Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pope, the neocons and the logos

Neoconservatives are the new rulers over the foreign policy of the United States of America. Their obeisance to Western culture and civilization such as the universality of US-style democracy, the core of their beliefs, borders on piety, even fanaticism, often involving the willingness to kill and be killed for it. Neocons, seeing themselves on the side of righteousness and combating evil, advocate the exporting of modernity and democratic values via the “conversion” (regime change) of the uncivilized and undemocratic (the “infidels”). And holding the pursuit of common ground as appeasement of the enemy, they instead resort to imperial aggression through the unilateral use of economic and military hard power (“violence”).

After the 9/11 catastrophe, neocons have unraveled themselves unabashedly. “Those who are not for us are against us.” When uttered by the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, it translates to: Submit or perish. Led by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice, neocons divide the world into “good” and “evil,” with nothing in between. The rhetoric of heaven and hell that they employ is unfortunately the same religious language of no compromise that bin Laden brings into his politics. Both are fundamentalist and fascist. Whether you are with us or against us is not matter of rationality but of blind faith. The conflict thus turns into a Crusade or a Holy War, a fight to end all fights, unless the other converts (assuming that either is still convertible). One feeds on the other in a vicious cycle.

On record, Pope Benedict XVI has been critical about Bush’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq for the purpose of imposing democracy; opposed the concept of preventive war; condemned Israel’s strikes on Lebanon as “an attack” on a sovereign nation; and called for the establishment of a Palestinian state. But as cardinal, he has also suggested that Turkey, a secular state with a majority Muslim population, is in “permanent contrast to Europe.” So instead of joining the European Union with Christian roots, Turkey “could try to set up a cultural continent with neighbouring Arab countries and become the leading figure of a culture with its own identity”; but the Muslim community and the EU should work together to fight fundamentalism.

In a speech delivered at the University of Regensburg in Germany on September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict returned to Platonic dialogue using Qur’an’s Surah 2:256 as curtain warmer for the exercise in critical thinking in a university setting. The script based on a medieval text was between an erudite Byzantine emperor (Manuel II Paleologus) and a Persian scholar. The Pope remarked:
In the seventh conversation . . . edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "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 emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably . . . is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".
First of all, the quotation about Mohammed not having brought anything new but “only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached” was not the Pope’s but supposedly the erudite emperor’s and it was said by the emperor as a proposition subject to vetting by the Persian scholar. Secondly, the Pope readily acknowledged the “startling brusqueness” of the Christian emperor as the latter addressed the Muslim interlocutor. Thirdly, the indictment against conversion by compulsion would cover the fundamentalisms by either side, if viewed in terms of the “profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason.”

Now, Pope Benedict may have grossly miscalculated the overreaction to his speech. Given however the wider identification in the Western world - and University of Regensburg in Germany is within that realm - of the tactic of terrorism with Muslim fanatics (they are specifically named in the charge sheet but their Western counterparts remain John Does for the most part), is it possible that the analogy was in fact meant to expose our irrationality rather their irrationality? Isn’t it suggested too that because of our self-righteousness and the putative “reasonableness of our faith”, we are wont to acting upon our irrationality with impunity? For example, how do we respond in a serious dialogue to the question of accountability when we enter recklessly, at the very least, into a war?

Let’s listen more:
At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is (sic) concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?
Isn’t this just another affirmation that what the Pope is saying about conviction against violent conversion, being intrinsically true, binds both the Christian emperor and the Muslim scholar?
God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which - as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated - unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, "transcends" knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos.
One couldn’t help but be struck by the radicalism of the Pope’s reading of the prologue in the Gospel of John. The prologue begins with these first three lines:

“In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

As Christians we have learned that the Word (Logos) is the incarnate Jesus. On the other hand, certain understanding of the dogma of the primacy of papal teachings on faith and morals is to the effect that it proceeds from the transcendence of God. But now that the Pope is inviting “lively exchange” instead of pontificating, seeking common ground instead of prescribing, creating consensus instead of commanding (which with God appears to connote) is even that dogma now a fair game for a dialogue in search of “single rationality” or what’s definitive? Should Muslim theologians and scholars adopt the same attitude of creative rationality as regards Islamic teachings?
Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature. Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria - the Septuagint - is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity. A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act "with logos" is contrary to God's nature.
Could it be that fundamentalism may also mean literal instead of enlightened reading of the Sacred Books because God’s Words (Logos) are dynamic not inert, rational not mythical? Isn’t logos a dialogue among those who want to think critically just like the erudite emperor and the educated Persian?

If we see any resemblance between the Hellenistic rulers of the ancient and the neocons of today “who sought to accommodate (their value system) forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the (pagan Greeks),” do we also discern an inner dialogue between the Roman Pontiff as the erudite emperor in the exercise of his magisterium and the educated professor Ratzinger “sharing responsibility for the right use of reason”? What is the Pope’s final caveat?
The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God", said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.
“Quite the contrary,” Federico Lombardi, the Director of the Vatican press office, attempted to clarify the Pope’s statement, “what emerges clearly from the Holy Father’s discourses is a warning, addressed to Western culture, to avoid ‘the contempt for God and the cynicism that considers mockery of the sacred to be an exercise of freedom’.”

If in the end Pope Benedict appears to adopt the logos of Manuel II, it was not so much as it was Byzantine Greek as it is intrinsically true.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like you are a Filipino liberal neocon now living in the USA blogging. The primary reason that triggered Bush to go to war into Iraq was WMD, wasn't it?

October 05, 2006 6:40 AM  

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