The recent Muslim upset over Pope Benedict’s remarks is entirely justified. Not because Benedict mis-represented Islam, but because he is changing Islam, and the Muslims know it.
Prior to the death of John Paul II, I was often asked who the next Pope would be. I answered by pointing out how popes have, during the course of the 20th century at least, been chosen in order to deal with the problems of the day. As Nazism waxed and waned in 1920’s Germany, Pope Pius XI laid the foundation for the work of the Pope who was instrumental in breaking the back of Nazi Germany: Pius XII. Pius XI had made Eugenio Pacelli the papal nuncio to Germany. Pacelli knew the German people intimately, he understood the Nazi threat, and he was the principle author of the stinging anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennende Sorge. His election as Pius XII was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
Similarly, when the threat posed by communism to Europe had reached its zenith, Karol Wojtyla knew how to handle it. A man who knew communism intimately because he had grown up under its dark shadow all of his life, Pope John Paul II was considered so dangerous that the KGB tried to assassinate him. To date, even the Muslims haven’t matched the communists on that point.
Now we have Benedict, the man whose stated mission is to rescue Europe from herself. Europe, indeed, the West as a whole, has long entertained the quixotic hope that reason alone is sufficient to answer all questions of human life and liberty. As I have noted elsewhere, the Western decision to sunder reason from faith is the secular answer to the Protestant Reformation’s attempt to separate faith and reason.
By beginning and ending his Regensburg meditation on the futility of the West’s philosophy with references to Islam, Benedict subtly points out that Islam is a non-Christian version of the Reformation ideal. Like Martin Luther, Mohammed effectively separated faith from reason. Indeed, Islamic theology is avowedly non-rational, insisting that God Himself is not bound by the dictates of reason.
Like the non-Catholic Christian god, who assaults and kills his own son for the sake of humanity, the god of Islam can fool himself, change his mind, be other than what he has been. The primary difference between Luther’s non-rationality and Mohammed’s non-rationality lies only in the moderating force of Jesus’ lived example. Luther had at least that much, Mohammed did not.
Thus, Islam lives out an Old Testament style of violence. Prior to the advent of Christianity, about 10% of the Roman Empire was Hebrew. Like today’s Muslims, the Hebrews were known to get militantly defensive about their faith. At least a dozen different rebel bandits occupied Rome’s army in Judea between the time of Herod in 37 BC and the first revolt in 66 AD. The war ended only with the destruction of the Temple, but the violence would not stop there – the Bar Kochba rebellion would require a second Roman response, a response that decimated the land.
Up until that time, Hebrew law looked remarkably like the sharia law Muslims would develop a millennium later. Both required death for apostates from their monotheistic faith, both killed fornicators and adulterers, both permitted polygamy. The primary difference lay in the understanding of God’s rationality. Jews understood that God is rational, that rationality is part of the divine nature and that God does not change. Islam does not understand or accept this.
When the Jewish faith found itself subject to Christian Faith, it gradually saw the logic of the Christian worldview, at least in regards to law and its application. Two millennium of Christian-Jewish interaction led to a serious moderation of the Deuteronomic code. Today's Jews, even the most orthodox Jews, no longer stone adulterers and fornicators, individual Jewish believers are no longer under obligation to kill the idolater in their midst and polygamy, while still permitted from a theological perspective, is under the ban for reasons of prudence.
The question Benedict implicitly raises in his Regensburg speech is quite simple: even if we beat the Muslims, invade Iraq, Iran or any other Islamic nation-state that we can, what good will it do? Will that make Islam theologically capable of accommodating itself to the Catholic - not just the Christian, but the Catholic - worldview?
The current philosophy of the West, a philosophy that separates faith and reason, is bankrupt. Its companion in crime, Reformation theology, is bankrupt as well. Islam, at least Islam lived as Mohammed lived it, is an empty cup. Jewish philosophy and theology, Hinduism, Buddhism – none of them are capable of reforming either Islam or the West.
So, Benedict lays down a question that, when properly understood, insults everyone if only because reality is so rakishly cruel to our lives of illusion. The major difference between Islam and the West is this: Islam understands what Benedict said. The West does not.