Posted by Eric (September 22, 2006 at 1:40 pm)
In all this hubbub over Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg, there are a few unanswered questions:
1. Are any of those who have told us the Pope gave a speech attacking Islam, condemning violence by Islamic extremists or condemning any use of violence in furtherance of religion ever going to read it?
Benedict XVI gave a speech about the relationship between reason and culture, and the necessary connection between reason and faith—arguably the overarching theme of his entire career as both an intellectual and a shepherd of souls. He gave reference to Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus’ dialog with a “learned Persian” about Christianity and Islam because it was relevant—not only to the topic of faith and reason (where Christianity and Islam differ) but to the day (when Christianity stands between the foes of secularism and Islam).
After the introduction wherein he refered to Manuel’s dialog, Benedict focused on the narrowing concept of reason in the West, which he traces all the way back to the middle ages, which leads to the decay of reason itself. He paid particular attention to the providential fusion of Jewish faith and Greek thought—which makes his reference to an intellectual debate by one of the last Byzantine emperor all the more relevant.
But we’ve been told that Benedict gave a talk “on Islam.” I suppose they would also tell us that the topic of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” was arithmetic.
Even some who think they’ve read it, haven’t. We’ve been told that Benedict failed to separate his own thought from Manuel’s charge: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman . . .”—as if the gentle, scholarly Pope with a record four-decades long really needs to clarify where he stands. And yet, he did, attributing to Manuel “a brusqueness which leaves us astounded.” Astounded.
2. Who was Manuel II Palaeologus anyway?
I saw very little more about this man in the media—mainstream and new—except that he was one of the last Byzantine Emperors. So I looked him up on Wikipedia and discovered that as a youth he had served as an honorary hostage in the court of the Ottoman Sultan and actually had to participate in the destruction of the Byzantine city of Philedelphia.
This was a man who knew Islamic culture intimately, from the inside. He was also presided over some of the final days of the Byzantine Empire—covering an area during his reign so small that the term “empire” seems facetious—which was finally collapsing after centuries of warfare with successive Muslim regimes.
The vast Byzantine Empire that for a thousand years had cradled both the Christian faith and the Wisdom of the ancient Greeks was dying; and millions whose forefathers had been Christian were now Muslim—and not because they found the arguments of Islam more compelling, which is precisely what Manuel II argues in his dialog with the “learned Persian.” Which gives rise to another good question:
3. Who was the “learned Persian” with whom the “erudite emperor” dialoged?
I don’t think history records the name of this man, but there is still something to be learned about him from the very fact that Manuel II engages him in a lengthy dialog about Christianity and Islam. He was not, appreantly, too terribly outraged by Manueal II’s suggestion that Islam is “evil and inhuman.” Wikipedia tells us that statement—actually a question—came from the seventh of twenty-six dialogs. The Persian was, at least, not too upset to continue with the subsequente nineteen dialogs.
As for Manuel’s question itself, how about it?
4. Precisely what did Mohammed bring that was new?
From the perspective of a Christian, it looks like Mohammed offered nothing but a simplification of theological ideas and moral precepts derived from Judaism and Christianity. So what exactly did Mohammed offer that was new?
I guess that was a question that one could ask way back at the turn of the Fifteen Century. Now, at the begnning of the Twenty-First Century, we are required to pretend that they dignity of Islam is self-evident.
Meanwhile, Christianity is assumed to be irrational and irrelevant, until proven otherwise, by a society that can’t even take the trouble to read a statement in its defense, such as that offered by Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg.