Civilized dialogue: The Regensburg Address

In the older, traditional calendar of the Roman Church, used usually with celebrations of Holy Mass with the 1962 Missale Romanum today is also the feast of the Impression of the Stigmata on St. Francis. The feast has brought to my mind the amazing figure of St. Francis. One episode of his life leaps to the fore.

In 1219 St. Francis and some companions went to Egypt and met with Sultan Melek-el-Kamel (who had returned Jerusalem to the Christians). There at the court Francis challenged their scholars to a "trial by fire" concerning whose religion was true, Christianity or Islam. Francis offered to be the first to enter the fire on the condition that if he went unscathed, the Sultan would have to convert. The Sultan did not agree but, impressed by Francis’s courage and faith, allowed him to preach in his territory and even to Muslims. The Sultan did not kill Francis. He let him go on his way and respected him.

A couple hundred years later, the penultimate Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus (A family name of a dynasty, by the way) had around the year 1391 a dialogue with a "learned Persian", who was of course a Muslim, about the truth of their respective religions. The dialogues, set down at Constantinople, between Emperor and Persian did not end with the Emperor having the Persian put to death. Their discussion was civilized, though substantive and hard hitting.

These two cases, both in the time when faith and reason had not yet been divorced one from the other, before authority and intellect came to be seen as contradictory, are fascinating. In the one case, the theocratic ruler of the state, a Sultan has a hard hitting but civilized dialogue with a Christian traveler. In the second case the theocratic ruler of the state is a Christian who has a hard hitting but civilized dialogue with a Persian Muslim traveler.

Constantinople, the jewel of the Eastern Roman Empire, with its fusion of cultures in a Christian context, fell to the Islamic ruler Mehmet some 60 years after the civilized dialogue of Manuel and the Persian. The Christian culture would be destroyed, Islamic law and religion were imposed, and many of the inhabitants were killed or enslaved.

In The Regensburg Address, the Pope actually said some things supportive of Islam, when considered carefully in the context of the whole presentation. Remember that the Address was given at the Pope’s old university to a largely academic circle. Keep in mind also the Holy Father’s past and present interest in the writings of Venerable John Henry Newman, who wrote on the "idea of a university".

It is important that one grasps in this far ranging Address some different themes touched on by the Pope. First, the Pope argued that the interchange and fusion of Bibical faith with a critically purified Hellenistic philosophy is part of the warp and weft of both Christianity and of Europe. Remember that the Pope stated that Turkey (the site of the civilized dialogue before the fall of Constantinople) is now fundamentally foreign to the very concept of Europe and should not be admitted to the EU. The Pope has been battling against the dominant relativism in the West, with its divorce of reason and faith and the reduction of ethics and morality to merely personal preference. On the other hand, in his extremely important Message for the World Day of Peace (1 January 2006) he spoke of the violation of the Truth and therefore of true human rights by, on the one hand, nihilistic atheism which denies the existence of objective Truth and, on the other hand, fanatical religious ideologies (read "fanatical Islam") which seeks to impose by violence a version of their truth without respect to reason and human rights. Both of these violations of the Truth result in violence to the human person, both as individuals and in societies.

Benedict, in The Regensburg Address, underscored the need to keep reason at the basis of discussion. He began with an explanation that the whole concept of a university (universitas), a phenomenon which evolved in Christendom, must include also theology, not as a "science" or "literature", but as theology. The idea is that theology which truly concerns God as logos ("Logos means both reason and word — a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.") maintains the wider and fuller exploration of the Truth, while a de-theologized purely scientific approach to questions results in making reality smaller and renders it incapable of bridging the gaps that exist between people and their cosmos. On the one hand the "dehellenization" of Christian theology and of Western philosophy has resulted in the fragmentation of human understanding (and therefore of cultures). On the other hand, a view of the divine and practice of religion which does not have a starting point of reason will fall into a view of God as capricious, detached from truth and goodness, and cannot provide a basis for human understanding or societal bonds.

While making a real critique of the "pathologies" afflicting Western thought, and also the fanatical Islamic approach given to violence, etc., Benedict nevertheless presents a scenario which would embrace contact with Islam. Here is what he said (my emphasis):

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions.

A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based.

Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought — to philosophy and theology. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.

We must break this down a bit. First, the reduction of all thought to purely scientific categories has bad results for the West but some undeniable advancement for man have come from the scientific method. Islam has a lot to learn that is good from the West, including from the authentic tradition of Christian thought which does not divorce reason from faith while the West has a lot to learn about incorporating a focus on God (properly understood) into our "scientific" ways. The dialogue for the West is most certainly, in Benedict’s view, going to focus mainly on Christianity and the intellectual tradition which most closely guards its intellectual tradition (the Catholic Church), but by no means is Islam to be excluded from the Pope’s comments! The university can be a place where that takes place, a place where hard hitting but civilized dialogue can occur without feat of repression or violence. Remember, the Pope gave The Regensburg Address at his old university.

The Holy Father wrapped up his speech saying:

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur — this is the program with which a theology grounded in biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

"Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God," said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

This statement, as those above, is clearly open to proper and respectful dialogue with Islam. Also, it was all about the "idea of the university", which was the setting for the Address.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Sidney says:

    St Francis, pray for the Pope!

  2. Mike says:


    Your commentary and analysis are enlightening – Thankyou.


  3. Jeffrey Stuart says:

    Thanks for the analysis Father. I fear however your words, as those of the Holy Father, would be lost on the the rank and file Muslim of the Third World.

    God Bless,

  4. Jeffrey, I am more concerned that Catholics understand the situation properly.

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