Regensburg Revisited: Pope Benedict - Islam Incompatible With Western Society?


October 16, 2016 - San Francisco, CA - – It’s hard to believe that it was fully 10 years ago [September 2006] when Pope Benedict XVI travelled to the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, Germany to deliver a speech that at the time shocked “intellectuals” around the world, most of whom failed to even attempt to understand the densely reasoned presentation.

During his address, Benedict, suggested unpleasant truths [though not his core thesis] implying in a complex manner that Islam has little in common with either Judaism or Christianity, does not worship the same god and has been spread primarily by the sword. Hence it follows that according to this line of thinking; Islam is incompatible with the precepts of Western Civilization, though that is an inference left to the reader.

In the late 14th century [perhaps the winter of 1391] something of a grand conversation took place between the, “Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam.” [source, Apostolic Journey of His Holiness Benedict XVI to München, Altötting and Regensburg, September 9-14, 2006] Lecture on " Faith, Reason and the University, Memories and Reflections ,” the Vatican]

What proved to be an insanely divisive statement, was introduced via an ancient quote attributed to the aforementioned Manuel II:

"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, after having expressed himself so forcefully, 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", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) 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..."

I fully remember at the time that the level of outrage [much of that which was coming from the West being the stuff of false indignation…high dudgeon in extremis] was stunning, especially to the Pope who seemed to be entirely blind-sided by the negative response.

Having had such a long time to think about the matter, the possible “explanation” that occurs to me is of two parts and essentially mirrors my thinking at the time.

First, it seems clear from Benedict’s introductory remarks that he had a great appreciation and even affection for the freedom of discussion which took place inside the halls of German universities in earlier, less politicized times. It was probably in that spirit of freely pursuing inquiry that led him to publicly reflect on the interaction/reconciliation of Christian theology with modernity which he decided to illustrate, introducing the topic by referring to the work of a fellow German academician.

“I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara…”

Second, Benedict was [and remains, in this author’s opinion] the epitome of the saintly theologian so wrapped up in contemplation that there exists a certain sense of disconnect between his interior world and reality outside those circumscribed confines.

In short it’s really hard to believe that Benedict thought that the address was going to have the effect it subsequently had since the central premise of the Regensburg speech was devoted to explaining the principle of Hellenism, as it pertains to Christianity. The Pope’s point being that through the nearly osmotic Grecian philosophical influence on the Church [the original Bible was written after all in Greek] it became possible for the Christian faith, scientific based reason and the non-changing nature of Western religious or philosophical truth to be reconciled in a secular sense.

Therefore it seems that the reference to Islam was academic in nature - a way station of sorts - on the road to demonstrating how very divergent the basic theology of Islam is from the Western religious experience as it pertains to interacting with mankind.

The subtext that Benedict relied upon - clearly present but unstated - is the understanding that the Qur’an is alleged to be the very word of Allah, so the idea of men “reconciling” the belief system in a secular sense, is not only impossible, it’s essentially heretical [here we might refer the interested reader to the highly respected 11th century, Arabic theologian Al-Ghazali’s, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which is devoted to refuting the proposition that such a reconciliation is possible, or even desirable].

To Benedict it was merely a statement of fact, one not intended to make a larger political point, which is the way much of the outside world either took it, or rather, used it to justify further attacks on Catholicism and or Christianity, both of which are facing a worldwide genocide – in the face of silence by the current Pope.

This writer fully accepts Benedict’s reasoning on the larger issue as well as the characterization of Islam by Manuel II, whose experience with the Turkish Ottomans gave him the type of imprimatur on that matter, that few today can equal. Perhaps the best way to sum up the controversy which has lurked around this matter for entirely too long is to paraphrase Shakespeare [Julius Caesar], Benedict came to Regensburg neither to bury Islam nor to praise it, rather he used it as a foil to illustrate a larger theological point.

©2016 LLC, William Mayer. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.