The New York Times has joined with radical Islamic clerics to call for Pope Benedict XVI to apologize for his speech in Regensburg. I think these calls are misplaced. The Islamist-generated controversy obscures the facts that the pope was condemning religious violence and calling for a deeper understanding of the role of reason. I, for one, hope the Holy Father doesn’t back down.
“Spreading faith through violence is something unreasonable.” Does anyone in the West deny this? I certainly hope he doesn’t apologize for that statement. By becoming violent and threatening, by taking offense rather than engaging in debate, the Islamic “street” pretty much proved the point of the Byzantine Emperor whom Benedict quoted.
But the conversation between the Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a “learned Persian” was Benedict’s point of departure for the main topic of his academic lecture: the nature of God. “Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” This idea was self-evident to the Byzantine emperor, but alien to Islamic thought. The Islamic view is that God’s will is not bound up in our categories, even rationality. Benedict quotes an Islamic scholar who argues that “God is not even bound 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.”
I’m not a scholar of Islam. I don’t know whether Benedict is quoting someone representative or an outlier. But I do know this: The question he raises is important. He puts the general question this way: “Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?”
The Catholic tradition has always taught that God’s omnipotence does not extend to doing the self-contradictory: God cannot create a square circle. Similarly, God can not contradict his own nature by doing evil or by behaving unreasonably. Benedict is not going to apologize or back down on this point. This is a basic part of Catholicism’s understanding of God.
The bulk of the pope’s speech was a defense of what he calls the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit.” He traces the dissatisfaction with this synthesis back to the nominalism of Duns Scotus in the late Middle Ages, through the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, through the liberal theology of the 19th and 20th centuries, and down to the multiculturalism of today. Against these currents, Benedict argues that a God decoupled from reason is a God who cannot be known to man. The individual is left on his own to determine truth and meaning for himself, unconnected to any truth outside himself and his own perceptions. This, the pope argues, reduces Christianity to a shadow of its former self, and in the end, reduces man himself, by relegating our most important questions to the subjective realm. And, he might have added, the rupture between faith and reason drove scientifically minded people away from religion, where many of them remain to this day.
Today, large parts of the modern world have abandoned reason as well as religion. If you were to look among academics for an intellectual defense of reason, you wouldn’t find many players on the field. I’m aware of a handful of philosophers who work in the Objectivist and Aristotelian tradition of Ayn Rand. There are Catholic philosophers. That’s it. The rest of academia is either actively hostile to the idea of reason itself, or has retreated to the safety of narrow, technical knowledge.
Where are scientists in this conflict? A significant subset of scientists attack religion as if it were always and everywhere their mortal enemy. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the academic community averts its eyes while the multi-cultural Left undermines the very idea of the possibility of discovering truth. If multiculturalism has its way, scientific truth will be whatever the National Science Foundation says it is. Scientists in universities are quite literally, surrounded by idiots. Pope Benedict is the best intellectual friend scientists have. They may wince at that, but it is the fact. As he said in his lecture, “The scientific ethos is the will to be obedient to the truth, and as such, it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity.”
Spare me the nonsense about truth leading to gas chambers. If you’re of the mind that that truth leads to crusades and inquisitions, you are seriously out of date. For the last 200 years, the Christian religion has been the victim of ideological warfare, not the initiator. If you can’t tell the difference between Pope Benedict’s claim that God’s will is knowable and reasonable, and the Islamo-Fascist claim that God wants them to attack non-believers, you aren’t paying attention.
You may disagree with the pope on the nature of God, or about the possibilities of a rapprochement between science and religion. But no one can doubt that both reason and truth are in retreat in the modern world. Benedict’s speech indicates that he wants to bring them back. “While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its (reason’s) vast horizons.”
This is not a man to back down from conflict over substantive issues. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he once said in an interview about his early days as bishop of Munich and Freising. “A bishop whose only concern is not to have any problems and to gloss over as many conflicts as possible is an image I find repulsive.”
Don’t back down, Holy Father. We need you to keep telling the truth.
– Jennifer Roback Morse is a senior fellow in economics at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.