Is Dialogue with Islam Possible? Some Reflections on Benedict XVI's Address at the University of Regensburg | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
Editor's note: This essay was originally published on Ignatius Insight on September 18, 2006. It is republished here on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Benedict XVI's Regensburg Address.
Both before and since his elevation to the papacy, Benedict has taken a consistent approach to controversial issues: he locates the assumptions and fundamental principles underlying the controversy, analyzes their "inner" structure or dynamism, and lays out the consequences of the principles.
For example, in Deus Caritas Est, Benedict does not address directly the controversial issues of homosexual partners, promiscuity, or divorce. Instead he examines the "inner logic" of the love of eros, which is "love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined . . ." He shows that it has been understood historically to have a relationship with the divine ("love promises infinity, eternity") and to require "purification and growth in maturity ... through the path of renunciation". In love's "growth towards higher levels and inward purification ... it seeks to become definitive ... both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being 'for ever'."
So starting from the "inner logic" of the fundamental reality of love, Benedict concludes to an exclusive and permanent relationship between a man and a woman. That is a fair description of the Catholic idea of marriage, and it excludes homosexual partners, promiscuity, and divorce.
Incidentally, in the very first paragraph of this encyclical, Benedict states: "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message [that God is love] is both timely and significant." Clearly the religious justification of violence is an aberration that's on his mind.
While in Deus Caritas Est Benedict defends the foundational truth that God is Love, in his Regensburg lecture he is defending the foundational truth that God is Logos, Reason. The central theme of the lecture is that the Christian conviction that God is Logos is not simply the result of a contingent historical process of inculturation that has been called the "hellenization of Christianity". Rather it is something that is "always and intrinsically true".
In the main body of the lecture, Benedict criticizes attempts in the West to "dehellenize" Christianity: the rejection of the rational component of faith (the sola fides of the 16th century reformers); the reduction of reason to the merely empirical or historical (modern exegesis and modern science); a multiculturalism which regards the union of faith and reason as merely one possible form of inculturation of the faith. All this is a Western self-critique.
But as the starting point of his lecture, Benedict takes a 14th century dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor and a learned Muslim to focus on the central question of the entire lecture: whether God is Logos. The Emperor's objection to Islam is Mohammed's "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor asserts that this is not in accordance with right reason, and "not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature". Benedict points to this as "the decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion".
It is at this point in the lecture that Benedict makes a statement which cannot be avoided or evaded if there is ever to be any dialogue between Christianity and Islam that is more than empty words and diplomatic gestures. For the Emperor, God's rationality is "self-evident". But for Muslim teaching, according to the editor of the book from which Benedict has been quoting, "God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality".
Benedict has struck bedrock. This is the challenge to Islam. This is the issue that lies beneath all the rest. If God is above reason in this way, then it is useless to employ rational arguments against (or for) forced conversion, terrorism, or Sharia law, which calls for the execution of Muslim converts to Christianity. If God wills it, it is beyond discussion.
Let us now turn to the statement in Benedict's lecture which has aroused the most anger. Benedict quotes the Byzantine Emperor's challenge to the learned Muslim: "Show me just what Mohammed 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."
Benedict's main argument -- that God is Logos and that violence in spreading or defending religion is contrary to the divine nature -- could have been made without including that part of Emperor's remark (made "somewhat brusquely" according to Benedict) that challenges Islam much more globally. And in his Angelus message the following Sunday, Benedict said: "These (words) were in fact a quotation from a Medieval text which do not in any way express my personal thought." Nevertheless, it may be instructive to examine this "brusque" utterance of the Emperor and ask the question: Is it simply indefensible?
As a thought experiment, let's reverse the situation. Suppose a major spokesman for Islam publicly issued the challenge: "Show me just what Jesus brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman." What would be the Christian response? Not to burn a mosque or an effigy of the Muslim spokesman, or to shoot a Muslim nurse in the back in Somalia. It would rather be to reply with some examples of just what makes the New Covenant new: the revelation that God is a Father who has a co-equal Son and Holy Spirit; that Jesus is God's Son made flesh; the Sermon on the Mount; the Resurrection of the body; the list would be long. As Irenaeus put it: he brought all newness, bringing himself. Such a statement would not make dialogue impossible; it would be an occasion for dialogue.
There is obviously much room for qualification in the Emperor's blunt statement, even for a Christian who holds that Mohammed was not a prophet, and that whatever is good in Islam is traceable either to man's natural religious knowledge or to conscious or unconscious borrowings from Jewish and Christian revelation.
Yet there is a crucial underlying principle that needs to be enunciated. Christianity and Islam make incompatible truth claims. Despite the difficulty in determining who can speak authoritatively for Christianity or for Islam, there are elements of belief common to all Christians which are incompatible with elements of belief common to all Muslims. The two most obvious and most fundamental are the Trinity and the Incarnation.
I would expect an intelligent and informed Muslim to consider me a blasphemer (because I introduce multiplicity into the one God) and an idolator (because I worship as God a man named Jesus). Should I be offended if he says so publicly? Should I not rather be offended if he conceals his position for the alleged purpose of fostering dialogue?
The question of respect is entirely distinct. Benedict is clearly aware of this distinction as evidenced in the official Vatican statement subsequent to Benedict's lecture, where the Secretary of State refers to his "respect and esteem for those who profess Islam". That is, one can and should respect Muslims (those who profess Islam) as persons with inherent dignity; but where there are incompatible truth claims, they cannot be simultaneously true. One cannot hold one as true without holding the other as false. Any religious dialogue should begin by examining the evidence for the incompatible claims.
It's worth noting, however, that while consistent Christians and Muslims in fact hold the position of the other to be erroneous in important ways, the Christian is not obliged by his faith to subject the Muslim to dhimmitude nor to deny him his religious freedom. There is a serious asymmetry here, which Benedict has criticized before. The Saudis can build a multi-million dollar mosque in Rome; but Christians can be arrested in Saudi Arabia for possessing a Bible.
Certainly, it may sound provocative to make the claim the Emperor did. But why (since Christians believe that God's full and definitive revelation has come with Christ, who brings all prophecy to an end) isn't it just as provocative for a Muslim to proclaim that Mohammed is a new prophet, bringing new revelation that corrects and supplements that of Christ?
Is it really offensive to say that Christians and Muslims disagree profoundly about this? Is not this the necessary starting point that must be recognized before any religious dialogue can even begin?
And if the response from Islam is violence, then must we not ask precisely the question raised by Benedict: Is this violence an aberration that is inconsistent with genuine Islam (as similar violence by Christians would be an aberration inconsistent with genuine Christianity)? Or is it justifiable on the basis of Islam's image of God as absolutely transcending all human categories, even that of rationality? And if the response to this question is violence, then the question has been answered existentially, and rational dialogue has been repudiated.
Finally, has no one seen the irony in the episode related by Benedict? Byzantium was increasingly threatened in the 14th century by an aggressive Islamic force, the growing Ottoman Empire. The Byzantine Emperor seems to have committed the dialogue to writing while his imperial capital, Constantinople, was under siege by the Ottoman Turks. It would fall definitively in 1453. Muslims were military enemies, engaged in a war of aggression against Byzantium. Yet even in these circumstances the Christian Emperor and the learned Persian Muslim could be utterly candid with one another and discuss civilly their fundamental religious differences. As Benedict described the dialogue, the subject was "Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both".
The West is once again under siege. Doubly so because in addition to terrorist attacks there is a new form of conquest: immigration coupled with high fertility. Let us hope that, following the Holy Father's courageous example in these troubled times, there can be a dialogue whose subject is the truth claims of Christianity and Islam.