September 18, 2006

Benedict creates a stir and the media misses a trick

During all the noise from the usual suspects, the actual point of the Pope’s speech has been missed, just read this extract to get a flavour of our Pontiff’s thoughts:

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. (Source,,1873278,00.html)

What did he mean by this and is he right to argue that it has political consequences?The Pope’s meaning if you unravel it becomes fairly clear. What Benedict was talking about was the fact that in the West there is one way of thinking which everyone considers to be legitimate. That way is scientific. If I say that every apple I have ever seen falls from a tree and therefore that a general law states that apples fall from trees, I can’t be criticised unless it is shown by someone else that they’ve seen an apple flying off from a tree. The Pope doesn’t say that’s wrong. All he wants to do is give other statements the same validity. He wants the data- the fact of the apples falling- to include other kinds of statement, the fact that I have a faith in God, and he argues that the process by which I get from my apples to my law of gravity is the same process by which I get from my faith to a particular understanding of Christianity or Islam or Hinduism.

Benedict elsewhere argues that the narrow, only apples, explanation doesn’t philosophically make sense. But here he makes a further step to argue that this misunderstanding his broken down political dialogue. Too often and here Benedict is seizing upon a reality which this blog means in part to address the words of religious people are interpreted in the vague fog of atheist spirituality- religion for the religious is no life choice and no spiritual fog rather it is the reality they ground their lives upon. To neglect that, to explain away religion in other terms- to offer Muslims a way out of their present condition which involves conversion to a secular or Christian way of thinking is as false as to accept that the way out of our difficulties is to convert atheists to Islam or Christianity. If Benedict means, and in part he does, that we should start arguing with Muslims and Christians in their own terms- start listening to why the vocabulary of a loving God can be used to sanction violence then we may just get somewhere. We patronise if we deign to ignore the thoughts of the religious in accounting for their actions.

There is a further step involved in what Benedict says and that is he is not merely advocating understanding but adoption. He says he wants us to broaden our own concepts of reason in this way, not merely acknowledge the thinking of our fellow citizens. Here however he directs us down into the ghettos that he is so willing to leave himself. As so many commentators have said of Islamic fundamentalists understanding is a two way street. Benedict here seems to be saying though that the only way to argue with the religious is to become religious- to acknowledge this broader reason. That kind of absolutist idea about debate leads down some very dangerous roads, I hope that the Pontiff is aware of that- and that the media becomes aware of it.

The implications of that might be more radical than the idea that the Pope isn’t a Muslim.