16 September 2006

Is The Pope A Dope?

Although I'm Catholic, I haven't been too impressed by the last couple of Popes, so I've largely chosen to ignore them. Sure, maybe that goes against Church doctrine - or maybe it doesn't, since the concept of Papal infallibility was invented by - guess who? - a Pope - but just as I'm not going to stop being American because we get the occasional lousy President, I'm not going to let a doofy Pope drive me away from my religion.

That being said, what in hell is the Pope up to with his "let's rile up the Muslims" remark? Even accepting that there's some truth to it - no reputable historian would deny that Islam was imposed on many countries by military conquest, but then quite a few "Christian" countries were made that way by imperial fiat as well - it seems at best impolitic of him to bring it up at a time when millions of Muslims have recently shown themselves ready to resort to murderous violence over a handful of dumb cartoons.

It seems on the surface a bit like the medieval "sport" of bear-baiting: poke a stick into the cage of a creature who's already having a bad time of it just for the amusement of hearing it roar. Is the Pope really that dumb? Or sadistic? Or is he up to something too abstruse or esoteric for us garden-variety pseudo-intellectuals to grasp?

The sentence that's got everyone up in arms - "Show me just what Muhammad 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" - is only a tiny extract from a lengthy and erudite speech (a longer extract is available here and the whole thing here) that seems to revolve around the question of whether the will of God can run counter to reason.

It's fairly heavy going, and does seem to carry a whiff of what one of the Guardian's pet theologians called "Christian triumphalism," particularly when the Pope cites the "profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, between genuine enlightenment and religion . . . between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry" as one of the reasons Christianity has played such a decisive role in European and world history.

But most of the speech is concerned with weightier philosophical matters, which on the surface might sound like little more than a high-faluting version of the old, "Can God make a rock so big he can't lift it?" conundrum, but ultimately go right to the heart of our understanding (or lack thereof) of the interface between divine and human nature. Put as simply as possible, he questions whether irrational actions like burning witches, imposing fatwas on authors or cartoonists, or waging war to compel devotion, could be consonant with the will of any God worth worshipping.

He even brings in Socrates to defend the value of philosophy in the face of a ever-rising tide of bagglegab: "It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being - but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss." Clearly the Pope is no dummy - something I might have previously suspected, but hadn't given much thought to - even if he's lacking in tact and social graces. But then people of his age are - much like children - renowned for dropping the niceties and saying exactly what they think without regard for the consequences.

Apart from all the philosophical and theological ruminations, does the remark which has so many Muslims up in arms amount to anything more than a version of, "Our religion's better than yours"? No, not really, and here's where the hypocrisy sets in: is there a devout Muslim, Jew, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. who doesn't think his or her religion is superior? Why else would they bother having separate religions? Nobody thinks it even slightly remarkable when Muslim leaders or theologians state that Islam is the highest expression of God's will for humankind; why should it be so shocking that a Christian leader feels similarly about his own faith?

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