His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI gave a speech September 12 at the University of Regensburg in his German homeland. He discussed “the question of God through the use of reason” and the matter of getting “reason and faith [to] work together in the right way.” His basic theme was that there has been a “synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early [Christian] church” and that this relationship between Christianity and Greek philosophy and logic has been a very good thing. He warned against those who believe this synthesis is “not binding” upon new converts from non-western traditions; this view, he declared, is “false.” The pontiff plainly intended to depict the Roman Catholic Church as supportive of modernity and science in general, and both western and tolerant.
The Pope opened his homily by referring affectionately to his years teaching at the University of Bonn (from 1959) during which the university was a “universe of reason.” He then segued into a description of some of his recent reading.
“I was reminded of all this recently when I readpart of the dialogue carried
on—perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara [in modern Turkey]—by the erudite Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.”
Thus he alluded to an encounter between a Byzantine (Christian) emperor and a learned Persian (that is to say, Iranian) Muslim a century after the last major Crusade. (I’m wondering if there really was a Persian involved in a dialogue with Manuel, or if the emperor simply composed a dialogue to express his views.) The emperor, as cited by Benedict, tells the Persian,
“Show me just what Muhammad 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.”
BBC News reports that the Pope said “I quote” twice, stressing that these weren’t his own words. You can find the official text here.
The good Emperor Manuel regarded Islam as irrational in its alleged effort to spread itself by force. Manuel declared in response: “Not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” “Acting reasonably,” the pope pointedly explained in his talk, means to act “with logos”-a term taken from Greek philosophy. The Pope did not return to the issue of Islam, but rather devoted his attention to the Church’s (reason-filled) Hellenistic heritage. He declared, interestingly, that the Septuagint (translation of the Old Testament into Greek from the third to first centuries BCE) is an “independent textual witness and distinct and important step in the history of revelation.” The broad point, again, is that the rational Greek mind and the mind of the Church are one, the pillars of the West.
Recall that the Greeks, aside from shaping rational western thought, also shaped our ideas about geography. The Greeks first divided “Europe” from “Asia,” and opined that Greeks were unique and superior to the “Asiatics.” The Greeks, declared the Father of History, Herodotus, knew that they were “free,” whereas the Asiatics (particularly the Persians) were prone to enslavement by nature. This ideological construction derives from a century of conflicts—the Greco-Persian Wars of the fifth century—but it has been echoed by Orientalists for centuries. Repeated by the Pope, for example, who while still Cardinal Ratzinger told the French newspaper Le Figaro that Turkey should not be admitted into the European Union “on the grounds that it is a Muslim nation” which has “always represented another continent during history, always in contrast with Europe.”
In beginning his remarks citing that exchange between a Byzantine Greek emperor and this “learned Persian,” the pontiff was perhaps conveying a not-so-subtle political message. It may have been a response to the learned letter from Iranian President Ahmadinejad to President Bush. Ending his speech with two references to the need for a (truly reasonable, nonviolent) “dialogue of cultures” Benedict unmistakably alludes to former Iranian President Khatami’s campaign for a “dialogue of civilizations.” This is the Pope’s rejoinder to that plea, presented as the response of the western world (growing out of that remarkable Judeo-Christian Greco-Roman synthesis), to today’s Persia—the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Having read the speech I just have a few questions of my own for the Vicar of Christ.
Did the Byzantine emperors generally act according to “reason”—any more than their Persian, Turkish, or Arab contemporaries?
Let’s look at this Manuel II character, whom the Pope calls “erudite.” Crowned co-emperor by his father, in 1373, he lost his throne to his bother, who seized it in 1376. How’d he get it back? By calling for help from the Muslim Turks! I suppose that was reasonable.
Back on the throne in 1379, no doubt acting in accordance with logos, he paid tribute to the Turkish Sultan and actually had to live as a vassal at the Turkish court! But he rebelled in 1391, the very year that while in the “barracks at Ankara” mentioned by the Pope and preparing for war on the Turks, he wrote the above-quoted remark about God’s nature.
Then what happened? According to the Encyclopedia Britannica: “A treaty in 1403 kept peace with the Turks until 1421, when Manuel’s son and coemperor John VIII meddled in Turkish affairs. After the Turks besieged Constantinople (1422) and took southern Greece (1423), Manuel signed a humiliating treaty and entered a monastery.”
Maybe it hadn’t been so reasonable that time to meddle with those Muslims. Maybe the Pope could have mentioned this in his speech.
Here in 1391 we have an emperor in his war camp, provoking what was to be a disastrous war with Muslims while eruditely disparaging their religion. I’d like to ask the Pope:
Was there anything wrong with that?
And when did the Byzantine Empire ever tolerate a “dialogue of cultures” or apply “reason” to religious issues?
Seems to me that the Byzantine emperors, including the Palaeologan line from the thirteenth century, persecuted religious minorities, including Jews, Manichaeans and dissident Christians, during centuries in which the Islamic world showed relative tolerance. I’ve read the texts of anathemas that virtually everyone in some parts of the Empire was obliged to pronounce publicly in the sixth century: “I renounce Mani, Buddha his teacher,” etc. On pain of death, basically. There was no division between church and state. Many Byzantine Jews welcomed the initial Muslim Arab advances, providing relief from Christian persecution.
One increasingly expects historical distortion and hypocrisy in the speeches of Bush administration officials. The effort to depict the Terror War as a war on “Islamofascism” shows their desperation. They must be delighted to hear the pope conflate Christianity, the west, and Reason explicitly while implicitly linking Islam, violence, and irrational intolerance. How sweet that His Holiness’s erudition should elliptically reference Iran, while the Bush administration prepares to attack it!
* * * * *
Breaking new ground for a Roman pontiff, Benedict forayed into the field of Qur’an exegesis in his talk, noting that the Muslim holy book states that “There is no compulsion in religion” (Surah 2: 256). But he notes that the “experts” say that this was composed early on, when “Mohammed was powerless and still under threat.” He refers obliquely to “the instructions, composed laterconcerning holy war” implying that these more accurately characterize Islamic teaching. Is he not stating that the real Muslim teachings are those advocating intolerance and violence, and that Christian teachings pose a rational nonviolent alternative? Such an interpretation, aligning the Vatican with the neocon and other Islamophobic camps, could have serious religious and political implications.
The Regensberg talk has provoked an outcry, in Pakistan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt. By all reports the Bishop of Rome is a very careful and deliberate man, who has just appointed a specialist in the Islamic world to serve as the Vatican’s foreign minister. Much thought must have been put into the carefully-worded talk. But what is Rome trying to accomplish?
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org