When we hear that a gunman walked into a school and took some students hostage we immediately think, “That was wrong.” When our parents tell us we can’t go out with our friends tonight we immediately want to know why. When we hear someone got an “A” on a test without studying and without cheating we ask how they did it.
Our brains work that way. We make judgments about right and wrong. We look for causes. We try to figure things out. We do this because we are gifted with reason . Our reason is a small participation in God’s spirit.
Recently Pope Benedict XVI spoke about reason. His speech caused quite a controversy because of one of the quotes he used. Let’s take a look at his words and what he was trying to say.
A topic chosen
The speech was made in Regensburg, Germany. Pope Benedict was visiting his homeland. During his visit there were a couple of themes that ran through all his speeches, homilies, and words. One theme was the closeness of God to our lives. Another central theme of his visit was the relationship between faith and reason. Faith and reason was his theme in the speech at Regensburg.
Benedict XVI used the controversial quote early in the speech. It was part of the introduction. The person quoted was the emperor Manuel II Paleologus. He was emperor of the Byzantine Empire in the 1300’s. His empire was under attack by the Muslims. The quote says, “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.”
Illustrating the nature of God
The quote is strong. The Pope introduced it saying that the question is asked brusquely by the emperor. The point of the Pope in quoting it is not to agree with the statement but to point out that this Christian emperor thought that spreading the faith through violence was unreasonable and did not fit with the nature of God.
The Pope further quotes the emperor: “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably (“with logos “) is contrary to God’s nature.” It is an example of Christian thought on the nature of God and the nature of reason.
The main question
But the main point of Benedict XVI in this speech was not this. He simply uses this point to ask a further question: is the fact that the emperor considered that God is reasonable merely the result of a certain culture (the ancient Greek culture) or is it a truth that is always and intrinsically true? Is it absolutely true that God is always reasonable?
Reason and God together
The Pope goes on to point out how Greek thought about reason and biblical thought about God had been drawing closer throughout the development of the Old Testament. They were preparing the way for the definitive revelation of God in the New Testament. In the New Testament Jesus is shown to be Logos , the reason and Word of God (John 1;1).
The Holy Father then states, “A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” (with reason) is contrary to God’s nature.” So the Pope answers his question: Yes, God is always reasonable.
The Pope explains that over the last centuries and in modern times some people have called for Christianity to reject the classical Greek insistence on reason. He spends quite a bit of time describing and criticizing this rejection of the union of faith and reason. He then clarifies that the union of faith and reason was not just a casual happening: “the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.”
Be open to the bigger horizon
Benedict XVI concludes his talk asking that modern scientific inquiry be open to the bigger questions that human reason poses: the questions that have to do with God. There is a danger that we can forget that such questions are legitimate and rational . This would make it very hard for Western science to really enter into a dialogue with all men and all cultures. It would make it impossible for Western science to find the deeper truths of man’s existence. A university, as a place of study, should be open to this type of study because human reason is open to God’s reason.
An alternative to violence
But the Pope was also making another point. He was inviting everyone to reject violence. Violence in the name of religion is unreasonable. His quote showed how sometimes violence in the name of religion had been used in the past. He was pointing out that there is an alternative to violence. That alternative is dialogue. It is a dialogue based on reason. And faith goes with reason. Both faith and reason should reject violence as a way to solve conflicts.
Our media world looks for quick sound bites. It sometimes has trouble going deeper. So when the media found the quote from the medieval emperor, some members of the media thought they had a good sound bite. They did not bother to see if it reflected the Pope’s personal opinion.
The reactions to reading the quote out of context have been dramatic at times. Some voices in the Islamic world have even called for the death of the Pope. This is an ironic twist: while the Pope was calling for dialogue in the name of faith and reason, others were calling for his death, using his invitation to dialogue as their justification.
Benedict XVI is a thoughtful man. His words were well thought out and studied. He wanted to invite the Muslim world as well as the West to have confidence in the use of reason. He believes that reason has power. It can penetrate and disarm blind passion. He wanted to put a base for fruitful dialogue by insisting on reason, even if his words might cause some misunderstanding.
One would think that the pope knew that using this quote could cause controversy and that he’d likely take some major heat for it. Yet, he acted with courage meeting the danger of using a sensitive quote about Muslims, without giving way to the fear of the likely personal verbal attacks and death threats.
Also, one can see wisdom in how the Pope proactively handled the fall out. Benedict XVI used the media attention to engage people all over the world on the issue of faith and reason, especially reaching out to start an active dialogue with Muslim religious leaders.
All has not ended badly. The very fact that the Pope’s words attracted so much attention has made the Pope’s efforts for dialogue more noticeable. Pope Benedict has had occasion to explain his words several times and reiterate his esteem for the Muslim faith. His words and gestures have been followed more closely by the Muslim world.
And the Pope’s words have caused some moderate Muslims to stand up and call for calm dialogue as well.
We can only hope that the increased interest in the words of the Holy Father help to create better conditions of dialogue. If ever his voice is needed in the world, it is today when dialogue between Islam and the West has become so strained.
This should also encourage us to get to know the Holy Father’s thought more closely. Our ability to transmit his thought can be a true contribution to the good of the world.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1, 1)
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1, 9)
Now with you is Wisdom, who knows your works and was present when you made the world; who understands what is pleasing in your eyes and what is conformable with your commands. (Wisdom 9: 9)
“In no way did I wish to make my own the words of the medieval emperor. I wished to explain that not religion and violence, but religion and reason, go together.” (Benedict XVI, September 20, 2006)
“I hope that my profound respect for world religions and for Muslims, who “worship the one God” and with whom we “promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values for the benefit of all humanity” (“Nostra Aetate,” 3), is clear.” (Benedict XVI, September 20, 2006)
“Let us continue the dialogue both between religions and between modern reason and the Christian faith!” (Benedict XVI, September 20, 2006)
39 In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists.
159 Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth
1706 By his reason, man recognizes the voice of God which urges him “to do what is good and avoid what is evil.”
2302 By recalling the commandment, “You shall not kill,” our Lord asked for peace of heart and denounced murderous anger and hatred as immoral.
Saints and Heroes
A Man of Dialogue
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS (1225-1274)
St. Thomas dedicated his life to the study of human thought and the faith. He achieved a remarkable synthesis of faith and reason in his works. He also studied the relationship between the Muslim faith and Christian faith and wrote an extensive work intended for dialogue with Muslims called Summa contra Gentiles. Besides having an extraordinary intellect, Thomas was a man of great humility and holiness. He is patron of all universities, colleges, and schools.
Patroness of Philosophers
ST. CATHERINE OF ALEXANDRIA (DIED AROUND 310)
St. Catherine lived in Egypt. Although she lived before the Muslim faith began, St. Catherine of Alexandria is considered a model of faith and reason. The details on her life are not very clear since she lived in a time of persecution of Christians, but legend has it that fifty pagan philosophers were converted by conversation with her, as well as numerous other persons. She was beheaded for being a Christian. She is patroness of philosophers, maidens, and preachers. Her feast day is November 25.