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Pope Benedict’s Latest Take on Islam

Under Pope Benedict XVI’s reign, the Vatican dossier on Islam could be
entitled: “Regensburg, and Everything After.” Regensburg was the
professor Pope’s landmark 2006 discourse at his former university that
included a nasty historical citation about the prophet Mohammed and
provocatively asked if Islam lacks reason, making it inherently prone
to violence. The worldwide protests among Muslims, including a handful
of church burnings and the killing of a nun, forced the Pope to quickly
change his approach, and soften his tone.

But while he has spent the past two-plus years reaching out to
Islamic leaders, Benedict has subtly tried to keep alive the hard
questions he posed at the German university. Benedict has expanded on
this formula since landing Friday in the moderate Muslim kingdom of
Jordan, the first stop on his eight-day Holy Land pilgrimage. He told
King Abdullah II upon his arrival in Amman that he has “deep respect”
for Islam, and on Saturday he was welcomed in the country’s largest
mosque and gave another fascinating — if less radioactive —
philosophical treatise. (See pictures chronicling the reign of Benedict XVI.)

Indeed, it is in dissecting this Pope’s ideas — often now cloaked in
more diplomatic language that was absent in Regensburg — that we can
see that he is still preoccupied with the contemporary interplay (or
lack thereof) of faith and reason, and the risk of rising
inter-religious conflict. Speaking after a visit inside the al-Hussein
Ben-Talal mosque, the Pope acknowledged that “tensions and divisions
between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot
be denied.” But Benedict said that Muslims and Christians have a shared
obligation to counter the contemporary idea that “religion is
necessarily a cause of division in our world.” Instead, he said, faith
is in fact necessary in a world in which reason alone can become a form
of extremism. “When human reason humbly allows itself to be purified by
faith… it is strengthened to resist presumption and reach beyond its
own limitations.” (Check out a discussion on why the Pope can’t help the Christians in the Middle East.)

This idea of a faithless allegiance to reason as the cause of rising
secularism is a concern of both Muslim and Christian leaders, and was a
much less cited theme of his Regensburg lecture. But the source of
tension two years ago was the flipside: Benedict’s contention that
Islam has an absolutist conception of God that doesn’t leave room for
reason. On Saturday, however lightly, he seemed to return to this
point. “Christians describe God, among other ways, as creative Reason,
which orders and guides the world,” the Pope said. “Muslims worship
God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who has spoken to humanity.” The
Pope seems to still believe that this distinction — between Christian
faith that is “purified” by human reason, and Muslim faith that is
simply received from God — is worth deeper exploration with his Islamic
counterparts. (Read about the five things the Pope must do on his Mideast trip.)

“Religion,” he said at an earlier discourse Saturday, “can be
corrupted …. when pressed into the service of ignorance or prejudice,
contempt, violence and abuse.” He called for a “mature belief in God.”
The speech at the mosque intertwined theology and a more nuanced view
of current events than the purely philosophical discourse in 2006.
“Often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for
political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division and
at times even violence in society.”

Jordan is the ideal setting to return to these sensitive themes,
home to the royal Hashemite lineage that traces back to Mohammed, and a
modern tradition of religious tolerance. This was also where a group of
Islamic scholars from around the world first launched a response to
Regensburg, which led to the creation of an official Muslim-Catholic
dialogue that kicked off with a summit at the Vatican in November on
the religions’ shared principles of love of God and love of neighbor.

Speaking before the Pope on Saturday, Prince Ghaszi Bin Muhammad Bin
Talal, the top religious advisor to the Jordanian King, thanked
Benedict for having expressed regret for “the hurt caused by the
[Regensburg] lecture to Muslims” and for other words and gestures
since. Still, Ghaszi pointedly condemned “distorted depictions” in the
West of the roots of Islam as “responsible for much historical and
cultural tension between Christians and Muslims.” He said it was now
clear that the Pope’s comments about the prophet in 2006 was just “a
citation in an academic lecture,” but added that it is incumbent on
Muslims to explain the Prophets’ example above all with deeds of
virtue, charity, piety and goodwill.”

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi was asked afterwards
whether the Pope’s view on Islam has changed since Regensburg. “It’s a
journey, there’s progress,” he said. “We have to learn from what the
Muslims tell us about Islam.” This Pope has sought to infuse
“frankness” in the inter-faith dialogue that was a cornerstone of John
Paul II’s papacy. But talking about both what unites and divides
different religious traditions, requires not only talking frankly but
listening carefully.