This week Pope Benedict XVI outraged Muslims around the world by continuing to not convert to Islam. Also, he made a speech at the University of Regensburg (in Germany) examining the integral relationship between Western Civilization and Christianity.
The point of the Pope’s speech, for those that bothered to read it, was that the Christian faith and the modern Western concept of reason are not in conflict with or threatened by one another. Indeed, Christianity, thoroughly Hellenized by its infancy in the Greek-speaking provinces of the Eastern Mediterranean, has been one of great foundations underlying the high accord given to reason, logic, and free will in the European world, the Pope argued.
Those Western intellectuals who reject Christ and the Church in the name of reason thus undermine their own house. There would be no “Western” intellectuals had there been no Western church teaching that God was a rational force and capable of being known and understood through logical philosophy. In Europe, the church and reason have always been like brothers — often in conflict, but more often of the same mind and protective of one another. To separate them now would impoverish both and rob us of one of the world’s most successful collaborations.
Of course, the Pope, being both a priest and a former professor, took about 4,000 words to say that. He also decorated his points elaborately with historical examples and quotes, among which was an exchange between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian Noble, circa 1391 AD. In this discussion, they debate the relative merits of their respective religions, Christianity and Islam, against the backdrop of the Muslim siege of Constantinople — once the seat of Orthodox Christianity before its conquest and conversion to Islam by the sword.
Among Manuel’s central criticisms of Islam was the fact that it was spread primarily through violence and force, rather than reason and persuasion as Christian missionaries most usually employed:
“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 point of this historical example was that for the Greek Byzantine Manuel II the concepts of true religion and reason were so integrated and inseparable that Islam’s rapid spread by the sword was not taken as evidence of the blessing of Heaven (as it was in the Muslim world), but as an indictment. Likewise, the spread of Christianity out of Judea and into Europe by force of mere words from itinerant preachers was not just a difference in the tactics of conversion, but essential evidence of the divine truth of Christianity, which is made clear by the second Manuel quote the Pope includes immediately after the first:
“God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably 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 example of Emperor Manuel’s words illustrate well that the Western moral concept that “might does not make right” is very old and very rooted in the Christian identity. So much so, that conversion without reason and free will on the part of the convert is considered inherently wrong. Christianity has incubated a love of reason in the West, just as reason has facilitated the spread of Western Christianity. That’s the Pope’s “hurtful” and “controversial” belief as voiced at a European University as part of his campaign to re-Christianize a culture he sees as amoral and adrift after having lost its moorings in the Christian Faith.
That’s it. That’s all he said. For this, the Muslim world has reacted to his words with rage and violence: because they believe it implies that they react to words with rage and violence. So you can see how the Pope was out of line.
(Or as, Cardinal Pell, the archbishop of Sidney, put it, "the violent reactions in many parts of the Islamic world" to the comments “showed the link for many Islamists between religion and violence, [and] their refusal to respond to criticism with rational arguments, but only with demonstrations, threats and actual violence.")
From London to Lahore, howls and threats have been directed at the Pope, as well as Christendom in general. But one of the strangest protests arose from a member of the Turkish ruling party, Salih Kapusuz, who compared the Pope to Hitler for his remarks.
Apparently, he meant this as an insult, but one never knows for sure quite how to take such a reference in a part of the world where anti-Semitism is served up like potatoes at every meal. For example, a government-owned Saudi newspaper reported the arrest of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960 under the headline “Arrest of Eichmann, who had the honor of killing six million Jews.”
Kapusuz’s reference was made even more ridiculous by the claims in the Iranian state news agency that the Pope’s remarks show that he is not really a Christian, but is actually a ZIONIST! Yes, Pope Hitler II, Zionist.
And of course it ignores the fact that Hitler was no critic of Islam. According to the memoirs of Nazi Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, Hitler more than once fantasized about how much more efficient his war machine would have been had the Christian forces lost the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, and Germany been made a Muslim country by the conquest. “You see, it’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion,” Hitler told Speer. “Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity, with its meekness and flabbiness?” he mused. Certainly the V-2 would have been much more effective, had Hitler had men volunteering to pilot it.
But the ravings of a madman aside, the main reason I find the comparison of Benedict to Hitler so idiotic is well illustrated by Hitler’s above quoted disdain for Christianity. National Socialism, along with Marxism-Leninism, are the two prime examples of what can happen when European societies decide to slough off the “irrational” baggage of our Christian heritage in favor of a new, more “rational” world without such alleged superstition: we find that reason without a fixed morality is as destructive as a fixed morality without reason.
And that was, after all, Benedict’s core message. The rational man seeks God, and the Godly man loves reason.