Religion within Reason: Pope Benedict's Critique of Islam

By Gould, Mark | Policy Review, December 2007 | Go to article overview
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Religion within Reason: Pope Benedict's Critique of Islam


Gould, Mark, Policy Review


POPE BENEDICT'S CONTROVERSIAL remarks about Islam a year ago at the University of Regensburg were a reaffirmation of the fundamental values of the academy. The pope was making the Enlightenment's argument about the necessity for discourse mediated by reason in the search for truth; he claimed that his Christian faith is constituted through reason, that it can contain no tenets, and legitimate no actions, that are unreasonable. He was not claiming that Christians have never acted irrationally, violently; he was making a moral argument about what a Christian's faith demands, and he was making this argument as a religious leader desirous and capable of engaging in a serious and reasoned dialogue with people of other faiths about their respective convictions. His speech demonstrated both his ability to engage in such a dialogue and a willingness to do so.

It is in this context that we must understand his remarks about Islam. They were not disrespectful (even if he might have found another way to make his point, excising the quoted comment about Mohammed) (1); instead, in making them he was presuming that Muslims can engage in reasoned dialogue. He was manifesting his awareness of the present circumstances by implying that Muslims must engage in such a dialogue if they are to have any hope of successfully combating "irrationality," violence, within their religious community.

The central contentions in the pope's remarks focus on the relationship between reason and faith in (various branches of) Christianity and in Islam. Missed in many of the commentaries about his speech is the fact that, according to the pope, "reason" functions on two levels. The first is the universitas of discourse that includes all persons, and, crucially for the pope, must include the reasoned consideration of faith. Here, his animus is directed towards those who believe that we cannot reason about matters of faith, those who remove themselves from this aspect of the dialogue. He believes that Muslims, as people of religious conviction, stand with him in this debate. (2)

The second level at which reason functions is to regulate his and others's remarks within this dialogue, when they state their own religious perspective. He is, after all, the pope, and he argues for a position within Christianity, a position contrary to (his understanding of) Protestantism, contrary to the contentions of some great Catholic thinkers, and against aspects of the religious perspective held by Muslims. Here he contends that (his form of) Christianity is constituted through reason, that Christians, unlike Muslims, believe that all persons can have a reasoned understanding of justice and that this reasoned understanding may be used to grasp and interpret God's will. (3)

This is where I will begin my argument, with an examination of the different understandings in Christianity and Islam of the relationship between reason and revelation. I develop an argument supporting the pope's central conclusion that the different places of reason within Islam and Christianity have resulted in different propensities for violence among believers in the two creeds. I then examine the most thoughtful response to the pope's remarks from the Muslim community.

I suggest that this response does not grapple adequately with the implications of the pope's remarks for Islam, but, even so, it proves the pope's point, that Muslims are able to participate thoughtfully in a reasoned dialogue where disagreements might be aired responsibly and from which both sides might benefit. (4) I conclude by arguing that some of the implications deriving from the pope's understanding of the role of reason in Christianity undermine his own dogmatic positions within the Church.

Reason and revelation in Islam and Christianity

The substance of the pope's argument about Islam is correct. A group of early Muslims, the Mu'tazilites, drew on Greek philosophy and argued that men have the independent capacity to understand justice with reason.

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