did any of the people currently setting churches on fire, shooting nuns, recalling ambassadors, et cetera, actually bother to read the Pope's speech? It's right there, in four languages, on the Vatican website. I only ask because I don't find the following conversation very likely:

--Aaaaaa! To the streets my brother, to the streets! The Pope has quoted, in passing, an obscure 14th century slight on the Prophet.


--It is true. He employed it to illustrate the confluence of Greek rationalism and the Judeo-Christian understanding of God in the final years of the Byzantine empire.

--How dare he! But please, tell me he did not suggest that the vision of St. Paul could be interpreted as a distillation of the intrinsic necessity of rapprochement between these two?

--He did, oh, but he did! And not only that, but he suggested that the uniqueness of the Tetragrammaton presents a challenge closely analagous to Socrates' attempted transcendence of the mythological!

--My blood boils! How could he fail to overlook the trend toward voluntarism in late medieval theology? Surely that must sunder this supposed synthesis!

--He addressed that, the dog, but he then traced in detail the history, from the Reformation to the present, of the call for dehellenization of Christianity!

--And I'll just bet he put a particular emphasis on the late nineteenth century?

--And cited von Harnack as the "outstanding representative" of that period!


--And just what do you think he defined as the modern concept of reason?

--If he said it is a synthesis between Platonism/Cartesianism and empiricism, one which presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, I will personally torch a basilica!

--He did.

--Enough! Bring me my placard of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, some matches, and the life-size model of the Pope I keep on hand for just such a circumstance as this. The Pontiff shall pay for this outrage!

Point being: everyone's in the wrong here. So let's let the Pope say he's sorry for selecting about the worst page imaginable from Bartlett's, let's let "the Muslim street" apologize for reflexively kirking out, and can we all please just simmer down? Jeez.

1 comment:

  1. Four languages, none of them Arabic. Hmmm.
    Or pirate.


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