Over the 18 years I have known Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, I’ve formed some distinct impressions of the man.
He is, first of all, a Christian gentleman whose exquisite manners reflect his innate shyness and respect for others. Then there is his encyclopedic knowledge of theology, which ranges far beyond the borders of the Catholic Church; Benedict XVI has read widely and deeply in Protestant and Orthodox thought, in Jewish scholarship, in Islamic sacred texts and commentaries. And there is the precision of his mind: I have often described Benedict as one of those rare men who, when asked a question, pauses, reflects — and then answers in complete paragraphs.
All of which sheds some light on the global controversy that has swirled around the pope since his lecture on faith, reason, Christianity and Islam two weeks ago. Benedict XVI says precisely what he means and means exactly what he says. So what exactly was the pope saying, and why did he say it?
His lecture in Germany was, first of all, a celebration of human reason — the human capacity to know the truth of things. Our ability to think our way through to convictions we can know are true is the defining characteristic of our humanity and the spark of the divine within us. So reason and faith cannot be in conflict: True faith is reasonable faith, faith that makes sense, faith that can be proposed as reasonable to others.
The pope’s second point was that our idea of God has a lot to do with how we think about the world, ourselves and our moral obligations. Christianity, following its Jewish parent, proposes a God of reason, love and compassion — a God who invites us to use our reason in responding to his invitation to faith, a God who calls his people Israel (in the Hebrew Bible) and the church (in the New Testament) into a true conversation. That idea of God shapes the Jewish and Christian convictions that the world is intelligible and that people of reason and goodwill can build decent societies, based on reasonable standards of behavior.
But there are other ideas of God to offer, and one of them is the idea of God proposed by certain currents of Islamic thought. In this view, God is utterly transcendent, a majestic, unapproachable lawgiver to whom the only appropriate response is the absolute submission of our own minds and wills. Now, to be sure, this idea of God can lead to a profound piety. As a Muslim acquaintance once said to me (speaking of the Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist), “If I really believed that Allah was on that altar, I’d be crawling up the aisle on my hands and knees.” It would be a blessing if nominal Christians shared such a powerful belief in the majesty of the divine.
Alas, the pope went on to suggest, the idea of God as pure will can also have bad effects. Taken to extremes, it may suggest that God can command anything. As one scholar of Islam cited by the pope, Roger Arnaldez, has argued — this kind of God could order us to practice idolatry. Or, to come down to contemporary cases, God could command us to do what seems wicked — suicide bombing, for example. That far too many jihadist Muslims around the world — including, one fears, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — believe that the killing of innocents is pleasing to God if it advances Islam’s cause and hastens the day of Islam’s triumph suggests that Pope Benedict’s theological point is not an abstract one.
Why would the pope raise these volatile questions, and in an academic lecture that he surely knew would be reduced to sound bites that distorted his meaning? I think that Benedict knew precisely the risks he was taking and thought the risks worthwhile. Why? Because he believes in the power of reason to cut through the fog of passion. Because he believes that serious problems — such as those posed by jihadist Islam — can be solved only by examining them at their roots. And because he might well have wanted to extend a helping hand to those Islamic reformers who are trying to convince the extremists among their fellow Muslims that irrational violence in the name of God is, in fact, offensive to the one true God.
Will the pope’s wager prove foolish or wise? An influential Italian Muslim commentator, Magdi Allam, writing in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, got the point: Why is it, he wrote, that “Muslims, especially the so-called moderates, never stand up … against the true and perpetual profaners of Islam, the Islamic terrorists who massacre Muslims themselves in the name of God?” Against the jihadist calls for Benedict’s death, voices such as Allam’s suggest that, far from provoking a clash of civilizations, Pope Benedict XVI has put on the table the questions that have to be debated, rationally, to avoid just such a confrontation: How do we imagine God, and how do our ideas of God shape the way we live?
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.