Druing an address given at the University of Regensberg this week, Pope Benedict XVI made the following observation about radical Islam and the nature of God:
Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", [Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus (1350-1425)] addresses his [Persian] interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "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". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "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...".
The Pope continues, paraphrasing the editor of the volume from which he extracted Emperor Manuel II Paleologus' remarks:
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would
oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry. (emphasis added)
In recent weeks I have blogged repeatedly that Christians should shine the light of truth whenever they see evil being passed off as righteousness. Bravo to the Pope for engaging in such an illumination. I even agree with his theology.
Warfare is a construct of humanity, not a divinely-sanctioned means of vanquishing evil. Of course the Old Testament gives us detailed accounts of faithful men, acting directly on the instructions of God, who fought and killed those who stood in the way of the establishment of a Holy Land for God's chosen people. But contemporary Christianity understands that these violent acts occurred because God chose to interact with ancient man through the instutitions of man; thus the methods available to him were limited by man's sinful nature.
Christianity's God differs from the "Allah" of Islam because Christianity's God ultimately conquered humanity's sin through the process of Jesus Christ's crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven. "Doing God's will" no longer requires us to utilize the corrupt systems developed by man, because the peaceable Kingdom brought into being through the blood of Christ completely transcends all earthly power structures. Violence is forbidden by as a tool of Kingdom evangelism both by the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the early church saints.
Certainly the ancient Roman church failed in this respect, up through the Protestant Reformation era and then later still in the kingdoms and colonial governments of Spain and France. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the brutal conquest of the New World will forever remain as painful reminders of this failure. But the church recovered from this error, and today's modern Christian church, effectively separated from the state, no longer fields armies or declares holy wars.
One of the dangers in believing in a completely transcendent God is the risk of assuming that such a God is so detached from humanity that mankind can be left to his own devices when it is convenient for him to do so. Although our sinful nature keeps us from understanding the ultimate perfection of God's love and grace, Christianity explicitly teaches that it is possible for men to be filled with the spirit of God and thus begin to close the gap -- between human nature and the perfect nature of God -- that exists as a result of our sin. This is not transcendence; rather it is intimacy of the highest order.
I believe that this basic difference between Christianity and radical Islam should be continually brought to the forefront and explored by Christian thinkers.
UPDATE: Are you sitting down? Muslims are outraged. Look for the riots any second now.
I guess this says it all ...
"Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence," [Pakistani] Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said.
(Upon reading this post I discovered that I omitted a key paragraph of the Pope's remarks. That has been corrected, and I have added some additional remarks of my own.)