The pope begins the lecture by recalling an encounter, during the siege of Constantinople in the early 1400’s, between the learned Byzantine Emperor Manuel II and a wise Persian gentleman on the differences between Islam and Christianity. The very fact that the pope would bring this topic up is a sign that he recognizes the crucial importance of this difference. As readers know, I have long been advocating that the Catholic Church in particular must begin to tell us what it thinks Islam is, with its claims for an understanding of Allah as pure will, with its denial of otherness in the Godhead or the possibility of the Incarnation. Benedict makes a very significant beginning here, I think. What the pope presents is a very brief, but very incisive critique of the notion that the proper understanding of God is that God can contradict himself in his decrees so that certain political or moral actions are thereby justified as obedience to God.
We should understand the significance of this issue. Can God change his “reason,” that is, can he make what was evil to be good or reasonable? Is what is good or evil dependent on a kind of whim of God so that worship of God means following whatever God is said to say even if it is contradictory to what He said previously. Does the Koran negate the Old and New Testaments? Does it negate reason? In other words, is God’s revelation stable? Can we rely on its truth to be true everywhere and always?
We obviously have the suicide bombers clearly in sight here. We have the jihad here. Can such things be God’s will? Can killing oneself along with innocent others be an act of “martyrdom?” Must we worship God by being “submissive” to such theories? What is the source of such ideas? What the pope makes clear is that it is not the Christian scripture that would justify such things. In brief, he rejects that central notion that Allah or God is pure will who can make anything right or wrong such that religion means simply “obedience” to whatever is proposed no matter how lethal.