On recent remarks by Pope Benedict on Islam and criticism by Juan Cole

There’s a great summary of the pope’s recent remarks at the website Unconsidered Trifles. I’ll also note that in his profile, Mr. Willyshake lists Walker Percy as one of his favorite authors – right after Shakespeare. In any case, here is an excerpt from the current discussion:

By now you’ve no doubt seen the headline about the pope angering Muslims. It’s a shame that the media hasn’t done a better job of giving us the ever-critical context of his remarks–if they had, they would see how childish this criticism is. It would be an indictment of our love affair with multiculturalism–a pathology that threatens intellectual discourse and exchange.

As one friend wrote to me, “I don’t think it’s an accident that he used as his occasion for this discussion of reason and revelation a dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim — in which he highlights just how different Islam and Christianity really are. I bet we’re going to hear more from the pope about the nature of Christianity (in which revelation and reason embrace) versus the nature of Islam in the future.” Bet on it.

We will, Mr. Willyshake, we will.

It’s really is astonishing to me that people – in this case the critics of the pope – can be so lacking in insight as to consider this an attack on Islam or a call to arms in any way except metaphorically. Indeed, I wonder whether the real beneficiaries of these remarks are those Westerners (Catholics, of course, are particularly prepared to listen to the pontif sympathetically) who are not so besotted with multiculturalism that they have already written off Islam as a religion of violence, rather than a religion that has been hijacked by violent fanatics. I lean that way myself, to tell the truth. And of course it’s not only religion that jihadists hijack, but the planes and technology that are the very products of the civilization they covet covertly and overtly despise.

And we learn that the pope’s safety is now considered in jeopardy. For raising a point already made 600 years ago.

Well, as Mr. Willyshake notes, it is those cultural pluralists whom the pope may be addressing his sternest remarks. Whatever criticisms he makes, Juan Cole and his ilk certainly aren’t loading up on plastic explosives on their way to the Vatican. But can we be so sure that their arguments, far from diffusing the crisis here and abroad, aren’t actually encouraging it? I note this after reading Cole’s reasonable criticisms here. Benedict was apparently mistaken on the dates of statements in the Koran regarding the coercion of faith. If I understand this correctly, Cole’s point is that Muhammed was firmly in power when it was decreed that their should be freedom of conscience regarding religion. Cole then writes:

The pope says that in Islam, God is so transcendant that he is beyond reason and therefore cannot be expected to act reasonably. He contrasts this conception of God with that of the Gospel of John, where God is the Logos, the Reason inherent in the universe.

But there have been many schools of Islamic theology and philosophy. The Mu’tazilite school maintained exactly what the Pope is saying, that God must act in accordance with reason and the good as humans know them. The Mu’tazilite approach is still popular in Zaidism and in Twelver Shiism of the Iraqi and Iranian sort. The Ash’ari school, in contrast, insisted that God was beyond human reason and therefore could not be judged rationally. (I think the Pope would find that Tertullian and perhaps also John Calvin would be more sympathetic to this view within Christianity than he is).

As for the Quran, it constantly appeals to reason in knowing God, and in refuting idolatry and paganism, and asks, “do you not reason?” “do you not understand?” (a fala ta`qilun?)

It is certainly good that Professor Cole points this out, although I think it is significant that this undestanding of logos was first and most articulately stated in the Gospel of John. Leaving that aside, why is it that we don’t hear more about the work of reason in Islam? Why don’t we hear more from these other, “many schools of Islamic theology and philosophy”? Aside from the dates, is it reasonable to contend that the Pope is wrong about all the facts? In light of comments by J and ‘titurator veritatis’, is it worth reconsidering the core of Benedict’s argument, not to mention the received wisdom about the crusades and the history of medieval scholasticism? And what about the larger argument? Would you be better off as a Muslim in Detroit or a Christian in Islamabad? Why?


  1. Thanks for the link and the thoughtful discussion–already (that is to say, just by exchanging dialogue over this issue), we are doing what the extremists cannot summon themselves to do. Somehow, for them, it is easier to strap-on a bomb belt than a thinking cap. To see this, look no further than their own literature–the so-called “Manchester Document”

    Well, if the “muslim street” thinks that the Church will be cowed by their uproar, then (in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny), “he don’t know me very well, do he?”


  2. Quin Finnegan says

    I usually steer clear of Time (and her ugly sister, Newsweek), so thanks for pointing out the document. Chilling stuff – particularly the degree to which they’ve studied successful espionage across different cultures, but especially against the U.S.

    What I found most disheartening is the heading at the top of a number of pages: “In the name of Allah, the merciful and compassionate”. That this should appear, nay, be emphasized in a document so mendacious points to a depth of cognitive dissonance that is hard to fathom.

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    I’d also like to note, regarding Cole’s remarks on Tertullian (as I did here at another site), that the Pope has addressed the point raised by Tertullian and claimed, “I am a decided Augustinian.”

    Being a big fan of Mr. T. myself (and yes, perhaps more susceptible to the short shrift given reason, not just by Islam, but by Kierkegaard as well) I raised this question myself and received the following answer:

    “He embraced the Faith with all the ardour of his impetuous nature. He became a priest, no doubt of the Church of Carthage. Monceaux, followed by d’Ales, considers that his earlier writings were composed while he was yet a layman, and if this be so, then his ordination was about 200. His extant writings range in date from the apologetics of 197 to the attack on a bishop who is probably Pope Callistus (after 218). It was after the year 206 that he joined the Montanist sect, and he seems to have definitively separated from the Church about 211 (Harnack) or 213 (Monceaux). After writing more virulently against the Church than even against heathen and persecutors, he separated from the Montanists and founded a sect of his own. The remnant of the Tertullianists was reconciled to the Church by St. Augustine. A number of the works of Tertullian are on special points of belief or discipline. According to St. Jerome he lived to extreme old age.” (www.newadvent.org)

    My recommendation to Professor Cole, Willyshake, and everybody else is the same I give to myself: read more Pascal.

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