Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What Has Jerusalem To Do With Athens?

TIA Daily • November 28, 2006

What Has Jerusalem to Do with Athens?

Part 1: Pope Benedict XVI Turns Tertullian on His Head

by Robert Tracinski

Editor's Note: I have not yet completed my "What Went Right?" series, but in the meantime, the story below was so timely that I thought it important to start this new article today. Over the next week, I will post the second part of this new article, as well as the next installment of "What Went Right?"—RWT

Pope Benedict XVI arrived yesterday in Istanbul on a visit that crystallizes an important aspect of the clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.

Radical Islam is a rising force in quasi-secular Turkey, and the pope's visit has been met with mass protests by Turkish Muslims in response to comments the pope made earlier this year regarding Islam.

In a September 12 speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Benedict quoted a dialogue written between 1394 and 1402 by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus. According to Benedict, Manuel's philosophical tract, written as a dialogue between the emperor and "a learned Persian,"ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an…. In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point—itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself—which, in the context of the issue of faith and reason, I found interesting and which can serve as the starting point for my reflections on this issue. ---In the seventh conversation…, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion." It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.

But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels," he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words:

"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."

The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.

"God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...."

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature.

The focus of Muslim outrage has been narrow and superficial: Benedict's quotation of Manuel's description of Islam as "evil and inhuman." But the speech itself is actually about faith, reason, and force, and it has wide implications for the nature of the clash between Islam and the West, for the relationship between religion and secularism within the West, and for judging the relative threats posed by Islamic and Christian fanaticism.

This speech is all the more important because Benedict is a more philosophical and readable pope than his predecessor. Popes always operate on a broad philosophical level, especially relative to Bible-thumping American Evangelicals, but in the speeches and papal encyclicals I have read, John Paul II never seemed fully comfortable with philosophical argument. His writings always vacillate between philosophical argument and quotations from scripture, as if John Paul II were vacillating between appeals to reason and appeals to Biblical authority.

Benedict, by contrast, is at home in the realm of philosophy, and with the exception of an overly scholarly vocabulary, he is capable of setting forth a clear and readable argument that is understandable to the non-believer.

The reason for this is revealed in the opening of Benedict's speech, as he recalls his experience as a theology professor at the University of Bonn in 1959. The faculty of the university, he writes, shared the ideal "that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason." Theology, then, is presented as being based on the same rationality as secular academic disciplines. In that spirit, Benedict also describes his tolerant reaction to an atheist colleague: "even in the face of such radical skepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason…: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question."

This statement is the context in which Benedict introduces his comments on Islam. He introduces Islam's belief in spreading religion through the sword as a contrast to contemporary Christianity's dedication to defending the faith through reason and persuasion.
Much of Benedict's contrast between Christianity and Islam focuses on the theological issue of whether God is bound by reason (the Catholic view) or inscrutable to reason (the Muslim view). Remember earlier that he described Manuel's view that "not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature" as "the decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion." He then quotes a commentator on the text of Manuel's dialogue: "For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality." If the Muslim god is not bound to obey the dictates of reason, then his followers are not required to respect reason in the minds of their fellow men.

But Benedict has larger goals for which this theological difference is merely a springboard. Those goals are revealed by his reference to Manuel's Christian religious views as being "shaped by Greek philosophy"—something of which Benedict approves. In fact, he makes the connection between Christianity and the Greek philosophical tradition the main subject of his speech.

Previous Catholic theologians and philosophers, from Thomas Aquinas on down, have argued that Christian religious faith and secular classical learning are compatible. Benedict goes a step further.

The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" (cf. Acts 16:6-10)—this vision can be interpreted as a distillation of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry….

[D]espite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature.

Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria—the Septuagint—is more than a simple…translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity. A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: not to act "with logos" [i.e., according to reason] is contrary to God's nature. [Emphasis added.]

What is really radical about Benedict's speech is not its references to Islam, but its attempt to argue that the classical Greek tradition of reason is an indispensable part of Christianity. The idea that Christianity did not spread to Greece "by chance" and that the Greek translation of the Old Testament is an "important step in the history of revelation," together with his later claim that the New Testament "bears the imprint of the Greek spirit"—all of this implies the absorption of the Greek tradition into the foundations of the Christian faith. In effect, Benedict is adopting the works of Plato and Aristotle as part of the revealed word of God.

Benedict spends much of the rest of his speech decrying the "dehellenization" of Christianity—that is, attempts to separate Christianity from the Greek influence.

The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity—a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. He argues against these various attempts, including the most recent one, "which is now in progress."

In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux.

See what I mean about an overly scholarly vocabulary? Translated into more familiar terms, Benedict is arguing against a kind of Christian Multiculturalism in which Greek-influenced Christianity is just a European variant on Christianity, with other regions free to adopt non-Western interpretations of the faith. I don't know much about the political power struggles within the Church, but I suspect that this theory is an attempt to legitimize African Christianity, which tends to be more mystical and emotionalist—that is to say, more un-Greek—than European Christianity.

Benedict has some tart words for this Christian Multiculturalism.

This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed…. [T]he fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself. [Emphasis added.]

The integration of Greek philosophy and Christianity, in Benedict's view, is the foundation both of Christianity and of Western Civilization in general.

This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history—it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.

In Benedict's view, the founding tradition of the West is not the Judeo-Christian tradition but rather the Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman tradition—as one unified tradition.
This is an extraordinary claim, and one that departs from much of the history of the Church—and one that is, as the rest of Benedict's speech will demonstrate, philosophically untenable.

The early Church father Tertullian (c. 155–230 AD), despite being born into the late classical world, was contemptuous of secular classical learning, and once asked, rhetorically, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church?" (This is the same Tertullian who said, of the doctrine of the Trinity, "I believe it because it is absurd.") In his view, the philosophical tradition of Athens was irrelevant to and incompatible with the religious tradition of Jerusalem. Yet that is precisely the view that Benedict is turning on its head.

Thus, reversing Tertullian's question, we may ask of Benedict: what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?

This article will be continued in a future edition of TIA Daily.

No comments: