Learning to Listen

Benedict XVI & Interreligious Dialogue

The controversy over Pope Benedict’s September lecture in Regensburg and his use of the now infamous quote from Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus condemning Islam was a perfect storm. But it was not the first time that stern words and brusqueness have been associated with Joseph Ratzinger.

We need only to think of the various notifications on theologians and matters of church discipline, the Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation (1989), Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today (1996), and Dominus Iesus (2000). In 1997, for example, the cardinal described Buddhism as a seductive spiritual eroticism that seems to offer happiness without obligations, and judged it a greater challenge to Christianity than Marxism.

Benedict’s sharply honed ideas and blunt speech have given offense in some quarters for years. But in most such instances, the makings of a storm were lacking: sometimes his points were well taken; at other times, critics within the church lacked sufficient status to insist on further conversation; insulted outsiders-Protestant theologians or Hindus or Buddhists-were in the end not concerned enough to pursue any given quarrel with vigor. But the dispute over the pope’s Regensburg speech compounded the right mix: brusque style, relentless logic, a complex issue, an inexplicable citation of a truly offensive five-hundred-year-old text-and all of this happening when unrest and anger pervade the relations of Islam and the West. The storm broke, and we all felt its consequences.

The storm has now abated, and most have accepted the pope’s repeated expressions of regret over reactions to his speech. Benedict’s subsequent pilgrimage to Turkey in November, where he made news by appearing to shift his views on Turkey’s admission to the European Union and by visiting Istanbul’s Blue Mosque (for personal reflection and prayer but not, the Vatican quickly added, for “prayer with external manifestations characteristic of the Christian faith”), ended well. Now, the larger program outlined in the pope’s Regensburg speech, his comments on violence and particularly the implications for Islam and other global religious traditions of his narrative about reason in the Christian tradition, is being given calmer attention. We can also take a second look at the troublesome quotation and what it reveals about the pope, ourselves, and what we are to do next. My own area of study is the classic theological traditions of Hinduism, and I am in no way an expert on Islam; but given my concern for matters of interreligious dialogue and learning, I find the issues Benedict has raised compelling.

No matter how often one reads Paleologus (1234-84), the cited passage, which is part of a much longer conversation with an Islamic Persian interlocutor, still dismays the reader. The emperor was not merely accusing Islam of violence but calling into question the legitimacy of the religion itself: “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.” Nothing new and good, he is saying, can be found in the way of life prescribed by Islam. This is, moreover, a case where attention to context does not soften the blow, since the surrounding passage is also aggressive. In the same paragraph, Paleologus claims that by universal consensus, Mohammed’s is the worst among religious laws; anything noble in the law of Islam is not original but goes back at least to Abraham; what is best in Islam is borrowed from Judaism and Christianity.

While few sensible Christians would be so brusque today, the question of the meaning of Islam for Christians is still with us, particularly if (by tradition, habit, or conviction) many Christian leaders avoid speaking of the Qur’an as revelation or of Mohammed as a true prophet. More generally, it remains something of an ecclesial mantra for the magisterium to echo Paul VI’s rather vague 1963 judgment on the “gaps, insufficiencies, and errors” apparent in other religions. Dialogue is difficult, and while the Catholic Church is genuinely a leader in fostering it, we have also at times made it harder to carry through. We do well, therefore, to ponder how Benedict’s brusque style and stern theology, however necessary in their own way, trouble those who still hope for something more from the encounter with other faiths.

As for style, Benedict has tended to brusqueness not only in the older documents mentioned above but even as pope. In his justly praised 2005 encyclical, Deus caritas est, he is rather sweeping in his characterization of pagan religions, offering his criticisms without any helpful footnotes. While explaining Christian eros, he proposes “a rapid overview of the concept of eros past and present,” summarizing and, to some extent, depreciating the Greek view of eros, a judgment supported by several phrases from Virgil’s complex Tenth Eclogue: “Omnia vincit amor” (love conquers all) and “et nos cedamus amori” (let us, too, yield to love). Greek and Roman ideas about eros appear merely a foil to the excellence of the more complete Christian understanding. But Benedict then makes an even harsher judgment on “the pre-Christian world,” possibly meaning the ancient Near East. “The religions,” he tells us, are guilty of a “‘sacred’ prostitution” wherein eros is “celebrated as divine power, as fellowship with the divine nature.” The pagan reverence for goddesses is a cover for sexual excess, and their so-called ecstasies are nothing but “the degradation of man.” Providentially, the biblical tradition is implacably against such tendencies: the “Old Testament firmly opposed this form of religion, which represents a powerful temptation against monotheistic faith, combating it as a perversion of religiosity.” With remarkable candor, Benedict describes the Old Testament as taking up arms against pagan views when it “declared war on a warped and destructive form of [eros], because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it.”

Experts on Canaanite and neighboring religions are nowadays considerably more circumspect in judging religions about which our knowledge is only very fragmentary. The Hebrew Bible does indeed speak harshly of those religions, but the prophetic polemic behind such condemnations is an insufficient basis for any fair and full understanding of ancient religions, their practices, and their attitudes toward gender. While Benedict is making a truly positive and valuable point about Christian eros, was it really necessary to judge the old religions (and perhaps their modern counterparts) so harshly?

The pope perhaps considers brusqueness a virtue; plain truths must be stated plainly. He admitted that Emperor Paleologus’s words are “astounding” and of “startling brusqueness,” but the Regensburg speech did nothing to explain why this scholarly theology professor included so offensive a quote when all the world was listening. (The revised version of the speech is a bit clearer: Paleologus’s “startling brusqueness” is now “a brusqueness that we find unacceptable.”) Even when outrage greeted the speech, the immediate conciliatory statements had mostly to do with how people received the comments, not about a miscalculation in citing Paleologus at all. As Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, said, the pope used the quote “in an academic context” when offering “certain reflections on the theme of the relationship between religion and violence in general, and to conclude with a clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come.”

That Benedict’s personal intellectual style might arouse indignation should not have been unexpected in Rome. During Cardinal Ratzinger’s tenure, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) was not unaware of how brusque its pronouncements have on occasion appeared to people outside the Vatican walls. In a 2001 clarification of the notification on the theology of Jacques Dupuis, SJ, the CDF defended the seemingly chill harshness of its customary notification style: “With regard to the ‘tone’ of the notification, it must be noted that it is not a lengthy or complex document, but simply a series of brief declarative statements. This form of communication is not a sign of authoritarianism or unjustified harshness, but is rather characteristic of the literary genre of magisterial pronouncements whose aim is to set out precise points of doctrine, to censure errors or ambiguities, and to indicate the degree of assent that is required of the faithful.”

Within the church, few could respond to this clarification. Moreover, it often requires great subtlety to distinguish the exercise of authority from authoritarianism, and “harshness” from “justified harshness.” In any case, the widespread Muslim displeasure with Benedict’s brusque words at Regensburg was neither surprising nor unjustified, regardless of the larger, valuable point underlying the speech as a whole.

We must also continue to think about what kind of dialogue this pope welcomes. Though committed to speaking without an undue concern for the feelings of his listeners that would soften hard truths, Benedict does not rule out dialogue entirely-“a dialogue of cultures,” as the revised Regensburg speech puts it. Indeed, particularly since becoming pope, he has issued a number of statements emphasizing dialogue’s importance. In a September 25 statement to ambassadors from Islamic countries following the Regensburg uproar, Benedict reiterated John Paul II’s emphasis on dialogue: “Interreligious and intercultural dialogue is a necessity for building together this world of peace and fraternity ardently desired by all people of good will.” Muslims and Christians must cooperate: “faithful to the teachings of their own religious traditions, Christians and Muslims must learn to work together, as indeed they already do in many common undertakings, in order to guard against all forms of intolerance and to oppose all manifestations of violence.” Similarly, Benedict’s message commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the 1986 interreligious gathering at Assisi emphasized the value of gathering together for prayer, albeit separate prayers: “Among the features of the 1986 meeting, it should be stressed that this value of prayer in building peace was testified to by the representatives of different religious traditions, and this did not happen at a distance but in the context of a meeting. Consequently, the people of diverse religions who were praying could show through the language of witness that prayer does not divide but unites and is a decisive element for an effective pedagogy of peace, hinged on friendship, reciprocal acceptance, and dialogue between people of different cultures and religions.” In Turkey, he reemphasized this point by harking back to his statement to the ambassadors from Islamic countries: “As I have recently observed, ‘we are in great need of an authentic dialogue between religions and between cultures, capable of assisting us, in a spirit of fruitful cooperation, to overcome all the tensions together.’ This dialogue must enable different religions to come to know one another better and to respect one another, in order to work for the fulfillment of man’s noblest aspirations, in search of God and in search of happiness.”

Yet how this prayerful dialogue is to occur is not clear if we reflect on it in light of the sharper positions enunciated in Dominus Iesus. That 2000 CDF declaration argued for the centrality of Christ and his salvific action, interpreted in integral relationship to the full set of church teachings on God, salvation, faith, ritual, and the role of the church itself. While defending a place for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, Dominus Iesus insists that no element of the integral Christian faith can be sacrificed merely in order to treat religions as equal. Faith, revelation, grace, and even efficacious ritual are present outside the church only in defective ways. Take, for example, the teaching on prayer: “Indeed, some prayers and rituals of the other religions may assume a role of preparation for the gospel, in that they are occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God.” These prudent words give way to a rather more severe caution: “One cannot attribute to these, however, a divine origin or an ex opere operato salvific efficacy, which is proper to the Christian sacraments.” But a still sharper edge surfaces in the next sentence, as biblical authority is enlisted: “Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that other rituals, insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors (see 1 Corinthians 10:20-21) constitute an obstacle to salvation.” What does St. Paul say in 1 Corinthians 10? “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.” Therefore, Paul concludes, “You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”

Paul’s words astound us, particularly if applied to interreligious matters today. Citing 1 Corinthians in Dominus Iesus suggests an irremediable opposition between Christian and non-Christian prayer and ritual. It is easy to take the citation of 1 Corinthians as at least brusque, like the Paleologus citation; a legitimate theological concern is raised in a way that is likely to upset people who hope that the Vatican is truly serious about interreligious dialogue and its implications. Nor are our hopes raised when Dominus Iesus offers stark ground rules for dialogue: “Equality, which is a presupposition of interreligious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ-who is God himself made man-in relation to the founders of the other religions.”

Similarly, in the twentieth-anniversary Assisi document cited above, Benedict approvingly cites John Paul II’s strictures: “The fact that we have come here,” John Paul said, “does not imply any intention of seeking a religious consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions. Neither does it mean that religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project which would surpass them all. Nor is it a concession to relativism in religious beliefs.” Benedict affirms this to be the mode of dialogue intended by Nostra aetate: dialogue is sincere and positive, but it is not seeking consensus, not negotiating our core convictions, not believing that religions can be reconciled for some larger human goal, and not a concession to relativism. The truly positive statements Benedict makes about dialogue simply cannot be read without also recalling these stern assertions about the founders, beliefs, prayers, and rituals of other religions, and stern judgments about dialogue as good people, even good Catholics, attempt it in a less than perfect world.

So we-all of us, not just the pope-are in a bind. Reason matters; religious tradition, authority, and doctrine all matter very much; professorial brusqueness is admirable in certain academic cultures; the centrality of Jesus is nonnegotiable for all Christians. But it also matters-it cannot not matter-that dialogue means little unless we are people able to listen and learn within an ongoing conversation that is both intellectual and spiritual, deeper and loftier than the modern tendency to divide faith from reason, or theologies about religions from interreligious learning. A lived commitment to our faith and to sharing it with those who would likewise open their faith to us is required if we are to move beyond the impasse now symbolized by Paleologus’s condemnations, a polemic that is remembered by just one participant in the argument, even if couched as a dialogue. (I say this after reading the one conversation edited and translated by Théodore Khoury. A full reading of all twenty-six conversations might well soften this judgment.)

But my benign words too are, by themselves, no better than brusque ones. The theologian venturing to speak about religions today must know what she or he is talking about, live a life dedicated to this learning, and be vulnerable in the dialogue that should ensue whether we speak in public or academic settings. Our obligation to the church is, in an important and not entirely symmetrical way, balanced by our commitment to the traditions we study. We must be chastened by real regret when our words fall short, failing to gain at least minimal respect from learned practitioners in traditions of which we speak. Ending interreligious violence, learning to understand as God understands, is not simply a matter of relentless logic or amiable words on formal occasions. What is needed more urgently is a Gandhian satyagraha, an intentional and humble opening of hands and heart to the gifts of another tradition. Over time, we have to learn to be persons who notice things that logic and respect for doctrine still have not brought into focus.

Dialogue requires practice, patience, and perseverance, and I am sure that were I an administrator, I would have almost no time for the kind of dialogue I have in mind. But as a theologian who studies the religious traditions of India, I have the good fortune to be able to spend much of my time studying Hindu texts, a study that in some ways is a sapiential reading (or lectio divina) that keeps changing, deepening me. I imagine that, were I a scholar of Islam, I would dedicate myself to reading from the holy Qur’an in Arabic each morning and evening, allowing that potent voice to transform the rhythms of my Christian knowing and praying. If it is true that we become what we read, those of us attempting such study become Catholics deeply affected by what we have learned, and such is the gift we bring to the church, ready or not. I know that I am demanding a lot from myself and fellow Catholics when I suggest that the pope’s legitimate concern for enduring truths will be life-giving only when also related to a mature interreligious learning that is necessarily more open-ended, unpredicted even by the best theology-but I do not at the moment see a better way to make sense of the situation we are in.

I would say exactly the same to friends in other religions, hoping to find some who can listen-resistance to dialogue is no special preserve of Roman Catholics! Our way forward, within each religious tradition and between traditions, requires that we promote deeper learning about religions other than our own. It is reasonable that we do so. Religious leaders who are also spiritual leaders need to make sure that at least some members of their tradition become deeply versed in the scriptures, theologies, and practices of other religions. It is a privilege to speak to people of faith who know their own religion; it is still more fruitful to speak to people who know their own religion and know my religion as well. An essential dimension of a Christian-Muslim dialogue, for instance, will be the dialogue of Christians who have deeply studied the Qur’an in Arabic with Muslims who have deeply studied the Bible in Hebrew and Greek. At that point, we earn the privilege of saying what we think, however brusquely, in a conversation where we are also committed to listening.

At Benedict’s providential prodding, we may now be unexpectedly closer to a dialogue of cultures in the church, understanding who we are as Catholics in relation to our neighbors of many faith traditions all around us in today’s ever smaller world. The spirit of this new moment in church and world is best captured by Benedict’s gentler words to Turkey’s president of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, when he called for a dialogue “based on truth and inspired by a sincere wish to know one another better, respecting differences and recognizing what we have in common. This will lead to an authentic respect for the responsible choices that each person makes, especially those pertaining to fundamental values and to personal religious convictions.”

Published in the 2007-01-12 issue: 

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, is the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, and director emeritus of the Center for the Study of World Religions.

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