Pope Benedict XVI and Islam
In the light of the Pope’s upcoming visit to Turkey scheduled for late November, the problem posed by Islam to the West takes on a new and more personally pressing significance. Will Muslims be bitter enemies determined to destroy what they see as the degenerate culture produced by Christianity? Or will they be important allies in the Christian battle against this same degeneracy?
Faith, Reason and the Transformation of Culture
These questions arise because of the divisions within Islam, but it is important to realize that Christians are similarly divided. If in the Islamic world there is a division between those who advocate the extreme of theocracy and those who favor the transformation of culture from within, so too in Christianity there is a division between those who favor the transformation of culture from within and those who insist on the extreme of a purely relativistic spirituality which can accommodate itself to anything. Those at the two extremes are in necessary opposition, the one contributing to a cultural decadence which the other wishes to destroy. But what about everyone else?
As Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, it is largely owing to the Christian emphasis on the compatibility between reason and faith that Christians have tended to abandon their own theocratic temptations. Benedict has a vital interest in finding out whether a similar understanding within Islam can lead to common ground. It is just here that he believes collaboration is possible, collaboration among large numbers in each religion who wish their cultures to be informed spiritually because they believe that a relationship with God assists us in the rational process of rightly interpreting reality in order to build true civilization.
A Common Purpose?
Authentic religion opposes equally those who deny the dignity of God by insisting that man reaches his full measure only when cut off from his creator, and those who deny the dignity of man by insisting that God is served by violently imposing His will. “In a world marked by relativism and too often excluding the transcendence and universality of reason,” said Pope Benedict in his September 25th meeting with Muslim leaders and ambassadors from 22 Muslim nations, “we are in great need of an authentic dialogue between religions and between cultures capable of assisting us in a spirit of fruitful cooperation in overcoming all the tensions together.”
“Our contemporaries,” stressed Benedict, “expect from us an eloquent witness to show all people the value of the religious dimension of life.” The Pope went on to call on Christians and Muslims to “engage with one another in order to address the numerous challenges that present themselves to humanity, especially those concerning the defense and promotion of the dignity of the human person and of the rights ensuing from that dignity.” He continued:
When threats mount up against people and against peace, by recognizing the central character of the human person and by working with perseverance to see that human life is always respected, Christians and Muslims manifest their obedience to the Creator, who wishes all people to live in the dignity that he has bestowed upon them.
Benedict finds hope in the space between those who deny the dignity of the human person philosophically on the one hand, and those who deny that dignity through the use of force and violence on the other. “In the current world situation,” says the Pope, “it is imperative” to find this common ground between the two extremes of materialistic despair and theocratic terror.
Dangers on Both Sides
Indeed, the world now finds itself caught between the despair of Western materialism and the terror of Islamic theocracy. Most of us, I suspect, are more comfortable with the former. Materialism is the devil we know. It is possible to accommodate oneself to it simply by keeping a very low profile. Those in our own families who have been ensnared by it may well return to their Faith when they finally mature, especially in the face of death. And, at least for the moment, opposing materialism does not require the ultimate sacrifice. Western materialism is not yet making martyrs.
Nonetheless, it is not clear that the devil we don’t know is very much worse than the devil we do know, and it would be shortsighted in the extreme to go very far in opposing the evil we perceive in Islam by demonstrating unswerving allegiance to all that is wrong with our own culture. Once, truly, Christians were hated by Muslims because they were Christian, and vice versa. But now, I wonder whether we might not be hated much less if we were concerned more with our Christianity than with our comfort.
I do not wish to be misunderstood. It is reasonable to understand both our own need for reform and the implacable hatred of an enemy. But only a fool equates understanding with justification. Theocratic terror is not only a very grave evil but a palpable physical threat. As such it must be met with resistance, including physical resistance. If terrorism brings our blood to a boil and galvanizes us into action, we are responding not only predictably but wisely. But where is this same reaction when materialism rears its ugly head, also posing a grave threat? Here we are called to fight not a physical war but one that is social, political, cultural, intellectual and above all spiritual. But the fact is that we are too comfortable, and often damnably so.
Benedict XVI's Hope
The two opposed forces of secular materialism and theocratic terror are equally based on half-truths which must be made whole. The whole truth is that man is at one and the same time both made from clay and destined for eternity. Benedict XVI hopes that the very opposition between the extreme distortions of this truth may point the way forward. Those who grasp the full, paradoxical truth of the human condition may yet find common ground, and may yet survive the wrath of those who do not. For his part, Benedict is about to test the waters by visiting Turkey at considerable personal risk. What will we do, in our own situations, to imitate his courage?
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