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    Sunday, September 17, 2006

    Reading the Pope: A large segment of the world has spent the past week misreading the Pope. The defense of his lecture to the representatives of science is better left to others. The opening words of his lecture have drawn the ire of the world, but we should really be focusing on his concluding words, which, as in all good lectures, distill the essence of his meaning. All else is only supportive argument:

    The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God", said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

    It's no surprise that this Pope would call on the scientists (representatives of the secular culture) and the Islamic world both to enter a dialogue with Christianity on the basis of Reason. The importance of Reason in religion is a central theme in his writings. And it's the reason that I've grown to love this Pope.

    I am a Catholic, but I've never been a Papist. Having come late to Catholicism, from an evangelical Protestant childhood, I never had the intrinsic awe for the Pope that many Catholics seem to have. I never felt as strong an affection for Pope John Paul II, for example, as the newspapers seemed to have had. And I had grave misgivings about this Pope when he was elected. The information about him was not very reassuring - that he was known as "God's Rotweiller," and that he was the head of the office that was once the Inquisition. Even his name - Ratzinger- and his physiognomy appeared villainous. But these were not judgements based on Reason, they were judgements based on reporting by the New York Times, the BBC, and
    Andrew Sullivan.

    Then, Pope Benedict published his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est - God is Love, and I was a convert. Here was the kind of Catholic thought - not often expressed publicly, or loudly enough - that had drawn me to Catholicism in the first place- its emphasis on reason to come to know God.

    The church in which I grew up put a heavy emphasis on spiritual conversion of a very emotional type - a sort of epiphany in which God enters your life and suddenly everything is changed. My teenage self may have misinterpreted my church's meaning of being saved, but I used to pray fervently God to enter my life, only to be disappointed when nothing changed. As a result, I turned away from God. But it in college, I declared religious studies as a minor, not because I was looking for religion or God for myself, but because I thought, as a pre-med, that it would help me understand my future patients if I knew a little about the different religions. One of my courses was Catholic theology, taught by a priest. Here, for the first time, I found an approach to God from the mind, one that did not rely on one moment of saving grace, but that was a lifelong journey to understanding, and that cherished an evolution of thought and dialogue through the ages. It's easy to lose sight of that in the day to day grind, and certainly, the theological arguments that are the basis of Catholicism rarely make it into the weekly homilies at mass. Reading the Pope's encyclical reminded me once again why I embraced Catholicism in the first place.

    And so, I have tried set aside some time each week to read the Pope. There's certainly a variety of writings from which to choose. I think his body of work will keep me occupied until my death. Here is an excerpt from the one I've just finished - In the Beginning...: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall , explaining the biblical account of creation:

    One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time- from the images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and in thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities. And only the reality that shines through these images would be what was intended and what was truly enduring. Thus Scriptures would not wish to inform us about how the different species of plant life gradually appeared or how the sun and the moon and the stars were established. Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God's eternal Reason, which became - in the Word - the power of creation.

    .....The reasonableness of the universe provides us with access to God's Reason, and the Bible is and continues to be the true "enlightenment," which has given the world over to human reason and not to exploitation by human beings, because it opened reason to God's truth and love. Therefore we must not in our own day conceal our faith in creation. We may not conceal it, for only if it is true that the universe comes from freedom, love, and reason, and that these are the real underlying powers, can we trust one another, go forward into the future, and live as human beings. God is the Lord of all things because he is their creator, and only therefore can we pray to him. For this means that freedom and love are not ineffectual ideas but rather that they are sustaining forces of reality.

    That's a man I am happy to call my Pope. And I think we are fortunate to have him in this place in history. Now, if only the secularists and the Islamists will take him up on his offer to debate.

    posted by Sydney on 9/17/2006 11:54:00 AM 6 comments


    I was stunned when he was elected. I had told my family that of all of the "papabile," I considered him the least likely. I believe he was elected as a "transitional" ... or "interim" pope.

    We'll see.

    By Anonymous Moof, at 12:59 AM  

    It's bad enough that his remarks were taken out of context, but watching the Islamic world react to being accused of being violent by going on a violent rampage, burning churches, shooting a nun in Italy, etc, was too much.

    By Blogger tw111, at 2:39 AM  

    The passage you quote is stunning. The pope seems to accept evolution and to say that the creation story in the bible is something tailored to the culture prevailing at the time. His point is that no matter how we arrived at the structure of today's universe, god is the initial author and the master of it all. I don't believe this, but it is interesting. Unfortunately, as a scholar who speaks reasonably, the pope is doomed to be quoted out of context by the media, with, in the most recent case, the risk of an unreasonable reaction from some adherents of the religion of peace.

    By Blogger cokaygne, at 5:19 AM  

    Evolution has long been accepted by the Catholic Church, well before Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II, though I am not sure exactly when that occurred. Must have learned something with that whole Galileo incident. Well, at least the Catholic Church didn't ban the printing press for 200 years, like the Caliphate did. Talk about wanting to restrain debate.

    I think that Pope Benedict was chosen precisely for his ability to face down tough issues with clarity and conviction. He is not the "Rock star Pope," but like Pope John Paul II, he is brilliant.

    I took philosophy as a second major, also to supplement my inadequate exposure to the entirety of the life sciences. This necessarily involved a great deal of theology, and I was also taken with the great thinkers, such as Kant (though his worldview is decidedly not Benedict's), and the doctors of the church (some of whom were women). I have never felt that "born again" moment, either.

    What Benedict is saying, and what I have felt for a very long time, is that there is a reasonable and rational basis to Christianity. Simply put, in the crowded dog-eat-dog modern world we live in, it just makes sense. The Ten Commandments are logical and are embodied in nearly every code of law worldwide. The first advocate of democracy as the means to the greatest good for the greatest number of people was Jesus Christ. Just look at the huge numbers of Catholic hospitals, schools and shelters that help take care of the poor in this country. These things stand the test of logos. The Pope is subtly pointing out that some religions defy reason, they are divorced from reason. He is challenging them to discover the reason contained within their precepts- if there is any, and I guess he thinks there is.

    By Anonymous Dani, at 6:40 AM  

    What is most ironic about this entire situation is that after the Pope made his speech quoting the words of a 14th century Byzantine Emperor — "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached" - some Islam followers felt it appropriate to burn several catholic churches and kill a nun in retaliation. Further, it seems some iraqi Islams have threatened the Vatican. (Where is the apology for these acts from the Muslim world?)

    It would seem a more appropriate and reasonable response would have been a verbal challenge to the Pope rather than destruction, threats and death.

    Is our media sleeping, or just didn't notice this irony?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:49 PM  

    anonymous, I've gradually come around to the point of view that our media simply hates the West and Christianity more than it hates Islam. This, despite the fact that they wouldn't be allowed to print a tenth of what they do if they were based in, shall we say, Saudi Arabia. The faked photos out of Lebanon were pretty much the nail in the casket on this issue, for me, anyway.

    By Anonymous dani, at 7:28 AM  

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