It’s a long way from Regensburg, Germany, to Beirut, Lebanon.
The two places are distant in time and space, but nonetheless connected in the unfolding narrative of Pope Benedict’s consideration of Islam and Christianity in the Arab world.
In Regensburg, the content of the pontiff’s remarks did not match the context. In Beirut, the fit between content and context was persuasive and powerful.
For Benedict, how we think about God has a direct impact on how we act. In 2006, the Pope gave a speech at Regensburg University that expanded on this central point. Benedict spoke about the interpenetration of Biblical thought by Greek, or Hellenistic, philosophy. According to the pope, one of the most important results of this interpenetration has been an appreciation that reason and “reasonableness” are central characteristics not just of faith but also of God. In the modern West, this deep connection between faith, reason, and God, has been lost.
This loss is reflected in contemporary understandings of religion as merely a personal or private matter. But the loss is also reflected in views of reason as only concerning matters that are empirically verifiable in a narrow sense. The problem Benedict sees is that when reason is stripped away from God it becomes much easier for religious people to act unreasonably.
Benedict’s Regensburg address is remembered not for these broad points about faith and reason. Instead, it is remembered for provocatively bringing Islam into the discussion. Benedict spoke about Islam’s conception of God as utterly transcendent, beyond human categories such as reason. The problem with this Islamic view, as the pope presented it and construed it, is that God can be understood to command humans to act unreasonably—including acting violently. To make this point, Benedict touched upon questions of “holy war” and compulsion in religion with regard to Islam, but did not delve deeply into Christianity’s own troubling history concerning these same issues.
The content of Benedict’s remarks was criticized by Muslim scholars for overly simplifying Islamic conceptions of God and “holy war,” which is itself a rather provocative translation of the word “jihad” or “exertion.” The pope also relied upon a rather narrow range of sources for considering how Muslims have thought about God. One could imagine the content of the pope’s speech being an interesting point of departure for dialogue or debate, but Regensburg was not the proper context for such an exercise. Since Benedict is the universal pontiff of the Catholic Church, his comments reverberated far beyond the walls of the university where he was speaking. There also were no Muslim dialogue partners present to speak. Benedict’s reflections were widely disseminated and decontextualized. Demonstrations and deaths followed.
In traveling to Beirut recently, the pontiff appreciated the context much better than he did at Regensburg. Giving his homily in French during a mass at Beirut’s waterfront, Benedict asked Christians to be peacemakers in a region that has seen so much inter-religious and sectarian killing. Jesus, the Pope explained, “is a Messiah who suffers, a Messiah who serves, and not some triumphant political savior.” Part of the intent behind this was to call into question specific attempts to place religion at the service of some sort of temporal or worldly agenda. But the broader call was for Christians to be servants. Drawing from on the Epistle of James on the relationship between faith and works, the pope reflected: “in a world where violence constantly leaves behind its grim trail of death and destruction, to serve justice and peace is urgently necessary for building a fraternal society, for building fellowship.” Arab Christians have a special vocation in this regard for, as Benedict recognized in his remarks at a Syriac Catholic monastery in Charfet, Christianity has been very much part of the Arab experience and has a long history in the Arab world.
In Beirut as in Regensburg, Benedict emphasized how the way we think about God has implications for how we act. The belief that God became incarnate as a suffering servant calls Christians to a particular kind of action in the world. But acts of service, of peacemaking, are not performed by Christians only for other Christians in some sort of sectarian or exclusivist way. Instead, the service of which the pontiff spoke is for the common good of society and the world. In Beirut, where a history of Christian and Muslim strife is quite real and palpable, the content of Benedict’s remarks powerfully matched the context.
The connection between religion and violence is one of those controversial topics that can provoke either close-minded defensiveness or open self-reflection. Both Christians and Muslims often defend their traditions as being dedicated to peace. Both Islam and Christianity have inspired heroic acts of sacrifice and love, but both traditions have also been historically associated with violence that has invoked the name of God. While reason may sever the conceptual connection between religion and violence, only continual acts of service and peacemaking can ensure that religion and violence remain apart. The pope understood his own journey to Lebanon as an act of service and peacemaking. Through this, Benedict expressed his hope that Christians and Muslims can be servants and peacemakers not just to and for themselves but to and for each other.