The controversy over Benedict XVI’s lecture at the University of Regensburg is not just about the status of truth in Islam. Rather at issue is the nature of a university. What happens there? The notion of state ministers and legislatures entering into this issue by their political methods, threatening this or that because of what is argued in a university, is itself a failure to grasp what a university is, let alone what a state is. Even worse are threats of violence about an academic discussion of whether violence is in fact reasonable! The proper forum in which to answer the later question is the academic forum. This is what the Pope repeated in the Angelus on September 17.
To understand this issue, we should first underscore the venue of this lecture. A Pope visits his Bavarian homeland for the first time since elected to office. He is himself a German. Likewise, he is, and this is the main point, a former professor in the University of Regensburg invited in his professorial capacity to do what academics do, or should do. There is also a crisis in most modern universities on this score at which this address is also indirectly aimed.
Benedict is not there to give a homily. He does not issue an encyclical. He is not making a dogmatic statement. He is giving a formal, academic lecture in a university convocation in which one is free and must be free to do what one does in universities — namely, to state the truth and make arguments for it. The listeners who are there belong to a culture that understands this. Unless society has a place and a space in which this specific activity can happen, the very basis of the human intellectual enterprise is undermined, yes, denied.
The Pope himself makes this point humorously by recalling the story of his early 1959 professorship at the University of Bonn. On seeing two separate theological faculties there, one Protestant and one Catholic, a skeptical profession quipped, “This is odd, two faculties devoted to nothing — God.” They did not propose to lynch the skeptic Bonn professor for either his wit or his own “theology.” He was a colleague. He said his piece. But the Professor Pope remarked that Professor Skeptic still had to face the question of the reasonableness of his own position before those who could argue and dispute with him before the bar of reason. His skepticism is not all that convincing in such a place where one freely attends to the reasons within the whole.
The Regensburg lecture covered the whole spectrum of reason and revelation, world history, the nature of Greek philosophy, the meaning of Europe, of culture, of science. The lecture was extraordinarily erudite and penetrating. It was of the highest intellectual caliber and loftiness of purpose. By choosing to begin with Islam and the nature of jihad, the Pope was really angling around to his main topic, namely, “What is it to be reasonable, be it in theology, science, history, or anyplace else?”
The occasion of his remarks, Benedict tells us, was a book he read. The book itself was of the highest contemporary German scholarship. What it reported was the facts of a conversation that took place seven hundred years ago during the battle that soon led to the final Islamic victory over the Byzantine Empire.
At one level, the question is: “Did this conversation between the Byzantine Emperor and a learned Persian gentleman take place?” “Was the citation of Ibn Hazn about the nature of God accurate?” No doubt can exist on either of these scores. The Pope next says that this same voluntarist philosophy of Ibn Hazn appears in the West, so it is not just an Islamic problem. Usually it is called “Latin Averrorism,” but he refers to Duns Scotus. Actually, Plato knew of the problem. The question is “whether God is subject to Logos (reason)?” Or “has He no nature so that He determines that violence is either good or bad, not in itself, but according to His own unrestricted will or command?”
That this voluntarist thesis is prominent in Islamic philosophy and elsewhere simply cannot be denied. But the Pope is primarily interested in the truth of this position itself no matter who holds it. Can it be “reasonable?” Benedict speaks in an academic context. If one maintains that it is “reasonable,” whatever that might mean, he should be free to present his arguments in this forum, but nothing more.
Likewise, the arguments themselves if presented can be freely examined and responded to in reason. It is this issue that the Pope was addressing to Islam. In a free forum, defend or reject intellectually this proposition that “violence is reasonable.” But do not just go ahead and practice it while attacking or trying to reduce to silence those who think it untenable and who give reasons why they so think. But if it is untenable, then, acknowledge it and, outside the university, join those who seek to prevent the aggression by those who think it not.
This clarification is what a university is about. It is the first and only place where an issue’s truth can be faced as such. No other forum can do this, certainly not the political one. But the space of the university must be free. One cannot threaten to kill or vituperate an opinion that is stated and urged reasonably. One can only seek to answer it in a way that allows reason as the criterion. Do universities in this sense exist only in the West?
This is the import of Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg when he spoke about the Logos and revelation. Some have said that Benedict “confused” his role of pope and his role as professor. The opposite is true from the text itself. His point is that reason is itself included in this faith and there are times, as here, when the question is reason.