What did the Pope say about Islam?

Rarely does a theological lecture stir up the controversy that erupted when Pope Benedict XVI delivered a talk Sept. 12, 2006, on the difference between Christianity and Islam. Many people in the Muslim world took to the streets in protest.

The offense centered around a quote the Pope used from a late 14th-century discussion between a Byzantine Christian emperor and “an educated Persian.” The emperor had written, “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.”  Benedict passed along this quote without commenting on whether he approved or disapproved of it. Using such an inflammatory quote without comment seems at least to be a major slip-up by a man who is the official spokesman for the world’s largest Christian community. It is hard to see how Muslims could be anything but offended by his choice of words. 

Defenders of the pope suggest people should read the entire lecture, which is an argument against religious violence. But a careful reading of what he said will hardly reassure the Muslim world. The entire lecture raises disturbing questions. The heart of it is a description of how Christianity and Islam are different and, to put it simply, that Christianity is rational, while Islam is not, and therefore it is violent. 

The key difference, according to the Pope, is that Christianity believes God has a logos. He goes on to describe how Christianity was formed by a “convergence” between biblical faith and Greek thought. In Greek philosophy, “logos” refers to the rational, moral order of the universe. Benedict believes this rational heritage is an “intrinsic” part of the Christian faith that must not be removed. Since God is rational, he argues, “violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” Islam, however, believes God is utterly transcendent. Islam’s God transcends even the rules of reason. God, according to Benedict’s reading of Islam, is not bound by anything, even his own word, and if God wanted to he could even command us “to practice idolatry.” 

If Christianity is rational and therefore rejects forced conversions, the pope should explain why in the same 14th century the Teutonic Knights conducted an officially sanctioned Crusade designed to forcibly convert the last pagan tribes in what is now Lithuania. He could have acknowledged the Catholic Church’s failures in this regard. 

He goes on to say that even though Christianity first developed in the East, it “finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe … this convergence (between biblical faith and Greek philosophy), with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.” 

What does this say to churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America? What does it say to Europeans who want to build a pluralistic Europe not dominated by the authority of one religion? It sounds as if anyone who does not acknowledge biblical faith, Greek thought and the Roman heritage cannot truly be “European.”

Biblical interpreters have said the biblical and Greek concepts of logos are not the same. The logos (“Word”) in John 1:1 is not the rational order of the universe but the power by which God creates and communicates. In a sense, Benedict is right, the difference between Christianity and Islam is the idea of the Word. The two religions do have a different understanding of how God communicates. In Islam God communicates through prophets and sacred writings, the final expression being the Koran. In the Christian faith God communicates ultimately by taking on human form in our world and suffering and dying for our redemption.

Islam honors Jesus as a prophet and even as Messiah but does not believe he is God with us, and it cannot accept the idea that the Messiah suffered and died. The Incarnation would be a better starting point to develop the idea that Christians should consistently reject violence and practice love even for their enemies. Vulnerable love is the supreme expression of the character of God. 

The statement from Benedict XVI has been a major setback in Christian-Muslim relations. I hope Benedict can take the initiative in building better understanding and relations with the Muslim world.