Monday, September 18, 2006

The Burden of Bearing the Light

If Christians truly want to take the incarnation seriously, they must value the place of reason in their faith.

Notice I said reason, not reasonableness--that sad facsimile that passes for reason among the elites.

Pope Benedict XVI appealed for all religious believers to value the role in which reason plays in our witness to our faith. Without reason, we have no genuine connection to God. Reason becomes the instrument through which God mediates his transendance through our human experience.

Of course, his controversial remark has earned him the cynical exploitation by salivating headline editors and the furious indignation by many muslims throughout the world.

Unfortunately, the heat of their reaction hides the necessary point the Pope sought to make. Ironically enough, the reaction of the more jihadic and virulent of muslims demonstrates that point in spades.

Christopher Blosser has an excellent round-up of the controversy. He also has a terrific summation of the Pope's original point:
On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI was again welcomed to the university, to give an address to students and faculty. His lecture was titled "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections", the text of which is available at the Vatican website.* While I'll highlight a few points, I recommend a reading of the full text -- it is "vintage Benedict": at once stimulating and provocative.

The Pope spoke about his days teaching at the University of Bonn, of the dialogue between departments, "working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason." By way of illustration he mentions an exchange "by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both, and proceeds to mention one point, "itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole," as a starting point for his reflections on the relationship between faith and reason:
In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 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" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness 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 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 practise idolatry.

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?
In answer to this question, Benedict contends that there exists "the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God," pointing to the Christian understanding that "God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason."

Benedict goes on to discuss the significance of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament -- the Septuagint -- which fosters this encounter between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry ("From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act 'with logos' is contrary to God's nature.")
Can we say with confidence that life has any meaning that we can hope to understand? Can we discern God's purpose for us here? Is God truly someone in whom we can experience a personal relationship?

Or is God so beyond our experience that we can only shudder before his will? Is he so transcendant that he can breach his own word and seemingly contradict his own law? Is reason so devoid of significance that its judgements matter not at all?

These are the questions upon which our collectively human civilization hang. Our answer--and islam's--may well determine just how we continue to image God in this world through our societal lives. Or don't.

People of good will throughout the world should address these questions that the Holy Father has raised. Cast aside the machinations of cynical mullahcrats and slobbering jihadists, who will exploit the Pope's controversial medieval interlocution for their own twisted ends. Put aside the hyperventilation of a press determined to instigate a crusade in order to ring the register.

Pay attention to the man's profound point.

Or don't. And let the world collapse under the weight of its own collective narcissism.

The choice is ours.