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Before we get cozy with Averroes

By Leila Marie Lawler (articles ) | Sep 22, 2006

The Pope is coming in for some criticism for citing Ibn Hazm to represent the stance of Islam towards reason. Ibn Hazm, Benedict quotes, “went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.”

There are other respected Islamic philosophers he could have quoted, these critics say. Take, for instance, Averroes. (As if Benedict, formerly professor of dogma and vice rector of the University of Regensburg, sat there googling Islamic philosophers. He knows who Averroes is, I assure you.)

Well, they say, there’s a philosopher Westerners can deal with. Why, he just loved reason. What they themselves don’t realize is that he loved reason so much that he said that when philosophy and theology conflict, we need to go with philosophy. Religion is more of a way to get the unphilosophical masses to do the right thing. It’s not something to be inquired into too deeply; not something that can be held to the difficult, demanding standard of reason.

Shiny as he may seem to them, Averroes won’t help these appeasers' cause with Benedict. If they had gone on to read his address, they would have seen that the Pope has just as much, if not more, of a quarrel with those who exalt reason over faith as the opposite. They fail to see that the thrust of his comments was precisely to emphasize a meeting of faith and reason.

Averroes erred by his excessive rationalism, which is itself just as much a perversion of reason as the other extreme, a denial of reason. His message was that to those of “us” in the know, religion is ultimately unsatisfying and intellectually defective. I suppose in that way, Averroes really could become the patron saint of the “other” object of the Pope’s critique, the rationalistic West, the West that has lost all moorings in transcendence and faith.

What the Pope was getting at was that theology, which has as its object the study of God, is an “inquiry into the rationality of Faith.” So for Christians, religion is rational. It must be, because the God we serve is Logos, the Word – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Benedict wants to light the intellectual fire under those who think religion just won’t make muster, intellectually – almost more than he wants to challenge those who resort to violence in the frenzy of their faith.

Indeed, he makes the implicit point that the West enables the world of Islam – the world of Ibn Hazm, al-Queda, the Muslim Brotherhood, yes, and Averroes – in its failure to engage the issue of Logos.

So Averroes rather supports than mitigates the Pope’s challenge to Islam, and actually shares with Ibn Hazm a deep-seated ambivalence as to man’s ability to pursue non-contradiction right into God’s heart. As such Averroes is just not going to make it as the philosopher we Christians want to count on to make us comfortable with Muslims.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Oct. 02, 2006 2:31 PM ET USA

    If we are to be comfortable with Muslims, they need to to disavow murder, rape, destruction of churches, and allow freedom of religion in their areas.

  • Posted by: Canismater - Sep. 25, 2006 6:25 AM ET USA

    This whole thing reminds me of a playground fight between reason and a bully. “You used those big words to make me look stupid!” At this point, from what I remember about schoolyard diplomacy, you either call the teacher (but the UN is useless) or convince a couple of other big kids to support you. That’ll keep the bully in check. It would seem the west needs the Pope, as much as he needs them, in order to give this war more purpose than a drive for Middle Eastern democracy.

  • Posted by: Ephod - Sep. 22, 2006 8:07 PM ET USA

    A perceptive piece. Islam has never really achieved any real balance between faith and reason, and, likely, is simply incapable of it. This may mean the Islamic world would even tend toward rationalism, if it would ever become fully developed and economically modernized.

  • Posted by: Patrick461 - Sep. 22, 2006 7:40 PM ET USA

    Yes, indeed, Averroes is an instance of reason eclipsing faith. I am not a scholar of Islam, but I have taught medieval philosophy for quite some time, and a scholar of the Pope's stature would, as Diogenes writes, never have made the mistake of using Averroes as an ally.

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