Benedict XVI and Islam

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I haven't commented on the recent brouhaha involving the pope and Islam, largely because I've been too busy to put my thoughts together. In the meantime, lots of posts I've read make some worthwhile points, and there isn't really a whole lot I have to say after all of it, but I thought I'd put them all together in the same place.

My first thought was that nothing could even be taken as offensive once you had everything in context, but Jonathan Wilson at the Elfin Ethicist thinks it's a little more complicated than that, mostly because his representation of Islam is inaccurate. Mark Goodacre also thinks it's a little unfair to Islam to say that Islam doesn't embrace reason. My problem with this complaint is that the pope never asserts anything about Islam, as far as I can see. He does quote some people who say that Muslims place God above reason and thus are not limited by it. Nowhere do the people he quotes say that Muslims see reason as bad. The reason issue is his topic, however, not Islam.

Mark puts the quote in context fairly well, and despite my disagreement of his characterization of what the pope was doing, I do very much like his concluding comment: "those who are overreacting to the speech might well wish to demonstrate the importance of reason in their thinking by engaging it rather than caricaturing it." Indeed. It has struck me as especially ironic that those who took issue with his portrayal of Islam as violent (which I don't think he really did, but that's what's being assumed) decided to confirm that very judgment by being violent in response. Does that make any sense?

Furthermore, Jeff Peterson's comment on Mark's post points out that even these statements are not Benedict's but quotes from an editor of the text he was reading and a French scholar of Islam. He doesn't actually endorse the view of Islam portrayed in those quotes. What he does is question whether the idea that God is rational is a merely Greek idea or just something true of God. He cites favorably the argument for God as a reasoning being in this medieval emperor, and that's the only part of what he quotes that's really relevent to his point. He does not say that this emperor's views of Islam were accurate, never mind that they are accurate about Muslims today. He isn't talking about Islam, and any of the words he quoted that are about Islam are simply not part of his purpose for quoting them to begin with.

Several things Jonathan says are worth considering also, but the following quote seems especially worth highlighting:

However, we should also remember that European Christian impressions of Islam have always been shaped by memories of Muslim wars of conquest, just as the Crusades have tended to shape Muslim impressions of Christianity. Benedict is highlighting one medieval Christian's philosophical response to that context. That response was a rejection of violence as a means of conversion.

I could say a lot about the blame Christianity has received for its response to Muslim wars of conquest. We call that response the Crusades, a subject hardly anyone is willing to think about with anything like a reasonable, balanced perspective, either historically or philosophically. But I'll focus on the main point here. Benedict's citation of this medieval figure wasn't to agree with his views of Islam but to emphasize the issue of God's being rational. Islam does have a history of seeing God as not subject to rationality, and the pope take that have importance for understanding why God rejects violence in service of conversion. So how is it immoral to cite a medieval figure who recognized this? The only argument against this seems to be that the medieval figure also said some things in the process that Benedict wouldn't agree with, and yet he quoted those bits too.

That's where Jonathan's addendum comes in. Should Benedict have quoted this text to begin with, given its treatment of Islam? This is an argument for rationality and tolerance from a medieval Christian in a position of great authority. That's kind of interesting in its own right and worth drawing attention to. As a historian, Jonathan is concerned that highlighting that argument requires putting it in its historical context, and it doesn't serve historical understanding to hide the exact views they guy held in the interest of not offending people. Given that the pope did several times at least slightly distance himself from the quote, I'm not sure there's really much objection against quoting this text in the way he did.

After all this, I think the people who are calling on him to apologize should consider the possibility that maybe they should be the ones to apologize. That's generally what you should do when you misrepresent someone without investigating carefully what they were saying. They fact that so many are doing it while claiming to speak for Islam does not reflect well on those who are making this out to be an issue of the pope's misunderstanding of Islam. I'd say that it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black, but it's really more like the grass calling the kettle green.

I want to add one more thing. John Piper has written the cumbersomely titled How Christians Should Respond to Muslim Outrage at the Pope's Regensburg Message About Violence and Reason [hat tip: Jollyblogger]. I didn't read it carefully, but aside from his somewhat simplistic understanding of the Crusades it looks excellent.

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