The Pope, mistranslated

I find this brouhaha over the Pope’s recent remarks fascinating in the context of scholarly citation and popular mistranslation.

I have no real interest in defending/attacking him, Christianity, or Islam, but I do have an interest in what he said as opposed to what it was taken as.

My gut instinct, initially, was that he had offered a quote to illustrate some point, being the ex-professor he is, and this was mistranslated or crudely summarized into being his own remarks or even that he agreed with the gist of the quotation.

After a brief search, I found the text of the speech and proceeded to read it instead of sorting through conflicting and oft biased news accounts.

Assuming that the English within is accurate, I would say my initial guess was correct. I was actually impressed by the smooth flow of the speech, though you’re not going to find me agreeing with faith/God and reason being compatible, which is a large part of his argument.

A very simplified summary of the speech’s thesis would be that God acts rationally and this is a key tenet of Christianity. The infamous quotation in particular offers a theological debate between a Byzantine (and Christian) emperor and a unidentified Persian (and assumed follower of Islam) in 1391. The emperor states God is bound by reason, and that he believes spreading faith by war and violence are not reasonable activities; he goes on to question how Mohammad or the Koran address this issue, as much of Islam was, admittedly, spread by holy war. The Persian’s (Ibu Hazn) remarks are paraphrased through another author, but the response seems to be that the God of the Koran is “transcendent” and thus beyond rationality, is free to disregard even his own statements on violence and such.

The rest of the Pope’s speech drops the Christianity/Islam context and focuses instead on the “Must God be bound by reason?” question, the role of reason in Christianity, and in particular how Greek philosophy intersects.

I would have extreme difficulty calling this an attack on Islam. The Pope does not use the quote to even denounce the use of war or violence to spread religion (though I’m sure he agrees with that position); his focus at that point in the speech is the differing view of God’s rationality between the two religions, and he then moves quickly on to Christian-only concepts. In the preceding paragraph, even, he explicitly states he is only using the quote as a “starting-point for my reflections on the issue,” which is the issue of “faith and reason.” I think he wanted an equally scholarly response from an Islamic scholar, as the Persian responded to the emperor. But in today’s supercharged, simplified media…

Ergo, I think the Pope got mistranslated, but he left the opening.

His choice of quotation is airtight from an academic perspective, but politically poor. This is rhetoric that fails on a worldwide stage. Surely there are dozens of other theological quotations that he could have used to introduce the same God/reason thesis without juxtaposing Christianity and Islam so sharply.

But I can’t give that approach much weight at all, personally, as I have little patience for burying history to make people happy. There is a sharp divide between the theology of the two religions. From what I know of Islam (I took a course as an undergrad) he did not misrepresent its conception of God, and if the Pope – and a very educated Pope we have, for better or worse – doesn’t know Christian theology, I’m a saint.

It would be really, really easy to mistranslate or misquote that speech and turn it into an attack on Islam rather than a scholarly debate with, perhaps, a mild implication that Christianity and Islam should have theological rap sessions on occasion. I might even say that the Pope, eager to deliver a thoughtful rumination, accidentally left an opening that was exploited.

By the way, even English-speakers didn’t understand the speech. The NYT said today, “The speech was largely a scholarly address criticizing the West for submitting itself too much to reason, walling God out of science and philosophy,” which is a so-so summary of just one point of the speech.

I’d like to see an Islamic scholar write a good rebuttal to his speech, in a polite manner. The obvious counteragrument to the Pope’s speech is that Christianity may talk the talk of rationality and borrow the Greeks for backing, but there is no shortage of religious warfare done in the name of Jesus. The Crusades ring a bell. And why, there’s an overtly Christian nation right now waging war to make the world safe for Judeo-Christian Western civilization. You get one guess which one. The ‘war on terrorism’ is not eligible for a secular sticker.

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