Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Regarding the Pope

In a novel Father A. once read, a newly-elected Pope keeps a cat in his private quarters; he swears his staff to secrecy about it, fearing that if he is known as a cat-fancier, the faithful will deluge him with their kittens.

The Egg has struggled with Pope Benedict's, um, indiscretion at Regensburg. In the context of his speech, the now-infamous quotation from Emperor Manuel Paleologus is clearly a small (and dispensable) point. He is talking about the role of reason in constructing a system of religious belief, which is precisely the sort of thing that Catholic theology should work at. And yes, he takes a moment in passing to drege up some medieval anti-Muslim rhetoric, cited as a not-very-effective testimony to the putative Western heritage of non-coercive apologetics.

The Pope was clearly having a momentary lapse of memory -- he thought he was a college professor, when in fact he is a Pope. Professors are allowed, even encouraged, to provoke their students with tendentious illustrations and sly asides. Popes, as Benedict will not soon forget, are required to exercise superhuman restraint, and neither speak nor write a word that has not been considered with extreme care. Otherwise, he will be deluged with kittens ... or much, much worse.

On the other hand, we continue to be outraged by the Muslim reaction to Benedict's lecture. It displays a level of intolerance, and a disregard for free speech, that are simply unimaginable to the post-Enlightenment West. In extreme cases, the violence and threats of violence suggest that Manuel Palologus -- not the Pope, mind you, but the dead mediaeval emperor he was quoting -- may have had a point.

Raymond Ibrahim, over at Victor Davis Hanson's righty blog, does a great job on this. Click the link, but here are his money quotes:

In the context of the Pope’s speech, the point in evoking this anecdote was twofold: 1) to show how even centuries ago, there was inter-religious dialogue — a good thing to be preserved; and 2) to show that there is no room for violence where faith is concerned. ... Moreover, the Pope made it a point to mention one of the Koran’s most tolerant verses — “There is no compulsion in religion” [Koran 2:256].

Had the Pope really wanted to defame Islam, he could have quoted from the much more numerous “sword-verses” of the Koran, which most Muslim theologians are agreed have abrogated the more tolerant ones: “Fight those of the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] who do not believe in Allah nor the Last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth [Islam], until they pay tribute with willing submission, and feel themselves utterly subdued” [Koran 9:29]. Or “When the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever you find them — seize them, besiege them, and make ready to ambush them” [Koran 9:5]

Ibrahim goes on to deal with a point that has not been made much by us in the tolerant lefty blogosphere, much less the press, but which is worth considering. Paleologus is right: most of the growth of Islam, in that era, had taken place as the result of military conquest. Growth as the result of trade and migration came only after the initial conquest of Arabia, North Africa, and western Asia. While peaceful growth may be the historic norm for Islam, conquest is the heart of the movement's creation myth.

Christianity is in many ways the reverse. For the first three hundred years, it spread entirely through peaceful, non-coercive preaching, including the willingness of adherents to suffer torture and execution rather than surrender their faith. Converts were, in fact, required to quit jobs such as soldier or judge which might require them to kill another human being. It was only after Constantine that Christianity was even considered compatible with military service. Of course, from that point forward, things began to change, so that well before time of Paleologus (and well afterward) the religion was indeed spread by armies of conquest. So, while conquest and colonization were for a long time the historic norm for Christianity, the heart of the movement's creation myth is preaching and persuasion.

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