Pope says “read my punctuation”

September 16, 2006

Punctuation has apparently found itself in the middle of a clash of religions, even of civilizations. A piece in the Telegraph by Melanie McDonagh observes that “It wasn’t so much that the (Pope’s) remarks got lost in translation from the German – it was the quotation marks”, the implication being that people didn’t notice them. In this case I don’t think you can blame the punctuation. Most of the Muslim reaction I read recognized that the Pope was quoting. What they objected to was that he chose to quote the now infamous words at all and, to compound things, didn’t express any disapproval of them (though even if he had I imagine they would have been almost as annoyed). It would have been easy for the Pope, brainy chap that he is, to follow the quotation with a remark like ‘but we all know that’s a loads of old cobblers’ or the equivalent in mediaeval Latin. So why didn’t he? To answer that you have to wade through large chunks of the Pope’s Byzantine speech.It isn’t, as Ms McDonagh also suggests, that the Pope’s remarks were taken out of context. The problem is, I think, when you take them in context they don’t sound much better.

As far as I understand it the speech was not centrally about Islam but faith and reason. The Pope’s argument was that belief in God is entirely consistent with human reason and the Greek spirit of philosophical inquiry. Plato would have been a Roman Catholic. He concludes by saying “It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.”
So why the quotation? As the Pope said, it was merely a starting point. His point was that the instructions in the Qur’an concerning holy war were regarded by the 14th century Emperor as attempting to justify violent religious conversion. Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. Violence is failing to act with reason. Therefore violent conversion is incompatible with the nature of God. The Pope then quotes another source to the effect that “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.” In other words, for the Muslim irrationality and, by implication, violence are not incompatible with the nature of God. Again a quote but again, no disagreement expressed. The remaining three quarters of the address are devoted to exploring in greater depth the Greek concept of reasonableness and the Catholic faith.
Ms McDonagh concludes “It looks, from this miserable episode, as if you can only have a conversation that deals – however remotely – with Islam on Muslim terms. Not much of a dialogue, then.” I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. If you are inviting someone to have a reasonable dialogue, is it wise to start off by saying ‘According to some very wise people, you’re a violent, unreasonable lot.’? It looks to me as if a dialogue on the Pope’s terms might be a little one-sided, too. I wonder how he would react to the suggestion that Christianity itself has a long history of coercing people to follow the faith. And that rational Christianity owes quite a lot to the influence of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes and Avicenna. Rather than appearing to identify the Muslim religion with unreason and violence, I would have thought it more effective to remind Muslims of the words in the Koran and elsewhere which are reasonable and non-violent. I’m naive enough to think that all religions have words of non-violence in them. That wouldn’t have stopped a lot of unreasonable Muslims jumping up and down but I can’t imagine the Pope wanted to invite them to a cup of tea and a reasonable dialogue. The problem is not the inverted commas but the inverted reasons.

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