Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pope Benedict's Harvest of Trouble

As so often, this weeks's lectionary chimes uncannily with the news headlines. In the third chapter of his letter, the author of the Epistle of James writes: 'The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.'[1]

Sadly, Pope Benedict has found himself sowing a harvest of trouble for himself, and for other Roman Catholics, because he did not pay enough attention to the need to be seen to avoid partiality and hypocrisy, while showing mercy and gentleness in our assessment of others.

In so far as it correctly represents his remarks, I believe the English translation of his recent controversial speech reveals three ways in which the Pope failed to heed the advice of James.

(1) He critiqued Islam for being, by implication, less influenced by philosophy
and reason than Christianity. In so doing he over-stated his case to a considerable degree. Some branches of Islam have not been influenced by philosophy and reason, but philosophy and reason scarcely influence some branches of the Christian faith too. Pope Benedict cited the very close linkage between Greek culture and the Bible as proof that Christianity is a 'reasonable' faith, but overlooked the close interest which Muslim scholars took in Greek philosophy during the so-called Dark Ages, when European Christians were scarcely aware of its existence.

(2) He asserted that Christianity - because of its reasonableness - has always been opposed to forcible conversions, whereas Islam - because of its greater reliance on the concept of direct revelation and its willingness to assert that God is not bound by logic or reason, (again, a gross over-simplification) - is more liable to allow that a God of peace and justice could, at the same time, sanction mission by conquest.

However, this is no more fair than his critique of Islam for being unphilosophical. Muslims certainly have advanced their faith by conquest but they are still playing catch-up when compared to Christians. The Roman Catholic Church in particular has a very poor record when it comes to forcible conversions, and threatening people with death if they didn't believe the right thing, though Protestants don't have clean hands either. Furthermore, Muslims have a better record of peaceful coexistence with the followers of other faiths.

(3) Pope Benedict quoted a passage from the dialogue between a Christian emperor and a Muslim theologian in which the emperor asserted that - in so far as the Prophet Muhammad was responsible for anything new - it had been evil and inhumane. Although the Pope was careful to say that he was only quoting a very ancient text, why did he quote it at all? It certainly wasn't germane to his argument. I think it was an inflammatory thing to do given the Pope's status as the primary spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church. He must expect his words to be scrutinised.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was asked about the Pope's lecture on BBC Radio 4 and said, very wisely, that we must listen patiently to one another's stories. Christians must listen to the Muslim story of how Islam came to be, and Muslims must be prepared to listen to our story. He also said that, in appropriate circumstances, we must give one another permission to challenge these stories and be big enough to cope with the hurt that might cause - but a publicly reported lecture was perhaps not an appropriate occasion to do.
[1] James 3.17-18