Those who take an apocalyptic view of the campaign against international terrorism like to cite the historian Samuel Huntington’s prediction of a "clash of civilizations." Commentators sympathetic to this view applauded Pope Benedict XVI’s address at the University of Regensburg on Sept. 12. By citing the harsh dismissal of the prophet Mohammed by a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Benedict was, in their view, taking sides in the "clash of civilizations." But several Vatican spokesmen made clear in the days following the Regensburg address that Benedict did not share the views of Emperor Manuel II.
The pope himself subsequently expressed his regret for the offense many in the Muslim world had taken, stating that this "quotation from a medieval text [did] not in any way express my personal thought." Bracketing the provocative citation, Pope Benedict raised two important and related questions: Can authentic religious faith be legitimately advanced by [irrational] violent means? Can God be thought to act unreasonablyby commanding that unbelievers be put to the sword?
Rather than taking sides in a "clash of civilizations," the pope was calling for a conversation across cultures and about two necessary conditions for any such conversation: 1) respect for others’ faith and 2) the use of reason in conjunction with revelation. In the pope’s view, faith and reason need each other. Faith severed from reason is irrational, just as reason unmoored from faith has no moral compass. Furthermore, for believers of different faiths, reason, rooted in a rational creator God, provides the necessary alternative to violence.
For their part, Western secularists are suspicious of religious traditions that pose different claims to absolute truth; they see in such differences an inevitable source of conflict and violence. In contrast, the Second Vatican Council, in its landmark "Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" (Nostra Aetate), argued that religious faith, manifested in different religious traditions, reflects our common humanity. Benedict is undoubtedly correct in claiming that secular intellectuals who do not recognize the legitimacy of religious faith and its relation to reason are limited in their ability to enter into conversation across cultures, when religion has been and remains a defining influence upon culture, as it is in the Americas, Africa, India and especially the Muslim worldthat is, outside of Western Europe.
The main content of the pope’s address at Regensburg was a densely argued review of the development of Western thought and the regrettable consequences of the "de-Hellenization" of the Western tradition by an uncritical scientism, described elsewhere in Benedict’s memorable phrase as the "tyranny of relativism." Benedict is preoccupied with the secularization of Western Europe. He insists that the Judeo-Christian tradition has defined the origins of Western culture and that Christianity, beginning with the prologue to John’s Gospel, has been defined by the encounter between biblical faith and Greek philosophy. Non-Western Christians would say, however, that Christianity, as a world religion, needs to be concerned also about its inculturation in non-Western cultures.
The pope challenged Western intellectuals to re-examine the notion of reason divorced from faith. He also issued a serious invitation to Muslim leaders and scholars to enter into a dialogue that rejects violence in the name of religious faith. Christians in recent years have revised their views on just war, heightened their appreciation of nonviolence and consigned "holy war" to history. How are Muslims addressing the range of voices on war and violence today? Can we expect moderate Muslims to denounce religious violence under the rubric of jihad? Can reason provide ground for Muslims, Christians and secularists to reject violence in the name of religion and limit the recourse to force in world affairs?
Both religious traditions need fuller hermeneutics of nonviolence. Islam is not without such resources in the work of scholars like the Sudanese Mahmoud Mohammed Taha. Some Christians and Muslims have agreed that slaughter of innocents in acts of terror is blasphemous and irrational. Can we find better ways to impress that message on public opinion and political structures? Can reason provide a platform on which Christians, Muslims and secularists can work together to overcome conflict and promote the good of the one human family? The pope’s serious proposals deserve serious responses from political leaders, intellectuals and theologiansin both the Muslim world and the West.