Joseph Stalin famously discounted the power of the pope by asking how many troops he had. The Soviet dictator shared the belief of his soul-mate, Mao Zedong, that power comes from the barrel of a gun. The final leaders of the Soviet Empire were less sanguine about the uselessness of spiritual weapons. Witness the conspiracy to assassinate John-Paul II.
The recent comments that Benedict XVI directed to the “representatives of science” at the University of Regensburg concerned a similar topic—the relationship of faith and reason to violence. Based on news snippets, one might think the talk was an extended harangue against Muslims.
In fact, the address was over the heads of 99% of reporters who bothered to read it. Fortunately for them, the inflammatory sound bite they crave came toward the beginning of the talk. That remark was a quotation “by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II” to “an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.” Manuel II, Benedict noted, “addresses his interlocutor with an astounding harshness on 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 reason for this “astounding harshness” [wrongly translated “startling brusqueness”] doubtless had something to do with the fact that these remarks were set down by the emperor shortly before or during the siege of Constantinople by Muslim Turks from 1394 to 1402. Manuel goes on to explain why violence is incompatible with God’s nature: "God 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.”
Benedict proceeds to argue that there is an essential continuity between rationality itself and the God that transcends human reason. Were this not the case, an unbridgeable chasm would arise between faith and reason—a chasm that consigns faith to the sphere of individual subjectivity or opens the door to a religion spread by force of arms.
The irony of Benedict’s address is that he was speaking to two groups who posit an absolute fissure between faith and reason. The first group consists of modernists for whom all talk about God is balderdash—folks who think ethics can be reduced to an evolutionary bi-product and who accept without comment those rational structures that make science possible. The second group consists of believers (Christians and Muslims) who reject links between reason and faith as an infringement on God’s sovereignty. Strange bedfellows. For both sides, reason yields to irrationality—and often to brute force.