Monday, September 18, 2006

Nun slain, churches burned - and they don't even know what the speech was about

Italian nun slain in Somalia, Pope link speculation - Yahoo! News:
"... doctor Ali Mohamed Hassan told Reuters. 'She was shot outside the hospital, going to her house just across the gate.'"

Muslim goons, in the wake of the controversy over B-16's remarks at the University of Regensburg, shot an Italian nun in the back in Mogadishu. In the logic of Islam, this is the appropriate punishment for the crime of teaching nurses to help save the lives of Muslims. Sister Leonella Sgorbati, 66, was murdered despite the presence of a bodyguard, also killed in the attack, to escort her in crossing the street from the hospital to her dwelling.

At least the Mogadishu goons managed to attack a Roman Catholic. In another story from Palestine, two churches were the target of arson attacks - neither of them were RC.

All this because the Bishop of Rome made an unfortunate choice of a quotation to use as a launching point for a speech about the relationship of reason and science to faith.

I have read the speech. It may read better in German, but it is a bit dry and wanders a bit in the official English translation.

Benedict began his speech with some reminiscences of his appointment to the Catholic theological faculty of the university in 1959. When he spoke of the relations of the parts of the university to one another and how they create the experience of universitas (italicized in the original) I was reminded of that wonderful work by another Catholic scholar - John Newman - The Idea of the University.

Then, he mentioned an early occasion when he had made use of the recorded dialogue between the Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos and a Persioan Islamic scholar. He even mentions that the dialogue appeared to have been recorded by the Emperor, or at least from his point of view, and that the Muslim perspective in the debate gets rather short shrift.

Now we get to the meat of the argument. The Emperor explores with the Muslim what are the characteristics of the three witnesses - Old Testament, New Testament, and Quran - and what do they add to our understanding of the nature of God. The Emperor, a man of Greek culture approaching the material from the general perspective of Greek culture that pervades the New Testament, declares that all that is innovative in the Quran - that is to say, all the parts of it that are distinct from the Old and New Testaments - are of a character that is very different and not compatible with the others in its spirit.

Here, the selection of material gets out on truly dangerous ground. The Emperor objects specifically to the idea, central to the concept of jihad, that conversion can be compelled by force - an idea the Emperor finds repugnant to his Greek notions of who God is.

This is the point at which the Muslims in the wider audience appear to have stopped reading. They ascribe the Emperor's attitude to be that of Ratzinger and condemn him (i.e., Ratzinger) for insulting their religion by finding it repugnant. Never mind that they find much that is repugnant in Christianity (not to mention Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. - every thing that isn't Islam - plus a considerable number of sects of Islam itself) and never tire of saying so in word and deed.

Lawyers, of course, will recognize that the assertion by the Emperor about jihad is not offered for the truth of the statement but for its illumination of the speakers state of mind. And this is Ratzinger's point.

The very Greek gospel of John, he points out, opens with a formulation that parallels the opening of Genesis, "In the beginning," says John, "was the Word ..." And word (logos in Greek) implies both the ideas that words stand for and the use of words to reason about the world around us. All those old ideas about natural law and natural reason and ability of reason to reveal some, though certainly not all, truths about God are a part of this Greek idea which has informed the Western perspective for millenia.

And this is far from a narrowly Catholic view. The American Watchtower Society (Jehovah's Witnesses) sell a book entitled "Things in which it is impossible for God to lie" (which is a quote from the Old Testament). But the Emperor's Muslim debating opponent asserts quite the contrary position and says that, ultimately, reason can tell us nothing about God.

This is what the speech is ultimately about ... not Islam, not jihad. What is the role of reason? Is there a role for reason apart from the natural sciences? Can the scientist and the theologian have any dialogue at all, or have we entirely lost the common ground that once held the West together?

These are important matters and the debate that Josef Ratzinger intended to spark with his speech at Regensburg is an important one and should not be sidetracked by the furor raised by the self-appointed Muslim watchdogs who have attacked the speech without beginning to understand it.

The lesson to be drawn from this affair, it seems to me, is that it is utterly useless to try to engage in dialogue with Muslims on matters of faith because so many of them will intentionally misconstrue what you say.


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