The Duck of Minerva

Misdirected offense

20 September 2006

The recent flap about Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks in a lecture at the University of Regensburg has been fascinating (in a somewhat macabre way) to watch. As Abu Aardvark has noted, the popular reaction to the remarks looks like a speeded-up film of the reaction to the Danish cartoons of the Prophet last year: various populist Islamist groups have seized parts of the lecture, pulled them out of context, and slotted them into a general narrative of Islamic persecution by ‘the West.’ Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has even explicitly declared that the Pope’s remarks are part of a new “crusade” against the Islamic world. Cue reprisal bombings, boycotts, demands for apologies, and the rest of the well-known script.

In all of this smoke and light, ironically, the really offensive dimension of the Pope’s lecture has been obscured in favor of a couple of taken-out-of-context comments about Islam being spread by the sword instead of by rational means of persuasion — comments that are actually performing a somewhat different function in the text than the current popular controversy seems to have taken them to be performing. Indeed, the Pope wasn’t so much saying “Islam bad” as he was saying “Hellenized Christianity good and right and true”; Islam (as Benedict represents it) just happens to get in the way of his argumentative train.

What is really going on here is that the Pope is using ‘Islam’ as a convenient rhetorical shorthand for currents of Christianity that he disapproves of. This is an old Christian tactic — it’s been going on for millennia. (R. W. Southern has a short and brilliant little book on this, if anyone wants to know the gory details.) It’s a classic “use of the Other” — but in this case, the Other is not taking too kindly to the way that they are being used.

Let me clarify a bit. Benedict’s lecture wasn’t about Islam, and it wasn’t about the question of whether one should spread religion through conquest and violence. Instead, Benedict’s lecture was about the relationship between faith and reason in the Christian tradition. Indeed, his basic question — according to the “provisional” version of the text released by the Vatican — is whether “the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true.” At issue here is the somewhat abstruse theological question of whether the Hellenistic notion that God is the logos is correct, or whether the “voluntarist” position associated with skeptics from Duns Scotus to David Hume (and arguably with Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein too, but that’s material for a much longer post — and probably for a different kind of blog) is correct. The former — God as the logos — position suggests that reason partakes of the divine and that therefore God cannot act unreasonably; the latter — voluntarist — position suggests that God is above reason, and is not bound by our conception of what is reasonable, and by implication also suggests that reason itself is more of a tool that we use to make sense of our world than it is a divinely-inspired way of seeing things aright.

So one might ask: What are out-of-context quotations from fourteenth-century Byzantine emperors, and especially quotations dealing with Islam and Mohammed, doing in such a meditation? After all, even Benedict admits that the lines in question are “rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole” from which they are drawn. And they are only rather tangentially related to the argument that Benedict himself goes on to make; he only uses the quotation from the emperor Manuel II Paleologus as an example of a Christian condemnation of the association of God and violence — and in fact the part of the quotation that really seems of interest to him is the clause “not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” That’s what he then goes on to defend in the rest of the lecture, and he never comes back to the parts of the quotation that seem to be the centerpiece of the popular outcry: “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.” Indeed, that bit (still quoting Manuel II Paleologus) is introduced without comment, and it doesn’t really have much relationship with the rest of the argument.

Or does it? Think for a moment about what Benedict accomplishes, rhetorically, by leading off with this quotation. He divides Christianity — God as the logos, reason and the divine as intrinsically linked together — from not-Christianity (in this case, Islam), and sets up an association of the Christian opponents of his position with those non-Christians being criticized by the long-dead emperor. It’s a classic strategy of rhetorical coercion by dichotomizing, as Benedict is in effect narrowing the choices for his audience to two: Christianity, or not-Christianity. Reject the “hellenization” of Christianity and the equation of God and reason, Benedict is implicitly saying, and you’re not a Christian, you’re a Muslim. He more or less explicitly says this a bit later by declaring that “for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.”

Since Benedict takes it for granted that none of his audience will want to self-identify with Islam, he’s effectively backed his potential opponents into a corner — a corner from which he can set about the other part of his self-appointed task, which is to critique the positivistic exclusion of reason from the realm of faith in Christian Europe and call for the return of a broader notion of reason. Lest we miss the target of his remarks, Benedict explicitly declares:

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history – it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

Europe is the target, Europe is the audience, and Europe is what he is concerned with. Not Islam. ‘Islam’ only functions as part of a rhetorical tactic in the lecture, and it’s a tactic that only makes sense if one can presume that one’s audience is a) not Muslim and b) not particularly comfortable with being associated with Islam. Otherwise, the reference to Islam would be entirely superfluous.

Let me be clear here: even though I don’t think that it’s correct to accuse Benedict of making “crusade”-like statements about Islam (and believe me, the Popes know how to preach a crusade; if Benedict had wanted to do that, he could have gone into the Vatican library to peruse copies of Urban II‘s speeches to get some pointers), I do think it’s entirely correct to take Benedict to task for making some irresponsible remarks. But the irresponsibility concerns not the question of whether or not he has accurately characterized Islamic notions of God and the proper way to spread the faith, but instead the repetition (whether deliberate or unselfconscious I have no idea, and I will not presume to judge) of the classic Western-European-Christian way of dealing with cultures and religions other than their own: refusing to engage them directly on their own terms, and instead deploying them opportunistically in the course of debates internal to Europe/Christianity/the West. It is almost as if Benedict was sitting down to have a discussion with a group of European Christians, blithely proceeding as though he were having the kind of private conversation that one can only have when one considers oneself to be the only civilized/cultured/worthwhile people around: ain’t nobody here but just us chickens Christians, and the rest of the world? Well, yes, there are savages and barbarians out there, but they don’t really matter. It’s only the debates among ourselves that are the important ones — and you’d better agree with me, unless you really want to be like those wretches outside of our sphere of civilization.

Hence the irony: Benedict wasn’t attacking Islam; he was ignoring it, and in particular ignoring its claim to be a rival monotheistic religion that deserves to be set on equal footing with Christianity when trying to wrestle with thorny issues like the relationship between faith and reason. Classic medieval scholastic response (or lack of response — take your pick). The difference this time is that opportunistic Islamist groups are taking advantage of the Pope’s irresponsibility, even though they missing the issue about as much as Benedict himself did. The problem is not that Benedict insulted Islam; the problem is that Benedict didn’t try to engage Islam, and in response, the Islamists are trying not to engage the Pope (and Europe, and Christianity), preferring to burn him in effigy. And so it goes.

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