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In defense of a reasonable, and reasoned, faith

Will Islam be able to come to terms with the modern world? Can Christians help?

On September 12, 2006, then Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech at the University of Regensburg, where he was once professor and rector. Titled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”, it quickly became known as “The Islam Speech,” for one small portion.

Here’s the quote that garnered so much attention: “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 pope was quoting Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus, using the illustration to argue the fundamental incompatibility of violence and conversion.

Benedict continued quoting: “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....”

What followed was by every estimation, a media frenzy. Pouncing on Benedict’s alleged intolerance and ignorance of Islam, many of his critics ignored his big idea: this was a speech about the need for tolerance and steeped in a knowledge of Islam that surpassed the vast majority of its critics.

Here’s what Benedict’s critics missed: this speech was an offer to Muslims to help them find, from within their own tradition, the resources they needed to affirm tolerance, pluralism, and the distinction between faith and civil society. The Roman Catholic Church, said the pope, had needed almost two centuries to think through these issues, and was in now a place to help accelerate the process in another faith tradition as a result.

Could Benedict have made his point in a less provocative way? In hindsight, no doubt the answer is yes. Could the critics have actually taken time to read and digest what was said so as to offer informed criticism? Again, of course.

Either way though, recent events have vindicated both Benedict and Benedict’s address. For what we are watching unfold in North Africa and the Middle East with increasing alarm is a civil war within Islam that is spilling over into the non-Muslim world because of geopolitical, economic, and migratory realities.

The questions driving the conflict is the one that concerned the previous pope in his Regensburg address. Will Islam (a faith of 1.1 billion people that resists easy pigeonholing) be able to come to terms with the modern world? Or, will those Muslims who wish instead to enshrine, by armed force, a mythical eighth-century caliphate win?

What the pope offered in his address was a deep meditation on the need for faith (any faith) to be reasonable, and the need for faithful people to commit themselves to reason in faith’s pursuit. What he opposed was a vision of God’s transcendence that severed any connection between God and the world such that God’s “commands” could not, indeed should not, be reasoned through but only obeyed.

The Regensburg speech, then, was the deployment of one tool—the philosophy of religion(s)—in a larger theo-political effort. It is not the only tool. The others include economic, social, political and, yes, military options. This is the struggle that will define the 21st century. It will define our world as the Cold War defined that of our parents.

As Benedict well knew, the majority non-Muslim world has a vested interest in hoping that those Muslims arguing from the resources of Islamic faith and tradition for a pluralistic understanding of their faith’s place in the world will carry the day. Any help they can be given should be given.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Tim Perry is rector at Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ontario. He blogs about theology, religion, politics and sometimes the blues at texasflood.ca.