Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pope Defends Reason; Churches Burn

The Pope has gotten into hot water for quoting a medieval emperor in a dialogue with a Persian philosopher. The Christian asks the Muslim to "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."

As a result of this quotation, Muslim mobs have been burning churches.

So what was the Pope talking about? Christian philosophy believes that God is always reasonable. Muslim philosophy believes that God is beyond reason. The Byzantine emperor thought it self-evident that God was always reasonable – to suggest otherwise must be "evil and inhuman."

The Pope was not actually trying to slam Islam. He was really criticizing what he always criticizes – the secularity and materialism of the formerly Christian West. We, he said to his German audience, have lost the deep connection between God and reason that was taken for granted in Christianity's golden age.

The argument that the Pope was actually making seems reasonable to me.

The irrational and senselessly touchy Muslim mobs who are burning churches over the Pope's remarks are proving that it is not only secular Westerners who have lost the connection between God and reason.


eusto said...

I dunno about Christianity being more reasonable. It is important to recall that it was the Muslim world through which passed the works of Aristotle to the West during the Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas for one was deeply influenced by the Muslim commentaries on Aristotle.

Furthermore, to claim this is to ignore the deep strain of fideistic anti-rationalism in Christianity that is exemplified in Tertullian's remark that he believed because it was absurd and which is carried forward by figures like Pascal and Kierkegaard. In addition, if you're going to be honest, when I, in the past, questioned the rationality of Calvinism you continually invoked the notion that there were things beyond the reasoning capacity of man -- which is pretty much equivalent to say that God is beyond reason.

I would love Christianity to be more rational, but frankly its core doctrines are deeply problematic and can only be made rational by special pleading -- invoking the classic, imho, "weasel words" that it's beyond man's capacity to understand, say.

As a commenter elsewhere noted, Islam is in a nutso phase just like Christianity during the wars of religion or during the inquisition. While perhaps a case could be made for differential nutsoness and violence on the part of Christianity vs. Islam -- neither really has much to be proud about. (And I am under the impression that Jews were treated better under Muslim rule.) The civilized nature of Christianity, where we stopped burning heretics as sanctioned by Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, arrived only after no one could win the wars of religion and modern science came into full flower.

Maybe organized religion can serve as a countervailing force to the excesses of materialism today but don't forget who first civilized whom. Think Voltaire, not Calvin or Luther.

(Maybe this isn't nice, but, come on guys, you know it's got more truth to it than you want to admit ;))

Finally two side notes, I think it's been clearly noted that the most vibrant and growing section of Christianity today in the country -- evangelical Christianity -- is deeply anti-intellectual. I think one writer who made the cover of Christianity Today authored a book "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." The scandal -- that there isn't an evangelical mind to speak of. And this an evangelical writing this out of concern. Think ID and the rapture and you know what I'm talking about.

Christians today really need to be humble in the fact that much of the civilized nature of Christianty today derives from Enlightenment values that originally arose in reaction against Christian excesses.

The second note is that I believe it has been pointed out that the "no compulsion in religion" line did NOT originate in Mohammed's early phase as I believe the pope suggested, but in the middle phase, where he HAD power. But if you want to argue that the teachings of Mohammed are more militant the Jesus' -- I won't quarrel -- but the histories of the two religions tell a more complex story.

In summary, I'm all for the pope's logos. We need more Athens and less Jerusalem in our cultures!

eusto said...

Just to be super clear here -- I am NOT claiming that Christianity is as sick as Islam today. The one's a cough, a flu here or there, the other's a raging cancer. And clearly Islamist terror is a far far greater danger to Western society than right-wing evangelical Christianity. But I just don't want no Christian gloating, yah hear. You've certainly got your "issues" with reason too.

nsfrench said...


As a M.A. candidate in Islamic Studies, I have been asked quite a bit lately my opinion on the Pope’s comments. It has been even more fascinating to discuss the Pope’s comments with one of my colleagues, who is both a devoted Catholic and a scholar of Islamic history. Thus, this post was timely and I felt a few words might contribute to this excellent blog.

Among the members of our department, there is a general agreement that issue can quickly be taken with both the Pope’s comments and the reactions of various Muslim groups around the world. Namely, that the Pope’s comments were ill-timed given the current socio-political landscape shared by both members of Islam and Christianity (and committed secularists and atheists as well!).

There are two points which I would like to first address before diving into my ‘two cents.’ Your statement, Gruntled, that “Muslim philosophy believes that God is beyond reason,” seems slightly too sweeping in its categorical claims. Namely, Islamic philosophers have continuously attempted to negotiate the hazy border separating faith and reason. Ibn Rushd, who spent much of his life reconciling Aristotle to Islam, noted that truth can be reached through the paths of both religion and philosophy. (He of course later directly influenced Thomas Aquinas. Others who addressed the faith/reason divide include al-Farabi, ibn Sina and al-Ghazali.

In more recent times, Dr. Hasan Hanafi, a professor of philosophy, has continued to engage the identity of Muslims in modernity and has sought to address, John Esposito and John Voll in “Makers of Contemporary Islam,” what they label as “the examination of the Islamic heritage and its relationship with renewal and modernity. (80)

To cast Muslim philosophy as seeing God beyond reason, then, appears to sell short the labels of Muslim thinkers both past and present.

Concurrently, the statement that Christian philosophy believes that God is always reasonable seems equally problematic. While my command of Christian philosophical development is not nearly as apt as it should be, I feel as if this statement directly undermines those philosophers who maintain a sense of the mystical in the faith of rationality (much like al-Ghazali!). While my knowledge of specifically Protestant philosophers and theologians is even more limited—I cannot help but recall Karl Barth’s impassioned plea that not even the Bible could be considered inerrant because it is written in human (rational?) language and thus cannot be measured as identical to God’s revelation.

To return, in closing, to the Pope’s comments. While the Pope has, obviously, done a great deal to open a debate between entities both in the West and the Middle East, I fear he has further damaged the rhetorical landscape over which this latest ‘war’ of ours is being waged. The proximity of this to September 11, and the release of the Al-Qaeda anniversary tape has undoubtedly rubbed salt into the wounds of those who would fancy this conflict a war between the ‘West’ and ‘Islam.’ His comments, then, have done provided more ammunition, and less salve, to the rhetorical war being waged both in the media and in the world.

Concurrently, images of massive mobs protesting the comments have done little to help generate positive discussion and debate.

If only both sides would blog!


Nathan French
Centre ‘06

Denis Hancock said...

I thought the point about "logos" meaning both word and reason were interesting and well-supported. The appeal to reason is apparently quite old, and such people as the Pope and CS Lewis agree that Christianity is a reasonable faith. And I do, too. It is not necessary to check one's intellect at the door in order to believe and teach one's faith.

The debate bewteen the Byzantine emperor and the Persian theologian showed that the two protagonists were speaking from two very different views, and that was what Benedict was pointing out.

The full text if Benedict XVI's is available online and people can read it for themselves instead of relying on the extremely narrow and misleading excerpts that have appeared in the press. This is an English translation of what I assume was spoken in German, and it seems a little choppy in spots.

Yesterday a nun was murdered in Somalia. Some have suggested that that was in response to a fatwa issued last week by a Somalian cleric. An equally plausible case might be made that, with Somalia's recent history, it was just another in a long string of murders.

Gruntled said...

Eusto, your point about fideistic anti-rationalism is fair enough. The Pope is a German theologian of a Thomistic sort -- the very exemplar of the most rational of Christian theological traditions. He was arguing in a speech before a theological faculty that his brand of theology was the best theology, within a larger point about God being for reason and against religious violence in all traditions. Yes, of course, Christians have engaged in religious violence, especially in the past. Benedict is condemning them, too.

Nathan French: thank you for an account of Islamic thought more learned than I could hope to be. My comments about God being beyond reason in Islamic thought were meant to be a summary of the Pope's argument, not my own position. After reading your post, I know twice as much as I did before about the place of reason in Islamic thought -- which is clearly not enough knowledge for me to take a public stance with, one way or the other.

With Denis Hancock I agree, as usual. :-)

eusto said...


Sorry for going on, but you know me. I'm trying to restrain myself.

Now, concerning the notion of not having to check one's brain at the door -- well that's not really completely true. You really do to an extent.

It's all a matter of degrees, but even the most rational of Christian thought is not rational. That is to say Christianity is not the sort of thing one would arrive at after an impartial analysis of either the world or logical argument. To deny this is to deny the importance of revelation and faith.

Christianity is not rational but it is rationalizable, as are many things. For instance, Aquinas himself famously described philosophy as a handmaiden to theology. IOW, reason is subordinate to revelation.

Now I don't know about you guys but an intellectual system that is always allowed to cry "divine mystery" every time a deep flaw is found, is not particularly rational. It's like we're rational except when we're not, and when we're not we have a get-out-of-rationality-free card.

If Christianity were indeed rationally persuasive, Europe would not be predominantly secular and there would be very few non-Christians in the world as opposed to at least 2/3's of the world's population.

Besides, Gruntled, you yourself told me that religion wasn't the sort of thing where you rationally examined all the alternative theories. So you've already conceded my point.

Please folks, again, don't confuse rationalizable with rational, for it certainly isn't. And please acknowledge that at least several parts of your brain must be checked in at the door.

P.S. I'm not just doing this for kicks -- I'm really curious how educated Christians respond to these arguments. If you don't find them persuasive, I guess I'm curious as to why. If Gruntled were to say, "It's clear that Calvinism (and Christianity) is not entirely true for x, y, and z reasons but I accept it as an imperfect means for communing with the divine and I also believe that belonging to a church has many positive sociological consequences," that I could understand. But when people just point blank believe these things at face value -- I just don't get it. Please illumine my heathen mind if you have time ;)

Gruntled said...

"That is to say Christianity is not the sort of thing one would arrive at after an impartial analysis of either the world or logical argument."

I would say Christianity is the sort of thing that you would arrive by an impartial analysis of the world, which is not contradicted by logic. There are other faiths of this sort. To refine your claim, then, I could agree that Christianity is not the unique answer one might arrive at by an impartial analysis of the world. Max Weber, who is about as impartial and informed an analyst of the world as I know, thought that both Calvinism and Hinduism were the most complete theodicies extant, but he did not therefore choose between them.

My larger point, though, has been all along that a faith in the adequacy of secular reason is also not the sort of thing that you would arrive at by an impartial analysis of the world. I think it is less adequate than either Calvinism or Hinduism in its theodicy, ethics, and basic ontology.

I don't see how there can be a neutral and truly impartial position from which we can analyse the world. That is where sheer scientific analysis, much less the handmaid's scrub-brush, logic, cannot answer the question of which faith is best.

That is why we keep having these discussions -- to see what path of reasoning and experience led others to their conclusions.

Michael W. Kruse said...

From The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success by Rodney Stark

Begin Excerpt from pages 8-9

Judaism and Islam also embrace an image of God sufficient to sustain theology, but their scholars have tended not to pursue such matters. Rather, traditional Jews14 and Muslims incline toward strict constructionism and approach scripture as law to be understood and applied, not as the basis for inquiry about questions of ultimate meaning. For this reason scholars often refer to Judaism and Islam as “orthoprax” religions, concerned with correct (ortho) practice (praxis) and therefore placing their “fundamental emphasis on law and regulation of community life.” In contrast, scholars describe Christianity as an “orthodox” religion because it stresses correct (ortho) opinion (doxa), placing “greater emphasis on belief and its intellectual structuring of creeds, catechisms, and theologies.”15 Typical intellectual controversies among Jewish and Muslim religious thinkers involve whether some activity or innovation (such as reproducing holy scripture on a printing press) is consistent with established law. Christian controversies typically are doctrinal, over matters such as the Holy Trinity or the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Of course, some leading Christian thinkers have concentrated on law and some Jewish and Muslim scholars have devoted themselves to theological issues. But the primary thrust of the three faiths has differed in this respect and with very significant consequences. Legal interpretation rests on precedent and therefore is anchored in the past, while efforts to better understand the nature of God assume the possibility of progress. And it is the assumption of progress that may be the most critical difference between Christianity and all other religions. With the exception of Judaism, the other great faiths have conceived of history as either an endlessly repeated cycle or inevitable decline—Muhammad is reported to have said, “The best generation is my generation, then the one that follows it, and then the ones that follow that.”16 In contrast, Judaism and Christianity have sustained a directional conception of history, culminating in the Millennium. However, the Jewish idea of history stresses not progress but only procession, while the idea of progress is profoundly manifest in Christianity. As John Macmurray put it, “That we think of progress at all shows the extent of the influence of Christianity upon us.”17

Things might have been different had Jesus left a written scripture. But unlike Muhammad or Moses, whose texts were accepted as divine transmissions and therefore have encouraged literalism, Jesus wrote nothing, and from the very start the church fathers were forced to reason as to the implications of a collection of his remembered sayings—the New Testament is not a unified scripture but an anthology.18 Consequently, the precedent for a theology of deduction and inference and for the idea of theological progress began with Paul: “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophesy is imperfect.”19 Contrast this with the second verse of the Qur’an, which proclaims itself to be “the Scripture whereof there is no doubt.”20

End of Excerpt

I was rather pointedly challenged by someone awhile back who said that Christianity had a lot of answering for with its oppression and anti-reason/science stance over 2,000 years. I responded on the contrary. Oppression, superstition, and poverty have been the norm for the great masses of people in all civilizations until recent centuries. The question is why did issues like widely spread human rights, reason and prosperity emerge in the West. Stark gives the best short answer I have seen in the previous three paragraphs. As Stark goes on to show through the rest of the back, it was hardly a pristine linear rise but the seeds sown by Christianity are unmistakable.