On Friday night, November 30, EPPC Distinguished Senior Fellow George Weigel delivered one of the keynote addresses at a conference, “The Dialogue of Cultures,” sponsored by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture. The full text of Weigel’s lecture follows.
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On the night of September 12, 2006, my wife and I were having dinner with two of the late John Paul II’s oldest friends in their Cracovian apartment when my mobile phone began ringing . It was an extremely agitated Italian reporter — which is, I suppose, a formulation replete with adverbial and adjectival redundancy. Nevertheless, for a native of Italy, my caller was remarkably indicative rather than subjunctive: “Ze Pope has just given zees crazee conferenza in Germania about ze Muslims. What do you say about it?” I replied that I couldn’t answer as I hadn’t read the Pope’s lecture. “Si, si, I know,” my caller responded, “but what do you say about it?” I then replied that, unlike some of my caller’s countrymen — indeed, unlike some of my own — I wasn’t in the habit of commenting on papal texts until I had read, marked, and inwardly digested them; so would he please e-mail me a copy of the text so that I could read it on the plane home the next day, at which point he could call me back for a comment. This he did; and I must tell you that, if you have never conducted a trans-Atlantic telephone interview from the Wendy’s at Newark Liberty International Airport, you are missing one of life’s more bracing experiences.
I recount this little bit of journalistic melodrama in order to lay down two preliminary markers.
Primo: It struck me on the plane, and it still strikes me today, that Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture was the most important papal statement on publicmatters of global consequence since John Paul II’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in October 1995. In the latter, John Paul defended the universality of human rights on the basis of a universal human nature, from which could be read a universal moral law. Absent a universal human nature and a universal moral law that could be known by the disciplined exercise of reason, John Paul argued, there could be no universal conversation about universal goods, no universal consideration of the the human future — and no “dialogue of cultures,” the theme of this conference. For, absent a universal moral law functioning as a kind of inter-cultural grammar for ordering a genuine dialogue, there would only be noise — cacophony. John Paul II’s 1995 U.N. address identified one set of pressing moral issues for the immediate post-Cold War period; Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture clearly identified a cluster of related and equally pressing issues underlying the new world disorder of the early 21st century.
Secondo: The initial media reaction to Regensburg — “The Pope has made a gaffe!” — got set in quick-drying cement and has remained in that condition ever since, at least as a default position in the world press. As recently as two weeks ago, when the agenda for Pope Benedict’s April 2008 visit to the United States was released, more than a few media outlets mentioned the Regensburg mis-step, as they continued to construe it. In the immediate aftermath of Regensburg, colleagues and I published several op-ed columns and articles in a number of newspapers and newsmagazines arguing that Benedict XVI knew exactly what he was saying, and that if his critics would do him the courtesy of reading the text in its entirely, they might come to a similar conclusion. We also argued that there wasn’t a centimeter’s worth of difference between Benedict XVI’s theological reading of Islam and John Paul II’s — a gap between the two popes being another antiphon in the chorus of deprecation by which “God’s Rottweiler” was being transformed into God’s Dunce. All that this managed to accomplish, in my case, was to increase the volume of e-mail I was receiving with slightly disconcerting subject lines like “Greetings from Peshawar; we are unhappy with you.”
Reading Regensburg right, my subject this evening, requires clearing away some of this rubble, in order to assess the claim that Regensburg was, in fact, a critically important papal statement correctly identifying one of the mega-dynamics of early 21st century history, and in order to see how the Regensburg Lecture could help set the foundation for a genuine, truth-centered dialogue of cultures.
A papal gaffe?
Let’s begin with the alleged “gaffe.” I have been a longtime, if friendly, critic of Vatican communications, and I freely concede that there was much left to be desired in the way the Holy See’s communications apparatus handled Regensburg. The press was not properly briefed on what to expect from the Pope’s lecture — and on why he was saying what he was saying. The post-lecture controversy seems not to have been anticipated; and so neither was an adequate response. If memory serves, it took more than a week for the Vatican to post the complete text of the Regensburg Lecture, including its scholarly apparatus, on its Web site. The net effect of this fumbling around was to reinforce the impression that a gaffe had indeed been made, that the Pope had indeed “misspoken” (I wonder what the Italian translation of that famous White House neologism would be?), and that amends had to be made so that inter-religious comity could be restored — hence the hastily arranged meeting between the Pope and the diplomatic representatives of several Islamic states at Castel Gandolfo in late September 2006. How anything the Pope said at Regensburg gave reasonable cause for the violent reactions — lethally violent reactions, in some instances — that followed his lecture, once the jihadists had gotten the Regensburg bit into their teeth, was left unexplored by the media. Jihadists do not, of course, march to the Holy See’s drummer; but one has to ask whether a more adroit management of the immediate post-lecture controversy by the Holy See might not have dampened passions to the point where they could not be so successfully (and, it would seem, readily) ignited.
That being said, and meant, it still beggars belief to give credence to the claim that Joseph Ratzinger, a man with a half-century’s experience of public controversy, did not know what he was saying at Regensburg. It further beggars belief to give credence to the suggestion that Benedict XVI was being deliberately provocative, even insulting. I have had the honor of knowing the present pope for nineteen years, and in the first decade of our conversation I formed some distinct impressions of the man, impressions that shed some light on the Regensburg Lecture. Permit me to share three of those impressions with you this evening.
In the first instance, Benedict XVI is a Christian gentleman whose exquisite manners reflect both his innate shyness and his deep-seated respect for others. As I have come to know him, he is incapable of the gratuitous insult. Nor has he been much given to polemics since the famous Ratzinger Report caused a storm of controversy and set the basic terms of conversation for the Extraordinary Synod of 1985. He is also a man acutely responsible of his responsibilities as pope, which include the papal sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum, the papal “solicitude for all the churches,” which includes the persecuted churches — and which certainly includes the hard-pressed churches in Islamic states. The “Rottweiler” caricature, vicious and inaccurate but still lurking in the subconscious of some journalists, was a hermeneutic filter distorting the message of Regensburg, it seems to me.
In the second place, I have been struck by Joseph Ratzinger’s encyclopedic knowledge of theology, which ranges far beyond Catholic thought
to encompass Protestant and Orthodox thinking, Jewish scholarship, and Islamic commentators. It is, of course, true that Ratzinger is not as well-versed in some of these disciplines as he is in others. But he is certainly not ignorant of the main currents of thought in other world religious traditions, as some of the post-Regensburg commentary suggested.
Then, in the third place, there is the precision of his mind. I have been blessed by the acquaintance of many brilliant men and women. Joseph Ratzinger is one of the very, very few brilliant people I have ever known who, when asked a question, pauses, reflects — and then answers in complete paragraphs. And in his third or fourth language. This is a man who says precisely what he means and means exactly what he says. And if that was true of his performance during interviews and conversations in his office at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, how much more would it be true of his performance in a rather formal academic context such as the Regensburg Lecture?
Thus I find the notion of Regensburg-as-papal-“gaffe” prima facie implausible.
Three crucial points
What, then, did this precise man say in his Regensburg Lecture?
Benedict’s first point was that all the great questions of life, including social and political questions, are ultimately theological. How we think (or don’t think) about God has much to do with how we think about what is good and what is wicked, how we judge what is noble and what is base, and how we think about the appropriate methods for advancing the truth in a world in which there are profound disagreements about the truth of things.
If, for example, men and women imagine God to be pure will, an absolute dominance to whom the only appropriate response is submission, then there will be little “room” within our theology for a God of reason, a God of “Logos” — and still less “room” for a God of love. A God of radical willfulness can command anything, even the irrational. To be sure, Christian thinkers like Scotus and Ockham have tended to imagine God this way: pure will, pure dominance. But their views are in considerable theological tension with the mainstream of the Christian tradition, in which the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus is a God of reason and love, a God who comes searching for man in history and invites human beings into a dialogue of salvation. This is the God for whom are hearts are restless, until they rest in his embrace.
This God cannot command the unreasonable, for to do so would be to contradict God’s own nature. This theological datum yields an important anthropological by-product that has shaped Christian moral reflection on the right-ordering of society for centuries. For in the human capacity for reason, we see the imprint of the divine reason, the “Logos,” the Word through whom the world was made. Thus God’s self-revelation– first to the People of Israel, later and definitively in his Son — does not “cancel” human reason: God’s revelation appeals to human reason, to the divine spark within us. That is why mainstream Christianity has always taught that human beings can build decent societies by attending to reason. That is why natural law ways of thinking about the good have helped shape Christian reflection on society, on war and peace, and on politics for centuries.
Thus Benedict XVI’s first point: our idea of God inevitably influences our ideas of theology and politics.
Benedict’s second point followed closely on his first: irrational violence aimed at innocent men, women, and children is, as he put it at Regensburg, “incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the [human] soul.” Joseph Ratzinger was certainly not laying down a blanket indictment here; he would, I am confident, agree that it is very much worth engaging in the most serious of scholarly conversations in order to clarify and explore the several theologies of God at work in the complex worlds-within-worlds of Islam. But while that exploration is underway, it is equally imperative to recognize, as Benedict did at Regensburg, that certain currents of thought in contemporary Islam insist (to take the most dramatic and odious example) that the suicide bombing of innocents is an act pleasing to God, an act of martyrdom meriting eternal bliss. Muting the latter point cannot be the admission ticket for engaging the deeper dialogue about the divine nature. Moreover, it is the responsibility of all who worship the one, true God to declare, unambiguously, that the murder of innocents in the name of advancing the divine cause in the world is an abomination based on gravely mistaken understandings: misunderstandings about God, about’s God’s will and God’s purposes, and about the nature of moral obligation.
To be sure, responsibility for challenging these distorted views of God and the distorted understanding of moral duty that flows from them rests, first, with Islamic leaders. But too few Islamic leaders have been willing to undertake a cleansing Islam’s conscience — as John Paul II taught the Catholic Church to cleanse its historical conscience in preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000. We know that, in the past, Christians used violence to advance Christian purposes. The Catholic Church has publicly repented of such distortions of the Gospel, and has developed a deep theological critique of the misunderstandings that led to such episodes. Can the Church, therefore, be of some help to those brave Islamic reformers who, at the risk of their own lives, are trying to develop a parallel Islamic critique of their co-religionists’ misunderstandings?
By quoting from a robust exchange between a medieval Byzantine emperor and a learned Islamic scholar, Benedict XVI was not making a cheap rhetorical point; he was trying to illustrate the possibility of a tough-minded but rational dialogue between Christians and Muslims. That dialogue can only take place, however, on the basis of a shared commitment to reason and a mutual rejection of irrational violence in the name of God.
Pope Benedict’s third point — which has been almost entirely ignored in the fourteen-plus months since the Regensburg Lecture — was directed to the West. If the high culture of the West continues to fritter its time away in the intellectual sandbox of post-modern irrationalism — in which there is “your truth” and “my truth” but nothing properly describable as “the truth”– the West will be unable to defend itself. Why? Because the West won’t be able to give reasons why its commitments to civility, tolerance, human rights, and the rule of law are worth defending. A western world stripped of convictions about the truths that make western civilization possible cannot make a useful contribution to a genuine dialogue of civilizations and cultures, for any such dialogue must be based on a shared understanding that human beings can, however imperfectly, come to know the truth of things.
Can Islam be self-critical? Can its leaders condemn and marginalize its extremists, or are Muslims condemned to be held hostage to the passions of those who consider the murder of innocents to be pleasing to God? Can the West recover its commitment to reason and thus help support Islamic reformers? These, I suggest are the large questions that Benedict XVI put on the world’s agenda at Regensburg. No one else could have done so: no president, prime minister, king, queen, or secretary-general could put these questions into play, at this level of sophistication, and for a world audience. But Benedict XVI did more than raise unavoidable questions at Regensburg; he also gave the political world a grammar for addressing these questions — the genuinely transcultural grammar of rationality-and-irrationality. The theological communities of the great world religious traditions can conduct a robust interreligio
us dialogue within their own specialist grammars and vocabularies. Something other than those specialist grammars and vocabularies is required in public life. The grammar of “rationality/irrationality” can be that “something,” I suggest.
My friends at the National Catholic Reporter editorially criticized the Regensburg Lecture as having trafficked “too much in theological abstraction,” as they put it. It seems to me that the Holy Father did precisely the opposite: At Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI did the world an immense service by giving believers and non-believers alike a language with which to deal with the threat of jihadist ideology: the language of rationality and irrationality. Far from being an exercise in “theological abstraction,” the Regensburg lecture was a courageous attempt to create a new public grammar capable of disciplining and directing the world’s discussion of what is arguably the world’s gravest problem (Mr. Gore’s homeless and overheated polar bears notwithstanding).
And in doing these things, Benedict XVI was in sync with the view of Islam, its religious accomplishments, and its challenges held by his predecessor, John Paul II.
Remembering John Paul II
It was, of course, somewhat amusing to hear some of the same voices that used to lament the “hardline” and “conservative” Polish Pope now, in the wake of the Regensburg Lecture, lifting John Paul up as a paragon of enlightened, benign liberality: amusing, if slightly disconcerting. More disconcerting, however, were the attempts to drive a wedge between Benedict and his papal predecessor by those who could care less about the internal Catholic culture-war, but who saw their chance to make a seemingly decisive point, and took it. Thus the Arabic satellite TV network, Al-Jazeera, in the aftermath of Regensburg, ran a series of cartoons featuring a John Paul-figure releasing peaceful doves in St. Peter’s Square; the doves are then shot down by Benedict from the roof of the Bernini colonnades surrounding St. Peter’s. The last images in the series have John Paul weeping, head in hands, while Benedict, holding a smoking shotgun, smirks. All of which is silly and vulgar, of course. But it isn’t that far from the views expressed by some Catholics, lamenting what they allege to be the drastic difference between Wojtyla’s and Ratzinger’s views of Islam.
The 1994 international bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope was John Paul II’s most personal statement, a summary of his convictions about faith, prayer, the papal mission, other world religions, and the human future. As such, it has a special claim on our attention as an expression of Karol Wojtyla’s views, which were honed by an acute intelligence and a long experience of the world. One section of Threshold is devoted to Islam. In it, John Paul expressed his respect for “the religiosity of Muslims” and his admiration for their “fidelity to prayer.” As the late Pope put it, “The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all.”
But do these expressions of respect suggest, as National Public Radio’s Sylvia Poggioli did after Regensburg, that John Paul II (in marked contrast to Benedict XVI) had put Islam “on the same plane” as Catholicism? Hardly. Here, again, is the authentic voice of John Paul II, from Crossing the Threshold of Hope:
“Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam, all the richness of God’s self-revelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.
“Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent. For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.”
Thus the personal testimony of John Paul II, which is in some respects more blunt and challenging than anything Benedict XVI said at Regensburg. But we can leave the comparisons and contrasts and for another day. The point here is that there isn’t a centimeter of difference between John Paul II’s substantive evaluation of Islam and Benedict XVI’s. John Paul II was a master of the public gesture; but to read from his public gestures of respect for Islamic piety an agreement with Islam’s understanding of God, man, and moral obligation is to make a grave mistake. John Paul II would have completely agreed with Benedict XVI’s critique, at Regensburg, of any theology that reduces God to pure will, a remote dictator who can command the irrational (like the murder of innocents) if he chooses. And, like Benedict XVI, John Paul II knew that such misconceptions can have lethal public consequences, because all the great questions of the human condition, including political questions, are ultimately theological.
Benedict XVI bears the burden of the papacy at a historical moment in which religiously-warranted irrationality is a lethal threat to the future of civilization. He and his predecessor have the same view of the theological conditions for the possibility of that irrationality. What Benedict XVI has added to the mix is a broader analysis of the problem of faith-and-reason as engaging the West (a theme, to be sure, also found in John Paul II) and a prescription for the direction the dialogue over faith-and-reason should take. It is to that proposal that I now wish to turn, for reading Regensburg right requires us to read the lecture in continuity with other statements by Pope Benedict which have gotten, sadly, little attention.
A Benedictine strategy for 21st century interreligious dialogue
The most important and potentially consequential of these post-Regensburg statements was the Pope’s Christmas 2006 address to the Roman Curia.
As many of you know, these annual addresses, framed by a formal exchange of greetings between the pope and his senior collaborators, are often used by popes to review the year just past and to provide some clues as to themes to be developed in the year ahead. Late 2006 had been an especially busy period, between Regensburg and the papal pilgrimage to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Benedict XVI, reflecting on both experiences and the controversies that had attended them, had the following to say:
“In a dialogue to be intensified with Islam, we must bear in mind the fact that the Muslim world today is finding itself faced with an urgent task. This task is very similar to the one that was imposed upon Christians since the Enlightenment, and to which the Second Vatican Council, as the fruit of long and difficult research, found real solutions for the Catholic Church…
“It is a question of the attitude that the community of the faithful must adopt in the face of the convictions and demands that were strengthened in the Enlightenment.
“On the one hand, one must counter a dictatorship of positivist reason that excludes God from the life of the
community and from public organizations…
“On the other hand, one must welcome the true conquests of the Enlightenment, human rights, and especially the freedom of faith and its practice, and recognize these also as being essential elements for the authenticity of religion.
“As in the Christian community, where there has been a long search to find the correct position of faith in relation to such beliefs — a search that will certainly never be concluded once and for all — so also the Islamic world with its own tradition faces the immense task of finding the appropriate solutions to these problems.
“The content of the dialogue between Christians and Muslims will be at this time especially one of meeting each other in this commitment to find the right solutions. We Christians feel ourselves in solidarity with all those who, precisely on the basis of their religious convictions as Muslims, work to oppose violence and for the synergy between faith and reason, between religion and freedom…” .
Translated from Vatican English into standard English, I take it that Benedict was suggesting the following: First, history itself has put before the Islamic world the “urgent task” of finding a way to come to grips with the intellectual and institutional achievements of the Enlightenment: the Muslim world can no longer live as if the Enlightenment, in both its achievements and its flaws, had not happened. The intra-Islamic civil war over these questions has now spilled out of the House of Islam and now affects the entire world That blunt fact of 21st century public life underscores the urgency of the task facing Islam’s religious leaders and legal scholars.
Second, this necessary Islamic encounter with Enlightenment thought and the institutions of governance that grew out of Enlightenment thought requires separating the Enlightenment wheat from the Enlightenment chaff. The skepticism and relativism that characterize one stream of Enlightenment thought need not (and indeed should not) be accepted. Yet one can (and must) make a distinction between the ideas that the Enlightenment got right — for example, religious freedom, understood as an inalienable human right to be acknowledged and protected by any just government — even as one rejects the ideas of which the Enlightenment made a hash (for example, the idea of God).
Third, this process of coming to grips with the complex heritage and continuing momentum of the Enlightenment is an ongoing one. As the experience of the Catholic Church has demonstrated in recent decades, however, an ancient religious tradition can appropriate certain aspects of Enlightenment thought, and can come to appreciate the institutions of freedom that emerged from the Enlightenment, without compromising in a fundamental way its own core theological commitments — indeed, the experience of the Catholic Church on the question of religious freedom and the institutional separation of Church and state shows that a serious, critical engagement with Enlightenment ideas and institutions can lead a religious community to a revivification of classic theological concepts that may have lain dormant for a long period of time, and thus to a genuine development of religious understanding. The Catholic Church came to the understandings embodied in Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, not by a Jacobin kicking-over of the theological traces, but by a process of retrieval-and-development that brought ancient, if long-forgotten, elements of the faith and of Christian philosopher into conversation with modern public life. Might this process of retrieval-an-development hold some lessons for our Muslim interlocutors?
Fourth, it is precisely on this ground — the ground where faith meets reason in a search for the truth about hos just societies should be structured — that inter-religious dialogue should be constructed.
All of which is to say that, in Benedict XVI’s view, the inter-religious dialogue of the future should focus on helping those Muslims willing to do so to explore the possibility of an Islamic case for religious tolerance, social pluralism, and civil society — even as Islam’s interlocutors (among Christians, Jews, and others, including non-believers) open themselves to the possibility that the Islamic critique of certain aspects of modern culture is not without merit.
That seems to me to be about right. While I would not preclude the possibility of a genuine theological dialogue between “Islam and the rest” on such questions as the nature of God, the mode of God’s engagement with his world, Islamic supersessionism and the resulting Islamic conception of both Judaism and Christianity, and the correct understanding of sacred texts and their exegesis, the most urgent, immediate questions for a dialogue of cultures between Islam and the West — and specifically between Islam and Catholicism — engage issues of practical reason: for the most urgent and immediate questions before us are questions of the proper organization of 21st century societies, and indeed of the 21st century global commons. The deeper theological dialogue with Islam is a dialogue whose progress, if such is possible, will be measured in centuries. The dialogue proposed by Benedict XVI is, necessarily, one with an immediate urgency about it. If you’ll pardon the image, it’s a dialogue with a much shorter fuse.
All the more reason, then, to regret that the Pope’s proposal seems to have been ignored — or, at the very least side-stepped — by the October 2007 statement signed by 138 world Islamic leaders, “A Common Word Between Us and You.”
Knowledgeable analysts of Islamic affairs have raised questions about the composition of the “138,” a group that includes a considerable number of government functionaries as well as figures with connections to Wahhabism, whose teachings and financial influence inflame so much Islamist agitation around the world. Be that as it may — and it’s not an insignificant thing — I would suggest that the better approach would be to ask the people who put “A Common Word” together, with all respect, why the Pope’s invitation of last December was not addressed in that statement.
As the Pope reminded the Curia, and as we have just noted, Catholicism spent the better part of two centuries trying to find solutions to the questions of faith, freedom, and governance posed by the Enlightenment, a process that bore fruit at the Second Vatican Council. Isn’t this theological method of retrieval-and-renewal a useful model for a Christian-Islamic dialogue aimed at the points stressed by Benedict XVI’s address to the Curia?
To repeat: the questions the Holy Father identified in December 2006 do seem to be the most urgent ones. For unless Islam can find within its own spiritual resources a way to legitimate religious freedom and the distinction between religious and political authority, the relationship between the world’s two billion Christians and its billion Muslims is going to remain fraught with tension. “A Common Word” spoke at length about the two Great Commandments; it said nothing about their applicability to issues of faith, freedom, and the governance of society: issues posed, for example, by the death threats visited upon Muslims who convert to Christianity and by the refusal to allow Christian public worship in Saudi Arabia. “A Common Word” also strikes a rather defensive tone, as if it were 21st century Christians who, in considerable numbers, were justifying the murder of innocents in advancing the cause of God. But that is manifestly not the case.
Do these 138 Muslim leaders agree or disagree that religious freedom and the distinction between religious and political authority are the issues at the heart of today’s tensions between Islam and the West — indeed, Isl
am and the rest? Would it not be more useful to concentrate on these urgent issues of practical reason (which bear on the organization of 21st century societies) than to frame the dialogue in terms of a generic exploration of the two Great Commandments (which risks leading to an exchange of banalities)? Why not get down to cases?
It is of the utmost importance for the human future that a genuine interreligious dialo