Monday, September 18, 2006

"German Intellectual meets soundbite media"


Picture:Constantinople before the Fall of 1453

The title of this post is a quote made by National Catholic Reporter's John Allen to NPR last Saturday. Allen is the foremost Vaticanisti from the U.S. His weekly column, recently renamed All Things Catholic (it was formerly known as Word from Rome) is well worth reading. Allen is Vatican expert for NPR, CNN, and other mainstream media outlets. He is a balanced and knowledgeable voice on Church affairs. Since one quote from a half-hour lecture at Regensburg has sparked such an outcry, it must be commented on. Since it has been commented on so much, there is no need for me write a lot, except that my opinion is that it is much ado about nothing and I think Allen's succinct quote sums up the l'affaire Paleologus very well.

In the context of lecture, the quote makes sense and does not comprise the message that Benedict was trying to communicate. Here's what Allen writes: "For example, any PR consultant would have told the pope that if he wanted to make a point about the relationship between faith and reason, he shouldn't open up with a comparison between Islam and Christianity that would be widely understood as a criticism of Islam, suggesting that it's irrational and prone to violence. Yet that is precisely what Benedict did in his address to 1,500 students and faculty at the University of Regensburg on Wednesday, citing a 14th century dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a learned Persian."

Not being a media professional, I am willing to accept Allen's wisdom on the PR front. I think what Allen writes prior that insightful paragraph is more apropos of Benedict's insistence of putting substance over style: "Benedict XVI is not a PC pope. By that, I don't mean that he sets out to give offense; on the contrary, he's one of the most gracious figures ever to step on the world stage. Instead, he simply does not allow his thinking to be channeled by the taboos and fashions of ordinary public discourse."

Nonetheless, there is no small irony, as in the case of the violent demonstrations throughout much of the Muslim world in response to the Danish cartoons, which implied that Islam is inherently violent, that the response to a perceived insinuation that Islam can be prone to irrationality, is met with such an irrational response. The response, fuelled by the soundbite media, is irrational because it is a response to a quote by a Byzantine emperor, whose empire was being attacked, and was, some fifty years later, destroyed by Islamic armies with the fall of Constantinople (which, as a result, is now Istanbul) in 1453. It is clear from its context in the lecture that this quote does not represent the Holy Father's view.

Okay, enough by me. For further thought, I refer you to the actual text of the Holy Father's lecture. It is important, for those concerned about what Benedict said, to get their information from the source, rather than receive it refracted through the international news media, or zealous bloggers, like your scribe. So, here's the context, with the offending passage emboldened- READ THE WHOLE EXCERPT:

"In the seventh conversation [between Manuel II Paleologus and the educated Persian] (διάλεξις - controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2, 256 reads: There is no compulsion in religion [the Qu'ran is divided into surahs, which are like chapters, there are 114 suras in the Islamic scripture, 256 would refer to the verse of the second surah]. It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threaten. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without decending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the 'Book' and the 'infidels', he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: '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 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 is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) 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 . . .' 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 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 practice idolatry."

Another source for comprehensive coverage is Rocco Palmo's Whispers in Loggia. I have no desire to duplicate or copy Rocco's great work. We will also see what implications it has for the Holy Father's scheduled trip Turkey in November, which, adding to the irrationality of the response, is said to be endangered by this controversy. One benefit that may derive from this is with the Orthodox. Today, in Belgrad, Serbia, the International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church resumes its activity after a prolonged hiatus. Since the Churches of East have suffered more at the hands of Islamic domination, Pope Benedict's frank remarks should play well among the Orthodox.

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