Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

The Regensburg Moment

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

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It is by no means certain, but it is more than just possible, that Pope Benedict's September 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg and the controversy surrounding it will be referred to, five or twenty years from now, as "The Regensburg Moment."

As many commentators, Muslim and other, do not know because they manifestly did not read the lecture, it was not chiefly about Islam. It was a considered reflection on the inseparable linkage of faith and reason in the Christian understanding, an incisive critique of Christian thinkers who press for separating faith and reason in the name of "de-Hellenizing" Christianity, and a stirring call for Christians to celebrate the achievements of modernity and secure those achievements by grounding them in a more comprehensive and coherent understanding of human rationality.

Benedict was widely criticized for being impolitic, even recklessly provocative, in citing a fourteenth-century colloquy between a Byzantine emperor and a Muslim intellectual in which the emperor drew some distinctly uncomplimentary conclusions about Islam. Perhaps the pope should have chosen a less "brusque" (his characterization of the emperor's statement) example from history, but his obvious point was to show that the problem he was addressing is not new. Violence has no place in the advancing of religion. To act against reason is to act against the nature of God. That is Benedict's argument.

Numerous commentators suggested a sharp contrast between Benedict and John Paul II in their attitude toward Islam. Somewhat amusingly, pundits who had for years deplored John Paul's "rigid" and "authoritarian" pontificate now spoke nostalgically about his wonderfully open and dialogical ways. As usual, any stick will do in beating up on whoever is currently the pope. As a matter of fact, however, there is no substantive difference between the two popes and their understanding of Islam.

In his 1994 worldwide bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul expressed respect for "the religiosity of the Muslims" and their "fidelity to prayer." "The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all." That having been said, John Paul continues:

Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam, all the richness of God's self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.

Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.

So the hard questions about Islam raised by Benedict at Regensburg (and elsewhere) are hardly new in papal thought. Benedict has expressed regret about the violent Muslim reaction to what he said; he has continued to meet with Muslim leaders; he has reaffirmed the Church's continuing dialogue with Islam--but there is no chance whatsoever that he will retract or retreat from the argument he has made. And there is no doubt that he will continue to insist on greater "reciprocity" in relation to Islam. The Muslims' religious freedom in the West should be joined to religious freedom for Christians and others in Islamic countries. Benedict very thoroughly aired this question with the Curia in Rome and with the cardinals during the past year, and there is solid agreement that reciprocity must be a central theme in Catholic-Muslim relations in the future.

But as I said, Regensburg was addressed chiefly to intellectuals in the West, and especially to theologians and philosophers: to theologians who try to pit authentically biblical Christianity against the Greek intellectual inheritance, thus abandoning the great achievement of the Church's synthesis of faith and reason; and to philosophers, Christian and non-Christian, who have accepted a modern understanding of reason that reduces it to what counts as "science," with the same result of sundering faith and reason.

A Kantian divorce of reason from religion and morality leaves the intellectual defenders of the West incapable of explaining why, for instance, one should rationally prefer a religion of reasonable persuasion to a religion of violence. There are utilitarian reasons, of course. But who is to say which religion is the more true? If all religion and morality is in the realm of the nonrational or even the irrational and is purely subjective, truth has nothing to do with it. Benedict contrasts this with the great tradition of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. They were intensely concerned with the reasonable exploration of the great questions that Enlightenment rationality dismisses as religious and no part of reasonable discourse.

At Regensburg and elsewhere, Benedict has carefully made the case that modern rationality is itself dependent upon, and inexplicable apart from, the understanding of reason and the rationality of the world produced by Christianity's appropriation and development of the Hellenic philosophical tradition. This truth is well understood by Lee Harris, author of Civilization and Its Enemies and The Suicide of Reason. Harris is no particular friend of Christianity, but he understands the boldness and crucial importance of the challenge Benedict is raising to intellectuals of the West. Writing in the Weekly Standard, he says:

In his moving and heroic speech, Joseph Ratzinger has chosen to play the part of Socrates, not giving us dogmatic answers, but stinging us with provocative questions. Shall we abandon the lofty and noble conception of reason for which Socrates gave his life? Shall we delude ourselves into thinking that the life of reason can survive without courage and character? Shall we be content with lives we refuse to examine, because such examination requires us to ask questions for which science can give no definite answer? The destiny of reason will be determined by how we in the modern West answer these questions.

Benedict knows that Christian history has had its own experience with the sundering of faith and reason. At Regensburg, he cited the influence of John Duns Scotus (1266--1308) and some of the Protestant Reformers who proposed a Christianity liberated from the philosophical thought that they viewed as alien to Christian faith. In the case of Scotus and others, this leads, he said, "to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions."

Two Wings

This is the intellectual history that leads to modernity's view of a clash between faith and reason. Reason is the light of the known and faith is a "blind leap" into the unknown. Very different is the understanding set forth by John Paul II in the encyclical Fides et Ratio: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth--in a word, to know himself--so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."

At Regensburg, Benedict underscored that a view of the nature of God as capricious and voluntaristic is fundamentally incompatible with the teaching of the Church. "The faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason, there exists a real analogy, in which--as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated--unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf." God and man are not in competition, or should not be. God is divine reason and love, and man is a creature, but also a participant in the mind of God and in the intelligent response of love.

In the world of the news cycles that consume and spit out "what is happening now" with expert rapidity, Regensburg is a long time ago. But for those who attend to the rational and moral defense of the West, not least in relation to Islam, what was said in that lecture hall and the responses to it will be pondered and debated long into the future. At the height of the violent reactions by Muslims, the dominant note in the Western media--led, predictably, by the New York Times--was that Benedict had been careless or unnecessarily provocative and should, figuratively speaking, crawl on his knees to Mecca to ask forgiveness. Figuratively speaking, of course, because they don't allow infidels at Mecca.

In the Vatican and in the Catholic journalistic world, there were voices that joined in the tut-tutting of an uncouth and unlearned pope who had disrupted the dialogue with a "religion of peace." The nitpicking pedantry of some Catholic experts on Islam was given prominent display in the world's press. But, from Catholic and other Christian leaders, along with Jews and some secular intellectuals, there was also an outpouring of support for what the pope had the wisdom and courage to say. They recognized that momentous issues of long-term consequence had at last been joined in a way that made possible and imperative continuing debate.

Regrettably, the official response of the Catholic bishops conference in this country, issued by Bishop William Skylstad, the conference president, was not helpful. The tone was condescending and patronizing, almost apologizing for the pope's inept disturbance of our wonderfully dialogical relationship with our Muslim brothers and sisters. We are assured that, despite his unfortunate statements, he really does want peaceful dialogue. I paraphrase, of course, but the statement was anything but a firm defense of the pope, never mind an effort to explain what he actually said. It might have been written by a public relations firm engaged in damage control, and possibly was.

But for many others, the words spoken on September 12, 2006, and the responses, both violent and reasonable, to those words may, five or twenty years from now, be referred to as "The Regensburg Moment," meaning a moment of truth. As I say, it is by no means certain, but it is more than just possible.

Copyright (c) 2006 First Things 167 (November 2006): 59-76.

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Posted: 16-Nov-06

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