The author of this essay feels that the views on interreligious dialogue held by the head of the Roman Catholic Church have been misconstrued. The pope believes that such dialogue may help reduce violence and promote justice and peace, but its ultimate goal is the quest for truth. It must not only be about recognition of similarities, but also about the differences.
On September 12, 2006, at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture titled "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections." In it he explored the relationship between faith and reason in Christianity, but the speech is best remembered for its perceived anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The reaction that the speech provoked among Muslims led to mass protests, fatwas, and even attacks on churches. Karen Armstrong, a prominent scholar of comparative religion, represented the thoughts of many when she said that the pope had, "most unfortunately, withdrawn from the interfaith initiatives inaugurated by his predecessor, John Paul II, at a time when they are more desperately needed than ever."1
I disagree. Pope Benedict did not use that speech to provoke a global controversy, to provoke a clash of civilizations. On the contrary, his hope was to foster conversation, to urge the Muslim world to make it clear to Islamists that violence in the name of God is unIslamic. He also wanted to start a new chapter in interreligious dialogue between Christianity and Islam based on an honest and frank assessment not only of the affinities but also of the differences between the two traditions.
While John Paul II is justifiably lauded for his work in interfaith dialogue, Pope Benedict's approach actually represents a step forward from his predecessor. It has already had positive results: in the three years since the speech in question, Muslim leaders and the Roman Catholic Church have engaged in unprecedented levels of dialogue. One may hope that this lecture, which caused so much pain, may yet help, in the pope's words, "to build a civilization of love" and to contribute to creating a society where strangers will become friends.
The controversial passage in the Regensburg lecture came near the beginning. Pope Benedict told his audience he had just read a book that included a conversation from 1391 between a Muslim intellectual and a Christian Byzantine emperor. The pope quoted the emperor:
"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 emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God," he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably . . . is contrary to God's nature."2
When I first read about this talk, I too was puzzled why the pope chose to quote a fourteenth-century ruler who clearly associated Islam with violence. If he wanted to demonstrate the rationality of God and show that violence is not rational, why not choose a passage from the Bible? Is there really less violence in the Bible than in the Qur'an? To determine why the pope chose this quotation, we must first understand his views on Islam and his views on interreligious dialogue.
Because John Paul II was so renowned for his dedication to interfaith dialogue and because the Regensburg lecture came so early in Benedict's tenure, it is tempting to believe that this pope has no interest in reaching out to other faiths. But from early on in his papacy, Benedict emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue. On August 20, 2005 - four months after his election, more than a year before the Regensburg lecture - the pope delivered his first major address to Muslims, in Cologne, Germany. In the talk, he labeled Christian-Muslim dialogue "a vital necessity, on which in large measure our future depends."3 The pope has long felt that relativism, not any other religion, is Christianity's greatest enemy. In 2003, he wrote that "relativism has become the central problem for faith in our time."4 Other religions are potential allies in the battle against relativism and secularism.
But what of his views on Islam? Does the pope agree with the Byzantine emperor? In his 1997 book Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium: An Interview with Peter Seewald, the future pope laid out why Christian-Muslim dialogue is so difficult. First, there is a technical problem: there is no one who can speak for Islam as a whole. Second, Christianity and Islam see their role in society differently: "The Koran is a total religious law, which regulates the whole of political and social life and insists that the whole order of life be Islamic. Sharia shapes society from beginning to end."5 In a later conversation with Seewald, he speaks of the radical distinction between the way Muslims view the Qur'an and the way Christians view the Bible: "Moslems believe that the Koran was directly dictated by God. It is not mediated by any history; no human intermediary was needed; it is a message direct from God. The Bible, on the other hand, is quite different. It is mediated to us by a history."6
Third, and most important for understanding why the pope quotes the Byzantine emperor is his concern about the rise of a violent strain of Islamism. In the interview with Seewald he states: "There is a noble Islam, embodied, for example, by the King of Morocco, and there is also the extremist, terrorist Islam, which again, one must not identify with Islam as a whole, which would do it an injustice."7 This is a reflection of the view of his major advisor, Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, who stated, "it is important not to confuse Islam with Islamism."8
Just before he became pope, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote on this issue in his book Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions. He wrote: "Yet even Islam, with all the greatness it represents, is always in danger of losing balance, letting violence have a place and letting religion slide away into mere outward observance and ritualism."9 He continued by admitting that Christianity faces the same problem: "And there are of course, as we all know but too well, diseased forms of Christianity - such as when the crusaders, on capturing the holy city of Jerusalem, where Christ died for all men, for their part indulged in a bloodbath of Moslems and Jews. What that means is that religion demands the making of distinctions, distinctions between different forms of religion and distinctions within a religion itself, so as to find the way to its higher points."10 It does not take much reading between the lines to see that the pope thinks the "making of distinctions" is a more pressing need for Islam than it is for Christianity.
Thus we see that, on the one hand, the pope recognizes the necessity of dialogue between Christianity and Islam and, on the other hand, recognizes the radical differences between the two traditions. For Benedict, interreligious dialogue is a path that may help reduce violence and promote justice and peace, but the ultimate goal is the quest for truth. Dialogue is not simply about mutual recognition of similarities between the two religions; it also must be about the differences.
If the story of modern interfaith dialogue between Catholicism and Islam were a love affair, John Paul II's encounter with Islam would be the first stage of the romance, when lovers see a reflection of themselves in each other. Benedict's approach signals the maturing of a relationship, when each party has to figure out a way to coexist while maintaining his or her unique identity. As the future pope said in 1999, "Let me speak plainly: Anyone who expects the dialogue between religions to result in their unification is bound for disappointment. This is hardly possible within our historical time, and perhaps it is not even desirable."11
Now that we have considered some of the pope's statements on Islam, we can understand his use of the emperor's quote more fully. It addresses his primary critique of Islam, that too many of its adherents use violence. His lecture, which addresses the synthesis between revelation and reason in the Christian tradition, seems to argue that Islam could benefit from the moderating effect of reason. From Benedict's perspective, it would be helpful for Islam to engage more fully with Greek thought, as Christianity did two thousand years ago. A week after the lecture, he clarified his views: "[I]n no way did I want to make my own the negative words spoken by the Medieval emperor in this dialogue, and . . . their polemical content does not express my personal conviction. My intention was quite different: . . . I wanted to explain that it is not religion and violence but rather religion and reason that go together."12
On October 13, 2006 - little more than a month after the Regensburg lecture - thirty-eight Muslim scholars and leaders from different parts of the world wrote "An Open Letter to the Pope" in response to the lecture. In this friendly letter, they wanted to correct some errors in the pope's talk, including his remarks about the verse from the Qur'an which states there is no compulsion in religion, and to explain the Muslim understanding of God's transcendence, the idea of reason in Islam, and a number of other core ideas. The letter expressed gratitude and profound respect for the pope. The letter ended:
Muslims also appreciated your unprecedented personal expression of sorrow, and your clarification and assurance (on the 17th of September) that your quote does not reflect your own personal opinion, as well as the Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone's affirmation (on the 16th of September) of the conciliar document Nostra Aetate. Finally, Muslims appreciate that (on September 25th) in front of an assembled group of ambassadors from Muslim countries you expressed "total and profound respect for all Muslims." We hope that we will all avoid the mistakes of the past and live together in the future in peace, mutual acceptance and respect.13
A year later, a most extraordinary event occurred. On October 13, 2007, 138 Muslim leaders from more than forty countries, a very powerful group of prominent Muslims with a great deal of influence in many parts of the world, addressed a new statement to the pope. The document, titled "A Common Word Between Us and You," has now been signed by more than three hundred Muslim leaders. The thesis of this document is that at the heart and center of Christianity, of Islam, and of Judaism is the love of God and the love of one's neighbor.
This document states: "Christians and Muslims . . . make up more than 55 percent of the world's population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. . . . The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake."14
I find the ending of this document particularly powerful: "So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works." They then cite Sura 5:48 from the Qur'an: "If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community, but [He has not done so] so that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete with one another in good works. To God you shall return and He will tell you [the truth] about that which you have been disputing."15
This document is significant not only for what it says but also for the fact it was signed by representatives of so many diverse streams of Islam. David Ford, professor of divinity at Cambridge University, claims: "So often the extremists have been able to use the modern media. Now finally there is a platform, a mode, for the moderate mainstream, traditional Muslim leaders to come together and find consensus."16
A few weeks later, for the first time in history, the king of Saudi Arabia, protector of the holiest city in Islam, came to Rome to meet the pope. As a direct result of this meeting, King Abdullah organized an unprecedented interfaith conference in Madrid in 2008, attended by representatives of many of the world's religions, including Judaism. This demonstrates to me that the pope is helping to bring about an age of global dialogue. For this pope dialogue is a tool to help fight what he sees as the enemy of all religions: secularism and relativism.
In Pirke Avot, one of the best-known and beloved rabbinic texts, the rabbis state: "Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will in the end yield results."17 I believe that the pope gave the Regensburg lecture for the sake of Heaven. One can therefore hope that this controversial speech will eventually lead to greater peace, to what the pope calls "a civilization of love."
1. Karen Armstrong, "We Cannot Afford to Maintain These Ancient Prejudices against Islam," September 18, 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
2. Pope Benedict XVI, "The Regensburg Lecture," The Regensburg Lecture, ed. James V. Schall, S.J. (South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine's Press, 2007), pp. 133-34.
3. Pope Benedict XVI, "Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI," Cologne, August 20, 2005, http://www.vatican.va.
4. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), pp. 117 and 143.
5. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: Christianity and the Catholic Church at the End of the Millennium: An Interview with Peter Seewald, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), p. 244.
6. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), p. 151.
7. Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth, p. 244.
8. Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, quoted on http://www.ratzingerfanclub. com.
9. Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, p. 204.
11. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Many Religions - One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the World, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), p. 109.
12. Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Wednesday, September 20, 2006, http://www.vatican.va.
13. "Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI," October 13, 2006.
14. "A Common Word Between Us and You," October 13, 2007, http://www.acommonword.com.
16. Quote in Robert Pigott, "Emerging Voice of Mainstream Islam," October 12, 2007, http://www.news.bbc.co.uk.
17. Mishnah Avot, Torah from Our Sages, trans. Jacob Neusner, (Dallas: Rossel Books, 1984), p. 164.
Harold Kasimow is George Drake Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa. He is the author of "A Blessing to One Another: John Paul II and Benedict XVI on Judaism and Other Religions" published in The Catholic Church in Dialogue with Islam and Judaism (The Dialogue Series 7), Antwerp: Saint Ignatius University.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2010 issue of Dharma World.
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