The Regensburg Lecture

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1863 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

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

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