Mary Katharine Ham

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by professor Theodore Khoury (Muenster) of part of the dialogue carried on -- perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara -- by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.

It was probably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than the responses of the learned Persian. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Koran, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship of the "three Laws": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran.

In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point -- itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself -- which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason," I found interesting and which can serve as the starting point for my reflections on this issue.

Here it comes:

In the seventh conversation ("diálesis" -- controversy) edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion." It 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 Koran, concerning holy war.

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels," he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: "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 emphasized quote above is the one the "enraged" are citing, of course attributing it to the Pope, not the Byzantine emporer. But if you take that quote out, do you get a different reaction from the world's Muslims? I don't think you do. In the next paragraph, Benedict criticizes forced, violent conversions as incompatible with the nature of God. Frankly, these days, there's one major world religion to which that criticism is much more readily applied than any others.

The emperor 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 is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably ("syn logo") 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...."

That sounds like a version of blogger Instapundit's statement of this weekend, "If they're that insecure about their religion, maybe the problem isn't with the critics."

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 practice idolatry.

As far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma which nowadays challenges us directly. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?

Is he talking about the War on Terror? And, isn't that next sentence a variation on the "are Islamic societies compatible with democracy" question? Benedict then moves onto the rest of his speech, and Islam doesn't show up again until the end.

But were his Islam comments just a way to illustrate his larger point? Nah. Benedict knows his comments are heeded and publicized.

I don't buy the "bumbling un-media savvy Pope" storyline a) because I resent the implication that the leader of a major world religion is under any obligation, media-imposed or otherwise, to avoid discussing another world religion in an academic setting and b) because the Pope wears Prada. Dude is not out of touch. Heck, he's halfway to his own celebrity favorites list on iTunes.

I'm with The Anchoress on this one (and I feel like, when talking about the Pope, that's probably a safe place to be):

Whether he is “media savvy” or not, Benedict has managed - in his very scholarly fashion - to apply a very hot drawing poultice to the enormous and festing boils of both radical Islamism and rampant secularism.

Benedict, as illustrated by the mere language of this speech, is much smarter than the press folks accusing him of blundering, here. He worked for years under John Paul II, one of the most politically active and aware leaders the Church has ever had. He knew what he was doing. Not only that, but he knew he was traveling to Turkey in November-- his first trip to a Muslim nation. This was no accident.

Benedict didn't bury his Islam comments in the middle of the speech where they might have been missed. They were right up front. And, in case anyone missed it, he wrapped with them, too:

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur -- this is the program with which a theology grounded in biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

"Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God," said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

It's an invitation from the Pope to Muslims-- an invitation to reason, an invitation to dialogue. Will you accept, Benedict asks? The response?

R. S. V. P., baby.

Now, we've got a best-seller predicting the assassination of the Pope in Turkey, and a Somali clerk demanding Islamists "hunt down and kill" the Pontiff.

The Anchoress says it feels like 1981 again, and those who like that might end up sorry:

Call it Karma. Call it God, or “Cosmic energy” or whatever you like. I don’t think it liked those assassination attempts in 1981, for things certainly (and quickly) doubled back and bit the asses of those who applauded the violence...

If you’re one of those pathetic people intrigued with the idea of someone, or some entity, assassinating Bush or Benedict, heed my warning - be careful what you wish for. Payback will be a bitch. And you won’t see it coming. You didn’t last time.

This will continue to escalate. No apology will be acceptable. They don't play much football in Muslim nations because of those tricky moving goalposts indigenous to the region.

Benedict is not a blunderer. He is a brave man and a scholar. He values his freedom to speak out, reasonably and critically, about other world religions, and he's not willing to relinquish it, even a month before he is to put himself in probable danger by traveling to a Muslim country in the wake of his remarks.

He is also a man of faith, who may have hoped against hope his invitation would be accepted, and put the response in God's hands.

Some say-- the NYT comes to mind-- that Benedict's comments were provocative, that they constituted just an unecessary addition to all the "religious anger in the world." Sayeth the utterly clueless Times:

The world listens carefully to the words of any pope. And it is tragic and dangerous when one sows pain, either deliberately or carelessly. He needs to offer a deep and persuasive apology, demonstrating that words can also heal.

You wanna see "sowing pain?" You wanna see "dangerous?" Keep an eye on the attacks on Christian churches throughout the Middle East in the next weeks. Keep an eye on Western embassies. Already, an elderly nun has met her end, shot in the back by jihadis in Somalia. There’s a Catholic priest missing in Baghdad.

Words can heal. Benedict's were a proclamation that unreasonable people will not keep him from exercising his own capacity for reason.

The fact that the New York Times, and much of the West, don't share the same determination is much more dangerous anything Benedict said.


Mary Katharine Ham

Mary Katharine Ham is editor-at-large of HotAir.com, a contributor to Townhall Magazine.

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