On Tuesday, September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI gave an address to representatives of science from Bavaria at the University of Regensburg, Germany entitled Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections. His 4,000-word address dealt with the very theme of this blog – the relationship between faith and reason, particularly from the perspective of Greek philosophy. As such, the address stands as one of the clearest elucidations of this subject in modern times. His words continue to inspire me as I write this blog.
The Regensburg address of Pope Benedict also caused much controversy, as the truth always does, stirring up protests and violence throughout the world. Many modern commentaries focus on this controversy, completely missing the entire point of his lecture. In honor of Pope Benedict and in light of his recent passing on December 31, 2022, I thought it would be an appropriate time to discuss his Regensburg Address, its controversy, and his take on faith and reason.
The Controversy of the Regensburg Address
The very first part of the address where he juxtaposed reason with violence was the most controversial. The truth of the Faith must be spread through reason, and not at the point of the sword. To illustrate his point, Benedict quoted from a rather obscure work by Professor Theodore Khoury, a 20th century Catholic theologian and historian of Christianity and Islam, containing a dialogue that occurred around 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara. According to Benedict, this dialogue occurred between:
…the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.1 It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402.
Benedict used a point in the dialogue that he considered “marginal” in the context of the larger conversation as a “starting point” for his reflection on the issue of faith and reason. This marginal point from an obscure historical reference created a firestorm around the world after he said it:
But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels,” he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “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.”2
It was that last quote that created all of the controversy in the Pope Benedict Regensburg Address. Many Muslims throughout the world were deeply offended at Benedict’s statement. As a result, five churches in the West Bank and Gaza were attacked.3 Two Christians were stabbed and killed in Baghdad and an Orthodox priest was decapitated in Mosul.4,5 Sister Leonella Sgorbati, a 65-year-old Italian nun working in the city of Mogadishu, was shot to death by two Somali gunmen.6
A Pakistani militant Islamic group issued a fatwa calling for Pope Benedict’s death over this Regensburg controversy.7 Several Islamic organizations issued the following joint statement:
We will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose the jizya tax, then the only thing acceptable is a conversion [to Islam] or [being killed by] the sword…God enable us to slit their throats….8
These reactions were the result of certain Muslims taking deep offense at Benedict’s insinuation that Islam is a violent religion. Even though these despicable acts were carried out by and extreme minority in the Islamic community, it is nevertheless unnerving, to say the least.
The Genius of the Regensburg’s Address
Pope Benedict entire point in using that quotation in Regensburg Address was simply to juxtapose the use of reason instead of violence to spread the truth, especially of the Christian Gospel. This whole episode reminds me of the 1972 movie Deliverance, directed by John Boorman. Deliverance is one of the best movies ever made about backwoods survival in the face of adversity. But unfortunately, the male rape scene was so vivid that it eclipsed the rest of the movie. When discussing the movie, most people don’t mention the excellent acting and directing, beautiful cinematography, suspense, or deeper meanings and symbolism of the storyline. Rather, all they seem to remember is that one scene. Just the same, when the Regensburg Address comes up, people only seem to remember the controversy of the statements about Islam.
The Wikipedia page entitled “Regensburg Lecture” is devoted exclusively to the controversy and says virtually nothing about the content Benedict discussed in the rest of the address.
But if we take a step back, we can see the address for its brilliant insights and erudition, not only on the topic of faith and reason, but on how the decoupling of these is responsible for the maladies we see today in the world. Benedict also paints a vision for how the relationship between faith and reason can be reestablished. Father James Schall, who wrote a commentary on the Regensburg Address entitled The Regensburg Lecture (featured below), states that Benedict’s address is as timeless as Cicero’s Pro Archia, Pericles’ “Funeral Oration,” Plato’s Apology, Lincoln at Gettysburg, and Solzhenitsyn’s speech at Harvard. He states the following:
Academic words are primarily to enlighten us, to take our minds to the heart of what is. This enlightenment is the purpose of Regensburg. It is what has been lacking in our understanding of where we are.– Father James Schall
Marc D. Guerra, Ph.D., Professor of Theology, states the following about the Pope Benedict Regensburg address:
Looking back, Pope Benedict’s penetrating diagnosis of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual pathologies that are spawned by our late modern flights from reason—whether these are born out of religious voluntarism or scientific reductionism or cultural perspectivalism or, increasingly, religiously motivated humanitarianism—is, in many ways, more relevant today than it was a mere ten years ago. Truth be told, the Church and the West still have much to learn from the Regensburg Lecture.9
Reason Versus the Sword
After uttering the controversial quote (in red) above, Benedict tells us that the Byzantine Emperor went on to explain why spreading the faith through violence is unreasonable and incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. In the story, the emperor states the following:
God is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats…. To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death….10
Benedict says that the reason he told the story of the conversation between the emperor and the educated Persian was to use the quote above, because Benedict says that the quote shows “the theme of his later reflections.” This is important because it is the starting point for the rest of his conversation, which is mostly about how important reason is for society to work well.
Really then, the essence of Pope Benedict argument is the following from his Regensburg address:
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.
This statement contrasted with the one above (in red) really forms the foundation of Benedict’s arguments in his lecture. Unfortunately, those who emotionally reacted to this address missed beauty and depth of what Benedict was trying to say. And this is in no way a question of intelligence, but really one of outlook. There were some high-level individuals at the time such as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (later to be Pope Francis) and President Chirac of France who failed to understand the point of Benedict’s Regensburg Address. They completely missed the boat. Conversely, there were many common and ordinary people, like myself, who could actually understand and be enlightened by what Benedict had to say about faith and reason.
The question of spreading the faith, then, is really not so much a question of pragmatism, but one of theology. What is the nature of God? If we can answer that question, then we will understand the pragmatics of proselytizing. Is it a matter of force or of reason, the sword or the keyboard?
His next statement in the address makes this clear:
The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.11
If God is absolutely transcendent and in no way immanent, then it would be impossible to understand the truth of His nature. He would be like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover in that there would be no way for Him to bridge the gap between Himself and the creation. As such, it is even paradoxical, or really even contradictory, that one could have a revelation from Him whether that be a book or a prophet, since there would be no way for Him to communicate that truth.
The Christian God, on the other hand, is both transcendent and immanent, thus being at the same time apart from His creation as well as immanently involved with it, thus providing a category for revelation. I like to say that revelation is the interface between God’s transcendence and His immanence.
Once we establish this, the next point logically follows:
At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?
In other words, when we say reasonableness is in line with God’s nature, is this just “Greek philosophy” or a timeless, eternal truth?. Answering this question will help us understand faith and reason. Can they be harmonized?, and if so, what binds these two together in absolute harmony while preserving their distinctness??
As we ponder this, let us reflect on the brilliance of Benedict’s line of reasoning in this address. How we answer this question determines how we structure our lives and our societies.
The Centrality of Logos
Fortunately, according to Benedict at Regensburg, faith and reason can be harmonized:
I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.
Benedict finds that harmony in the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John:
Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: “In the beginning was the λόγος.” This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word — a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.
Logos is the embodiment of reason for it is reason itself. We don’t have a word in English that even comes close to capturing the depth of what this idea means. “Word,” as it is translated in English, is a very poor approximation, but the best that we have. Logos is reason, but the deeper question is not what is logos, but who is logos?
John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist.
Logos is not just a concept, but a person. It is God Himself. Benedict says Logos, as reason, brings into focus and synthesizes all the seemingly disparate elements of biblical faith. It reminds me of visiting the Football Hall of Fame. One could say that the Football Hall of Fame is the “logos” of professional football.
The word logos has its origin in Greek philosophy. By using the Greek term “logos,” John was, in essence, baptizing Greek philosophy and recruiting it for use in Christianity.
If you would like more information on the concept of logos, please see post 38 entitled “St. John Declares that Jesus Christ is the Eternal Logos – Creator of the Universe.” I also have a series of eight posts, starting with post 32, dedicated to how the Greek concept of logos eventually became the Logos of Christianity.
Finally, Benedict uses a verse from the book of the Acts of the Apostles to reinforce his point:
The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (cf. Acts 16:6-10) — this vision can be interpreted as a “distillation” of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.
St. Paul’s vision is a metaphor for the necessary harmony between faith and reason. Philosophy cries out to faith for help, even though faith and reason reinforce and depend on each other. This is why Benedict uses the word “inquiry” here instead of “thought” or “philosophy.” Greek philosophy was the pinnacle of human reasoning in the way it asked the profound questions about life and existence. All cultures ask such questions, but it was Greeks who asked them in the most articulate and penetratingly comprehensive manner. As such, Biblical faith and Greek inquiry fit together like lock and key. In this sense, revelation is superior to philosophy because it answers the questions that philosophy asks. This is why the medieval thinkers deemed theology the queen of the sciences and philosophy the handmaid of theology.
The Convergence of Hebrew Revelation and Greek Philosophy
Benedict then stated that this rapprochement between faith and reason had been going on for some time prior to the Greeks.
The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and simply asserts being, “I AM,” already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates’ attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy.
Benedict suddenly rewinds 1,000 years from the ancient Greeks to the time of Moses and the burning bush. Modern scholars would call the appearance of God in the burning bush a myth, but Benedict states that that story represents a challenge to the notion of a myth, much like Socrates attempted to vanquish myth in ancient Athens.12
God revealing Himself to Moses as the great “I AM,” Lord of heaven and earth, contrasted starkly with the false gods of the heathen nations made of wood and stone. This revelation, Benedict says, came to maturity during the Post-Exilic Hellenistic period. Despite the persecutions of the Jews by the Seleucids, overall the interaction between the Jews and Greeks was positive.
Biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature.
Most likely, in this part of the Regensburg Address, Benedict had in mind the Book of Wisdom, also called the Wisdom of Solomon, contained within the Catholic Bible. This is a Jewish book composed in Alexandria, Egypt and was written in the Greek language instead of Hebrew, the native language of the Jewish people. It contained a blend of Jewish and Greek ideas, marking of advancement of Jewish writings. This suggests that the Jewish author was well-versed in Hellenistic ideas.
Another major step forward, according to Benedict, was the creation of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, what today we call the Old Testament. Benedict stated:
Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria — the Septuagint — is more than a simple (and in that sense really less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity.13
The Birth of European Western Civilization
Benedict brings this section of his address to a close as he discusses how the convergence of Greek and Jewish thought formed the basis of Western Civilization. He ties all of this back to the Byzantine emperor who stated that to act “with logos,” σὺν λόγω, is to act in accordance with God’s nature. Benedict would add that this is because God is the Logos, tying together faith and reason.
A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act “with logos” is contrary to God’s nature.
The marriage of these two created what we previously knew as European Western Civilization.
This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history — it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe.
This was centered, at the time, within the Roman Empire:
We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.
In the Apostle John’s first Epistle, John refers to the Word of God as “God’s seed.”14The Greek word for this is transliterated “sperma.” In this sense, I like to look at the birth of Western Civilization as the sperma of the Word of God fertilizing the ovum of Greek thought within the womb of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire provided the physical structure and stability, while the Greeks contributed the intellectual DNA which was quickened to life through the Spirit of the Word.
The Unreasonableness of the Modern Nation-State
Today, the threat of “not acting with logos,” or unreasonableness, comes not from Islam but from the modern nation-state that reigns supreme in all things. No medieval monarch or caliph could even dream of having such overarching and intrusive power as the technocrats of the modern nation-state. Rather than holy war, we live in fear of a global war because of the machinations of the military-industrial complex, of which we have already witnessed two in the 20th century alone. And if not world war, then endless regional wars that seek to enrich the bankers and defense contractors while making the nations of the world poorer.
To prevent war diplomacy is no longer an option. Diplomacy is logos – reasonableness in the face of international conflict. Since we are godless, we have no use for logos, but rather rely on violence to accomplish our ends. And this lack of reasonableness manifests itself on a micro level as well. We can no longer reason with the government; rather we are forced to conform or face violence.
Violence and the Loss of Reasonableness
This violence is not necessarily physical violence, at least not yet anyway, but violence against our property and livelihoods as we face being cancelled by our banks and social media, and being fired from our jobs. Try reasoning on points of contention, and you will find, more often than not, no dialogue, but raw emotion. This is a sign that we have lost logos, reasonableness. The holy war we face today does not originate out of Mecca, dealing with issues concerning the Koran or Mohammed, but out of cities like Washington, D.C., Ottawa, London, and Canberra, and deals with issues such as abortion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and vaccines. Far more people have died in the wars between the secular nation-states than ever died in any Islamic jihad, not to mention the purging of over 200 million “undesirables” by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.
How did we get here?
In the next post, I will cover Pope Benedict’s explanation in his Regensburg Address of what went wrong between faith and reason, starting with the sundering of the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit.” This has led to all the forms of spiritual and cultural darkness in which we find ourselves today. In the end, he gives us hope as he discusses how we can regain what we have lost, and I wish this had been what people remember of the Pope Benedict Regensburg Address instead of the controversy they chose to focus on.
Threats of enforcement of political correctness, and in some cases, of terrorist attacks increasingly place in jeopardy models of faith and reason housed in the sanctuaries dedicated to the cultivation of these spiritual gifts. Increasingly, professors of the life of reason (and/or of faith) labor in the shadow of threats against their livelihood and sometimes against their very lives. Pope Benedict’s witness manifested what cost might be exacted of those who labor in universities as well as in Christian churches.– Dr. Mary Mumbach, professor at Northeast Catholic College
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From Amazon: “Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Lecture (included in the book) called for freedom of conscience in religious matters and a reasoned debate. Not everyone agreed.” Overshadowed by the violent reaction and rioting throughout the world, the September 12, 2006, lecture by Pope Benedict XVI at Regensburg, Germany, at the University where he once taught, is a multifaceted and brilliant speech that addresses the very nature of man’s understanding of a free conscience, his thirst for knowledge in both reason and revelation, his understanding of the limitations of the will, and the nature of his ability to understand his neighbor.”
- Of the total number of 26 conversations (διάλεξις – Khoury translates this as “controversy”) in the dialogue (“Entretien”), T. Khoury published the 7th “controversy” with footnotes and an extensive introduction on the origin of the text, on the manuscript tradition and on the structure of the dialogue, together with brief summaries of the “controversies” not included in the edition. The Greek text is accompanied by a French translation: “Manuel II Paléologue, Entretiens avec un Musulman. 7e Controverse”, Sources Chrétiennes n. 115, Paris 1966. In the meantime, Karl Förstel published in Corpus Islamico-Christianum (Series Graeca ed. A. T. Khoury and R. Glei) an edition of the text in Greek and German with commentary: “Manuel II. Palaiologus, Dialoge mit einem Muslim”, 3 vols., Würzburg-Altenberge 1993-1996. As early as 1966, E. Trapp had published the Greek text with an introduction as vol. II of Wiener byzantinische Studien. I shall be quoting from Khoury’s edition.
- Controversy VII, 2 c: Khoury, pp. 142-143; Förstel, vol. I, VII. Dialog 1.5, pp. 240-241.
- “Regret But No Apology From Pope”, CBS News, September 154, 2006
- “Second Assyrian Christian Killed in Retaliation for Pope’s Remarks”, Assyrian International News Agency, September 17, 2006.
- “Iraq priest ‘killed over pope speech'”, Aljazeera.net, 12 October 2006
- “Italian nun shot dead by Somali gunmen”, NBC News, September 17, 2006
- Thomas K. Gugler, “Pakistan’s Jihadiscapes and the Transformation of Lashkar-e Tayba”
- Coates, Sam; Haynes, Deborah (17 September 2006). “Al-Qaeda threatens jihad over Pope’s remarks”, The Times, London
- Day, James, “Benedict the Brave: The Regensburg Address Ten Years Later”, The Catholic World Report, September 12, 2006
- Controversy VII, 3 b–c: Khoury, pp. 144-145; Förstel vol. I, VII. Dialog 1.6, pp. 240-243.
- Cf. Khoury, p. 144, n. 1.
- For more information on how Socrates challenged the superstitions of Athens, please see post 4 entitled “Socrates, the Humble Revolutionary.”
- Cf. A. Schenker, “L’Écriture sainte subsiste en plusieurs formes canoniques simultanées”, in L’Interpretazione della Bibbia nella Chiesa. Atti del Simposio promosso dalla Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, Vatican City 2001, pp. 178-186.
- 1 John 3:9
Agbaw-Ebai, Maurice Ashley, Light of Reason, Light of Faith, Joseph Ratzinger and the German Enlightenment, St. Augustine’s Press, 2021
Guerra, Marc D., Liberating Logos: Pope Benedict XVI’s September Speeches, St. Augustine Press; 1st edition (November 30, 2014)
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Western Culture Today and Tomorrow: Addressing Fundamental Issues, Ignatius Press, July 1, 2019
Jaeger, Werner, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia, Harvard University Press, 1961
Schall, Father James V., The Regensburg Lecture, St. Augustine Press; 1st edition (April 30, 2007)