What is wrong with the Pope affirming the truth of the faith which he represents?by Edward Skidelsky / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
One has to feel sorry for the Pope. He cannot open his mouth without giving offence to groups only too eager to take it. What’s more, the offence is shared by many members of Europe’s secular intelligentsia, who have no particular sympathy for radical Islam but are outraged that the head of a Christian church should be so “insensitive” as to voice a preference for his own faith. Things have come to a strange pass when even the Vicar of Christ is required to genuflect before the altar of cultural relativism.
Some commentators have accused the Pope of abusing his position. Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian even charged him with having “abdicated his papal role of arbitrator.” But who has ever claimed the Pope was supposed to be an arbitrator in the conflict between Christianity and other faiths? One might object were George W Bush to criticise Islam, but that is because he is president of a secular state, and so under an obligation to remain neutral in matters of faith. The Pope is under no such obligation. Indeed, he is under the opposite obligation, namely to affirm the truth of the faith he represents and thus, by implication, the falsity of all others. One might disagree with his views on Islam, but one can hardly take offence at his holding them.
As for the Pope’s actual remarks, they are not at all crude slurs, but part of a sophisticated and, to my mind, largely convincing argument about the relationship of faith to reason. God, according to the Bible, is logos, or reason. Faith in God is not contrary to reason, but is rather its perfection or completion. But in the mainstream Islamic tradition, God transcends man, and so cannot be comprehended by any human category, including reason. It is this, argues the Pope, that explains the difference between Christian and Muslim attitudes to forcible conversion. “God,” claimed the 14th-century Byzantine emperor Manuel II quoted by the Pope, “is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.… 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.”
No doubt the Pope could have made his case more tactfully. He could have mentioned medieval Arab rationalists such as Avicenna and Averroes, who preserved the heritage of Aristotle and passed it on to Christian Europe. And he could have noted that Christians have indulged in a fair bit of holy slaughter themselves. These qualifications aside, his main point remains valid. Greek thought has always been central to Christianity in a way it has not to Islam. The New Testament was written in Greek and is infused with Greek philosophical concepts. Augustine and Aquinas are incomparably more important to Christianity than Averroes and other Arab philosophers are to Islam. And although Christianity later took more militant forms, its formative first three centuries were peaceful, whereas Islam was from the very outset spread by the sword. The characteristically Christian contribution to international relations theory is not holy war but just war—a concept which allowed the Vatican to condemn the recent Israeli bombing of Lebanon and the American invasion of Iraq.
The Pope’s comments on Islam are inspired not by Catholic chauvinism, but by a genuine philosophical rationalism. The reasonableness of faith is a theme to which he has returned again and again. It has allowed him to reach an understanding with religious and spiritual traditions very alien to Christianity—much more alien, indeed, than Islam—but which nonetheless share a commitment to reason. Discussion of natural law, he said in his 2004 debate with Jürgen Habermas, “must today be conceived and pursued interculturally. For Christians, it would have to do with the creation and the creator. In the Indian world, this might correspond to the concept of ‘dharma,’ the inner lawfulness of being; in the Chinese tradition to the idea of the mandate of heaven.” Fundamentalist Islam is not being arbitrarily excluded from this dialogue; it excludes itself. (The same is true, it might be added, of fundamentalist Protestantism, which has done its best to detach Christianity from its original philosophical context.) The Pope is not trying to foment a new war of religion; he is staking out the only terrain on which such a war can be averted—the terrain of reason.
It should be added that what the Pope means by “reason” is something rather different from what most modern secularists understand. “The God in whom we believe is a God of reason,” he said at Auschwitz earlier this year, “a reason… which is not a kind of cold mathematics of the universe, but is one with love and with goodness.” But in modern universities and government bureaucracies, reason is conceived instrumentally, as a technique for drawing conclusions from arbitrary premises, or for satisfying arbitrarily given wants. “‘Tis not contrary to reason,” wrote David Hume, an originator of this view, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” From this perspective, the Pope’s conception of a reason “at one with love and with goodness” looks suspiciously theological. Whether this conception has any future, or is merely a vestige of a more pious past, is one of the central questions of our age.