Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: Allah the Irrational

June 21, 2007

Multiple Pages

A little more than eight months ago, on September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered his now-infamous Regensburg Address.  The reaction in the Muslim world was swift and severe, including protests, violence, and the murder of a nun—all over the Holy Father’s citation of a late-14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus.  In a dialogue on Christianity and Islam, the emperor had rhetorically asked an educated Persian to “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.”

Lost in the uproar was the reason for Pope Benedict’s citation of the emperor, which was expressed in the further quotation that the Holy Father offered from the dialogue.  The emperor put his remark into context by explaining that “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 . . . “

Many sympathetic commentators, who didn’t bother to read the speech, concluded that the main point of Benedict’s address was to denounce the use of violence in the service of religion.  That is certainly a good secondary lesson to take from his remarks, but the full text makes it very clear that Benedict, like the emperor, was using the example of violence simply to introduce his broader point: that “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”  And this draws into focus a nearly insurmountable problem for any dialogue between Christianity and Islam because, as Benedict continued, in Islam, Allah’s “will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.”  (By “categories,” he means philosophical categories of Western thought.)

For a dialogue to take place, three conditions are necessary:

First, both sides must be interested in pursuing the truth, which requires acknowledging that there is such a thing as truth and that it can be known (or at least approached) through reason.

Second, both sides must represent their own positions truthfully (which also requires that those positions be expressed rationally), and without any intent to deceive. And

Third, each side must be able to take the other’s claims at face value, as truly representing the other’s position.

On each of these points, the Islamic conception of Allah presents a stumbling block.  The work of the noted Muslim theologian and scholar Ibn Hazm is often presented as proof of what Northwestern University Professor Dario Fernandez-Morera has called “The Andalusian Myth”—namely, that the high point of civilization on the Iberian peninsula occurred during the centuries of Muslim occupation.  As Benedict points out, however, “Ibn Hazm went so far as to state that [Allah] is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us.”  Allah is, in the end, pure will, not bound by reason—in other words, capriciousness is essential to his very nature.  “Were it [Allah’s] will,” Benedict continues, “we would even have to practise idolatry.”

Most of us have not had anything approaching the theological training of Benedict XVI, so we may be tempted to dismiss his concerns as something that could only be of interest to a theologian.  After all, how likely is it that the average believer—Muslim or Christian—could even fully grasp the differences between the Christian conception of the Godhead and the Muslim conception of Allah, let alone allow his behavior to be affected by such differences?

Perhaps we can begin to understand the importance that these differences hold for even the average believer by approaching this from a slightly different angle.

In De Potentia, St. Thomas Aquinas contrasts the Muslim view of physical causality with the Christian one, pointing out that Muslims believe that Allah interposes himself at every point in the chain of causality, while Christians believe that natural objects can act under their own power.  Contemporary writers, such as Fr. Stanley Jaki, have argued that this Muslim misconception of natural causality is the primary reason science developed in Christian Europe but remained stunted in Muslim societies (the claims of current public-school textbooks and PBS propaganda specials notwithstanding).

Few people, however, have explored the moral implications of the Muslim understanding of physical causality.  To take Aquinas’s example, if I were to take this lighter and apply the flame to this sheet of paper, everyone in this room would assume that, everything being normal, the paper would ignite—and it does.  It took no special act of God to cause the paper to burn; in fact, all other things being equal, it would have required His intervention to prevent a fire, just as He intervened when Nebuchanezzer threw the three youths into the furnace.  According to the Muslim view, however, when I strike the lighter, Allah has to decide whether the flint will spark, and whether the spark will ignite the fuel.  When I apply the flame to the paper, Allah must decide whether the paper will ignite.  If it does catch fire, it is because Allah willed that each in this series of natural acts would occur; if it does not, it is because Allah willed that the paper would not burn.

So we conclude that Muslims have a non-Western, non-Christian notion of physical causality.  So what?  Well, what if this weren’t a lighter, but an airplane?  And what if this weren’t a sheet of paper, but one of the towers of the World Trade Center?  Then, if the plane, being applied to the tower, were to cause it to burst into flames and crumble to the ground, it would not happen because the hollow steel structure of the tower created a chimney that caused an implosion, or because changes in environmental regulations prevented the use of asbestos above the 76th floor, but only because Allah willed that the tower would burst into flames and crumble to the ground.  The complete capriciousness of Allah with respect to the physical world leads to a moral fatalism.  If Allah did not want the towers to fall, he would not have made them fall.  To Muslims who understand this—both in the United States and worldwide—the fact that the towers fell was a clear signal that Allah approved of the actions of the September 11 hijackers.

This moral fatalism helps to explain why many American Muslims—even some of those who seemed genuinely horrified by what had occurred—were unable or unwilling to condemn the September 11 attacks directly.  If Allah approved the actions of the hijackers by causing the towers to fall, then to condemn the September 11 attacks is essentially an act of impiety.  It is one of the many ironies of Islam that the Muslim insistence on the radical freedom of the will can lead to a moral fatalism which those who wish to wage jihad against the United States can use in order to silence dissent among their fellow Muslims.

Just as Christians believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God, Muslims see themselves as a reflection of Allah.  And as we wish to conform our will to God’s Will, they attempt to conform their wills to Allah.  But here, the similarities end.  If Allah’s will, unlike God’s, is not bound up with rationality, then the discerning of that will takes a very different shape.  In attempting to understand God’s Will, Christians can turn to the world around us, to natural law, to history, to tradition.  We see the rationality—the consistent reasonableness—of God’s Will in the world that He created.  But in Islam, the appearance of order is only that—an appearance.  To the extent that the created world seems rational, it is only because Allah wishes it to appear so.  His will could change at any moment, however—and the new order, or lack thereof, that he would create would be just as “right” as this one.

Which brings us back to Regensburg.  Pope Benedict’s address was only 16 paragraphs long; and contrary to the impression given by the media, only the first four paragraphs directly concerned Islam.  The other 12 are a philosophical and historical meditation on, in the Holy Father’s words, “the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.”  Turning to Saint John the Evangelist, Pope Benedict declares that John “spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God” when he declared that “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God.”  In other words, the final word on the biblical concept of God is a Greek word, and one of paramount importance in Greek philosophy.  In English translations of this passage, we normally render logos as word: “In the beginning was the Word.”  But logos, Pope Benedict reminds us, also means reason.  “In the beginning was Reason”—not the modern, narrow, scientific conception of reason, which places reason at odds with faith, but the classical and medieval conception of reason, which accepts faith as the “evidence of things not seen.”

Much has been made in recent years of the global demographic shift in the Church, to the east and to the south; and Pope Benedict himself, as Cardinal Ratzinger, has written eloquently about what this will likely mean for the future of the Church.  But at Regensburg, his comments called to mind the words of Hilaire Belloc, who declared that “The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.”  “[W]ith the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage,” Benedict declared, the convergence between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry “created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.”  The influence flows the other way, too: Benedict spoke of “the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry,” and stated without hesitation that “The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.”  He referred to the Septuagint—“the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria”—as “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.”

Most of the rest of the address is dedicated to showing that, in Benedict’s words, “the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.”  In other words, Greek philosophy is intrinsic to Christianity.  It is not something grafted on, something that can be tossed aside lightly as we spread the Gospel among nations who, unlike us, are not direct heirs of the Greeks.  To do so is to attempt to cleave the very logos itself—to sunder reason and the Word.

That cleft, however, is fundamental to Islamic theology, so much so that to refer to it as theology—reasoning about God—is a misuse of the term.  It is a commonplace to refer to Muslims, Jews, and Christians as “Peoples of the Book,” but strictly speaking, that phrase really applies only to Muslims, because, for them, all that can be known about Allah is what he has chosen to reveal directly—and then only until that revelation is contradicted by further revelation, as occurs within the Koran itself.  By sundering reason and the Word, Islam creates a very modern (and false) opposition between faith and reason.  It is no surprise, then, that Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss arrives at his understanding of the radical opposition between faith and reason through his study of Arab interpreters of Plato and Aristotle.  Nor, sadly, is it any surprise that a Catholic follower of Strauss would recently write that “if as the Pope says ‘we must not lose sight of God if we do not want human dignity to disappear,’ one must be open to the possibility that in His Providence it may be Islam which is destined to restore that sight to a Europe ‘hollowed out’ by secularism.”

G.K. Chesterton predicted the rise of such men a century ago in his satirical novel, The Flying Inn.  Intellectually stunted by a modern, narrow conception of reason, they have lost sight of the logos as anything but Word, and their version of Christianity, if can even be called that, becomes an abstraction that is closer to Islam than to the historic Christian Faith.  The loss of the classical and medieval conception of reason undermines both Europe and the Faith; the destruction of Europe undermines both the Faith and reason; and the undermining of the Faith makes the revival of both reason and Europe a near impossibility.

What we’re left with, instead, is the capricious exercise of power in the modern world, which only a capricious god such as Allah seems able to restrain.  But that restraint would come at a price: the human freedom that a Christian Europe made possible.

Cardinal Ratzinger, in his 1996 book Salt of the Earth, warned of that very possibility.  The Koran, he wrote,

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.

Where Islam is in power, it must dominate, to the exclusion of any other faith.  The God of Christianity loves man, so much so that He sent His only Son to die for us; and He wants us to love Him in return, freely and unreservedly.  Allah, in his capriciousness, demands total submission to his will, and so sharia is not a law of love, but of fear.  For Christians, the fear of God is only the beginning of wisdom; it is charity—love—which is the bond of perfection.

At Regensburg, in a passage criticizing Christian thinkers who took the voluntarism of Blessed John Duns Scotus too far, Pope Benedict summed up the problem posed by the Muslim conception of Allah quite nicely: “God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.”

Is there, then, any hope for a true dialogue between Christianity and Islam?  Yes, and it lies in the fact that, in one sense (and perhaps in this sense alone), all men are created equal: God, in His love and mercy, has written His Law on their hearts.  Muslims, like all men, no matter what they believe dogmatically, do not live each day as if Allah is capricious, as if the world could be remade at any moment and what was wrong will become right, and what is right will become wrong.  Their recognition of this law may be veiled, as St. Paul, in Second Corinthians, declared of the children of Israel: “12 Having therefore such hope, we use much confidence: 13 And not as Moses put a veil upon his face, that the children of Israel might not steadfastly look on the face of that which is made void. 14 But their senses were made dull. For, until this present day, the selfsame veil, in the reading of the old testament, remaineth not taken away (because in Christ it is made void). 15 But even until this day, when Moses is read, the veil is upon their heart. 16 But when they shall be converted to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away.”

Pope Benedict understands that this inescapable fact of human nature gives us hope.  At Regensburg, he invited not only Muslims but all of us to take the first step in revealing the law of God written on our hearts by awakening ourselves to the harmony of faith and reason—not the modern, narrow, abstract reason of the post-Christian West which has so much in common with the rejection of reason in Islam, but the reason of classical Greece and Rome and medieval Christendom.  “It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason,” Pope Benedict declared, “that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.”

What he did not say, but which he clearly knows, is that, if our Muslim interlocutors do embrace this reason and reject their own voluntaristic conception of Allah, the dialogue not only can start but will be well under way: because, to return to the early paragraphs of Benedict’s speech, that reason is the Logos, and the Logos is with God, and the Logos is God.  Entered into with the intention of seeking the truth, this dialogue ends only in conversion to Christ, the eternal Logos, the unity of Reason and Word.

“And the Logos was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

Scott P. Richert is Executive Editor of Chronicles Magazine.

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