Benedict XVI on Faith, Reason and Islam

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 26, 2006

In his address to Muslim leaders and diplomats on September 25th, Pope Benedict XVI stressed the importance of Muslim-Christian dialogue. Some have mistakenly seen this as a sharp departure from the Holy Father’s controversial address at Regensberg on September 12th, but this is actually not the case. The two talks proceed from the same principle: the right role of reason in faith.

At Regensberg, the Pope sought to address the relationship between faith and reason in Christianity. He noted that in the Christian view, it is impossible to conceive of God acting irrationally, or for man to please God by acting irrationally. Benedict’s argument is that the Greek emphasis on reason which early Christian thinkers very quickly appropriated for their own use is actually part and parcel of the Christian faith. Against all the many efforts to make God's authority merely arbitrary (voluntarism) or to discover a “pure” gospel (dehellenization), true Christianity insists that faith and reason are essentially joined.

By way of illustration, Benedict touched on the problem of forced conversions and violence against non-believers. Being in an academic setting and having at hand a German scholar’s edition of a fourteenth century dialogue between Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a learned Persian Muslim, the Pope used the dialogue to make a point about the inherent reasonableness of faith.

The Emperor had expressed himself somewhat sharply, claiming that all of the ideas which were unique to Mohammed were evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the faith by the sword. The Pope’s target was the italicized phrase, not its preamble (which caused so much consternation), and he cited at some length the Emperor’s argument that if the assent of faith is to have any meaning, it must be essentially free. Indeed, it is unreasonable to attempt to force faith, and the proper relationship between faith and reason therefore shows that this cannot be pleasing to God. It follows that it is not only contrary to reason to force faith, but contrary to faith itself.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that Benedict’s address to Muslim leaders was not a departure but a continuation of this same theme. This intellectual tradition—this emphasis on the role of reason in faith so prominent in Christian thought—is not similarly developed in Islam. Yet surely the question of reason’s role in faith must be addressed if there is to be any hope of mutual understanding, peace and collaboration between Christians and Muslims. For Benedict, this mutual understanding is vital:

Dear friends, I am profoundly convinced that in the current world situation it is imperative that Christians and Muslims 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. 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.

What Benedict is saying is that Christians and Muslims have every reason to come together against the culture of death, a culture which is characterized by the divorce of reason and faith and the marriage of reason and materialism. That this divorce and this marriage have catastrophic consequences for man is something which both true Christians and true Muslims can recognize. The bridge to understanding between the two faiths must, therefore, be reason itself working through faith. This is, for Pope Benedict XVI, a critical source and sign of hope.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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