26 April, 2006The Pope's words revoke the eerie feeling one experiences while digesting the arguments of secular Islam critics who invariably arrive at the point where they, from their point of view no doubt inescapably, have to "admit" that, yes, the West, namely Christianity and even Judaism ("even" because Judaism hasn't, different from Christianity, an even remotely violent past) are basically not much different and only secularism, not a better religion, is the answer.
Benedict XVI and Islam
by Samir Khalil Samir, sj
For Pope Ratzinger, religions should be compared on the basis of the cultures and civilizations they generate. To avoid a clash of civilizations, Islam should distance itself from terrorist violence; the west from secularist and atheistic violence. This is the analysis of a renowned expert, who last September participated in a meeting on Islam behind closed doors with the pontiff.
Beirut (AsiaNews) - Benedict XVI is probably one of the few figures to have profoundly understood the ambiguity in which contemporary Islam is being debated and its struggle to find a place in modern society. At the same time, he is proposing a way for Islam to work toward coexistence globally and with religions, based not on religious dialogue, but on dialogue between cultures and civilizations based on rationality and on a vision of man and human nature which comes before any ideology or religion. This choice to wager on cultural dialogue explains his decision to absorb the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue into the larger Pontifical Council for Culture.
While the Pope is asking Islam for dialogue based on culture, human rights, the refusal of violence, he is asking the West, at the same time, to go back to a vision of human nature and rationality in which the religious dimension is not excluded. In this way – and perhaps only in this way – a clash of civilizations can be avoided, transforming it instead into a dialogue between civilizations.
Islamic totalitarianism differs from Christianity
To understand Benedict XVI’s thinking and Islamic religion, we must go over their evolution. A truly essential document is found in his book (written in 1996, when he was still cardinal, together with Peter Seewald), entitled “The Salt of the Earth”, in which he makes certain considerations and highlights various differences between Islam and Christian religion and the West.
First of all, he shows that there is no orthodoxy in Islam, because there is no one authority, no common doctrinal magisterium. This makes dialogue difficult: when we engage in dialogue, it is not “with Islam”, but with groups.
But the key point that he tackles is that of sharia. He points out that:
“the Koran is a total religious law, which regulates the whole of political and social life and insists that the whole order of life be Islamic. Sharia shapes society from beginning to end. In this sense, it can exploit such freedoms as our constitutions give, but it cannot be its final goal to say: Yes, now we too are a body with rights, now we are present [in society] just like the Catholics and the Protestants. In such a situation, [Islam] would not achieve a status consistent with its inner nature; it would be in alienation from itself”, which could be resolved only through the total Islamization of society. When for example an Islamic finds himself in a Western society, he can benefit from or exploit certain elements, but he can never identify himself with the non-Muslim citizen, because he does not find himself in a Muslim society.
In a closed-door seminar, held at Castelgandolfo (September 1-2, 2005), the Pope insisted on and stressed this same idea: the profound diversity between Islam and Christianity. On this occasion, he started from a theological point of view, taking into account the Islamic conception of revelation: the Koran “descended” upon Mohammad, it is not “inspired” to Mohammad. For this reason, a Muslim does not think himself authorized to interpret the Koran, but is tied to this text which emerged in Arabia in the 7th century. This brings to the same conclusions as before: the absolute nature of the Koran makes dialogue all the more difficult, because there is very little room for interpretation, if at all.
On July 24, during his stay in the Italian Aosta Valley region, he was asked if Islam can be described as a religion of peace, to which he replied “I would not speak in generic terms, certainly Islam contains elements which are in favour of peace, as it contains other elements.” Even if not explicitly, Benedict XVI suggests that Islam suffers from ambiguity vis-à-vis violence, justifying it in various cases. And he added. “We must always strive to find the better elements.” Another person asked him then if terrorist attacks can be considered anti-Christian. He reply is clear-cut: “No, generally the intention seems to be much more general and not directed precisely at Christianity.”
Dialogue between cultures is more fruitful than inter-religious dialogue
On August 20 in Cologne, Pope Benedict XVI has his first big encounter with Islam, speaking with the representatives of Muslim communities. In a relatively long speech, he says,
“I am certain that I echo your own thoughts when I bring up one of our concerns as we notice the spread of terrorism... I know that many of you have firmly rejected, also publicly, in particular any connection between your faith and terrorism and have condemned it... terrorism of any kind is a perverse and cruel [a word that he repeats 3 times] choice which shows contempt for the sacred right to life and undermines the very foundations of all civil coexistence... If together we can succeed in eliminating from hearts any trace of rancour, in resisting every form of intolerance and in opposing every manifestation of violence, we will turn back the wave of cruel fanaticism that endangers the lives of so many people and hinders progress towards world peace. The task is difficult but not impossible and the believer can accomplish this.”
...Benedict XVI has understood that one of the causes of terrorism is this sentiment of rancour. And further on
“Dear friends, I am profoundly convinced that we must not yield to the negative pressures in our midst, but must affirm the values of mutual respect, solidarity and peace... there is plenty of scope for us to act together in the service of fundamental moral values. The dignity of the person and the defence of the rights which that dignity confers must represent the goal of every social endeavour and of every effort to bring it to fruition.”
And here we find a crucial sentence:
“This message is conveyed to us unmistakably by the quiet but clear voice of conscience.” “Only through recognition of the centrality of the person,” the Pope goes on to say, “can a common basis for understanding be found, one which enables us to move beyond cultural conflicts and which neutralizes the disruptive power of ideologies.”
Thus, even before religion, there is the voice of conscience and we must all fight for moral values, for the dignity of the person, the defence of rights.
Therefore, for Benedict XVI, dialogue must be based on the centrality of the person, which overrides both cultural and ideological contrasts. And I think that, getting under ideologies, religions can also be understood. This is one of the pillars of the Pope’s vision: it also explains why he united the Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and the Council for Culture, surprising everyone. This choice derives from a profound vision and is not, as the press would have it, to “get rid” of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who deserves much recognition. That may have been part of it, but it was not the purpose.
The essential idea is that dialogue with Islam and with other religions cannot be essentially a theological or religious dialogue, except in the broad terms of moral values; it must instead be a dialogue of cultures and civilizations.
...In any kind of dialogue that takes place with the Muslim world, as soon as talk begins on religious topics, discussion turns to the Palestinians, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, in other words all the questions of political and cultural conflict. An exquisitely theological discussion is never possible with Islam: one cannot speak of the Trinity, of Incarnation, etc. Once in Cordoba, in 1977, a conference was held on the notion of prophecy. After having dealt with the prophetic character of Christ as seen by Muslims, a Christian made a presentation on the prophetic character of Mohammad from the Christian point of view and dared to say that the Church cannot recognize him as prophet; at the most, it could define him as such but only in a generic sense, just as one says that Marx is “prophet” of modern times. The conclusion? This question became the topic of conversation for the following three days, pre-empting the original conference.
The Pope has understood this important aspect: discussions on theology can take place only among a few, but now is certainly not the time between Islam and Christianity. Instead, it is a question of tackling the question of coexistence in the concrete terms of politics, economy, history, culture, customs…
Rationality and Faith
...In an exchange that took place on October 25, 2004, between Italian historian, Ernesto Galli della Loggia, and the then Cardinal Ratzinger, the latter, at a certain point, recalled the “seeds of the Word” and underscored the importance of rationality in Christian faith, seen by Church Fathers as the fulfilment of the search for truth found in philosophy. Galli della Loggia thus said: “Your hope which is identical to faith, brings with it a logos and this logos can become an apologia, a reply that can be communicated to others,” to everyone.
Cardinal Ratzinger replied:
“We do not want to create an empire of power, but we have something that can be communicated and towards which an expectation of our reason tends. It is communicable because it belongs to our shared human nature and there is a duty to communicate on the part of those who have found a treasure of truth and love. Rationality was therefore a postulate and condition of Christianity, which remains a European legacy for comparing ourselves peacefully and positively, with Islam and also the great Asian religions... this rationality becomes dangerous and destructive for the human creature if it becomes positivist [and here he critiques the West], which reduces the great values of our being to subjectivity [to relativism] and thus becomes an amputation of the human creature. We do not wish to impose on anyone a faith that can only be freely accepted, but as a vivifying force of the rationality of Europe, it belongs to our identity.”
Then comes the essential part:
“it has been said that we must not speak of God in the European constitution, because we must not offend Muslims and the faithful of other religions. The opposite is true – Ratzinger points out – what offends Muslims and the faithful of other religions is not talking about God or our Christian roots, but rather the disdain for God and the sacred, that separates us from other cultures and does not create the opportunity for encounter, but expresses the arrogance of diminished, reduced reason, which provokes fundamentalist reactions.”
Benedict XVI admires in Islam the certainty based on faith, which contrasts with the West where everything is relativized; and he admires in Islam the sense of the sacred, which instead seems to have disappeared in the West. He has understood that a Muslim is not offended by the crucifix, by religious symbols: this is actually a laicist polemic that strives to eliminate the religious from society. Muslims are not offended by religious symbols, but by secularized culture, by the fact that God and the values that they associate with God are absent from this civilization.
...Benedict is [different from JPII] aiming at more essential points: theology is not what counts, at least not in this stage of history; what counts is the fact that Islam is the religion that is developing more and is becoming more and more a danger for the West and the world. The danger is not in Islam in general, but in a certain vision of Islam that does never openly renounces violence and generates terrorism, fanaticism. On the other hand, he does not want to reduce Islam to a social-political phenomenon. The Pope has profoundly understood the ambiguity of Islam, which is both one and the other, which at times plays on one or the other front. And his proposal is that, if we want to find a common basis, we must get out of religious dialogue to give humanistic foundations to this dialogue, because only these are universal and shared by all human beings. Humanism is a universal factor; faiths can be factors of clash and division.
Yes to reciprocity, no to “do-goodism”
The Pope’s position never falls into the justification of terrorism and violence. Sometimes, even when it comes to Church figures, people slip into a generic kind of relativism: after all, there’s violence in all religions, even among Christians; or, violence is justified as a reply to other violence… No, this Pope has never made allusions of this kind. But, on the other hand, he has never fallen into the behaviour found in certain Christian circles in the West marked by “do-goodism” and by guilt complexes. Recently, some Muslims have asked that the Pope ask forgiveness for the Crusades, colonialism, missionaries, cartoons, etc… He is not falling in this trap, because he knows that his words could be used not for building dialogue, but for destroying it. This is the experience that we have of the Muslim world: all such gestures, which are very generous and profoundly spiritual to ask for forgiveness for historical events of the past, are exploited and are presented by Muslims as a settling of accounts: here, they say, you recognize it even yourself: you’re guilty. Such gestures never spark any kind of reciprocity.
At this point, it is worth recalling the Pope’s address to the Moroccan Ambassador (February 20, 2006), when he alluded to “respect for the convictions and religious practices of others so that, in a reciprocal manner, the exercise of freely-chosen religion is truly assured to all in all societies.” These are two small but very important affirmations on the reciprocity of religious freedoms rights between Western and Islamic countries and on the freedom to change religion, something which is prohibited in Islam. The nice thing is that the Pope dared to say them: in the political and Church world, people are often afraid to mention such things. It’s enough to take note of the silence that reigns when it comes to the religious freedom violations that exist in Saudi Arabia.
The path to Hell is paved with good relativism and a guilt complex.
The second, as important, point is that any dialogue with Islam based on RELIGION is a non-starter.
Here are my previous posts on Pope Benedict. The chronological order gives them a somewhat enhanced meaning or is it just me who is seeing a process?
- Tu Es Petrus from 22. February 2006
- Being saddened is not enough... from 27. February 2006
- About Freaking Time! from 21. March 2006
- Surprisingly Enough from 22. March 2006
- It's difficult to Love a German Pope from 18. April 2006.
The Sage from Texas says it better than I ever could: "Well, of course there can only be a cultural "dialogue" (ew, I hate that word!) if we are to talk at all, because we can't discuss religion with them past "These are the tenets of our Faith"----simply because we are right, and they are wrong. You can't talk around that, unless you lie, either by commission or omission... I'm glad to see that he got rid of that ridiculous interfaith dialogue thing.
Our Lord never said "Go ye to all nations and dialogue with them, discussing what I have told you while giving equal credence to whatever the heck they believe."
A cultural dialogue makes sense, but I doubt they'll listen. Their culture is all about Islam...They do not discuss---and history should teach us this---they dictate, and brutally."