The Regensburg Lecture

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1863

The dust jacket of The Regensburg Lecture promotes the book with this teaser: “Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture (included in this book) called for freedom of conscience in religious matters and a reasoned debate. Not everyone agreed.” The importance of the pope’s address, as the jacket implies, derives both from the content of the lecture and from the reaction to it. In the days following September 12, 2006, when the pope visited the University of Regensburg, Muslim protests occurred in Palestine, India, and Egypt, among other places, in reaction to what was perceived as anti-Islamist sentiments. In this book, James V. Schall, professor of government at Georgetown University, presents an exposition of the lecture. The pope’s words themselves appear in an appendix, but that order distorts the true structure of the book. The lecture is central, and Schall clearly assumes his words are secondary to the pope’s address.

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The address itself is quite short, broken up into sixty-three numbered paragraphs. Because the pope was an academic, having been a professor at Regensburg from 1969 to 1977, his speech exhibits erudition, clarity, and orderliness. The thesis of the address is well defined: Any true religion must show itself to be compatible with reason because God’s nature itself is reasonable. Following Thomas Aquinas, the pope argues that the Greek philosophical tradition needed to be complemented by the Judeo-Christian revelation of God and that neither can be viable apart from the other. It is important to see that the pope draws a distinction between modern rationality, which he likens to empiricism, and a broader sense of reason that derives from Plato and Aristotle. The pope worries that the mutually enriching conjunction of the best of Greek thought with the Christian message is weakening through a process he calls dehellenization.

The pope traces three historical stages of dehellenization: the influence of the Reformation, particularly Martin Luther; the rise of liberal theology in the late nineteenth century; and the pluralistic tendencies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In each of these moments, certain individuals or groups within Christianity attempted to strip away metaphysics from religion, and in each case, both were devalued by the attempt.

However, the thesis of the address was, as Schall points out in his introduction, overshadowed by a single paragraph. In it, the pope cites a fourteenth century dialogue in which a Byzantine emperor said about the Qur՚nwith what the pope calls “a brusqueness that we find unacceptable”“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.” The pope uses this quote, along with a verse from the Qur՚n (“There is no compulsion in religion”), in order to examine Muslim theology. Is God, the pope wonders, free to act in a manner contrary to reason, and if so, is that the grounds for violence in Islam? For the pope, it is clear that since violence contradicts reason, it must also be contrary to the will of God. He pointedly wants to know whether Islam agrees with him.

In the aftermath of the lecture, many criticized the pope for intemperately fanning the flames of an already tense situation. His detractors argued that, if the pope himself found the emperor’s language brusque, why use it at all? According to the pope’s critics, he should have expunged this paragraph from the lecture and concentrated on his primary topicthe role of reason within religion. The question to ask about the speech is whether the medieval anti-Muslim quote was a misguided throwaway line or an integral part of the pope’s argument.

Schall responds to this question by saying that it was absolutely essential that Pope Benedict bring up Islam. Schall begins by highlighting the significance of the university setting of the pope’s lecture. For Schall, the pope’s question of whether or not Islam condones violence, if the question is to be raised, ought to appear in a university setting. No question that honestly explores truth should be ruled out of bounds in a university discussion. Schall finds this accusation of the pope’s rashness unpersuasive and says that the question, “Does the Qur՚n support religious violence?” must be posed. If nothing else, the question had the fortuitous consequence of drawing attention to an academic discourse that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. More important, the pope’s provocation, along with the reaction in the Muslim world, demonstrates the absolute necessity of raising the question. Schall implies that a reticence to ask about the centrality of violence to Islam indicates an unwillingness to expose the root of terrorist acts done in the name of religion. It is a pertinent and reasonable query, as evidenced by the sporadic violent protests in the aftermath of the address, and the pope was right to urge Muslims to interrogate themselves about the centrality of violence in their theology.

According to Schall and the pope, the theological concept that most clearly separates Christianity from Islam is voluntarism. When monotheistic religions contemplate God’s will, the question of God’s freedom also arises. Voluntarism denotes the theological stance that God’s freedom cannot be constrained; therefore, God can choose different actions and moralities at different points in history. In the most extreme case, voluntarism leads to notions of a “capricious God,” to use the pope’s words. Schall sees in Islam strong tendencies toward voluntarism, most heinously in the case of suicide bombers. These suicide bombers focus exclusively on the will of God, as if God were nothing more than will itself, and this myopic theology causes them to ignore God’s connection to rationality and, more importantly, to humans. Voluntarism underlies suicide attacks because if God’s will is supreme, no argument from reason or human compassion can ultimately matter. Against this view of God, Schall presents the Christian and Jewish conceptions of God, in which God’s actions are consonant with reason. He argues that although some Christian thinkers have demonstrated voluntaristic tendencies, the pope is right to assert that, traditionally, reason is needed as a precursor to revelation. This is, in fact, the pope’s primary theological claim in the addressthat when John 1:1 says, “The word [logos] was God,” it means that God abides by order and reasonability, both concepts intricately tied to the Greek understanding of logos.

The majority of the pope’s lecture centers on history, and Schall devotes much of his book to historical analysis. The pope refers to a passage in Acts 16, in which the apostle Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him to come over from Asia. Paul’s crossing of the Aegean into Macedonia signifies not only an important historical event in the spread of Christianity but also allegorically represents, according to the pope, the decisive and providential confluence of biblical faith and Greek rationality. Schall elaborates upon this bold thesis by pointing out the contributions Europe has made to world cultures. Because it has been based on both reason and revelation, Europe has been the shining global example of how society, at its best, could achieve vitality and peace. He even goes so far as to say that during the Crusades, the Europeans fought as defenders, not aggressors, and what they were defending was this bastion of reason and faith. Presently, since Christianity continues to decline in Europe, Schall wonders if it will lose its preeminence on the world stage, with a corresponding loss of the best hope for the world.

The historical investigation continues in Schall’s exposition of the dangers of the dehellenization that the pope outlines in his lecture. All three of these waves led toward an unraveling of the synthesis of reason and revelation so central to Europe’s identity. Schall’s exposition of dehellenization finds two distinct dangers in the phenomenon: a devaluation of humanity and a philosophy of relativism. Greek rationality, when it became dehellenized, transformed into a scientific rationalism. Whereas reason for Aristotle or Plato or Paul explored the entirety of humanity’s relationship to nature, now reason applies only to that which can be scientifically examined. This reason devoid of the influence of faitha goal of the liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack, whom the pope often citesseverely constrains what it means to be human. Relativism follows in the train of dehellenization because modernity assumes that the Greek culture stands as only one among many, not the preeminent beacon of reason that the pope upholds. Schall intimates that this relativism vitiates any Western critique of Islam because once reason loses its foundational status, one cannot, for example, condemn a suicide bomber for acting irrationally.

The distrust of rationalism and relativism, in both the pope’s lecture and in Schall’s analysis, goes to the heart of the viewpoint expressed in each. These two men, both of whom are equally scholars and churchmen, see Truth as objective and universal. The Greeks expressed it best, and God revealed it most fully in Christianity, but that does not make Truth particular to those traditions. From their standpoint, both God and reason illumine humans about “what is” (a phrase used in particular by Schall) and therefore about universal matters. Until all humans, including Muslims, realize the universality of reasonable truth, civilization will continue to have the type of violent conflicts that have accompanied globalization.

This surety about Truth represents both the book’s boldest and most controversial claim. The pope was both courageous and correct to question why and how the West and the so-called Muslim world have failed to interact. The analysis of the situation by both the pope and Schall, however, seems somewhat myopic. Perhaps the pope could not have addressed opposing viewpoints in the constraints he was given, but Schall certainly could have. He does not take seriously a number of trends in philosophy and theology that seriously question the pope’s thesis. He ignores, for instance, defenders of moral relativism, some of whom come from the Catholic tradition. Neither does he refer to religious thinkers that strongly support dehellenization as a method to retrieve authentic Christianity.

Neither man claims that European Christianity alone exemplifies a closed system. In fact, both explicitly state that non-Western culturesincluding Arab Islamcan teach Westerners new ways of understanding Truth. However, these men are perhaps too sanguine about the universality of their own understanding. In a postmodern world in which fragmentation is the norm rather than the exception, Pope Benedict and Schall envision a worldwide conversation whose ultimate outcome could be reasonable agreement. Their optimistic vision of a possible future characterized by reasoned dialogue looks backward nostalgically to a European Christianized culture that appears to be waning. The hopes and presuppositions of Pope Benedict and Schall may be too strongly linked to the past to reach fruition in the twenty-first century. The pope’s address, however, correctly highlighted a need for a rapprochement between the Muslim world and the West through engaged dialogue. Even if it does not proceed in the direction he would like, the benefits of a dialogue are certainly pertinent in a global society.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6

Booklist 103, no. 12 (February 15, 2007): 18.

Choice 45, no. 2 (October, 2007): 300.

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