Sep 19, 2006

Pope Benedict's Remarks

There is once again a tremendous spasm of outrage over a perceived offence to Islam. Religious zealots seem innocent of irony; they have burned several churches and killed an elderly nun because of the insult of being called violent. This is a very different circumstance than the Danish cartoons. In that incident, while deploring the over-reaction, I sympathized with the Muslims feelings of insult. There was no reason to print those cartoons except as a deliberate provocation.

In this case, however, the Pope's remarks were taken completely out of context. He was quoting Manuel II Palaelogus, a late Byzantine emperor and it is evident the quote was used to make a point, and no endorsement of the sentiments were implied. The point being made concerned the danger of religion without reason. If the Pope made any error of judgement, it was in choosing an example from Islamic-Christian confrontation; with a little thought he could have used a purely Christian example to make the same point. In this times, one must be very careful in what one says.

Mostly though, I blame the media in both the west and the Muslim world for cherry-picking two lines in a long complex talk. Nor do I think Pope Benedict has anything to apologize for.

While this whole controversy is too ridiculous to waste any more of your (and my) time over; it did have the fortuitous side-effect of bringing attention to what otherwise would have been an obscure speech to the faculty of a German university. This Pope is an interesting thinker, no doubt about it. The speech itself is well worth a look; it's on the topic of Faith and Reason.

I find myself somewhat in sympathy with many of Pope Benedict's views. Like him, I am uncomfortable with some aspects of modernity such as moral relativism and the materialist world-view. (We're the last two great medieval thinkers.) The Pope has an interesting take on this; he sees the Reformation beginning a process of "de-hellenization," a movement away from the western heritage derived from Greece.

He sees the western Christian, Catholic, view as based on rationality. This makes, for him, theology a rational discipline. It is possible to know the mind of God, at least in part, by analogy from our own minds. This he opposes to both Islam and Protestantism, which are purely vehicles of Revelation; the only things we know about God are what he chooses to tell us. He could (but didn't) have brought in a contrast with eastern Christianity as well, which rejects the positive theology of Rome for what they call an "apophatic" approach, i.e. God is essentially unknowable.

How does all of this relate to Buddhism, which after all postulates no God, apophatic or otherwise? In one particular Buddhism is closer to Catholicism than the other theistic religions in that it is a core axiom that the universe is orderly or rational. This is the principle of the General Dependent Origination; things arise from causes and not otherwise. In other words, Buddhist thought rejects arbitrariness or random arising. In fact, we take this a step further than the Catholics because we also reject the supreme arbitrariness of a Creator. (Balls in your court now Benny.)

But while Buddhism is not theistic, nor is it atheistic in the sense that word is usually understood. There is a transcendental (lokutarra = "above the world") element in Buddhist metaphysics; the Nibbana element or the Unconditioned. For the unawakened putthujana ("many folk") this must perforce be a matter of faith (saddha.) So the tension between reason and faith is present in our religion also. And we see it played out in different ways. There are those westernized Buddhists who want to reject faith and the transcendental altogether. These thinkers are more a product of the European Enlightenment than the Buddha's.

There is one other way in which we would differ from the Pope. He deplores at one point in his talk the reduction of religion to a purely personal and subjective experience. The Catholic Church, as the holder of the keys, has always been uncomfortable with mysticism; persecuting its great mystics while alive and then often as not sanctifying them when dead. While I sympathize with the Pope on the one hand when he criticizes the modern tendency to deny that there is any objective truth, I have to differ with him as well. I think the Buddhist position would be that there is indeed an objective unalterable truth, but that it can only be realized subjectively and personally.

In any case, I encourage you to read the Pope's comments for yourself and draw your own conclusions. Like I said, this man is a subtle and intriguing thinker. Out of step with the times, perhaps, but that's a good thing in times like these.


Full Speech of Pope Benedict.
A more political take on it by Justin Raimondo
Who was Manuel II Palaeologus anyway?