Benedict and the Koran

After reading the pope’s famous Regensburg lecture for the umpteenth time, I am ready to conclude that if one were to excise paragraphs 2-4, which concerned Islam, what we have is Benedict boilerplate. Here we find the repetition of themes that pervade Benedict’s writings in his long career. He reminds us of the early “decision” of Christianity to accept dialogue with and critique from philosophy and that Christianity never sought immunity from rational analysis. 

In the modern age, the relationship between faith and reason has been strained a bit. From the Reformation (Luther) to the final destruction of metaphysics (Kant) to the reduction of the scope of scientific Jesus study to the man Jesus apart from the accretions of “Greek” theology (Harnack), each succeeding wave in the de-Hellenization of Christianity was spearheaded by Germans. The pope did not mention Hegel, F. C. Baur, Strauss, Nietzsche, or Bultmann but these Germans all made outsized contributions to the Enlightenment’s dialogue with Christianity, for good or ill.   

It was not Benedict’s purpose to bemoan the indelible stamp of German idealism on Christian scholarship. The scholar-pope himself stands as much an exponent of the German intellectual tradition as a critic. In the final analysis, it was not Christianity or the Church really that was harmed by the edgy, skeptical, and even – at times – hostile German guild. Rather, it was reason itself that suffered when scholarship excluded from its purview the investigation of the highest order truth claims about God. 

Benedict did not echo the well-worn traditionalist critique by arguing that Christian scholarship had failed because the scholars slew too many sacred cows or had the wrong attitude when slaying them. On the contrary, the scholars stopped asking questions at all concerning the rationality of faith – relegating it to the realm of subjective opinion. This was paradoxically subversive of the central conceit of the Enlightenment itself, to say nothing of faith, which is intrinsically joined to reason. 

But what has all this to do with Islam? His point was this: Though Christian scholars might have taken a long sabbatical from fundamental questions of truth, Christianity has always opened its sources and truth claims to friendly criticism from within and even to hostile criticism from without. Unfriendly external criticism is one of Providence’s main tools to help the Church forge more precise understandings of revealed things. But there is no tradition of either kind of criticism in Islam, and indeed no basic recognition among Muslims that Islam and its sacred text are suitable objects for such rational analysis. Such recognition is the sine qua non of real dialogue with Islam.

Benedict XVI delivers his address at Regensburg

How has Islam mostly avoided German- style criticism up to now? One way is through simple intimidation. A friend of mine in New Testament studies wanted originally to learn Arabic and to embark on a historical/critical study of the Quran. “Don’t do this, Tim,” a Muslim friend advised, “You will be killed!” A joke perhaps, but with a kernel of truth. Christian Salman Rushdies are a dime a dozen, but in Islam, there still are few enough to attract notoriety. 

The main reason Islam has escaped much rough-edged Enlightenment scrutiny, however, was historical timing. Earlier generations of Western scholars who would have been inclined to do it were already consumed with the mammoth undertaking of applying new criticism to the Bible and the early Church. Mastering Hebrew and Koine Greek, poring over Bible manuscripts, and chasing sources proved an immense and formidable undertaking. Few scholars had the time or the inclination to learn Arabic and turn their attention to the Quran as well. Besides – since controversy is the lifeblood of the German theologian – why rile up Muslims when there were plenty of pious Christian noses to tweak in Europe and America? The Quran weathered the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth nearly unaffected by the influence of German-style techniques. 

And by the time the Quran appeared on the academic horizon in the late twentieth century as a yet largely unexplored frontier, the paradigm for religious study had shifted drastically.   The Muslim faith could be studied under the rubric of “Islamic studies,” “comparative religion,” or as a socio-political phenomenon. The purpose of these approaches was fostering understanding and the dispelling of Western misconceptions and stereotypes – desirable goals, of course. But Benedict’s real complaint is that Western academics have punted on the more fundamental question of whether Islamic beliefs are actually true – thinking it to be above their pay grade. He wants this question asked so that truth seeking remains the goal of inter-faith dialogue. 

The pope is going to get his wish. Right now in Germany (where else?) there is a massive project underway to publish a critical edition of the Quran. This involves careful analysis of all the available textual variants to produce to most ancient version – mirroring the process that has been underway in Bible scholarship from almost the beginning. Why is this noteworthy?  Because it is an article of Islamic faith that there are no textual variants of the Quran. It is an historic cavil of Islam against Christianity that its sacred text was free of any of the “corruption” that affected the Bible. 

The trouble is that the claim is not merely debatable, it is demonstrably untrue. The scholars have the variants culled from old Qurans that pious Muslims used to discard in mosques. More variants will surely surface in the years ahead. How will ordinary Muslims respond to this? Will Western-style reason win out or will Islam even more resolutely embrace a God who is immune from rational analysis? 

Implicit in Regensburg is Benedict’s big bet is that Western-style reason summed up in the Eternal Logos will prevail – even among non-Western religious traditions like Islam. By this time next century, if a lot of Muslims have embraced the Eternal Logos made flesh, we’ll know that he was right!

Peter Brown is completing a doctorate in Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America.