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

4 comments:

Richard said...

I feel no need to defend the Pope but felt I had to comment on your response to the Regensburg address. His choice of illustration seems both clumsy and possibly mischievous and therefore ill advised. At a guess I would say he was trying to provoke debate.

However I could find nowhere in the address where, as you say, 'He critiqued Islam'. He quoted a source that critiqued Islam and then commented that the Emperor had "expressed himself so forcefully" and spoken with "a startling brusqueness". There was no comment about Islam from Benedict himself, except for the paragraph that says,
"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 Hazn 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."
I don't know whether that is true or not.
You then go on to comment:
'(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.'

But he didn't assert anything! He may possibly have inferred, but there is no assertion contained in the text.

The real story that comes out of this is how on earth do we possibly have a debate with a group that continually wants to engage only on its own terms.

Methodist Bishop said...

Perhaps I over-stated my case slightly in choosing the word 'assert'. I accept that the Pope's argument is implicit rather than explicit. I think the key illustration I would refer to - which you did pick up on in part - is the following contrast between Byzantine Christianity, which the Pope goes on to endorse, and Islam:

"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."

What the Pope does here is to set up an Aunt Sally. He argues - if 'asserts' is putting it too strongly - that Islam is essentially irrational whereas Christianity is essentially rational. But that is simply not a fair contrast.

Richard said...

Thanks for your reply to my comment and the acceptance that you had perhaps over stated your case. I think I decided to comment as I was struggling to understand why so many thoughtful and caring people felt it necessary to condemn the Pope's comments without a thorough reading of the text of his speech. I was then further mystified as to why many Western commentators (the Guardian is perhaps a good example) chose to completely ignore the fanatical and violent reactions in many Muslim counties as though that was just to be expected and therefore OK

Methodist Bishop said...

I had read the Pope's speech thoroughly. Perhaps I just expect a little more of him than some other commentators do. But I agree that some of the reactions in the Muslim world - murder and mayhem, the burning of effigies, etc., are totally unacceptable responses. There has not been much sign of a vehement reaction among my colleagues in Darnall, though. They are just getting on with the observation of Ramadan.