What Pope Benedict Taught Me About Faith

On Sept. 12, 2006, a newly minted Pope Benedict XVI delivered an address at the University of Regensburg in his native Bavaria — and stirred up a terrible storm.

Mischaracterized as an anti-Islamic tirade amid the febrile post-9/11 atmosphere, the lecture inflamed vast swaths of the Muslim world. Yet for me, a Shiite-born atheist, the address became a source of understanding for my ancestral faith.

Far from an anti-Muslim harangue, the lecture offered a critique of tendencies within the West that had set it on a collision course with Islam. Benedict, who died Saturday at age 95, traced the crisis to a rupture between faith and reason that had left the world with a pair of equally lousy choices: either unreasonable faith or soulless reason. Diagnosing this predicament and offering an alternative were the pontiff’s greatest bequests to Catholics — but not only to Catholics.

Ancient people sought to explain the causes of things by recourse to myth. The ancient Greeks, however, turned to reason to uncover the deepest origins of reality. In doing so, the greatest of the Greek philosophers concluded that there must be some absolute perfection in which all others participate — or some unmoved mover that set in motion all the change they observed in the world. The Greeks, in short, discovered God by way of philosophy.

With Alexander the Great at the head of their armies, they then overran many of the nations to their east. Among these were the Jews, who offered a decisive answer to the questions about ultimate causation that haunted Greek philosophy. Their God was unlike the deities of other nations. He claimed to be a universal God, not a mere local idol. And he said his name was “I Am” (Exodus 3:14) — being itself, the stuff of philosophy.

Though occasioned by conquest, this courtship between ancient Greece and Jewish religion was soon consummated with the advent of Christianity. Here was the same God of the Jews who, in the Christian telling, had become man — a God-man who identified himself with reason: In the beginning was Logos, or reason (John 1:1). A reasonable God. A God in whom it was reasonable to believe and who wouldn’t demand that we, his creatures, act unreasonably.

For Benedict, the coming together of these two great streams of knowledge was no accident but part of a providential plan. As he said at Regensburg, “the encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.”

This account of divinity was born in “the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought,” Benedict said. It stands as a challenge to both irrational superstition and a kind of mindless “reason” that would reduce all phenomena to their immediate efficient causes without even bothering to ask about ultimate causes.

Yet as Benedict lamented at Regensburg, these tendencies lord over us today. He laid much of the blame at the feet of certain medieval theologians who began to question whether anything about God could be known by reason, and of the Reformers, who viewed the influence of Greco-Roman thought on Christianity not as a blessing but as an accumulation of pagan baggage.

This process of “de-Hellenization,” as Benedict called it, has caused faith and reason to go their separate ways. As a result, we witness explosions of irrational faith (and here, to be clear, Benedict was critical of some aspects of Islam). But worse, there has been a “reduction of the radius of science and reason.” Some of humankind’s most fundamental ideals and yearnings, Benedict observed, are now excluded from the realm of public reason, since these things can’t be measured with scientific instruments or expressed in mathematical language. The moral claims of the great religious traditions — even those that rest solely on natural reason rather than revelation — are treated as species of private bias. They are welcome in the church — or mosque or synagogue — but in public must give way to the narrower “reason” of the moderns.

The danger is that this narrowly scientistic account of reason affords humans a much lower status than the one granted them by classical philosophy and revealed religions. You can do anything to people, especially the weak and the poor, if you view human beings as mere collections of particles, lacking any special origin or destiny.

Dialogue between civilizations grinds to a halt. Sounding his most sympathetic notes toward Islam, Benedict worried that “the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions.”

Pope Francis reprised many of these themes during his visit to Abu Dhabi in 2019, even directly quoting Benedict. Speaking alongside the grand imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, Francis railed against “individualism” and impoverished utilitarianism — that is, the ideological consequences of the materialism and scientism Benedict had targeted at Regensburg.

Put another way: The earlier address came to shape a deeper Catholic-Muslim dialogue, based on a shared critique of a soulless modern world.

A decade after the brouhaha surrounding Regensburg, I was received into full communion with the Roman church, a decision that was in large part inspired by Benedict’s writings. It’s a curious but welcome development: Gazing through Benedict’s lens, I view Islam, in its painful encounter with modernity, with far greater sympathy and solicitude than I ever did as a nonbeliever.

May he rest in peace; may eternal light shine upon him.

Sohrab Ahmari is a founder and editor of Compact, a contributing editor to The American Conservative and the author of “The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.”

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Back to top button