Friday, September 15, 2006

The Scholarly Discussion Heard Round the World

This is what Pope Benedict actually said:

In the seventh conversation ( controversy) 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. (complete transcript)

It's hard to believe that one statement saying that once upon a time a Greek Byzantine emperor said something mean about Islam, and that that emperor believed that conversion by force was wrong could cause such an uproar.

There is more to it than that, of course. He might as well have stood on the mountain and said, " Islam, your understanding of the nature of God is flawed. "

Benedict is saying God IS reasonable, and Islam is wrong; violence in the name of God is something that God doesn't want, and Islam is wrong; and the hyperrationality of the West, with its denial of the metaphysical, the miraculous is also wrong

In the guise of talking about modern theological studies, which often want to focus on the provable certainties and deny the unexplainable, he manages to draw a line in the sand.

And the Islamic world, picking up on the nuance, is at arms, and is acting pretty much in character, with loud protests and potential violence around the globe, demonstrating what the Emperor described: violence in the name of God.

Of course, Islam believes it its the purest, most correct form of worshipping God, and is not afraid to tell everybody in the world about it. But, because of their worldview, it doesn't allow the tolerance of other faiths who disagree. There is no two way dialogue here. In their condemnation of the Pope, they are condemning him for doing pretty much what they do, which is to say "Christianity, your understanding of the nature of God is flawed."

And Islam has learned over the last number of years that if they scream loudly, people will often back off in fear of their indignation. If the Pope does much more than say, "I am sorry you took this as an attack, but I still believe violence in the name of God is wrong, and that God is reasonable," I will be very, very surprised. He has a long track record of actually believing what he says about Christ.

Of course, by drawing the line in the sand, it might turn the Jihadiya to look more closely at Christian targets. But it's a struggle that was due to come anyway. You either believe, or you don't. The age of cultural Christianity is dead, and the Pope, by this statement, may have just given it its eulogy.


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