The Natty Professor

As an undergraduate student of comparative religion, and a Christian, I was often infuriated by the pronouncements of my professors. One, an imminent historian of religion, refused to write the word “Christ,” and instead replaced it with the Greek letter Chi, or X. When I asked him about it, he explained that he got tired of repeatedly writing the word in his lecture handouts, and instead used the Greek shorthand. I noticed, but did not mention, alas, that he had no trouble writing more complicated, longer words, and did not revert to antiquated shorthand for those. Others were less obviously hostile to the notion, or personhood, of Jesus of Nazareth, but were appropriately agnostic for a publicly funded university. They realized many of their students were Christians, or at least observant in whatever faith they held, and tried to walk the hair-wide line between objective discussion and politesse. I will never forget one esteemed doctor, whom I respect, referring to the “Jesus Myth.”

When students groaned, he explained that in comparative religion, “myth” does not hold the same definition that it does in popular parlance. For our purposes, it meant only “unprovable basis for belief,” and not “lie.” But by that time many, including me, were inured to academic doublespeak. We knew what he meant, and we knew where he stood.

For Chapati Mystery readers, the idea that academics speak in their own language will not be news. Nor will it be news that jargon serves the function of informing the initiated, while exposing difficult notions by layer to the laity. That the inability of scholars to speak to normal humans can cause problems will also go without debate. And sadly, the fact that some scholars hold wrongheaded convictions, and are shocked when others are shocked by them, is all too real.

Pope Benedict XVI studied philosophy and theology in the Higher School of Philosophy and Theology of Freising and at the University of Munich. In 1953 he obtained his doctorate in theology. Four years later, under the direction of the renowned professor of fundamental theology Gottlieb Söhngen, he qualified for University teaching. After lecturing on dogmatic and fundamental theology at the Higher School of Philosophy and Theology in Freising, he went on to teach at Bonn, from 1959 to 1963.

During this last year he held the Chair of Dogmatics and history of dogma at the University of Regensburg, where he was also Vice-President of the University. In 1972 together with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and other important theologians, he initiated the theological journal Communion. In 1982, John Paul II named him Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and of the International Theological Commission.

Since 2000 he has been an Honorary Academic of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Among his many publications special mention should be made of his Introduction to Christianity, a compilation of University published in 1968, and Dogma and Preaching in 1973. In 1985 he published The Ratzinger Report. On his 70th birthday the volume At the School of Truth was published, containing articles by several authors on different aspects of his personality and production.

He has received numerous honorary Doctorates: one in 1984 from the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota; one in 1986 from the Catholic University of Lima; another in 1987 from the Catholic University of Eichstätt; yet another in 1988 from the Catholic University of Lublin; another in 1998 from the University of Navarre; one in 1999 from the Libera Università Maria Santissima Assunta of Rome, and finally, in 2000, an honorary Doctorate from the Faculty of Theology of the University of Wroclaw, in Poland.

Where John Paul II was a very well educated actor, priest and politician, his successor is an academic, a bureaucrat, and a partisan. Don’t misunderstand: A Pope should be biased; in addition to ruling in Christ’s stead until He returns, the Pope must also helm a massive bureaucracy that has its fingers in most political pots worldwide—we should not be surprised when a Pope makes a necessarily political pronouncement in religious terms.

But Benedict’s disastrous speech entitled Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization is so tonally misspoken that I suspect Benedict XVI belongs to that last abominable class of academics, for whom vantage and belief have combined to form an effervescent and difficult world-view, anathema to many, that cannot be concealed under the lid of language.

The central irony of this controversy is that the thesis of Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization treats the futility of spreading faith through violence. Indeed, the quote that most infuriates some Muslims is introduced very casually:

In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point — itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself — which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason,” I found interesting and which can serve as the starting point for my reflections on this issue. In the seventh conversation, edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war).

The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion.” It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels,” he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: “Show me just what Mohammed 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.”


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. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.

As far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we find ourselves faced with a dilemma which nowadays challenges us directly. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?

And so, having introduced his topic, Benedict goes on to discuss the relationship between reason and acts of faith; implicit in his argument is the conviction, held by most non-Muslims, and some Muslims for that matter, that Mohammed’s humanity necessarily affects the content of the Quran, and, that like any text, the Quran must be read in context, informed by history. That at one point the Quran teaches peace, and at another, war, is a contradiction that can be resolved by an appeal to the record, or a dismissive supposition that Mohammed made things up as he went along. Guess which one Benedict XVI chose?

Yet the quote regarding Mohammed was used as the attention-snapping introduction. The meat of the speech, laid out with all the rhetoric stiffness of a Freshman Composition paper, takes requisite stabs at Protestantism, as well. Consider:

De-Hellenization first emerges in connection with the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the 16th century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system.

The principle of “sola scriptura,” on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this program forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

The liberal theology of the 19th and 20th centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of de-Hellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this program was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal’s distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Note that the dreaded De-Hellenization (read, departure from reason) doesn’t begin in 5th Century Arabia. It begins with Martin Luther, and remains in the churches of the excommunicated Protestant.

Now, the boot:

For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur — this is the program with which a theology grounded in biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

“Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God,” said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures…

Apparently, at the Vatican, when they say “dialogue,” they mean “war.”

Benedict XVI had several objectives in Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization. First, he offered topical and timely red-meat to his acolytes, the conservative theologians, clergy and laymen. He of the quote, “there is no Salvation beside the Church,” (Capital C), also intended a swipe at Protestantism, which perennially threatens to scoop the Church for converts in the global south.

We must also allow that the speech had, as a purpose, its explicit thesis, which was to open debate on the relationship between faith, reason and one’s choice of belief regarding right-conduct and the Afterlife; however, the “dialogue of cultures,” to which all have been invited necessarily invokes examination of the unreasonableness of Jihadis, and the sadly prominent place that the theology enabling Jihadis holds in many mosques.

As with most institutions in the West, which are now in the nadir of a cycle of reaction and decadence, the Church bureaucracy holds to some untenable positions, like a shipwreck victim to a life preserver. Turning inward, reinforcing supposed fundamentals, quashing dissent, focusing on external threats, real or not, to avoid reform—these are the strategies of fearful Sees and Administrations alike.

In these times, the faithful do not hear calls to reconciliations. They call for ratcheted tension, a raising of arms, a drive onward, to the watershed. Benedict’s audience expected nothing less than what he gave them: a strident reminder that The Holy Father does, indeed, still hold some chauvinism toward the faith he leads.

The enormously influential Ecumenical movement appears not to have had much impact on Benedict XVI’s See. As though it were still 1650, and the world were confined to the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the Pope indicts the reformation as Reason’s killer, because its proponents reduced the authorities to which one might appeal to a text, freezing out, alas, the amalgamated traditions of a millennia, and the office that Benedict XVI now holds.

I might be inclined to agree with His Holiness on this point, because I fear a strictly construed text more than I fear texts and multiple interpolators; yet, I can’t help but note that, while Luther, et. al, may have made small the theological Universe, the reduction they captained came in response to the power of “reason,” run amok.

As above, so below. Bind Heaven, bind Earth. I need some cash for a new Cathedral. Wanna get your cousin out of purgatory? Wanna sin with impunity? Write a check…that syllogism, while valid, and thus reasonable, should disgust any Christian, whether in Communion with Rome, or not. Put aside the supposed sins of the schismatics, and weighed, one must find that the schismatics had a damn good point.

We can assume that Benedict’s words are at least in some part formed from a desire to impart what he sees as wisdom to his flock, and to influence, or frame, the terms of debate in the larger global culture. As such, one might take the speech at face value; reason and faith can work together. The spirit, and the Spirit, must guide mere categorical knowledge and its applications. No person should be forced to believe in a way he does not. Theologies or movements that compel spiritual unanimity among populations can, and should, be argued against.

But the Pope’s quote of an antique text equating Mohammed with unreasonableness, and by implication, with Jihadis, stands only to expose what the gloriously academic language of this piece might have hidden, but for the trumpets of the news media, and the general misbehavior of the Muslim “street.”

The Jihadis are in the lowest level of Paradise here: they have successfully conflated their own political, temporal bullshit with the founder of their faith, which increases the gravity of their claims to legitimacy. So successful have they been at controlling the West’s ability to imagine Islam, they have become one with the Prophet, and his message, and even the Pope himself cannot distinguish between them.

He is compelled when denouncing them—and thinking people anywhere should denounce them—to invoke a medieval insult against the person they themselves defame by their very existence, and in doing so, he has managed to invoke a thousand years of antipathy between the miter and the turban.

Some Catholics nod. He reinforces what they already believe, and what historians and sincere academics cannot tolerate: the merger of people and ideas thousands of years distant, and the reductionist impulse to categorize. Catholics generally are inclined to affirm the Pope, whether or not they agree. As was often said: Roma Locuta, Es Finita.

Protestants and Orthodox believers, if they listen to Rome at all, generally ignore the complaints and edicts of the Vatican, just as they would the corner rocking-chair bitching of an incontinent, elderly relative for whom they had obligatory affinity and unwanted responsibility. The pronouncements of a bureaucracy that seriously believes its executive officer binds the hand of God, and that would also deign to advise the most basic facts of its adherent’s lives, from birth control to arms control, are oddities at best.

For many Muslims, there seems to be no bottom to the rage-bucket, and no depth at which offense will be tolerated. Again, it bears mention that the Pope is not a Muslim, does not claim to speak for Muslims, and would probably like the world better if Muslims came to their senses and converted to Catholicism.

We should not be surprised—and I am constantly surprised that people take offense when others actually believe the exclusive tenets of their faiths—that an academic Pope, especially one who believes the stuff he says, would challenge Islam on theological terms, and begin with a salvo that questions the basic uniqueness of the Prophet’s claims. Clue, folks: Benedict XVI doesn’t think there’s anything special about Islam. He sees Mohammed as a false Prophet. Why get all jacked up when he says so?

It may be rude, but the Pope can say any damn thing he wants about Mohammed. The supposition that a Christian must somehow observe Muslim pieties when referring to, or meet Muslim expectations with regard to the treatment of, Mohammed, or any other Muslim unmentionable, is absurd. We have enough bullshit taboos of our own, thank you, without adopting any others.

Still, without allowing that Islam’s bugbears are universal, we can safely and ecumenically posit that Muslim reaction is partly justified by the Pope’s weak reasoning, mentioned above, that betrays a basic misunderstanding about who modern Jihadis are in relation to Islam, and Mohammed, as historical entities.

To pair Mohammed up with Jihadis is real libel, not just so’s-your-old-man style ranting. It might be tantamount to suggesting something really dangerous to Christianity, something really nasty and horrible, something unthinkable, and worthy of episcopal attention: like, maybe, the icky idea that Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may have liked girls.

Muslim reaction is further justified by the Pope’s smarmy academic delivery. Assuming his friendlies would hear him right, and that those who might disagree would not hear at all, even if they listened, Benedict XVI gave good evidence to those who would argue that the West is engaged in a war of conquest on the browner folks of the world. He challenged an entire culture—his word, not mine—to a theoretical pissing contest. Judging from the burning effigies, the death-threats, and the to-be-expected and oh-so-boring flailing on the great boulevard’s of the Maghreb’s major capitals, his intendeds have accepted. So we are left with a Pontiff who hasn’t learned from history, and a goodly portion of Muslims who refuse to admit that history has ended.

So he apologized. First, in the regal way, where he said he was sorry Muslims were offended. The non-apology apology is so unseaworthy these days, though, that it sunk before it left his gullet. Then the Pope apologized again, but Muslims the world over realize that he doesn’t really know what he’s apologizing for. Benedict XVI actually sees a link between Mohammed and the Jihadis that claim him, and like the intransigent academic he is, he cannot revise his claim without losing face, or giving up rights to the greater thesis—and, the greater thesis, my friends, is not up for discussion. My ancestors learned that the hard way some 350 years ago, and some of yours are still smarting, to all our detriment, on behalf of their ancestors’ experiences with the Church’s Magisterium, some 500 ago. Expect no more ground from the Vatican.

We deal now with an element of the Muslim world, made suddenly serious by its identification with Mohammed, that can only be defeated by pointing at it, calling it on its bullshit, and laughing it out of town. We can thank Benedict XVI for raising it to that status, like the United States mucking up Asian geopolitics by recognizing Taiwan, in addition to China. Some things matter only because we let them, and this is one.

Moderate voices, to the extent that they were ever heard, are diminished further. Professional protestors and malcontents in the Muslim world have no reason to know themselves now, to think or act with the reason that Benedict XVI claims to extol. They have every reason to believe that the point of view they hold is fully justified. They are, after all, on the front lines of the clash of civilizations, and they are the inheritors of Mohammed’s legacy, and the modern equivalent of Saladin’s army, which turned back the Christians, who’d been sent by their Pope. No matter that none of it makes sense. What matters is what we perceive, and that these days perception is as good as reality.

Any good professor would tell you as much.

ps: Send Fatwas c/o Sepoy at

Author: Dale Marlowe

Writer, teacher, lawyer. Ignorance of a topic has never stopped me from holding forth on it at length.

2 thoughts on “The Natty Professor”

  1. I agree with most of what you said that Christians are and should not be expected to respect aspects of Islam. I also agree that the reaction was excessive.

    However, I also believe that a stupider mistake could not have been committed by the Pope.

    Christians and others very well know how Muslim feel about Muhammad. And the events surrounging Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen and Danish Cartoon controversy I believe had made this aspect very clear.

    If you are not a Muslim, obviously you wont believe muhammad to be a prophet. And obviously we know that.

    However, we would not allow you to make fun of Muhammad. We would also not like you making fun of Jesus, Moses or God but then we don’t have a monopoly over them. You will never see Muslims making fun of either of these. But Muhammad is specific to Muslims and when you denigrate him in any way, it becomes personal and test of our faith. Thats why the protests.

    And the Pope knows this. There would have been thousands of ways and quotes to make a point, but the pope searches for one of the most offensive one to make his point.

    And you would need to do much more than this to get your fifteen minutes of fame and get a fatwa against you.

    Cheers and dont be evil.

Comments are closed.