Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Regensburg Moment

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Regensburg Moment

Article excerpt

It is by no means certain, but it is more than just possible, that Pope Benedict's September 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg and the controversy surrounding it will be referred to, five or twenty years from now, as "The Regensburg Moment."

As many commentators, Muslim and other, do not know because they manifestly did not read the lecture, it was not chiefly about Islam. It was a considered reflection on the inseparable linkage of faith and reason in the Christian understanding, an incisive critique of Christian thinkers who press for separating faith and reason in the name of "de-Hellenizing" Christianity, and a stirring call for Christians to celebrate the achievements of modernity and secure those achievements by grounding them in a more comprehensive and coherent understanding of human rationality.

Benedict was widely criticized for being impolitic, even recklessly provocative, in citing a fourteenthcentury colloquy between a Byzantine emperor and a Muslim intellectual in which the emperor drew some distinctly uncomplimentary conclusions about Islam. Perhaps the pope should have chosen a less "brusque" (his characterization of the emperor's statement) example from history, but his obvious point was to show diat the problem he was addressing is not new. Violence has no place in the advancing of religion. To act against reason is to act against the nature of God. That is Benedict's argument.

Numerous commentators suggested a sharp contrast between Benedict and John Paul II in their attitudes toward Islam. Somewhat amusingly, pundits who had for years deplored John Paul's "rigid" and "authoritarian" pontificate now spoke nostalgically about his wonderfully open and dialogical ways. As usual, any stick will do in beating up on whoever is currently the pope. As a matter of fact, however, there is no substantive difference between the two popes and their understanding of Islam.

In his 1994 worldwide bestseller, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul expressed respect for "the religiosity of the Muslims" and their "fidelity to prayer." "The image of believers in Allah who, without caring about time or place, fall to their knees and immerse themselves in prayer remains a model for all those who invoke the true God, in particular for those Christians who, having deserted their magnificent cathedrals, pray only a little or not at all." That having been said, John Paul continues:

Whoever knows the Old and New Testaments, and then reads the Koran, clearly sees the process by which it completely reduces Divine Revelation. It is impossible not to note the movement away from what God said about himself, first in the Old Testament through the Prophets, and then finally in the New Testament through His Son. In Islam, all the richness of God's selfrevelation, which constitutes the heritage of the Old and New Testaments, has definitely been set aside.

Some of die most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God with us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for die Cross and the Resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet who prepares for the last prophet, Muhammad. There is also mention of Mary, His Virgin Mother, but the tragedy of redemption is completely absent For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.

So the hard questions about Islam raised by Benedict at Regensburg (and elsewhere) are hardly new in papal thought. Benedict has expressed regret about the violent Muslim reaction to what he said; he has continued to meet with Muslim leaders; he has reaffirmed the Church's continuing dialogue with Islam-but there is no chance whatsoever that he will retract or retreat from the argument he has made. And there is no doubt that he will continue to insist on greater "reciprocity" in relation to Islam. …

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