The Road from Regensburg

FAITH Magazine March - April 2008

Ecumenical and inter-religious developments in the search for a modern apologetic


 Below are some of the words which Pope Benedict intended to deliver at La Sapienza University in Rome last January. The event was called off following a protest by some lecturers and students at a reference he once made to the claim of a particular philosopher that the verdict on Galileo was “rational and just”.

 The Pope tells us that at Regensburg “I spoke as Pope but, above all, as a former professor of what used to be my own university. ... However, I was invited to ‘La Sapienza,‘ the ancient university of Rome, as Bishop of Rome, and as such I must speak.

 ”...The true, intimate, origin of the university lies in the longing for knowledge which is inherent to mankind. Humans want to know what it is that surrounds them. They want truth.

 “Truth is never just theoretical. ... Truth means more than knowing. ...The truth makes us good, and goodness is truth. This is the optimism that lives in Christian faith, because [that faith] has been granted the vision of the ‘Logos,’ creative Reason which in the incarnation of God was revealed as Good, as Goodness itself”.

 Today there are “new dimensions of knowledge ... (mainly) the natural sciences ... and the historical and human sciences, ... (and) the recognition of the rights and the dignity of man” has increased.

 But “the danger of falling into inhumanity can never be completely eliminated,” in particular “the danger facing the Western world ... is that man today, precisely because of the immensity of his knowledge and power, surrenders before the question of truth. ... This means that, in the end, reason gives way before the pressure of other interests and the lure of efficiency, and is forced to recognise this as the ultimate criterion”.


 Opposition to Pope Benedict’s now postponed appearance at La Sapienza University, has led Professor Giorgio Israel to write that the resistance of his colleagues is a sign of fear about a dialogue between faith and reason taking place.

 In an article published in L'Osservatore Romano, Israel, who is a professor of mathematics at La Sapienza, argues that the reason the liberal “openness” has been put aside in the case of the Holy Father has been explained by Marcello Cini – one of the intellectuals opposing the Pope’s visit – in his letter to the University’s Dean.

 “What Cini regards as dangerous is the fact that the Pope may try to open a dialogue between faith and reason, to re-establish a connection between the Judeo-Christian and the Greek tradition, and that science and faith may not be separated by an impenetrable wall”.

 “The opposition to the Pope’s visit,” Israel adds, is therefore “not motivated by an abstract principle of secularism. The opposition is of an ideological nature and has Benedict XVI as its specific target for speaking on science and about the relationship between science and faith, instead of limiting himself to speak only about faith”.

Catholic Online, 16 January 2008



 As a result of an exchange of letters between Cardinal Tauran and Prince Ghazi of Jordan three prominent Islamic scholars will visit the Pope in February, whilst the Cardinal, Prefect for the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue will visit Cairo’s Al-Ahzar Mosque. This will lay the groundwork for a Spring meeting.

 Cardinal Tauran’s letter was the Holy See’s response to the October Open Letter, A Common Word, signed by 138 Muslim scholars. As we discussed in our last editorial (January 07) the Cardinal acknowledged a section of the common ground proposed by A Common Word, namely concerning “the one God” and “that we are called to commit ourselves totally to him and to obey his sacred will”. But in terms of foundations for dialogue the Cardinal talks about human dignity, rights and fundamental moral values, whilst also encouraging the “sharing” of “knowledge” and “experience”, as well as “promoting” common values.

 On behalf of the 138 scholars Prince Ghazi, head of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought and a former pupil of Harrow School, has replied, in a generally positive tone. He interprets the Cardinal’s letter as proposing “the Ten Commandments ... as a basis of dialogue” which he terms “an excellent idea”. This he calls the “extrinsic” “dimension” of the proposed discussions, meaning “that which refers to the world and thus to society”. He seems to interpret the positive tone of the Cardinal’s reply as implying an acceptance of an “intrinsic dimension” based upon the inner spiritual nature of man called to love the One God and our neighbour, as proposed by A Common Word. He also makes a gentle complaint at the lack of openness and charity of those Vatican representativesand commentators who have objected to the idea of “theoloigcal dialogue with Muslims”.

The Editor


 In the January 07 editorial of this magazine we reported on the robust response of prominent orthodox Catholic commentators to last October’s A Common Word. We proposed taking a different, more accepting line. We argued that avoiding discussing the spiritual nature of love of God, “of total devotion to” him misses a great opportunity to respond head-on to encouraging Islamic developments in this area (e.g. see Road from Ratisbonentry below). It also only also delays the discussion of something fundamental to reaching a significant mutual understanding with leading Muslims.

 Richard John Neuhaus, writing before Prince Ghazi’s above-mentioned reply to Cardinal Tauran, has joined these commentators in agreeing that  “theological dialogue is exceedinglydifficult with Islam”. The Editor-in-Chief of First Thingsand syndicated columnist in this magazine went as far as to say that “it serves neither peace nor understanding to acquiesce in the efforts of Muslim leaders to change the subject” away from “the sources of terrorism and oppression perpetrated in the name of Islam (which) after all, is what prompted these exchanges in the first place”.

First Things, February 2008

 Similarly the Jesuit priest Samir Khalid Samir has said that the above-mentioned Spring meeting between Catholic officials and Muslim scholars is at risk of “hollowness or falsity” if the dialogue addresses theology alone, and not the concrete problems of the two communities. In an article for Asia News, Samir, professor of Oriental Studies at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Lebanon, stresses his concern over what he sees as attempts by Muslim personalities to “dodge fundamental and concrete questions, like human rights, reciprocity and violence, to ensconce themselves in an improbable theological dialogue ‘on the soul and God’”.

 Concerning Prince Ghazi’s letter summarised above Samir said that it “seems to say that human rights are not important, and are only a political question. Only theological dialogue is of interest. But what good does it do to talk about the one God, if I do not recognise that man has an absolute dignity in the image of God? That freedom of conscience is sacred, that the believer has no more rights than the non-believer, that man has no more rights than woman, etc? It must be affirmed that man comes before religion: respecting man comes before respect for religion. This is the Christian approach”.

Asia News, 9th January 2008


 The Tablet reports none less than Professor Aref Ali Nayed of the Cambridge Interfaith Programme as rejecting the idea that the Pope’s Regensburg lecture provided a significant impetus to the current Islamic-Christian dialogue. This prominent signatory of last October’s A Common Word, co-ordinator of follow-ups to it, and member of the upcoming Islamic delegation to the Pope, said“I keep hearing this, especially from Catholics”. He pointed out that the Amman Message, issued a year before Regensburg, condemned terrorism and advocated Islamic unity.

 On the other hand the purpose of the Amman message is described on its website as “clarify(ing) to the modern world the true nature of Islam and the nature of true Islam”. This is in contrast to the two post-Regensburg Islamic Open Letters the first of which was an immediate and direct response, the second of which was issued exactly one year later, both of which had explicit addressees, primarily the Pope.

 The post-Regensburg dialogue has focussed upon the doctrine of God in Christianity and Islam, as brought out in our next two entries below. An important theme of this column, and of our last editorial, has been to chart the various public Islamic qualifications (if sometimes apparently slightly contradictory) of the absolute transcendence of Allah over the last eighteen months, which qualifications bode well for effective theological dialogue.

The Tablet, 8th December 2008


 Two Islamic affirmations upon the important novelty of the two Open Letter responses to Regensburg have been noted in this column before, a third is described in the following item.

 Last September we mentioned the issue of Islamica Magazine which furnished the first formal announcement that the first Open Letter now had 100 signatures. Its editorial emphasised “The seminal nature of this initiative” and that the need for such “dialogue is vital”.

 Last November we reported that the official website for the second Open Letter to the Pope and others states that this letter was unique in the history of Islam.

Faith Magazine, Autumn 2007


 The October 2007 edition of Oasis,the review of the Venice based inter-faith International Studies and Research Centre, carries three reflections upon “God and Reason”. Hmider Ennaifer, a Tunisian lecturer in Muslim Theology, talks of a “rather significant new development in certain Muslim elites. A large number of thoughtful and above all rational responses were made”. Ennaifer argues the case that “transcendence in Islam is compatible with the Immanence of God” through bringing out aspects of Allah’s relationship to us. Our January 07 editorial showed how this positive development was present in last October’s A Common Word Between Us and You.

 Maurice Borrmans a White Father expert in inter-religious dialogue, has a piece entitled The Dialogue that Sprouted at Ratisbon– (Ratisbon has been the name for Regensburg preferred by Englishspeaking historians). He makes some similar points, emphasising that from “Lebanon to Libya and on to Paris the speech by the Pope generated acute reflection on the part of very many scholars: to save the idea of God’”. He refers to the prominent Lebanese thinker Ridwan al-Sayyed who suggests that both Islam and Christianity have schools which emphasise God’s transcendence and those which emphasise a certain resemblance between us and God. Recently there has been, he argues, a resurgence in Islam of the latter type of thinkers, as witnessed for instance, in the Amman message, and the call to“anamnesis” which the Tunisian Abdelwahab Meddeb feels the Pope at Regensburg was making to Muslims.

Oasis, October 2007


 Professor Nayed backed up his above mentioned devaluing of the Regensburg piece by affirming that it “fuelled misunderstanding and hatred”. This refers to the Regensburg lecture’s academic quotation of a medieval, threatened, Emperor stridently challenging the Prophet Mohammed and implicitly suggesting that the Muslim relegation of logosenabled hatred and violence to be fuelled.

The Tablet 8th December 2008


 In his Daily Mailcolumn Peter Hitchens has argued that the developing permissiveness of British multi-culturalism and relativism paradoxically allows the development of a dogmatic and dominant Islamic community. Prominent Islamic culture is proving fairly impervious to agnostic relativism. Islamic culture may indeed be preferable to such secularism in numerous ways but it spells the end of our Christian culture. He suggests that unambiguous acknowledgement of and defence of the fundamental role Christianity has had in the development of our civilisation is the only way to prevent a radical cultural revolution in our land.

Daily Mail 8th January 08

 In the New York Times, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Infidel, has partially supported the thesis of Lee Harris’s book The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s threat to the Enlightenment. They both affirm the popular preference for tribal loyalty over reason within Muslim communities across the world. This is supported by Islam’s rejection of the separation of religion and politics, the sacred and the profane. Harris argues that western secularism misunderstands Islam if it thinks reason and kindness will easily prevent the spread of Islam.

 Ali develops this in her own particular direction: “Muslims have been migrating to the West in droves for decades now. They are in search of a better life. Yet their tribal and cultural constraints have travelled with them. And the multi-culturalism and moral relativism that reign in the West have accommodated this... Many western leaders are terribly confused about Islam”.

New York Times 6th Jan 2008


 A groundbreaking report by the Wall Street Journalwriter, Andrew Higgins, makes the astonishing claim that a priceless photo archive of ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an, which were considered to have been destroyed in the bombing of the Bavarian Academy of Science, is still in existence. According to the journalist, the story of its destruction was fabricated by Anton Spitaler, an Arabic scholar at the academy and “a powerful figure in post-war German scholarship”. Spitaler hid the 450 rolls of film away for more than 60 years.

 The film had been assembled before the war for an academic study on the evolution of the Qur’an.

 Angelika Neuwirth, a former pupil of the late Spitaler and professor of Arabic studies at Berlin’s Free University, is now overseeing a revival of the research.

 The revived Qur’an venture plays into a very modern debate: how to reconcile Islam with the modern world? Academic quarrying of the Qur’an has produced bold theories, bitter feuds and even claims of an Islamic Reformation in the making.

 The Qur’an is viewed by most Muslims as the unchanging word of God as transmitted to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. Muslims believe the text did not evolve or get edited.

Wall Street Journal, 12 January 2008


 The international best-selling author of The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji, came to the UK in January to promote her new film, Faith without Fear. Manji, a well-known critic of radical Islam and orthodox interpretations of the Qur’an, who also publicly supported the Pope’s comments on the faith at the Regensburg lecture, advocates a revival of critical thinking in Islamic tradition.

 “Islam began as a religion of justice but it has become corrupted into an ideology of fear, said the Muslim writer”. It is we Muslims who have done most of the corrupting and therefore only we Muslims can lead the effort to fix it. For those who claim that this is an unIslamic or anti-Islamic message, I remind them as a faithful Muslim that the Koran tells us to take ownership of our problems”.

The Times Online, 18 January 2008


 Last December the Pope received in audience a delegation of the Joint International Commission sponsored by the Baptist World Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who had been discussing “The Word of God in the Life of the Church: Scripture, Tradition and Koinonia”.

 The Pope said “It is my hope that your conversations will bear abundant fruit in the examination of such historically controversial issues as the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, the understanding of baptism and the sacraments, the place of Mary in the communion of the Church, and the nature of oversight and primacy in the Church’s ministerial structure. ... issues such as these need to be faced together, in a spirit of openness, mutual respect and fidelity to the liberating truth and saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”.

With contributions from Lisa Gregoire.  

Faith Magazine

March - April 2008