Benedict XVI denounces the absence of “reason” among the Moslems

The speech given by Pope Benedict XVI on September 12 at the University of Ratisbon (Regensburg) has caused quite a fuss, but how many of those who have commented on it have read it in its original German version and in its entirety? One may well fear that the partial translations readers have been able to consult in the French press will not enable them to form an exact idea of it; as for the translation, said to be complete, that Le Monde made available on the Internet, the first words and some brief fragments elsewhere in the speech are missing.

Pronounced in German, the speech bears the title Faith, Reason and the University – Memories and Reflections. It can be found on the Vatican’s website under copyright of the Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Taking the podium in the great lecture hall (Aula Magna) of the University in question, the Pope spoke to a select audience. His first words were “Your Eminences, Your Magnificences, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen”; among those “Magnificences” was the University’s chancellor. The orator, addressing himself to a gathering made up for the most part of academics and scientists, dotted his talk throughout with Greek and Latin phrases. The substance and tone of his statements were those of a theology professor inclined to pedantry and, at times, obscure. An examination of the vocabulary allows one to make some surprising observations. The first of these is the frequency with which a certain word came to this theologian, who made a vibrant defence of it: the word “reason” (Vernunft), repeated about forty times in a text of six pages! The second is the frequency with which this representative of a religion said to be universal employed words that give the impression that Greece, Rome and Europe are the centre of the world: all by themselves, the words evoking Greek, Hellenic or Socratic thought appeared about thirty times! The speaker’s guiding idea was that the Roman Catholic religion is the only one where faith and reason are ideally joined: “biblical faith” (the Jewish Old Testament and the New Testament) and “Greek questioning”. It is, according to him, to Greece that this religion is indebted for having brought it the so precious asset of the “logos” (reason). Such a heritage of biblical and Greek riches, such a treasure of faith and reason united are to be preserved in the face of all the heresies or reformist, modernist, scientistic or irrational driftings that the Roman Catholic Church may have experienced in the past and by which it is threatened today.

But, in contrast, the Moslem religion is, for its part, described as being deprived of a whole important segment of that treasure, for it lacks “reason”, also called the “logos”.

An attack on the Moslem religion, addressed to a Persian

In the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs of his speech, the Pope plainly lays his cards on the table. He cites an “erudite Byzantine emperor” of the Christian faith, Manuel II Paleologus, who, towards the end of the 14th century, in a controversy with an “educated Persian” of the Moslem faith, apparently demonstrated the superiority of his religion to that of his interlocutor, for in the Christians’ conception of God there is room for reason whereas with Mohammed there is no reason. Here, in their entirety, are those two introductory paragraphs:

I was reminded of all this [concerning the University where I used to teach] recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 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 [religions]. 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 [sic: the German text has fasziniert (fascinate), a decidedly stronger word] and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις – [dialexis] controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war [Jihad]. The emperor must have known that sura 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to the experts, this is 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” [Jews and Christians] and the “infidels”, 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 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 (σuν λόγω [syn logo, with reason]) 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…”.

A confirmed and insistent attack

Supposing that this controversy did indeed take place and that the learned Persian really existed, it is easy to imagine what the latter might have retorted to the Emperor on the subject, for example, of the Crusades and the Inquisition as far as the propagation of faith by violence was concerned. In this respect it is surprising that Benedict XVI, wondering about “Faith and Reason”, should not have made the least allusion in all his talk to certain dark pages of Christian or papal history. He declares himself to be “fascinated” by the Christian Emperor’s reflections on the Jihad, a word understood here in its sense of “holy war”. He is so “fascinated” that he has decided to choose this imperial and Christian reflection as the starting point of his talk. Thus for him this is not a matter of a mere detail or a remark made by the way. When he specifies that the Emperor “addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded”, he is not voicing any reservation on the merits of the ideas but rather slipping in a comment on the form, that is, on the harsh frankness of the time. Manuel II’s words “fascinate” him to such an extent that, in the whole of his speech, he names the Emperor (der Kaiser) ten times, including a first mention in his introduction and a final one in his conclusion. In the paragraph following the two paragraphs reproduced above, he declares:

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.

By way of contrast, the Pope names a Moslem author, Ibn Hazm, for whom the divine absolute is such that God could, if he wished, do without reason altogether, even choose not to be bound by his own word and so refrain from revealing the truth to us. Then the Pope returns to that Kaiser, so close to his heart, and quotes him anew on the subject of God who, according to the Christian conception, “acts σuν λόγω [syn logo], with logosLogos means both reason and word.” In the sixth paragraph, he again attacks Ibn Hazm and the latter’s conception of a God whose “transcendence and otherness are so exalted”. At the very end of his speech, it is in the following terms that he brings up the Emperor one last time:

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

An attack arising from obscure motives

Thus the Pope wishes to see a “dialogue of cultures”, including the Islamic culture, but, as may be seen, he does so under the invocation, in a way, of a Christian Emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, for whom the religion of Mohammed is nonsensical. Besides, that dialogue is apparently to be held on a plane of faith and reason but in line with the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of these. The Pope gives an impression here of speaking with the authority of the inviting power. To finish, that day in Ratisbon he called on the university, the scientists and professors to collaborate with him in promoting a narrowly defined type of “dialogue of cultures”.

Emperor Manuel II, in the late 14th century, addressed that kind of message, in a brusque tone, to a Persian of the Moslem faith. Pope Benedict XVI, for his part, at the dawn of the 21st century, has addressed, in a different tone, the same message to the whole world but not without targeting in particular the Moslem world and, perhaps, even more particularly, the Persia or Iran of today.

One may wonder what motives and which counsellors were able to push him to develop such a lecture to the attention of the whole world before a German university. Did he seriously think that the Moslem world would accept to hear and receive his lesson without making vigorous protests?

A part of the Moslem world has reacted with fury, thus giving the impression of religious fanaticism. At their end, the attitude of many Westerners has betrayed consternation or embarrassment. On the other hand, a fair number of Jews have been unable to hide their satisfaction before going to the aid of the Pope upon seeing the Moslem authorities and crowds vilify him. Up to this time Benedict XVI had never ceased, with a thoroughly German submission, making reassuring gestures towards the Jews but, going about it rather awkwardly, he had displeased them. In particular, during his visit to Auschwitz, he thought he would be doing his duty to Jewish memory properly by laying the blame for “the crime” of the Shoah on a “group of criminals”; he was mistaken: the Jews did not see things that way, since for them it is the German people in their entirety who must have the mark of Cain branded on them. In short, this Pope seems given to making statements which subsequently oblige him, first, to deplore the fact that his intentions have been incorrectly grasped, then second, to voice regrets for the “misunderstandings” thus created. That said, one very moderate reaction to his speech and to the showings of anger that ensued is worth noting: that of a Persian, an Iranian, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is that of a particularly subtle mind that the Western media like to describe as fanatical. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recommended coolness and calm to all concerned.

One possible explanation

Personally, I have sought above all to know exactly what the Pope said in his Ratisbon address. Having read the text, my general conclusion is that he was indulging in a sort of open lecture on theology, philosophy and morality aimed mainly at the world’s Moslems. Therefore I think that the media are right when, in their severe summings-up of the Pope’s statements, they stress the sentence where Manuel II Paleologus attacked the religion of Mohammed in a frank and brusque manner: “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.” But, as for knowing why the Pope attacked the Moslem religion in this way, I note that the commentators I have had occasion to read or hear have either not asked themselves the question or have failed to provide a clear answer. Calling Benedict XVI a “blunderer” hardly helps us understand why it was that this specific “blunder” and not some other was committed.

Perhaps his ill-advised assault on the Moslem religion came from the old man’s anguish at noting in Europe, the cradle of Christianity, the collapse of Christian observance and the rise of Moslem observance. It may be that he fears for a future where he sees that conflict of civilisations, cultures and religions of which certain people speak these days, and so imagines that the main danger comes from the poor of the East rather than from an exceedingly heavily armed West and the colonial Jewish State established in Palestine. He might finally harbour a weakness for political conservatism, even neo-conservatism of the Jewish-American fashion. Nothing of all this can be ruled out but perhaps also – and this will be my own hypothesis – the cause is to be sought in a distant past when the young German Josef Ratzinger wore, unwillingly, he tells us, the uniform of the Hitler Youth. For more than sixty years, burnt by that tunic of Nessos, he has felt, like any German, overwhelmed by the mortal sin that his country, it is alleged, committed, that of the alleged genocide of the Jews. His predecessors John XXIII, Paul VI and especially John Paul II piled up all possible forms of allegiance to the Jews, even the most preposterous. John Paul II went so far as to make of Auschwitz a new Calvary. At the Jews’ request he chased the Catholic nuns out of the new Calvary and had the Christian crosses removed. He canonised Edith Stein and, for the occasion, dared to state in his homily that the saint had met her death in a “gas chamber”. It is in this atmosphere of penitence and of sickly repentance that J. Ratzinger has himself laboured at the Vatican in the shadow of his predecessors. Elected Pope in his turn, he was not about to break with precedent. On the contrary, now that the whole world was to know of his past membership in the diabolical Hitler Youth organisation, he had imperatively to carry still further his allegiance to the people describing itself as the whole world’s martyr par excellence. Benedict XVI is among those who “pray for peace in the Middle East” but who do so whilst placing the Jewish coloniser and the colonised Palestinian, whether Moslem or Christian, on the same level. In his eyes, the Jewish Army and the Jewish State do not appear to bear any particular responsibility in the catastrophic situation in the Near and Middle East. Thus there remain those fanaticised Moslems, impervious to reason, to the “logos” of the Greeks, Europe and the West, and they are that way in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon as well as in a lot of other Islamic countries and, perhaps especially, in Iran. As he sees it, the right thing to do is to bring these poor people to reason.

It is perhaps here that the German Pope’s bottom purpose lies: to ingratiate himself with the Jews by denouncing Moslem fanaticism. But J. Ratzinger went about it too naïvely, too clumsily. Overbidding did not pay off and the venture failed. Today some Jewish intellectuals are going so far as to find fault with him for it. Tomorrow, when he has to calm the storm, he will explain to us that he did not say… what he, nonetheless, did actually say.

Additional note on Benedict XVI and the Old Testament

If there exists a work in which calls often arise for hatred, vengeance and the physical extermination of entire peoples (men, women, children, including the aged and the infants, not to mention herds of livestock), it is indeed the Bible of the Jews, that Old Testament mentioned eulogistically by Benedict XVI. According to Isaiah (13, 15-16, 18), Babylon shall be punished: “Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished… [The Jews] shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb”. According to Hosea (13, 16), “Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up”. According to Nahum (3, 6, 10), “I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make thee vile, and will set thee as a gazingstock. […] Yet was she [Nineva] carried away, she went into captivity: her young children also were dashed in pieces at the top of all the streets”. According to Psalm 137, David, addressing the land of Edom, declares: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” According to the First Book of Samuel (18, 25, 27), King Saul will give David the hand of his daughter Michal on condition that David bring him “a hundred foreskins of the Philistines [Palestinians], to be avenged of the king’s enemies”; David and his men “slew of the Philistines [Palestinians] two hundred men; and David brought their foreskins, and they gave them in full tale [tally] to the king.” As for the Book of Esther, it relates the “joy and gladness” felt by the Jews in exacting revenge. Thanks to the intrigues of Esther and Mordecai in the court of Ahasuerus (Xerxes), King of the Persians (Iranians), Haman is hanged and all his property conveyed to Esther, who puts Mordecai in charge thereof; Mordecai subsequently takes Haman’s place “next unto king Ahasuerus”. Then Esther and Mordecai also obtain permission for the Jews to slaughter all their enemies: “And in every province, and in every city, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a good day. And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them [like the hood upon the head of a man sentenced to hang]” (8, 17). These are the days of Purim, plural of Pur, “that is, the lot [cast]” (Esther 9, 24), signifying “destiny”. The ten sons of Haman are in turn hanged as well. The Jews kill at least 75,300 Persians. And so it is that, still in the 21st century, every year the Jews, exchanging gifts, joyously celebrate Purim. One could go on citing quite a few other pages of the Bible where an invitation to murder or mass slaughter is expressed. As for the Talmud, it evokes a Jesus Christ condemned forever to boil in excrement. On this last point one may consult Der Babylonische Talmud [Gittin, V, VI, Fol. 57], Lazarus Goldschmidt, Jüdischer Verlag, Berlin 1932, p. 368, where the expression is: “mit siedendem Kote”. One may also refer to The Babylonian Talmud [Seder NashimGittin, Fol. 57] under the editorship of Rabbi Dr I. Epstein, The Soncino Press, London 1936, p. 260-261, where the expression employed is “with boiling hot excrement”. The cult of violence in Jewish religious tradition and practice has been the subject of numerous publications by Jewish and non-Jewish authors. One of the latest to address it is Elliot Horowitz in his book entitled Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton University Press, May 2006, 344 p.). Some Jews are uneasy at seeing “the people of the Book” ritually celebrate those orgies of vengeance as they do.

It is with this “people of the Book” that the Palestinians currently have to deal. It would be good to hear the Pope, now so preoccupied with Moslem violence, speak on that score.

September 23, 2006