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Is Dialogue with Islam Possible? Some Reflections on Pope Benedict
XVI's Address at the University of Regensburg | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J. |
September 18, 2006
Both before and since his elevation to the papacy, Benedict
has taken a consistent approach to controversial issues: he locates the
assumptions and fundamental principles underlying the controversy, analyzes
their "inner" structure or dynamism, and lays out the consequences of the
For example, in Deus Caritas Est, Benedict does not address directly the
controversial issues of homosexual partners, promiscuity, or divorce. Instead
he examines the "inner logic" of the love of eros, which is "love between man and woman, where body
and soul are inseparably joined . . ." He shows that it has been understood
historically to have a relationship with the divine ("love promises infinity,
eternity") and to require "purification and growth in maturity ... through the path
of renunciation". In love's "growth towards higher levels and inward
purification ... it seeks to become definitive ... both in the sense of exclusivity
(this particular person alone) and in the sense of being 'for ever'."
So starting from the "inner logic" of the fundamental
reality of love, Benedict concludes to an exclusive and permanent relationship
between a man and a woman. That is a fair description of the Catholic idea of
marriage, and it excludes homosexual partners, promiscuity, and divorce.
Incidentally, in the very first paragraph of this
encyclical, Benedict states: "In a world where the name of God is sometimes
associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message
[that God is love] is both timely and significant." Clearly the religious
justification of violence is an aberration that's on his mind.
While in Deus Caritas Est Benedict defends the foundational truth
that God is Love, in his Regensburg lecture he is defending the foundational
truth that God is Logos, Reason. The
central theme of the lecture is that the Christian conviction that God is Logos is not simply the result of a contingent historical
process of inculturation that has been called the "hellenization of
Christianity". Rather it is something that is "always and intrinsically true".
In the main body of the lecture, Benedict criticizes
attempts in the West to "dehellenize" Christianity: the rejection of the
rational component of faith (the sola fides
of the 16th century reformers); the reduction of reason to the
merely empirical or historical (modern exegesis and modern science); a
multiculturalism which regards the union of faith and reason as merely one
possible form of inculturation of the faith. All this is a Western
But as the starting point of his lecture, Benedict takes a
14th century dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor and a learned
Muslim to focus on the central question of the entire lecture: whether God is Logos. The Emperor's objection to Islam is Mohammed's
"command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor asserts
that this is not in accordance with right reason, and "not acting reasonably is
contrary to God's nature". Benedict points to this as "the decisive statement
in this argument against violent conversion".
It is at this point in the lecture that Benedict makes a
statement which cannot be avoided or evaded if there is ever to be any dialogue
between Christianity and Islam that is more than empty words and diplomatic
gestures. For the Emperor, God's rationality is "self-evident". But for Muslim
teaching, according to the editor of the book from which Benedict has been
quoting, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of
our categories, even that of rationality".
Benedict has struck bedrock. This is the challenge to Islam.
This is the issue that lies beneath all the rest. If God is above reason in
this way, then it is useless to employ rational arguments against (or for)
forced conversion, terrorism, or Sharia law, which calls for the execution of
Muslim converts to Christianity. If God wills it, it is beyond discussion.
Let us now turn to the statement in Benedict's lecture which
has aroused the most anger. Benedict quotes the Byzantine Emperor's challenge
to the learned Muslim: "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."
Benedict's main argument -- that God is Logos and that violence in spreading or defending religion
is contrary to the divine nature -- could have been made without including that
part of Emperor's remark (made "somewhat brusquely" according to Benedict) that
challenges Islam much more globally. And in his Angelus message the following
Sunday, Benedict said: "These (words) were in fact a quotation from a Medieval
text which do not in any way express my personal thought." Nevertheless,
it may be instructive to examine this "brusque" utterance of the Emperor and
ask the question: Is it simply indefensible?
As a thought experiment, let's reverse the situation.
Suppose a major spokesman for Islam publicly issued the challenge: "Show me
just what Jesus brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil
and inhuman." What would be the Christian response? Not to burn a mosque or an
effigy of the Muslim spokesman, or to shoot a Muslim nurse in the back in
Somalia. It would rather be to reply with some examples of just what makes the
New Covenant new: the revelation that God is a Father who has a co-equal Son
and Holy Spirit; that Jesus is God's Son made flesh; the Sermon on the Mount;
the Resurrection of the body; the list would be long. As Irenaeus put it: he
brought all newness, bringing himself. Such a statement would not make dialogue
impossible; it would be an occasion for dialogue.
There is obviously much room for qualification in the
Emperor's blunt statement, even for a Christian who holds that Mohammed was not
a prophet, and that whatever is good in Islam is traceable either to man's
natural religious knowledge or to conscious or unconscious borrowings from
Jewish and Christian revelation.
Yet there is a crucial underlying principle that needs to be
enunciated. Christianity and Islam make incompatible truth claims. Despite the
difficulty in determining who can speak authoritatively for Christianity or for
Islam, there are elements of belief common to all Christians which are
incompatible with elements of belief common to all Muslims. The two most
obvious and most fundamental are the Trinity and the Incarnation.
I would expect an intelligent and informed Muslim to
consider me a blasphemer (because I introduce multiplicity into the one God)
and an idolator (because I worship as God a man named Jesus). Should I be
offended if he says so publicly? Should I not rather be offended if he conceals
his position for the alleged purpose of fostering dialogue?
The question of respect
is entirely distinct. Benedict is clearly aware of this distinction as
evidenced in the official Vatican statement subsequent to Benedict's lecture,
where the Secretary of State refers to his "respect and esteem for those who
profess Islam". That is, one can and should respect Muslims (those who profess
Islam) as persons with inherent dignity; but where there are incompatible truth
claims, they cannot be simultaneously true. One cannot hold one as true without
holding the other as false. Any religious dialogue should begin by examining the evidence for the incompatible
It's worth noting, however, that while consistent Christians
and Muslims in fact hold the position of the other to be erroneous in important
ways, the Christian is not obliged by his faith to subject the Muslim to dhimmitude nor to deny him his religious freedom. There is a
serious asymmetry here, which Benedict has criticized before. The Saudis can
build a multi-million dollar mosque in Rome; but Christians can be arrested in
Saudi Arabia for possessing a Bible.
Certainly, it may sound provocative to make the claim the
Emperor did. But why (since Christians believe that God's full and definitive
revelation has come with Christ, who brings all prophecy to an end) isn't it just
as provocative for a Muslim to proclaim that Mohammed is a new prophet,
bringing new revelation that corrects and supplements that of Christ?
Is it really offensive to say that Christians and Muslims
disagree profoundly about this? Is not this the necessary starting point that
must be recognized before any religious dialogue can even begin?
And if the response from Islam is violence, then must we not
ask precisely the question raised by Benedict: Is this violence an aberration
that is inconsistent with genuine Islam (as similar violence by Christians
would be an aberration inconsistent with genuine Christianity)? Or is it
justifiable on the basis of Islam's image of God as absolutely transcending all
human categories, even that of rationality? And if the response to this question is violence, then the question has been
answered existentially, and rational dialogue has been repudiated.
Finally, has no one seen the irony in the episode related by Benedict?
Byzantium was increasingly threatened in the 14th century by an
aggressive Islamic force, the growing Ottoman Empire. The Byzantine Emperor
seems to have committed the dialogue to writing while his imperial capital,
Constantinople, was under siege by the Ottoman Turks. It would fall
definitively in 1453. Muslims were military enemies, engaged in a war of
aggression against Byzantium. Yet even in these circumstances the Christian
Emperor and the learned Persian Muslim could be utterly candid with one another
and discuss civilly their fundamental religious differences. As Benedict
described the dialogue, the subject was "Christianity and Islam, and the truth
The West is once again under siege. Doubly so because in
addition to terrorist attacks there is a new form of conquest: immigration coupled
with high fertility. Let us hope that, following the Holy Father's courageous
example in these troubled times, there can be a dialogue whose subject is the
truth claims of Christianity and Islam.
Comments? Thoughts? Questions? Share them on the Insight Scoop blog!
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Is Dialogue with Islam Possible? Some Reflections on Pope
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Fr. Joseph D. Fessio, S.J. is the founder of Ignatius Press.
He entered the Jesuit Novitiate in 1961 and was ordained a priest in 1972.
He completed his undergraduate work in philosophy at Gonzaga University
in 1966 and earned two Masters degrees (philosophy, theology) from
the same institution. He received a Doctorate in Theology in 1975 University
of Regensburg, West Germany, where his thesis director was Fr.
Joseph Ratzinger. Fr. Fessios thesis was on the ecclesiology
of Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Fr. Fessio taught philosophy at Gonzaga and the University of Santa Clara,
California and theology at the University of San Francisco before founding
the Saint Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco in 1976.
Two years later he founded Ignatius Press. He is now Provost of Ave Maria University in Florida
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