Some thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI's controversial lecture on Christian theology.
- Caveat lector, taking Benedict's reported choice of words too literally. The story of the disputation between Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and his Persian friend was written down in 14thC Greek. A 20thC Lebanese-born German scholar translated, and edited, it into German, the version from which Benedict read, and now we've got the English translation. The Arabic press will be translating this English translation into Arabic. Nuances can get lost in this processing.
- According to the BBC's Rome correspondent, David Willey, reporting last weekend on the radio, the Vatican was briefing reporters that this would be almost certainly be Benedict XVI's last visit to his homeland, and that it was expected that his papacy would be much shorter in duration than was his predecessor's - words to that effect. The underlying message, it seemed to me, was that Benedict and those around him believe that his end will be nigh before much longer. I think that's why his text covers so many bases. He doesn't know how much longer he has, so he tried to put it nearly all down in one go.
- The secular press are mostly ill-equipped to report accurately Benedict's words and meanings, so a caricature gets reported as if it were factual. Then the media send camera crews and reporters to cover the demonstrations organized in protest at what's been reported in the media.
- The pope's lecture was about the relationship between reason and faith - only marginally was it about the theology of jihadism. It was also an apologia for the place of theology within the modern university; it was, as he himself described it, a broad-brushed "critique of modern reason from within"; it was a defence of the Christian roots of Europe; and, above all, it was about the nature of logos as both reason and word, as both Greek and Christian, and that theologizing and dialoguing are impossible without logos. It was beautifully constructed, and every word he quoted from Manuel II was relevant to Benedict's argument. I'm not a Catholic but I have a degree in theology, and from my point of view, it's a gift to have a pope who thinks and writes theologically. The trouble is, most people don't have a theology degree.
- I have two main criticisms of his argument. The first, and lesser one, is this: is it true that violence "is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul"? The Old Testament God is violent at times. The Big Bang was violent. Nature is raw, in tooth and claw. The Catholic Church has traditionally argued that some warfare is just. Benedict's point would be clearer if his critique was only of violence-caused conversions rather than of violence generally. Benedict misses the point if he thinks contemporary jihadist violence is primarily about forced conversions - it's more about defending one's homeland against invaders who are intent on converting, by violence if necessary, the world to liberal, secular humanism. In his critique of violent conversion, he should have addressed it equally, if not more so, to the Americanist ideology.
- More seriously, is human reason really analogous to the divine logos? Wasn't human reason at all corrupted by the Fall? How, for example, does Benedict know that violence is incompatible with God's nature? To me, that seems more a statement of faith than of reason. Reason tells me that human reason is fallible and that, if God exists, divine reason is probably infallible. The pope rightly (I think) pleads for more reason in religious matters, but, ironically, like most secular humanists, he overestimates humanity's capacity for reason. Greater intellectual humility would help him achieve the better dialogue with Muslim theologians that he desires.
Er, that's it for now.