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Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things reacts to the controversy over Pope Benedict’s speech on Islam.

Monday, September 18, 2006
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HH: The story of the week, and indeed the story of the last four days has been the remarkable speech of Benedict XVI at a German university, widely misunderstood, or intentionally so in the Islamic world, leading to violence, to the death of a nun in Somalia, to riots throughout the Islamic world. Joining me to discuss that speech and its reaction, Father Richard John Neuhaus, founder of First Things Magazine, editor-in-chief of it as well. His blog is also a must read. Father Neuhaus, good to have you on again.

RJN: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

HH: Can you for the audience that has not sat down to read it…I have, I know you have. Explain what the Pope was saying in summary fashion for us, Father Neuhaus.

RJN: Ooh. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, is a man of great intellectual sophistication. And he’s making an argument of many parts, but briefly, it’s this, that to act against reason is to act against the nature of God, that religion, and particularly, Christianity, presents itself on the basis of reasonable truth claims that are to be engaged, and to be presented as persuasively as possible in a reasonable manner. His lecture at the Regensburg University was directed chiefly against ideological secularists on the one hand, who want to radically divide faith and reason, and directed against Christian thinkers who want to assert a kind of pure Biblical Christianity against the great achievement, which is the synthesis of Greek philosophy, and revealed truth. So those were the primary audiences. Along the way, and this is what got all the news attention, he asked the question whether there is not a fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam, precisely on this point, whether Islam’s understanding of God is a God who is disengaged from what we mean by reason, a God who is radically sovereign, radically transcendent, and who’s will is exactly what he declares His will to be, no matter how arbitrary or capricious, that Allah could even command that you worship idols, and you would be obliged to worship idols. So he is asking the question whether there is not a difference, and is it an insurmountable difference between the Christian understanding that, as the first verse of the prologue to the Gospel of John says, in the Greek, In the beginning was the Logos. In the beginning was the Word, and Logos means also reason. And therefore, there can be no place in religion, in authentic religion, Christian, Islamic or other, for the use of violence. That was the question he was posing. And of course, unfortunately, the response, the reaction of much of the Islamic world, simply confirmed the worst of the possible answers to that question, namely you say we’re violent, and we’ll kill you for saying we’re violent. And this, I think, means that this statement in Regensburg will, in retrospect, be looked back upon as a benchmark in which, certainly in the most important statement by a world figure since 9/11, with regard to what may be the biggest single question facing Western civilization in the next century. And it turns out to be, finally, a theological and philosophical question about the nature of God.

HH: Now Father Neuhaus, who I’m speaking with, editor of First Things Magazine, do you believe that the Pope may have intended via the quotation of the 14th Century Byzantine emperor, to draw forth not the violence, but the sort of heated reaction that would underscore the point? He does not strike me as an accidental man.

RJN: No, I would agree with you. I am…we have a lot of statements by people in the news media, and even some midling officials in the Vatican saying well, we’ll have to check more carefully what the Pope says in public. This is terribly patronizing and condescending to a man of…who I know personally, and have had many, many conversations with over the years, who is a stellar intellectual, and very careful about his words. I think the allusion in the opening to the 14th Century discussion of these questions was a way of underscoring that these questions have been with us for a very, very long time, for centuries. But now, they’re coming to a head in terms of what Sam Huntington calls the clash of civilizations, and the geopolitical consequences of that.

HH: Now you at your entry at First Things blog, of which I’ve linked to at Hughhewitt.com, cite a book from Yale University Press, Knowing The Enemy. Earlier today, I was pushing again the Looming Tower: Al Qaeda And The Path To 9/11 by New Yorker reporter and writer Lawrence Wright. They both make the same point, I think, in terms Americans are not yet familiar with, that the Salafist theology of the fringe of Islam in fact wants this sort of violence, demands it.

RJN: No, you’re exactly right, and I think the proper word for their ideology, and it is that, religiously inspired ideology, the proper word is jihadism, namely the doctrine that it is the obligation of Muslims to, by any means necessary, force the submission of the world to Islam. That’s what we’re facing.

HH: And indeed, that Zawahiri’s interpretation of Koranic demands has been so radical as to reinterpret the very explicit ban on suicide in order to advance jihad. So the question is, Father Neuhaus, what’s the West do about it? Does it not provoke? Or does it attempt to discuss without provoking? Or does it wait for allies to emerge in the Islamic world?

RJN: Well, allies will only emerge in the Islamic world if they emerge from authentic Islamic belief. That is, it is an enormous mistake, a potentially catastrophic mistake for us to expect Islam, Muslims, to abandon Islam in favor of secularism. An awful lot of our media and our chattering class takes this position. Just give them time, and through economic and other changes, they will realize that Islam is a bundle of destructive superstition, and they will become good liberals like us. This, I think, is utter nonsense. What we have to hope for, and cultivate, and seek out possibilities of dialogue with Muslims who are authentically faithful to the Muslim tradition. And there are such Muslims, and there have been historically. But they are now under seige, indeed under threat of their very lives, under the pressure of the jihadists. And so this is a battle…it’s not something that’ll be settled by us. It’s very important for us to understand these differences, because if we don’t understand these differences, and we aren’t candid about them, we’re not going to be able to address them intelligently. But finally, the answer to the question posed by Pope Benedict in Regensburg has to come from within Islam.

HH: Now a year ago, Father Neuhaus, on this program, Father Joseph Fessio, who will be my guest tomorrow, from Ave Maria University, recounted conversations that the Pope held with his longtime students a Summer ago, in which it was reported there were doubts about, well, the reformation ability, I’ll call it, of Islam. Do you share those doubts? I mean, Father Fessio later said perhaps he had misunderstood the Pope. That was a politic thing to do.

RJN: Yeah, Father Fessio got into a little bit of an embarrassing spot there, because he wasn’t supposed to talk about what had happened in those meetings. But no, I think this is a question, and Benedict has addressed this, and I should say that Regensburg is not the first time he’s addressed these questions. You can go back over the last 25, 30 years, and he has written extensively on these questions. He does raise the very, very real concern, whether there is within Islam, a capacity for what Catholics call the development of doctrine under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, whether there is within Islam, an understanding of God’s participation in, and our participation in a common reason, a common Logos. And again, it all comes back to Logos, the Word.

HH: And with a minute left, Father, did the Pope blink in his statements?

RJN: No, I don’t think so. He did not apologize. He expressed regret that his statements were so misunderstood, and regretted the violent reaction. But this is not a man who’s going to retract an argument that he has been making for years, that is totally part of the Catholic tradition, and that has the additional merit of being true.

HH: Father Richard John Neuhaus, thank you, from First Things. And I will link to your comments, which I think are invaluable. People should go and read the entire analysis.

End of interview.

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