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Posted September 14, 2006

In scholarly lecture, pope reflects on crisis of faith, reason

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

REGENSBURG, Germany (CNS) -- In a lecture at the German university where he once taught theology, Pope Benedict XVI used a historical critique of Islamic violence to introduce a reflection on the crisis of faith and reason in the West.

The pope began his address Sept. 12 by highlighting a 600-year-old discussion on Islamic "jihad" or holy war, quoting at length a Christian emperor who condemned Islam for spreading the faith "by the sword."

But instead of critically assessing Islam, the pope focused his attention on what he said was the West's centuries-old tendency to "exclude the question of God" from the realm of reason.

This tendency to devalue religious thought, he said, makes it more difficult for the West to engage in the urgently needed dialogue of cultures and religions.

"A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion to the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures," he said.

The pope looked happy and relaxed as he returned to the University of Regensburg, where he taught dogmatic theology from 1969 to 1977. About 1,500 of Germany's leading academics greeted the pontiff with warm applause as he walked through the university's great hall and took his place on a gilded chair in the center of the stage.

To introduce the theme of his lecture, the pope quoted from an account of a dialogue between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an unnamed Muslim scholar, sometime near the end of the 14th century. The pope said the account was marginal to his theme, but that he found it interesting -- particularly when the emperor touched upon the subject of Islamic holy war.

The pope cited what the emperor told the Islamic scholar: "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."

Twice, the pope emphasized that he was quoting someone else's words.

The pope said the emperor must have known of the early Islamic teaching that "there is no compulsion in religion," but was no doubt also aware of later instructions in the Koran about holy war.

In the account, the emperor goes on to explain why spreading the faith through violence is unreasonable, because violence is incompatible with God and with the nature of the soul.

The pope then pointed to a key question about Islam that is raised by the narrative: whether God is absolutely transcendent for Muslims, and therefore not bound up with "any of our categories, even that of rationality."

The pope did not offer an answer to that question. Instead, he went on to explore, in great detail, why Christian theology has come to affirm that faith is indeed based on reason and that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature.

Asked by reporters about the papal text, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the pope had no intention of giving "an interpretation of Islam as violent."

"I think everyone understands that even inside Islam there are many different positions and there are many positions that are not violent," Father Lombardi said. He noted that the pope's speech was primarily a historical analysis.

The pope's main point, developed in an academic style, was that in the Western world the growing separation between faith and reason has resulted in a "dangerous state of affairs for humanity," in which society tries to construct a system of ethics without taking religion seriously and individuals try to make moral choices based solely on the subjective conscience.

He said this was partly the result of a long process of "de-Hellenization" of Christian theology, in stages marked by an overemphasis on Scripture, a reduction of the Gospel to a "humanitarian moral message" and the creation of a gulf between theology and scientific empiricism.

The pope said his broad-brush "critique of modern reason" did not aim to turn back the clock or ignore the progress made and the new possibilities opened for humanity. But the church also sees dangers, he said, and believes they can be overcome "only if reason and faith come together in a new way."

When the West invites others to a "dialogue of cultures," it should do so with the understanding that religion is an essential part of its own culture, he said. But in fact, he said, it is widely held in the Western world that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that religion is a purely subjective experience.

"The world's most profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions," he said.

The pope said the West needs to recover the rightful place of philosophy and theology, so that it can say -- like the Byzantine emperor who debated the Muslim scholar -- that "not to act reasonably ... is contrary to the nature of God."

The Vatican underlined the academic character of the pope's address by noting on the text handed out to journalists that a later version would be issued, complete with footnotes.