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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pope Benedict's Invitation to the World's Religious and Policymaking Communities

The furious reaction that ensued following Pope Benedict XVI's September 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg all but drowned out the vital issue he was raising, not to mention his invitation for cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue. His lecture was not about Islam, or disrespect for Islam as a number of Muslim critics decried, but about the role of reason in the context of religion. That is a universal issue that extends to all the world's religions and beyond.
Early in the lecture, the Pope quoted a 14th century dialogue carried out between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian scholar. At the time, a decaying Byzantine Empire was facing a growing struggle with a rising and expanding Ottoman Empire. That struggle had religious overtones. Therefore, the fact that the Emperor raised a key question concerning religion and religious doctrine is not at all surprising.
Emperor Manuel's preeminent argument was that, in general, violence is incompatible with religion. Under such an assumption, coercion in the name of religion is also inappropriate. "Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul... not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature... Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats," the Emperor argued. "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," he added. In short, Manuel II felt that religious decrees needed to be constrained by what is reasonable.
That constraint of "reasonableness" extends beyond religious doctrine, especially in the post-Enlightenment world. Secular policy is constrained by "reasonableness." The Laws of War that have evolved since the 19th century offer a classic example. For example, under the Laws of War, it is reasonable for military combatants to target one another. However, it is unreasonable and, therefore, unlawful for military combatants to make civilians who cannot defend themselves their targets.
In his lecture, the Pope decried modern efforts to restrict the role of reason to matters that are observable or testable. Instead, he advocated a broader role for reason, one that extends to religious concepts and teachings, in addition to matters of science. Toward that end, far from seeking to isolate Muslims, the Pope called for a "dialogue of cultures and religions". He asserted that such a dialogue is "urgently needed today." Keeping with his theme, he also asserted, "The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason... this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time... It is to this...breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures."
That is an inclusive and tolerant message that his angry critics missed or ignored. In terms of foreign policy, the Pope's point is crucial. Unless states and leaders are willing to limit the means by which they pursue their policy objectives to discourse, the threat of violence or war will always remain very high. Diplomacy seeks to offer an alternative to war. It attempts to resolve disputes or pursue common ends though dialogue, persuasion, and compromise. Diplomacy is premised on the assumption that people are reasonable. If so, people can accommodate one another in finding common ground or forging an agreement that best protects their core needs or advances their interests. Moreover, modern free societies are founded on the idea that reason not force is society's arbiter. By any other assumption, free societies would simply cease to be feasible.
Apparently, the Pope's critics found his notion that "acting reasonably" applies to religion unreasonable or worse. For some, one can perhaps understand why. If religion demands that one act "reasonably," then the small number of extremists who seek to build a totalitarian caliphate based on their radical interpretation of Islam would no longer be able to justify their quest on religious grounds. If so, their endeavor would simply become just another totalitarian pursuit that has scarred human history and they would find themselves isolated by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
The university setting offered Pope Benedict an ideal forum for raising one of the big questions that has remained with humanity since the convergence of religion and reason and even earlier. In the best traditions of academe, it is exactly those big, difficult, and controversial questions that should be subject of rigorous inquiry, debate and discourse. Open debate on even controversial matters or deeply-held positions is what academic freedom is all about. Moreover, if people are "free to choose" (so long as they don't cause harm to others in the classical liberal tradition), then when it comes to matters of faith and conscience, persuasion ought to be the sole means by which opinions, views, or perspectives are formed or embraced. If the acts of people and states were constrained by a triumph of persuasion over coercion, then the resulting world would be far more peaceful and tolerant than it is today.
Nonetheless, Benedict's critics swept aside the Pope's message. Instead, they focused solely on Manuel II's challenge to the Persian scholar 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." By doing so, they missed the Pope's invitation to greater interfaith dialogue and a pursuit of a more peaceful and tolerant future.
At a time when the world is facing a challenge posed by radical Islamist terrorists--as separate and distinct from Muslims and Islam--the world's Muslims have a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate that what Mohammed "brought" was not the "evil and inhuman" coercion the Byzantine emperor feared, but in fact the kind of tolerance, co-existence, and role of reason that prevailed at the height of Classical Islamic greatness. Moderate Muslims have an opportunity to protect their faith from the extremists' interpretations. Those radical interpretations seek to divide the world's peoples between the "faithful" and "infidels," justify the use of force for earthly purposes of raw aggression and conquest, and impose a totalitarian coercion that suffocates people's freedom to live and worship as they see fit. It is strictly those radical interpretations that are "inhuman" and in need of being delegitimized and disassociated from Islam.
Benedict's message, if it is taken to heart and preserved in its proper context, plants the seeds for helping launch that process. Its call for a "dialogue of cultures and religions" is an invitation that both the world's religious communities and its policymakers should accept. It is that dialogue that could offer the world a new "Road Map" that just might lead to the kind of increased peace and tolerance that seems so elusive in the first decade of the 21st century.

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