September 19, 2006 | Graham

Better to have been silent than to apologise

Pope Benedict’s error wasn’t to criticise Islam, it was in not being prepared to back-up his criticism. His speech is a difficult one, and I wouldn’t pretend to understand it anywhere near completely. But I understand it enough to know a few things.
It is disingenuous to suggest that he was making a minor point about Islam. It was a major point, and it was that what he sees as authentic Christianity incorporates reason into its theology, whilst Islamic theology does not. So the Christian god is bound by the rules of the world he has created, and cannot act capriciously. He is to be discovered, not imposed. This is contrasted to Islam where God is transcendent from Creation and can act as he likes, capriciously or otherwise. Muslims can legitimately justify conversion by force; Christians can’t.
I don’t entirely agree with the Pontiff’s exposition of authentic Christian theology on this point, although I do agree that conversion by force is not authentic. Be that as it may, his discussion of Islam and Christianity is his first dissection on the way to differentiating authentic Catholicism from Protestantism and Liberal Catholicism and making a plea for the reintegration of theology into intellectual inquiry. It is therefore very deliberately chosen and the speech as a whole is very important. Indeed, the version on the web at the moment is to be replaced with a more detailed version, including footnotes. Students of ecumenism and proponents of the separation of church and state should read this piece very carefully, because it suggests that this pope will be less accommodating of both.
That being the case, he should have been prepared to defend his position. Just as he should be prepared to defend himself against the criticism and arguments that he will get from protestants and liberal christians.
Perhaps he demurred because of the risk of violence to Roman Catholic people and property. While in a rational context this is understandable, in the context of an organisation with a proud tradition of evangelism and matyrdom for the faith, this is a betrayal of all that is authentic in Christianity.
This suggests that, while he may attempt to distinguish Roman Catholicism from other religions and denominations, these distinctions will have all the force of vapid sophistries, because the modern Catholic (and Protestant) church has become too reasonable and doesn’t appreciate that its God frequently asks his followers to do things which may seem unreasonable and irrational. That’s the strength of Islam. In an odd way, it’s also what George W Bush brings to the table.

Posted by Graham at 10:44 pm | Comments (6) |
Filed under: Religion


  1. Christians like to talk a lot about “reason”. Where is the “reason” in being a Christian?
    Reason or true intellectual enquiry begins with an open hearted, open minded disposition of not knowing.
    What do we really know about anything?
    What do we really know about what may or may not have happened 2000 years ago re the entirely legendary cartoon character called “jesus”?
    Similarly if one exercises reason in this fashion how can any of the “truth” claims of Christianity possibly be justified? Especially the role of the Pope?
    So too for Islam of course.
    We also live in a moment in time when all the Sacred Scriptures and practices of the entire Great Tradition of Humankind are freely available on the internet. Who then owns The Holy Brightness?
    And the horrors of their histories too.
    Especially the INEVITABLE horrors of monotheistic claims to only one “truth”. The INEVITABLE outcome of all only one “truth” monotheisms are would be world conquering cultural movements. Islam & Christianity specialise in this. Monotheism is always a dangerous delusion when aligned with political power. ALWAYS!
    Monotheism IS a delusion!! A highly reductive egoically self created and self serving (both individual & collective) misunderstanding of the all pervasive Divine Love-Bliss-Radiance of Real God.
    Look at monotheistic inspired dreadfully sane Christian America. It accounts for 48% of world armaments production and world wide sales.
    Meanwhile these related references provide a spiritualy informed critique of the usual individual & collective self serving monotheistic delusions.
    Specifically on Christianity
    This essay provides a unique understanding of the origins & consequences of the current universal insanity.

    Comment by John — September 20, 2006 @ 10:32 am

  2. Well thought and argued article.
    But isn’t the focus not so much what was said, but the reaction!

    Comment by WeekbyWeek — September 20, 2006 @ 10:52 am

  3. Graham
    You’re right, I think: the speech is Very Important, but also difficult. In consequence, any reading of it probably reveals more about our own grasp of the issues than what he was trying to communicate. But we have to try.
    On my reading, it breaks down to the tensions between sense (empiricism,, exemplified by science), reason (philosophy), and faith (imagination). Benedict observes that Christianity offers a synthesis of Hellenic reasoned philosophy and the Judiac religious imagination, and on this worldview, Europe was founded.Come the advent of science – Decarte, Newton et al, 1600s – however, reason abandoned the imagination in favour of the senses, ushering in two centuries of atheism, leaving morality up to the individual. This has been breaking down of late.
    Benedict’s solution is to expand the radius of reason beyond the constraints of empiricism. Reason needs to embrace the truth revealed by the imagination. Put another way, he is arguing that a sound worldview will embrace sense, reason and imagination – science, philosophy and theology – into an integrated, synergistic worldview.
    Hence, him saying: “We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons.”
    Hence his comment: “…great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a **source of knowledge***, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.”
    And, finally: “Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”
    The irony is that he offers reason as the shared ground for shaping a shared worldview, and the response is anything but reasonable! He was right to apologise, insofar as his message was powerfully misconstrued, and insofar as he was responsible for this. But, sheesh, you have to dispair at the chances of his program succeeding, at least during in Papacy, given how irrational the debate, and the response, to his lecture has been.
    Sorry this is so long…got carried away with myself…oh well, it is writ,
    David James
    (Friend of Susan’s – we met at the Bris Institute last month)
    As things stand, sensory science is at war with religious imagination, and philosophy is a poor cousin, not knowing where to look. Result: people are confused, so unhappy.

    Comment by David james — September 20, 2006 @ 11:20 am

  4. John, you seem like an exciting person to have around for dinner….

    Comment by LM — September 20, 2006 @ 11:25 am

  5. I’m with Week by Week. The massive, but typical overreaction of some Muslims (as opposed to the me-poor-victim one of most Muslims) is the real worry.
    Apart from the fact that Islam does not have an equivalent of the Pope to burn an effigy of, no other relgion or sect reacts to criticism the way Muslims do.

    Comment by Leigh — September 20, 2006 @ 12:18 pm

  6. David, I agree with your interpretation, and while I’m Cartesian in inclination, I do try to live my life a little more holistically. For another very good take on this readers might like to check out ABC Radio’s Religion Report
    You might also be interested in Mark Bahnisch’s take at Larvatus Prodeo

    Comment by Graham Young — September 20, 2006 @ 9:02 pm

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