Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Regensburg vs. Hagia Sophia


I have a high appreciation for Pope Benedict XVI, and his accession to the Papacy was a confirming sign that my decision to enter the Catholic Church was the right one. Nevertheless, I was disappointed in the Pope's speech at Regensburg. His reference to an obscure Byzantine Emperor's disparaging comments about Islam showed poor judgment, and unfortunately this comment overshadowed the good things that the Pope had to say in that speech. In my view, anything that directly or indirectly supports the neoconservative jihad against the Muslim world is to be deplored.The Chiesa website has undertaken to publish "Two Muslim Scholars Comment on the Papal Lecture" - which shows an admirable willingness to hear the other side. Aref Ali Nayed, the manager of a technology company and devout Sunni Muslim, made a number of cogent points:

"It is strange that Benedict XVI selected an admittedly 'marginal' point from an obscure medieval dialogue, written at a particularly abnormal and tense moment in history, to find a 'starting-point' for his reflections on 'faith and reason.' One could imagine an infinitely large number of possible, more direct and sensible, starting points..."When someone gratuitously invokes a very obscure text that expresses hateful things one has a moral obligation to explain why he goes out of his way to [invoke] it, and a further obligation to respond to it, and to dismiss the hate expressed in it. Otherwise, it is very reasonable to assume that the person invoking the hurtful text does mean it, and does share the views expressed in it... To claim that no hurtful intent was present, and that Muslims simply did not understand the text, agonizingly adds insult to injury..."The image of a non-violent hellenistically 'reasonable' Christianity contrasted to a violent unreasonable Islam is foundational for the lecture of Benedict XVI. This self-image is amazingly self-righteous and is oblivious to many painful historical facts. It is very important for our world that we all begin to see the poles that are in our own eyes, rather than focus on the specks in the eyes of our brethren..."

Nayed's essay was a long one, focusing on the Pope's concept of reason and bringing up many theological and historical objections. There was also a link, at the end of the article, to a Question-and-Answer session with "a Vatican official," Father Thomas Michel. In responding to a student, Aysha, who asked why, if the Pope didn't believe in the statement he quoted, why did he use it in his speech? Fr. Michel replied, "My own view is that whenever we use a negative example, we should take it from our own history rather than from someone else's. The Pope could have used the Crusades, for example, if he wanted to criticize religiously-inspired violence and it would not have given offence to others."

Father Michel seconded my notion that the Pope's remarks "were not wise" and should have been vetted by someone in authority in the Vatican. Speaking of the Crusades, we ought to remember the Fourth Crusade and the final capture of Constantinople, when "... the crusaders inflicted a horrible and savage sacking on Constantinople for three days, during which many ancient and medieval Roman and Greek works were stolen or destroyed. Despite their oaths and the threat of excommunication, the Crusaders ruthlessly and systematically violated the city's holy sanctuaries, destroying, defiling, or stealing all they could lay hands on; according to Choniates a prostitute was even set up on the Patriarchal throne. When Innocent III heard of the conduct of his pilgrims, he was filled with shame and strongly rebuked them." (This is from Wikipedia)Herbert J. Muller describes the closing years of Christian Byzantine history in his book, The Uses of the Past:

“On the night before the final Turkish onslaught on Constantinople, in 1453, the Emperor Constantine Paleologus, the last of the Constantines, received communion in St. Sophia. Then, accompanied by the Patriarch and a large crowd, he proceeded to the church of St. Theodosia, to pray to this martyr…whose relics were famous for exceptionally miraculous powers. At dawn the next day, which was St. Theodosia’s day, he returned with a small band to the city walls, to fight and die gallantly. Most of his subjects spent the day in the churches…instead of aiding their emperor.When the Turks fought their way into Constantinople, they found ten thousand persons in St. Sophia, still praying….The fall of ‘New Rome’ made a terrible impression on Western Christendom, which had failed to come to the aid of its Eastern brethren…. Horror was intensified by fear of the advancing Turkish power, and by dismay at the loss of commercial privileges that Italians had enjoyed in Constantinople. For some ten years after the disaster prelates kept calling for another Crusade, to preserve Europe from the Turks...The excitement soon subsided however. Western Christendom was too absorbed in its own wars and commercial rivalries to keep worrying about the Turks, especially when the infidels permitted European merchants to trade in Constantinople again…Although the last Byzantine emperors, in their desperation, made sweeping concessions to the Papacy in hope of aid, the Orthodox masses stubbornly resisted the Roman heresy….[Although the Turks plastered over the mosaics in St. Sophia] more importantly, they preserved it for posterity by a thorough, skillful job of repair. For they respected the splendid capital of Eastern Christendom. They respected even the patriarchate, granting it religious freedom... Exemption from taxes, and civil authority over Orthodox Christians throughout the Ottoman Empire; by their conquests they gave it a wider jurisdiction than it had had in its heydey. The unwholesome moral is that in spite of their initial cruelties the terrible Turks were more civilized and humane than the Christians of the Fourth Crusade, who had captured Constantinople before them."

I think it is interesting that "the Orthodox masses stubbornly resisted the Roman heresy…." One of the great inheritances of Christianity is the mystical stream -- the Christianity of the Desert Fathers. This arose in the Eastern part of Christendom, and may perhaps represent the most advanced and deepest understanding of thinking that has ever been enunciated. It is the understanding of thinking as esoteric energy - human reason being the lowest level of contact with the Holy Trinity.The West, having lost this mystical inheritance, is now in the process of abandoning reason itself. There are many examples of this that the Pope could have used - and in fact, has used in previous lectures and writings. But it is above all that Western reason he come unmoored from its mystical and esoteric roots. This is the point that the Pope needed to address, and this is why his speech at Regensburg sounded so hollow.I believe and hope that this Pope can do better. Along these lines, Aref Nayed in his rebuttal of the Pope pointed out that "In Islam, just as in Christianity, it is not human calculative reason that is salvific, but rather the free undeserved grace of God. One of the many graces that God gives to human beings is the gift of reason... Reason as a gift from God can never be above God."

Deciding the future of reason may be the historic task of the religions of Abraham. This future concerns us all. I hope this Pope's first misstep will not prove to be prophetic.

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