For those of you who may have been blearily staring at recent headlines and wondering if the world was playing a big LARP based on the Fourth Crusade, two smart posts on the Pope’s ill-considered remarks, their context, and the fallout. One is from international diplomat and man of mystery Nick Whyte, and the other is by one Monsieur Homais, previously unknown to me. A bit from M. Homais:
Islam is really peripheral to his point. Maybe it’s a convenient rhetorical target, or the Pope did mean to denigrate the religion by resurrecting the old “inherently violent/spread by the sword” trope, or maybe he wanted to start a dialogue (he claims that’s the reasonable thing to do), or maybe (as he claimed in his sort-of apology) the Islam quote wasn’t actually his opinion, or maybe he just picked a really unfortunate example. But, the real thrust of the argument is directed, very unsubtly, at Protestants, various stripes of unorthodox Catholics, and unbelieving rationalists, all of whom have, so he says, tried to decouple Christianity from the Reason of the Greeks. From there, he takes a fairly standard line that religion decoupled from logos is simply unable to engage in reasonable dialogue, and is likely violent (are you listening, Protestants? He’s talking about you). Reason without the divine, on the other hand, is blind and unable to even justify itself on its own terms. It’s a variant on the old “science is sterile” argument.Read ‘em both.
In a nutshell, then, most of the Pope’s rhetorical force is pointed at Western debates, at people who for various reasons want to decouple religion from Reason, with perhaps a dark hint that the alternative is those violent, unreasonable faiths (ahem, Protestants, Muslims), or worse, bottomless relativism that can’t cope with the challenges of the day. None of which I buy, but it’s hardly shocking coming from the Pope, and doesn’t quite amount to frothing Islamophobia. I mean, really, are we so used to John-Paul II’s sweeping interfaith gestures that we’re now surprised when a Pope has the nerve, the nerve I tell you, to claim that Catholicism is true and other creeds have fallen into error?
That said, there is something dishonest, if unsurprising, when Benedict claims that Catholicism has the monopoly on marrying faith to Reason. Anyone who’s studied a bit of Islamic history will have probably raised their eyebrows at his assertion that Islam’s concept of God is transcendent, outside of Reason, beyond human categories, etc. Well, I guess that’s the whole story if you’re, say, Sayyid Qutb. But for the rest of the faith, it’s a much more mixed debate, way too sprawling to recount here. Suffice to say that alongside the transcendent tradition, there’s a long tradition of integrating Reason—including Greek thought and modern science—with Islam, from mediaeval times straight through Afghani, Abduh et al and their contemporary ideological descendants. If you’re going to insist on the rightness of integrating Reason with the divine, it’s not very helpful to ignore or deny the existence of such a tradition in Islam, now is it? Talking from the same script as that tradition’s opponents, insisting that Islam is precisely what Qutb-inspired neo-Salafis say it is, doesn’t seem like the best way to go about a dialogue, and it’s certainly not helpful to the perspectives you claim to want a dialogue with.