Regensburg Revisited: Ten Years Later, A West Still in Denial | Dr. Samuel Gregg | CWR
Irrationality not only manifests itself in violence but also in an inability to apply authentic reason to the many pressing challenges of our age.
A decade ago, a 79 year-old soft-spoken, white-haired German theologian returned to visit a university at which he had spent much of his academic career. On such occasions, it’s not unusual for a distinguished professor-emeritus to offer some formal remarks. Such reflections rarely receive much attention, and are often seen as exercises in reminiscing by scholars whose most substantial achievements are behind them.
In this instance, however, the speech delivered at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006 by the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI, had immediate global impact. For weeks, even months afterwards, newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, and even entire books attacked, defended, and analyzed the almost 4,000 words which came to be known as the Regensburg Address. Copies of the text and effigies of its author, however, were also ripped up, trampled on, and publicly burnt throughout the Islamic world. Television screens were dominated by images of enraged Muslim mobs and passionate denunciations by Muslim leaders, most of whom had clearly not read the text.
Also noticeable, however, was the frosty reception accorded to Pope Benedict’s remarks in much of the West. Descriptions such as “provocative,” “ill-timed,” “insensitive,” “un-feeling,” and “undiplomatic” appeared in religious and secular media outlets. Certainly the Pope had plenty of vocal defenders in North America and Europe. Among other things, they suggested that some Muslims’ frenzied reaction to the Regensburg Address proved that Benedict’s gentle query about the place of reason in Islamic belief and practice was dead on-target.
Yet there’s no doubt that Benedict’s words at Regensburg touched a nerve—perhaps even several nerves—in the Western world. For while the Regensburg Address received so much attention because of nine paragraphs in which Benedict analyzed a fourteenth-century exchange between a Byzantine Emperor and his Persian Muslim interlocutor, the text’s primary focus concerned deep problems of faith and reason that characterize the West and Christianity today. And many of these pathologies quickly surface whenever and wherever Islamist terrorism rears its head. They continue to enfeeble the West’s response to people whose acts in locations ranging from Brussels to Paris, Beirut to Jakarta, Jerusalem to San Bernardino, Abuja to London, and Lahore to New York reflect many things, including a particular understanding of the nature of the Divine.
The West contra Logos
One of the basic theses presented by Benedict at Regensburg was that how we understand God’s nature has implications for whether we can judge particular human choices and actions to be unreasonable. Thus, if reason is simply not part of Islam’s conception of the Divinity’s nature, then Allah can command his followers to make unreasonable choices, and all his followers can do is submit to a Divine Will that operates beyond the categories of reason.
Most commentators on the Regensburg Address did not, however, observe that the Pope declined to proceed to engage in a detailed analysis of why and how such a conception of God may have affected Islamic theology and Islamic practice. Nor did he explore the mindset of those Muslims who invoke Allah to justify jihadist violence. Instead, Benedict immediately pivoted to discussing the place of reason in Christianity and Western culture more generally. In fact, in the speech’s very last paragraph, Benedict called upon his audience “to rediscover” the “great logos”: “this breadth of reason” which, he maintained, orthodox Christianity has always regarded as a prominent feature of God’s nature. The pope’s use of the word “rediscover” indicated that something had been lost and that much of the West and the Christian world had themselves fallen into the grip of other forms of un-reason. Irrationality can, after all, manifest itself in expressions other than mindless violence.
That irrationality is loose and ravaging much of the West—especially in those institutions which are supposed to be temples of reason, i.e., universities—is hard to deny.