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Papal Reflections

Pope Benedict was to initiate an inter-religious dialogue on faith and religion, but a contentious quote from a Byzantine emperor cannot be the basis for such a dialogue. The basic premise for an inter-religious conversation is that it must begin with a critique of one's own tradition. What has gone unnoticed in the controversy is that the pope raised other issues on the Christian tradition, which could have long-term implications.

Papal Reflections

Pope Benedict was to initiate an inter-religious dialogue on faith and religion, but a contentious quote from a Byzantine emperor cannot be the basis for such a dialogue. The basic premise for an inter-religious conversation is that it must begin with a critique of one’s own tradition. What has gone unnoticed in the controversy is that the pope raised other issues on the Christian tradition, which could have long-term implications.


he talk of pope Benedictus XVI to the “Representatives of Science” at Regensberg, Germany, on September 12 entitled Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections, was intended to emphasise the need for the convergence of, and to invite a dialogue on, faith and reason and religion and violence. This is a salutary message in our terror ridden world, where far too many dangerous fundamentalisms are rampant, and too many violent ideologies have political patronage. Whether religious or secular, rationalist or fideistic, such fundamentalisms and ideologies are incapable of dialogue with any but their own kind, and even their “in-house” debates can be acrimonious and turn violent.

The pope’s lecture might have passed off as another well-intentioned attempt and not attracted much attention but suddenly it has exploded on an already tension-charged global stage and fuelled the very opposite of what was intended, because of a misplaced quotation early in the exposé. The controversy has attracted much media attention and developed into something that we cannot now trivialise or deal with lightly.

The Muslim world has certainly a genuine grievance and their reaction has been quick and sharp, even from moderates. Moreover, there are religious fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim, as also neoconservative ideologues, who see in this a further justification for their “clash of civilisations” thesis, while fundamentalists of other religious denominations happily stand by to witness this Christian-Muslim imbroglio, and secular rationalists angrily mourn the victory of unreasoning faith over pragmatic reason.

An apology from the Vatican has been issued and the pope has issued a personal statement, but the damage remains to be repaired and it will take some doing to heal this hurt.

The council of Muslims in Germany welcomed the pope’s statement as an

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006 important step restoring calm to the troubled situation. In Britain, the Muslim Council affirmed that the pope’s expression of regret was “exactly the reassurance many Muslims were looking for”. In Turkey, the government said that the pope’s visit in November would go ahead, but Mehmet Aydin, state minister, remarked that the pontiff appeared to be saying he was sorry for the outrage but not necessarily for the remarks themselves. Further afield at the UN in New York, the president of the general assembly, Haya Rashed al Khalifa, called on religious leaders to promote reconciliation, and urged religious forces to advance dialogue, reconciliation and peace and help people embrace difference.

But others were not so reconciled. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt at first welcomed what it called the pope’s “retraction”, but later warned that it did not amount to a definitive apology and would not be enough to satisfy all Muslims. Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas, which controls the Palestinian parliament, said: “We do not view the statement attributed to the pope as an apology”. At the time of writing (Septermber 19) at least seven churches had been attacked in areas under the Palestinian Authority. An Italian missionary nun was killed by gunmen in Mogadishu, Somalia, in retaliation for the comments.

Volatile Situation

This volatile situation could still run out of control. Hence a further step is surely called for. We have heard from the pope how negatively Manuel II thought of Islam and its prophet. In the text the pope has not explicitly agreed with him, and now he has confirmed that he does not, so it would be most appropriate, since he has said in his apology that he has the highest respect for Islam, that he spells this out and affirms the positive he sees in Islam. In the meantime, the fundamentalists, religious and otherwise, are having a field day politicising this unfortunate controversy to their own advantage.

We will all do well to recall here what Vatican II said in its “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate, No 3):

Upon Moslems, too, the Church looks with

esteem. They adore on God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Makerof heaven and earth and Speaker to men.They strive to submit wholeheartedly evento his inscrutable decrees, just as didAbraham,…Although in the course ofcenturies many quarrels and hostilities havearisen between Christians and Moslems, this most sacred Synod urges all to forgetthe past and to strive sincerely for mutualunderstanding.

Against this background the pope’s reference to a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus was most untoward and injudicious. It adds little to the argument he was making in his lecture and could have been omitted without any loss to the later discussion. It has only succeeded in enflaming the Muslim world. In retrospect he would probably not have used it.

Criticism from Within

If examples were needed of fundamentalisms they could have been had nearer home, from within Europe and Christianity, and as recently as this last century and not far from Regensberg too. So also a critique of religion and violence is best begun with one’s own tradition. It would

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006

be difficult to find a religious community that has never resorted to violence even though its tenets provide no justification for it. No religious tradition is innocent of a history of violence, even when they do not condone it. A basic premise of an authentic inter-religious dialogue is that it must begin with an intra-religious one, a critique of one’s own tradition. A contentious quotation from a Byzantine emperor cannot be a suitable basis for a papal reflection that intends to promote a harmonious inter-religious dialogue on faith and reason. It has not unpredictably turned out to be a provocation that does not help “faith” or “reason”, inter-religious dialogue or community harmony.

Other Issues

But what have gone unnoticed in the controversy are the other issues that the pope’s talk raises that could have longterm implications. For though they refer mainly to the Christian tradition in Europe they have implications beyond Europe for ecumenical relationships with other faith traditions. The media has till now not found these newsworthy and after the prevailing controversy has died down they may well be left to insinuate themselves into and constrain this very discourse on faith and reason, on religious culture and harmony that needs to be positively promoted so urgently. The first has to do with “voluntarism” or privileging of the will over the intellect, which then has implications for our understanding of freedom and truth. The second is in regard to the interrelationship between culture and religion, which is enormously crucial for our mutlicultural, pluri-religious world today.

The pope begins with a reference to voluntarism that appears to be critical of Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308), who was called “the Subtle Doctor” because of his fine-tuned argumentation and declared a “Blessed” (the last stage before canonisation) by John Paul II. But this late medieval scholastic philosopher is certainly not a gross voluntarist and the Scotism of his followers is still recognised as a mainstream theology in the Catholic Church. In regard to the faith and reason discourse, Scotus opposed both scepticism, which denies the possibility of knowing with certainty, and illuminationism, which insists we cannot reach certainty without divine enlightenment. This is quite distinct from either rationalism or fideism, both of which are concerns for the pope.

If there is a counterpoint to Duns Scotus, the Franciscan, then we can find it in Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican, (1225/7-1274) who was called the “Angelic Doctor”, canonised in 1323. For whereas Scotus privileged will, since his concern was the absolute freedom of god, Aquinas privileged intellect, emphasising the utter unicity of god. It might be pertinent to mention here that Thomas Aquinas and others had access to Aristotle through the translations preserved by Muslim Arabic scholars and were much influenced by their commentaries. Among the best known were Avicenna, (980-1037) and Averroes (1126-1198), better known in the Muslim world as Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina and Abu al-Walid ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, respectively.

The Scotus stresses the infinity of the divine nature, Aquinas focuses on its simplicity. We can trace in this difference the influence of the “charism” of the founders of their respect religious orders: St Francis of Assisi (1181/2-1226), the romantic minstrel, and St Dominic (11701221), the tireless preacher. But at the end of the day these are really more complementary than contradictory differences. Truth must be freely chosen and freedom must never be blind.

Difference of Emphasis

In fact such broad difference of emphasis do occur across religious traditions, some being more inclined to privileging intellect and therefore wisdom, knowledge, contemplation, enlightenment, gnosis (or secret knowledge), the ‘jnana marg’; and others emphasing will, and therefore love, compassion, the ‘bhakti marg’, or doing, action, service, the ‘karma marg’. Certainly Benedict cannot mean to negate one in favour of the other.

Coming to the question of religion and culture, the pope believes “we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God”. Hence “Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe”. This may well be true of that continent. In fact many agree that this convergence “created Europe”. Hillaire Belloc famously claimed: “The Church is Europe and Europe is the Church”. But how far it still “remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe” even today has already being contested in the European Union Parliament as it discusses its proposed new constitution, which wants to exclude any explicit reference to Christianity. In actuality, many would now consider a secularised Europe as post-Christian. Opening the EU to Turkey is precisely the sticking point on this issue: how far is the multiculturalism of Europe to stretch? As far as Turkey which was once part of NATO? As far as Russia which was never a part of the Atlantic alliance? If European Christianity has remained “Hellenised”, then it would seem that modern, or rather postmodern European culture has all but left it behind.

Moreover, if such a “Hellenised” Christianity is projected globally it can hardly lay claim to the genuinely universal in our multicultural, pluri-religious world today. The Second Vatican Council, the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Church in which all the bishops of the world gather together with the pope, in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, (Gaudium et Spes, no 58) is emphatic about this:

the Church, sent to all peoples of every time and place, is not bound exclusively and indissolubly to any race or nation, nor to any particular way of life or any customary pattern of living, ancient or recent. Faithful to her own tradition and at the same time conscious of her universal mission she can enter into communion with various cultural modes, to her own enrichment and theirs too.

For Vatican II, then, a living tradition is always a cumulative process of renewal and reform, of affirmations and rejections, additions and subtractions, in a continuing “Development of Doctrine”, the thesis of Cardinal John Henry Newman that is now mainstream theology in the Church. This will require a constant and open-ended critique to be faithful to the original founding experience of a religious tradition. “Ecclesia simper reformanda” (the Church must always be reformed) is an old axiom going to the Fathers of the Church at the beginning of the Christian era.


John Paul II, for whom cardinal Ratzinger headed the congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), was quite lucid about “inculturation” in his encyclical letter (June 2, 1985) on The Apostles of the Slavs, Ss Cyril and Methodius, who evangelised Poland towards the end of the first millennium. He called “inculturation the incarnation of the Gospel in native cultures

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006 and also the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church” (no 21). In a later encyclical (December 7, 1990) Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer) the late pope describes inculturation as “an intimate transformation of the authentic cultural values by their integration into Christianity and the implantation of Christianity into different human cultures” (no 52). Obviously, inculturation cannot negate the historical past of a tradition. On this, the present pope expresses his concern: “This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision.” Certainly a proper hermeneutics is required on such a sensitive issue, and yet to affirm the historicity of a tradition cannot mean to absolutise it once and forever without openness to further development of doctrine in the context of its encounter with different cultures. This pope has affirmed this process in the context of Europe. Vatican II requires an extension beyond the whole world.

Hence Benedict’s cautions are well taken only if they are read against the background and in the context of the larger tradition of the Church, especially Vatican II, and John Paul II to mention but the most recent reference points. This is the kind of hermeneutic that needs also to be affirmed of all religious traditions as well, for there is no text without a context.

The relationship between will and intellect has agitated philosophers everywhere down the ages and theologians in all major religious traditions too. But when considered in the context of a religious faith in god as the Absolute, the two must necessarily converge in this transcendent Infinite, the Ultimate, so that transcendental freedom and transcendental truth cannot be epistemologically opposed or even ontologically different. At the human level we can choose to emphasise one or the other but to view them as opposed in essence is to diminish the human. For genuine freedom cannot be blind, authentic truth is always liberating.

Faith and Reason

All religious traditions have struggled with the relationship of faith and reason especially in the early articulations of their faith experience. There is a dialectic between the two that must address a basic human query: what does being ‘reasonable’ mean to faith, and again what does being ‘faithful’ to reason require? If both faith and reason are believed to have the same source of truth, whether, God’s revelation or human experience, then: faith and reason are complementary not contradictory ways of seeking the truth. However, they will both have their human limitations. Moreover, whether or not we believe depends on our self-understanding, and where we position ourselves influences how we reason. Thus a rational methodology transgressing its inherent limitations can never yield “rightly reasoned” knowledge. So too faith that is “blind” is never truly humanising; faith that is not humanising, is to that extent “bad faith”. In the final analysis only a self-reflexive, experiential methodology is meaningful to the discourse of faith; a rationalist, empirical one is alien to it. So to conclude, the faith-reason dialectic must involve an inclusive humanism that must embrace both “meaningful faith”, as well as “sensitised reason”.

Similarly all religious traditions must express themselves in theological terms relevant to the believers’ cultural context or risk alienating and isolating themselves and their followers. For a living tradition this cannot be done once and for all. To freeze a tradition thus is to condemn it to death, slow perhaps but sure. And yet there will be essentials and non-essentials in any religious traditions, what is revealed and how it is expressed, the text and the context. A multi-cultural world allows for a ‘manthan’ that can purify and enrich a tradition, a pluri-religious world can help to deepen and broaden it. Indeed, in our world today, to more completely express one’s own culture one must be intercultural, to be truly and deeply religious one must be inter-religious.

In the final analysis, if Benedict were speaking to an academic audience alone, his speech may have been understood and accepted as an invitation to a dialogue. Indeed, it would seem that Benedict was speaking as a professor of theology to fellow academics and he must be granted the academic freedom to express himself, threatened as this already is in too many academies, both religious and secular. But it is hardly possible in today’s world that a pope can ever speak solely thus. However, if this is to be considered as an official statement of the pope, then surely it must be carefully nuanced and contextualised, or it can only cause more hurt and misunderstanding.

Last May at Lariano in Italy, an interreligious meeting of representatives from Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and the Yoruba religion, was hosted by the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, Vatican City, and the Office on Inter-Religious Relations and Dialogue of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, on “Conversion: Assessing the Reality”. Their concluding reflections and recommendations are pertinent to the present controversy and more than just tangentially: (Vidyajyoti, Vol 70, No 8, August 2006: pp 625-28): (i) religions should be a source of uniting and ennobling of humans, (ii) freedom of religion connotes… freedom topropagate the teachings of one’s faith to people of one’s own and other faiths, and also the freedom to embrace another faith out of one’s own free choice, (iii) everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, …At the same time, all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others, (iv) freedom of religion enjoins upon all of us the equally non-negotiable responsibility to respect faiths other than our own, and never to denigrate, vilify or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of our faith, (v) errors have been perpetrated and injustice committed by the adherents of every faith. Therefore, it is incumbent on every community to conduct honest self-critical examination of its historical conduct as well as its doctrinal/theological precepts. Such self-criticism and repentance should lead to necessary reforms inter alia on the issueof conversion, (vi) conversion by “unethical” means is discouraged and rejected by one and all, (vii) humanitarian work by faith communities… should be conducted without any ulterior motives, (viii) no faith organisation should take advantage of vulnerable sections of society, such as children and the disabled, (ix) members of each faith should listen to how people of other faiths perceive them. This is necessary to remove and avoid misunderstandings, and to promote better appreciation of each other’s faiths, (x) we see the need for and usefulness of a continuing exercise to collectively evolve a “code of conduct” on conversion, which all faiths should follow.

Perhaps we all need to step back and take stock remembering the sagely words of Thomas Aquinas in his treatise On Truth (De Veritate Q, 12, a, 6) so succinctly expressed in the original Latin: “quidquid recipitur, per modem recipientis recipitur”! (Whatever is received is received after the manner of the one who receives it). Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina and Abu al-Walid ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd would have certainly agreed with Thomas but do we? John Paul II was well described as being “Polish, very Polish”. We might say of Benedict XVI that he is “German, very German”!



Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006

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