Regensburg Revisited: Faith, Reason and the Islamic State


Pope Benedict XVI speaks to students and professors at the Auditorium Maximum of the University of Regensburg in Regensburg, Germany, Sept. 12, 2006.
Pope Benedict XVI speaks to students and professors at the Auditorium Maximum of the University of Regensburg in Regensburg, Germany, Sept. 12, 2006. (photo: Matthias Schrader/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Is Islam inherently violent? Does it justify violence against infidels? Does it encourage the faith to be spread by the sword?

The establishment of an “Islamic State” in northern Iraq this summer has brought such questions to the forefront in the face of the lethal brutality the Islamic State has unleashed against religious minorities, including the expulsion and killing of Christians.

There are political and military aspects to those questions, but they are most fundamentally theological. Does God desire violence to spread his revelation?

Theology addresses reality at its deepest level, and, therefore, theological ideas matter a great deal in the “real world,” even if it takes some time for them to become evident to the mass public. The horrors of the Islamic State — including public beheadings and crucifixions — have made manifest what can happen when it is accepted that lethal violence is justified to spread the faith.

Theological problems require theological responses, in the first place to recognize that a theological problem exists and then to provide an adequate answer.

Six years ago, in his famous lecture at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI provided just such a response. The events of this summer make it more urgent to return to the argument of Regensburg.

Regensburg remains the most famous papal lecture ever given because of the lethal riots that followed in the Islamic world afterward. Some regard it as an early gaffe in Benedict’s pontificate, before he learned that being pope was different than being a provocative professor. Yet sometimes a pastor has to provoke, especially when deadly threats are lurking about.

On Sept. 12, 2006, the day after the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Benedict returned to the university where he taught as a young professor to speak about faith and reason, religion and violence. Faith and reason need each other as paths to truth, Benedict argued. Moreover, this is an essential part of Christian belief, because the God who reveals himself (faith) is also the author of the natural order and the human capacity to understand it (reason). The Holy Father highlighted that the prologue of John’s Gospel begins: “In the beginning was the Word (Logos),” and logos is the Greek word for reason. God is reasonable, and so to act contrary to reason is to act contrary to God.

Benedict then asked if Islam conceives of God in the same way. Does Islam have an equivalent to the divine Logos? Does the Islamic conception of God as utterly transcendent, beyond all human categories, mean that God is beyond reason itself?

The suggestion is not that Allah is insane or irrational, but, rather, that he is not bound by a reason accessible to human beings.

Benedict argued that faith without reason gives rise to fundamentalism. He employed a late-14th century quotation from Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus — the one that ostensibly set off the riots on the inflammable Muslim street: “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.”

In 2014, it is more obvious why the question needs to be asked — ordinary people watching the news are asking it. Benedict warns that one of the consequences of a faith-only fundamentalism is violence. Violent force — which by its nature does not seek to persuade — can grow out of a zeal to convert without recourse to reason. This is partly behind the rise in Islamic violence.

Muslims themselves are the first victims of it, but Christians in Islamic countries regularly face harassment and persecution.

Benedict wanted to clarify that the roots of this violence lie in a perversion of Islam, not its authentic theology. That’s a task only Muslims can accomplish, but the Holy Father had a pulpit — and scholar’s gifts — sufficient to draw attention to the issue. He wished to offer the experience of the Christian Tradition in wrestling with these same questions.

Benedict likely chose the dialogue between Manuel II and his Persian interlocutor because it deals directly with this question in a historically suggestive setting.

Manuel II was one of the last (Christian) Byzantine emperors; some 50 years after this dialogue, Constantinople would fall to the Ottomans, and the great Hagia Sophia would become a mosque. Manuel II is an emperor under siege from Muslim armies — not only Muslim armies, as he was threatened at times by Christians, too. Nevertheless, he had a concrete experience of the sword of Islam.

“The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable,” said Benedict, in the key passage that immediately followed the words that got all of the attention. “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”

He then quotes Manuel II on the key point: “God 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 ...”

One needs recourse to reason — and, a Christian would insist, divine grace. Neither reason nor grace operates by coercive violence.

The enduring aftermath of Regensburg was more hopeful than the immediate bloodiness. On Oct, 12, 2006, more than 100 prestigious Muslim scholars from around the world signed an open letter, taking up respectfully the issues Benedict raised at Regensburg.

More remarkable, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia came to visit Benedict just a year later, in November 2007. The House of Saud both facilitates Islamist extremism in order to secure its hold on power and fears it as a threat to its hold on power.

The king heard hopeful things at Regensburg, and after his visit to Rome, he followed up in July 2008 with an astonishing gesture, holding an interfaith conference to which he invited Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and others to combat religious extremism. The need for it was demonstrated by the fact that such a conference could not be held in Saudi Arabia itself, as non-Muslims cannot openly practice their faith there. So the conference was hosted in a royal palace near Madrid, with the king of Spain hosting King Abdullah and his guests.

“Differences do not lead to conflict and confrontation; we have to state that tragedies which have occurred in history were not caused by religion, but by extremism adopted by some of the followers of each one of the religions,” Abdullah said. Not remarkable in itself, but remarkable that the Saudi king would say so to Christians, to Jews and to Muslims.

The fruit of all that was evident this summer, as the highest scholarly authorities in Islam, based in Cairo, have explicitly stated that the “Islamic State” is not justified by Islam and is not an authentic representation of it.

Six years ago, Christians inclined to be friendly toward Muslims severely criticized Benedict’s frank and respectful address. Then, as now, it was best understood and welcomed in the Islamic world itself, suffering the plague of jihadi violence.

Regensburg was not so much the work of a professor or even a pope. It was the work of a prophet.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

He was the Register’s Rome correspondent from 1998-2003.