HE SMALL TELEVISION PERCHED HIGH on the wall of my Rome hotel room like a technological gargoyle. Its picture quality further hinted at its antiquity, an effect aided by the thin sound trailing the visual images.
On that small screen I saw the pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI, meeting with Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Turkey and other secular leaders of a country he had once declared incompatible with the Christian values of the European Union. I also watched Pope Benedict meet with various Muslim clerics. I heard him say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God and must work together for the same principles of peace.
I saw him meet with Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I and affirm their steps toward mending the great schism of Eastern and Western churches: “May this meeting,” concluded Benedict, ”strengthen our mutual affection and renew our common commitment to persevere on the journey leading to reconciliation and the peace of our churches.”
The historical background behind these events was the schism that culminated in the anathemas of 1054, by which the bishops of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other and their adherents. It led papal Rome to use one of the crusades to attack Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), then the seat of the Eastern Church.
But history’s wheels seem to be running backward nowadays: In 1964 Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras rescinded the mutual excommunication in an early blush of ecumenism; and before his death in 2005 Pope John Paul II apologized for the sack of Constantinople.
On the local Cable News Network affiliate I heard the Vatican spokesman state his take on the amazing sequence of events: “We have been building bridges for decades,” he said, “and now is the time to cross those bridges.”
Actual and symbolic events crisscross our reality to such a degree that some things do not seem real—even as they happen. Such was a moment toward the end of the pope’s visit to Turkey.
Pope Benedict was touring the Blue Mosque with the grand mufti of Turkey, Mustafa Cagrici, when something quite remarkable took place. When they arrived at the mihrab, the focal point that marks the direction to Mecca, the mufti paused and began to pray. Pope Benedict joined him and prayed with his lips moving, even after the mufti stopped. Turkish TV commentators had no doubts about what happened.
Back in the United States I went to the Internet, looked up the event on “YouTube,” and watched it several times, just to let it sink in. It actually happened! But what did it mean?
The Increase of Papal Influence
When I first began to edit Liberty
magazine, I rediscovered American history and delved into the times that produced the American republic. In particular I enjoyed reading the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—political rivals and inveterate letter-writers until their deaths on the very same day (July 4, 1826).
At one point they prognosticated about the survival of Christianity in the United States. Jefferson was unsure about its prospects. Adams was more confident. However, he felt Christianity could survive only if Romanism faded away—a rather Protestant bigotry to be sure! Then he wrote, “At present it has a mortal wound,” and opined that such was the strength of its error that it might take 200 years to pass away.
His “mortal wound” concept was, of course, a biblical reference, a once deeply held interpretation of Protestantism. This nation was conceived in Protestant culture and norms, though this is not so self-evident today. Adams seemed not to have noticed that those same biblical passages speak of the “healing of the deadly wound” and of a world “wondering after the beast.” Adams was nearly two centuries gone when Pope John Paul II alighted from an airliner and kissed the soil of Protestant America. Had Adams been able to read the headlines of the day, which bannered “The Reformation Is Over,” he surely would have redrawn his timeline.
Of course we have an advantage over Adams. We have seen video images of three U.S. presidents—two past, one present—kneeling in apparent homage before the bier of Pope John Paul II. We have seen an emerging confederacy between politically active Catholic and Protestant forces in the United States. It seems not to have shaken many Adventists to read Chuck Colson’s comments in the national media: “In truth the gulf between Catholics and Protestants, opened by the Reformation, has been bridged.” In fact, it seems just the inevitable cause and effect of the process to read again in recent weeks a renewed call by the Anglican Church hierarchy for full and complete union with Rome.
Maybe it’s because we live in a post-9/11 world, and our focus is more on neutralizing the threat of fanatical fundamentalism, that we fail to be more careful observers of the dynamics of the Catholic Church’s religious posturing. We have bigger things to worry about!
Interpreting the Signs
Of course, more indicative of the Papacy’s worldview than what the pope does is what he says. And a speech given by Pope Benedict, on September 12, 2006, in Regensburg, Germany, had both immediate and potentially long-term effects.
That speech led directly to the pope’s visit to Turkey. But before that it sparked riots all over the Muslim world, as well as in areas where there are significant numbers of Muslim immigrants, because of how he seemed to link religious violence with Islamic fundamentalism. Western commentators simultaneously tut-tutted over the pope’s gaffe and smirked that he had said the unthinkable in linking Islam to religious violence.
Given the furor over the speech one might expect some Catholic embarrassment about it. Not so. An article in Liberty, from an impeccably Catholic source, maintains this was the most significant speech by a Roman pontiff in the twenty-first century. Articles on various Catholic Web sites speak of the challenge Benedict has given all Christians. What’s going on here?
Like most political events nowadays, the speech’s location and timing is worth noting. September 12, 2006, and Regensburg, Germany, suggest a few things beyond the obvious. Regensburg is where Benedict taught theology at the university when it was founded in the 1970s. But Regensburg was also one of the locations of the German Diet when the Holy Roman Empire first struggled with the Reformation. Regensburg was both a center of Protestant fervor and a jumping-off point for the Counter-Reformation. And Benedict’s speech, coming just one day after 9/11 remembrances instantly connected not only with the war on terror but with Protestant America’s easy invocation of a just war in the Middle East.
Reading the text of the actual speech from the Vatican Web site is the best way to understand what the Pope really said in Regensburg (www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=46474
). (Incidentally, after the riots, the burned effigies of the pope, and lots of hate speech, the majority of those offended admitted that they actually heard/read no more of the speech than its provocative opening premise.)
After the requisite words of homecoming, Benedict related a 1391 dialog between the Byzantine emperor Manual II Palaeologus and a Persian Muslim on the nature of Christianity and Islam. Their 26 conversations touched on many topics, including the relationship between faith and reason, and the appropriateness of compulsion in faith. After a little juggling with the changing Islamic view of the process of conversion, Benedict quoted the emperor as saying, “Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats. . . . To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death.”
This, and a rather more blunt imperial critique of Muhammad’s contribution to faith, is what sparked riots among Muslims all over the world.
However, this was only the setting up of Benedict’s argument. If there is culpability to this aspect of the Pope’s speech it is that he seemed to accept a connection between radical, violent Islam and mainstream Islamic theology. We can only hope that mainstream Muslims are willing to sever any such connection. (Seventh-day Adventists might want to revisit Revelation 9, and Uriah Smith’s classic The Prophecies of Daniel and the Revelation, for an understanding of Islam’s role in prophecy. Ellen White endorsed this interpretation of Islam as the fifth trumpet and its role in European affairs at the beginning of the Reformation.)
To the Point
The pope’s speech was built on a single premise, and the use of the Greek Byzantine emperor as an example was not just convenient, it was necessary. Benedict went on to build a case for a logical, nonviolent Christianity that is the product of the infusion of Greek rationality into papal traditions. Benedict spoke of a “convergence” between Greek philosophy and Christian theology. “This convergence,” he said, “with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.”
Many in the Islamic world were too apoplectic to follow the logic behind Benedict’s speech, of course. If they cared to respond rationally, they might have pointed out that it was through Islam that the full richness of Greek culture and philosophy was recovered. After all, Islam had Alexandrine manuscripts for a period when the West did not even know they existed.
And Protestants could doubtless provide uncomfortable reminders of the inconsistencies to Benedict’s grand theme. Christianity did not come from a violent past and develop into logical benignity; early Christianity was markedly nonviolent and pacifist. Early persecutors in imperial Rome observed that Christians seemed only too happy to die calmly. The tragedy of Christianity is that as it came under the patronage of the Church of Rome it adopted both Roman and Greek philosophical norms, became violent, and was increasingly willing to compel conversion.
Indeed, Benedict’s speech was silent about religious violence in the Crusades, during the Inquisition, and other moments of regret to the body of Christ, although he gave a passing nod to various theological challenges during the late Middle Ages.
The Bottom Line
Most startling was Benedict’s repudiation of the Protestant Reformation within Christianity. With the premise established for a logical, nonviolent, Hellenistic (Greek) Christianity, Benedict devoted the rest of his speech to outlining three major threats to this nonviolent rationality.
The first of the three dehellenizing threats is clear, direct, and, in my view, historically offensive. According to Benedict, “Dehellenization first emerged in connection with the postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth 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.”
The second threat that Benedict put out is the liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that would take Christianity back to a humanistic view of faith that emphasizes Jesus’ morality, not His divinity. Benedict is correct in this as a threat to Christianity—but how this relates to his central point of the hellenizing of Christianity and its move away from violence is less than clear.
The third threat the pope enumerated is the idea, deriving from cultural pluralism, that we can remove this Greek rational overlay from Christianity as we apply it to other cultures. That, of course, is a half-truth. Biblical absolutes should not be morphed into more acceptable cultural norms. The problem is his premise that “hellenization” is a divine absolute.
This is an amazing sequence! Benedict points to the Reformers as the original “dehellenizers,” that is, original threat to the logical, nonviolent center of Christianity. But he misidentified their challenge. When the Reformers identified a falling away from the original purity of the Christian faith, they were not dealing with a philosophical issue. They instead decried the idea that the church had innate authority, or that tradition trumped biblical truth.
Benedict identified the central tenet of the Reformation, but in a way that tended to remove it from the Reformers and link it with something altogether different. “The principle of sola scriptura . . . sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word,” he said. “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.” What a leap of logic and obfuscation!
The principle of sola scriptura was one of the primary principles of the Reformation. Immanuel Kant was a philosopher who helped define the Enlightenment. Whatever his excesses, they were not those equated with the Reformation.Benedict’s message was clear: Protestantism is a threat to a peaceful, nonviolent Christianity when it insists on the Bible as its sole authority and emphasizes an individual’s responsibility first and directly to God.
Benedict’s post-9/11 message from Regensburg is stark: Islam may have shown propensities to violence in the past, but Rome will accommodate it in a tent of rationality if it comes to the table. Protestantism, on the other hand, is the root departure from “safe” Christianity. It spawned the Enlightenment and the Western violence that now antagonizes so much of the rest of the world.
Perhaps Benedict would have religious people worldwide see papal authority as the solution to the religiously motivated violence that now plagues the world.
Perhaps it’s time for us to reread Revelation 13.
Lincoln E. Steed is editor of Liberty, a magazine of religious freedom.