By Fr. George Welzbacher
October 22 & 29, 2006
Pope Benedict XVI certainly caught the world's attention with his recent lecture at the University of Regensburg. And the media have had a field day ever since with their conflicting pronouncements as to whether it was appropriate for the Pope to point out, however politely, that the Qoran does indeed exhort Muslims to jihad, to holy war. (In the reckoning of Stephen O'Shea, author of The Sea Of Faith, an excellent new history of Islam's wars against the West and the Western World's counter-attacks against Islam, the Qoran contains thirty-five such exhortations to jihad). For The New York Times (and seemingly most cartoonists) Pope Benedict was "insensitive", whereas for the Wall Street Journal he was "Benedict the Brave". My vote goes with the Wall Street Journal
To those who have taken the trouble to read the text of the Pope's address it's clear that he was simply pointing out, within the larger context of the relationship of faith to reason, that there are two major obstacles that stand in the way of productive dialogue between Muslim and Christian theologians, and until those obstacles have been cleared away - and identifying them in the first place is the precondition for their removal - ecumenical discussions between Muslims and Christians will offer, so to speak, little more than an occasion for "making nice" and sipping tea. The two obstacles cited by the Pope as militating against productive dialogue are:
1) The Islamic sanctification of physical force in promoting and sustaining conversions to Islam, such use of force being, as the Pope stated, a violation of man's nature as a rational being;
2) The important hypothesis in a major school of Islamic thought, though a hypothesis by no means embraced by all Islamic theologians, that would discern in God's omnipotence the supposed ability to act, should He so choose, even against His own nature, which would mean, for example, that God, Who is Subsistent Truth, could, in this interpretation, tell a lie. With respect to this distorted view of what is involved in omnipotence Pope Benedict was at pains to point out that this same flaw is also embodied in the teachings of a Christian theologian of the High Middle Ages, the Franciscan Duns Scotus. A flaw nonetheless it is. And a practical consequence is that if God can be thought capable of violating His own nature even to the point of telling a lie, then no statement of any kind can confidently be made about God, since each statement's contradictory might be equally valid, at which point there would be no point to holding theological discussions at all.
The other major obstacle cited by Pope Benedict as standing in the way of productive ecumenical discussion is the Qoran's advocacy of the use of force to bring about and to sustain conversions to Islam. One should note at once that the Qoran forbids the forced conversion of People of the Book, that is to say, Jews and Christians, though on one notorious occasion Mohammed himself presided over the slaughter of the men and the enslavement of the women and children of a Jewish tribe at Yathrib, the city later known as Medina, The City of the Prophet; the Jews in question had declined to accept him as the Final Prophet. Nor should one forget that by and large a constant for Jews and Christians living in Muslim lands is a very real form of social compulsion. Their status is that of second-class citizens, dhimmis who are typically denied many basic civil rights, including the right to public expression of their religious beliefs. By way of contrast with the People of the Book, pagans, kaffirs, (unbelievers in the fullest sense), are to be allowed only the choice of conversion or death. So too, Muslims who choose to transfer their allegiance to a non-Islainic faith thereby stand convicted of a "crime" that under Islamic law is punishable by death.
Pope Benedict conceded that historically the Muslims have had no monopoly on the use of force in the supposed service of God. Down through the centuries Christians, too, have done much the same, resorting to compulsion of various kinds to bring about at least outward assent to one or another version of the Christian Creed. But the important question at issue today in ecumenical discussion is not what has been the behaviour of one's co- religionists in ages past but rather what does your religion's foundational document have to say about the use of physical compulsion to evoke a religious conversion?
On that point the New Testament, the foundational document of the Christian religion, is clear. When James and John, furious at certain.villagers who had turned a deaf ear to the Apostles' message, besought Christ to "call down fire from heaven" as punishment for their unbelief, Christ's answer was a rebuke: "You know not from what spirit you speak." At the beginning of the climactic week of His earthly mission Christ entered Jerusalem seated not upon a horse, whose strength and speed equip it well for war, but upon a donkey, the slow but patient beast of burden that is symbolic of peace. And do we need to be reminded that in the Garden of Olives Christ commanded Peter to put away the sword that he had drawn, and briefly used. St. Paul was thus introducing no departure from the spirit of the Gospel when he wrote to the Corinthians (11 Corinthians 10:4): "For our weapons are not those of the flesh but they are powerful for the overthrow of strongholds!" Faith in Christ as the only- begotten Son of God Who took to Himself a human body and a hwnan soul is a gift that comes from God alone. "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent Me draw him, " (John 6:44) which is why St. John in the Prologue to his Gospel declares that true believers are bom "not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man but of God."
The Qoran's exhortations to holy war, to jihad, breathe forth a spirit very different from that of the Gospel. For while it is true that jihad can be interpreted to mean a spiritual warfare against one's own disordered passions, it is clear from Mohammed's own example in seizing power through success in battle that the primary meaning of jihad is conventional warfare. Such was the conclusion drawn by Mohammed's closest followers from the moment of his death. Within months of that death Abu Bekr, the first caliph, rallied the recent converts to Islam with a call to launch raids, quickly transformed into full-scale war, against the two neighboring empires of Byzantium and Persia, empires that had exhausted themselves in a recent prolonged and bitter war. Such, too, was the interpretation of the Muslim armies and their fervent generals who through centuries of warfare carried Islam to dominance over much of the Mediterranean world and over much of Asia and important regions of Europe as well. Pope Benedict objected to this sanctification of force in the service of God on the grounds that while force can be used in ordering brute beasts to the legitimate purposes of man, man himself who is not a beast must not be treated as such. Possessing the faculty of reason, with the concomitant power to follow where his reason leads, man is the image of God, Who is Reason, Mind and Logos to an infinite degree. As pure Spirit God is accessible not to our physical senses but only to the spiritual power within us, to our reason, our intellect, our conscience. Reason accordingly is the bridge alone over which man can draw near to God.
For productive ecumenical dialog between Christian and Muslim theologians it is at that bridge, the bridge of reason, with the role of force excluded, that they must meet. Brilliant theologian that he is, Pope Benedict has said what needed to be said to prepare for, God willing, irenic and fruitful discussions in the years to come between the exponents of these two monotheistic faiths. To utter truths that many, perhaps most would judge to be impolitic takes courage.
I think the Wall Street Journal got it right. Pope Benedict is rightly hailed as "Benedict the Brave."
Fr. George Welzbacher