18 September 2006

The Church again.

There has been an important development in the story about the Pope's lecture at the University of Regensburg.

They've fixed the HTML. If you follow the same link that I gave in my previous entry on the subject, the rubbish characters have been replaced by html entities for the correct greek letters. It now renders correctly, at least in IE on my desk.

I didn't think the other controversy arising from the lecture was worthy of comment, but now that people are being killed over it, I feel compelled to state the obvious.

Benny was talking about the relationship between religion and reason, and the different attitudes to that relationship that have shaped Christianity through history. His conclusion in a sentence is: "The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time."

Along the way, he affirms that the "synthesis with Hellenism" (i.e. Greek philosophy) is not an incidental "preliminary inculturation" of Christianity, but is a necessary part of it: "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."

It was in the context of this "synthesis" that he opened with the "startling brusqueness" of Manuel II Paleologus.

"The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident."

Benny then moves on through history: "in the late Middle Ages we find ... in contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata.

"The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity - a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age."

... "Fundamentally, Harnack's goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God."

So there is the reason for citing a 14th century emperor — to show the views that were current before the first "dehellenization" in the middle ages.


There are two questions that have been raised regarding this lecture. One is whether Benny anticipated the global reaction to the "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman" snippit of the quotation, but had some nefarious reason for wanting to stir things up.

Maybe I'm being overgenerous, but the Church seems to me to have a track record of saying exactly what it means, right or wrong. If Benny had wanted to take a more aggressive stance towards Islam, he could have done so in his own words.

The second question is whether he should have anticipated the result. Again, the church is not a modern political party. It does not employ focus groups, and if it has spin doctors, they are not primarily concerned with "popular opinion". The Pope may be regretting having used the words he did (though interestingly, his so-called apology does not actually say so), but I do not think it occured to him or anyone else to scan what he was preparing to say for things that could be taken out of context by the ignorant and the stupid.

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