Voices

Missing the pope's point

Westerners failed to grasp Benedict's message almost as badly as Muslims

Issue: "Autumn books," Oct. 7, 2006

Just how shallow is evangelical Christianity these days? One measure may be the virtual silence of any evangelical leader of note concerning the controversial comments of Pope Benedict XVI on Islam and violence.

So, yes, on the one hand, who in his right mind wants to put himself in jeopardy? When the response to the pope's remarks included the gunning down of a nun in Somalia, and the bombing of churches in the West Bank and in Baghdad, what reasonable person would want to join the discussion? When even American editorial writers call the pope's comments "clumsy" and "ill-chosen"-as if he had earned at least a little of what was lobbed back at him-who wants to talk?

But what the pope said was of critical importance. And the fact that his point about Islam was so badly missed and misinterpreted by Muslims around the world may have obscured the fact that Westerners (including most in the news media) also conveniently missed what Benedict had to say about them. Evangelicals should be stepping up with vigorous voices of clarification and support.

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One big difference, of course, is that the Westerners didn't respond with violence. What can you say about a movement that, when it is suggested that violence is too much part of its mindset, responds in protest with still more violence? The pope seemed intent on inviting Islamic leaders to set aside such habits and to join a sort of global town hall discussion to think together about differences.

Quite specifically, he said it is time to ask Muslims to help the rest of the world understand a deity who, whenever he pleases, becomes so transcendent-or "over the top"-that you can do whatever you want in his name. Is the God of Mohammed, the pope probed, "bound to truth and goodness"? Sit down and talk with us about this matter. But if there were Muslims on the invitation list who even caught a hint of what he had so deftly spelled out, the manner of their RSVP was rude beyond all reason. And for the next few days, the pressure was on Benedict to say how sorry he was for his "clumsiness." To his credit, he didn't budge much.

But, as I say, it wasn't only the Muslims who missed the pope's point. For if he called into serious question the traditional Islamic tendency to ignore reason in their pursuit of proper devotion, he had just as profound-and very similar-a challenge for non-Muslims.

Catholic writer George Weigel summarized the pope's point this way a few days ago in the Los Angeles Times: "If the West's high culture keeps playing in the sandbox of postmodern irrationalism-in which there is 'your truth' and 'my truth' but nothing such as 'the truth'-the West will be unable to defend itself. Why? Because the West won't be able to give reasons why its commitments to civility, tolerance, human rights, and the rule of law are worth defending. A Western world stripped of convictions about the truths that make Western civilizations possible cannot make a useful contribution to a genuine dialogue of civilizations, for any such dialogue must be based on a shared understanding that human beings can, however imperfectly, come to know the truth of things."

So the pope spoke sharply and critically about liberal theology (both Protestant and Catholic) and about scientific rationalism, and the manner in which such movements, in their sometimes-wacky postmodern expressions, have become all but irrational. In that sense, he suggested quietly, they're not all that different from the irrational Muslims. So let's agree, he said, with the Apostle John when he says, "In the beginning is the word-or the logos." Let's discuss things as if they really do have meaning.

To my more Protestant way of thinking, I could wish Pope Benedict had put less emphasis on celebrating reason as such, and more on the good fit God has graciously established between reason and the gospel of Jesus. If we all have to be as smart as Benedict XVI to figure things out, this world is doomed for sure. Reason alone won't save us-nor will it get us through our profound differences with Islam.

But Benedict was courageous to say what he did-sounding sometimes, if I may say so, like a Catholic Francis Schaeffer. Nothing I've seen on this topic from any contemporary evangelical leader has come close.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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