“A madman is not someone who has lost his reason. A madman is someone who has lost everything but his reason,” wrote English writer G. K. Chesterton, adding, “Poets do not go mad, but chess players do.”

The Persians invented chess, but have been prone to madness since Xerxes flagellated the sea for obstructing his failed attempt to invade Greece in the 5th century BC. Today’s Persians evince grandmasterly cunning in their maneuvers against America, but are madder than Xerxes. Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad thinks that the Holocaust never happened, that there are no homosexuals in Iran, and that the American cartoon Tom and Jerry is an instrument of Zionist propaganda.

Persia’s leaders evince a sort of thinking that in other countries would constitute legal grounds for commitment to a psychiatric hospital. On January 5, 2005, Ahmadinejad said, “We must believe in the fact that Islam is not confined to geographical borders, ethnic groups and nations. It’s a universal ideology that leads the world to justice. We don’t shy away from declaring that Islam is ready to rule the world. We must prepare ourselves to rule the world.”

How, then, should one make sense of the joint statement signed April 30 between the Vatican and a group of visiting Iranian clerics, attesting to the benefits of reason? According the May 1 L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Benedict XVI and the Iranians agreed that “Faith and reason do not contradict each other; although faith can in some cases be above reason, it never can be against it,” and that “Faith and reason are intrinsically nonviolent.”
In his September 2006 address in Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI challenged elements of manifest irrationality in Muslim theology, for example, the view of some Islamic theologians that “God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice – idolatry.” Outrage erupted against the pope throughout the Islamic world.

On the Easter Vigil last March, Benedict XVI baptized Muslim journalist Magdi Allam into the Catholic faith, who declared, “Beyond the contingency of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism and terrorism that has appeared on a global level, the root of evil is inherent in an Islam that is physiologically violent and historically conflictive [see The mustard seed in global strategy Asia Times Online, March 26, 2008].”

Muslim consternation knew no bounds, although a Vatican spokesman averred that Allam was speaking for himself.

Now, in one of the weirder acts of recent diplomacy, a delegation of robed and turbaned Iranian mullahs has come to Rome to declare with due solemnity that they share the pope’s view that reason and faith are compatible. The meeting was the sixth in a long-scheduled series of discussion between Iranian clergy and the Holy See, to be sure, but unlike any of the previous encounters.

Iran’s news agency hailed it as a great propaganda victory for the Islamic Republic, writing on May 2 in fractured English:

Spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI in a meeting with Iran’s delegation to Vatican called for utmost cultural and religious cooperation between the two sides. He regarding faith and reason discussed in the recent dialogues between Islam and Roman Catholic Church said, “Faith and reason are the two things that the world needs them today more than any other time and this is our duty to provide this need for the society.”

He also appreciated Iranian delegation for its present “Holy Koran,” calling it a precious book.

Head of Iran’s Islamic culture and relations organization Mahdi Mostafavi responded Iran is ready to expand cultural and religious cooperation with Vatican. [sic]

Tactical aims condition some part of Tehran’s sudden regard for the sanctity of reason. As the Catholic News Service reported on April 29, Iran’s government is searching for allies against American-led efforts to isolate it:

L’Osservatore Romano has cited the words of Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, praising the Holy See for its diplomatic efforts. During an April 6 meeting with the new papal nuncio in Iran, Archbishop Jean-Paul Gobel, Ahmadinejad said that the Vatican has been a positive force for justice, peace, and the protection of human rights around the world, L’Osservatore reported. Iran has been maneuvering to secure the support of the Holy See to counteract hostile pressure from the US and European nations.

Nonetheless, the issue transcends the near-term exigencies of Iranian diplomacy. It is a double-edged sword, for Islamic scholars can argue day and night that they are just as reasonable as Christians or Jews. The trouble with arguing reason to a lunatic, as Chesterton suggested, is that lunatics more than anyone else are sure of their own reasonableness.

What American author George Weigel calls the pope’s “new public grammar” for the “reform of Islam” has an apparent disadvantage, namely that no one depends more on reason than the calculating paranoids of Persia. It is not deception, but the expression of injured innocence, for the Iranian mullahs to sign a document attesting to the interdependency of faith and reason. Last year I criticized the pope, perhaps unfairly, for placing too great a burden on reason in the encounter with Islam. The full statement reads (in my translation from the Italian):

1. Faith and reason are both God’s gifts to humanity.
2. Faith and reason do not contradict each other; although faith can in some cases be above reason, it never can be against it.
3. Faith and reason are intrinsically nonviolent. Neither reason nor faith should be used for violence; nonetheless, at times, both have been ill-used to perpetrate violence. In any case, these events cannot place reason or faith in doubt.
4. Both of the parties agree to cooperate in furthering authentic religiosity, and in particular spirituality, to promote respect for sacred symbols and moral values.
5. Christians and Muslims should proceed from tolerance, recognizing differences, remaining aware of things they have in common, and giving thanks for these to God. They are called to reciprocal respect, that is, to condemning derision of religious creeds.
6. Generalizations should be avoided when speaking of religion. The differences between the confessions within Christianity and Islam as well as the differences in historical context are both important factors to be taken into consideration.
7. Religious traditions cannot be judged on the basis of a single verse or passage in their respective sacred texts. A holistic vision and an adequate hermeneutic method are necessary for their correct comprehension.

The final point contains a submerged mine on which the Muslim side well might founder, for the application of reason to sacred texts presents an existential threat to Islam. As Pope Benedict has observed on many occasions, no Catholic scholar of note doubts that the Bible contains multiple authorship of key texts as well as later redaction.

In the Christian view, the Hebrew and Greek writings that comprise the Bible are the word of God, but through human witness, such that the occasional error or contradiction poses no threat to faith.

Not so the Koran, which purportedly was dictated word by word by the Archangel Gabriel to Mohammed. Western scholars who have discovered minor variants in ancient copies of the Koran take their lives in their hands when they publish such results (see Indiana Jones meets the Da Vinci code Asia Times Online, January 15, 2008).

To include under the rubric of reason freedom for textual criticism threatens the existence of Islam. With all due respect for sacred texts, and without derision, scholars well might seek to demonstrate that the Koran was written in the 9th rather than the 7th century, and not at all by Mohammed, who might or might not have existed to begin with. My September 2006 critique of Benedict’s Regensburg address did not consider this dimension.

Then Cardinal Ratzinger alluded to the inflexibility of Islam in his 1996 interview book The Salt of the Earth, and as Benedict XVI has returned to the vulnerability of the Koranic text on subsequent occasions, notoriously at a 2005 seminar with former students at his Castel Gandolfo summer residence (See When even the Pope has to whisper Asia Times Online, January 10, 2006).

Just what Pope Benedict has in mind is a matter of controversy. The Catholic writer Weigel recently published a book entitled Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism, in which he speaks of an “an internal Islamic civil war” between violent jihadis on one hand, and the forces of Islamic reform on the other. The forces of reform, he claimed in an April 12 Newsweek essay, include King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

According to Weigel, “Benedict XVI has quietly put his pontificate behind the forces of Islamic reform – and may have found a crucial ally with a Saudi king who is wrestling with Wahhabi extremism in his own domain.” I see matters very differently, for jihad is the defining sacrament in Islam, the cognate of the Lord’s Supper in Christianity.

If we believe Father Joseph Fessio’s account of the Castel Gondolfo meeting during an American interview, this view of prospective Islamic reform was advocated to the pope in 2005, but the pope ruled it out on theological grounds. As Father Fessio reported,

And immediately the holy father, in his beautiful calm but clear way, said, well, there’s a fundamental problem with that because, he said, in the Islamic tradition, God has given His word to Mohammed, but it’s an eternal word. It’s not Mohammed’s word. It’s there for eternity the way it is. There’s no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism’s completely different, that God has worked through his creatures.

And so it is not just the word of God, it’s the word of Isaiah, not just the word of God, but the word of Mark. He’s used his human creatures, and inspired them to speak his word to the world, and therefore by establishing a church in which he gives authority to his followers to carry on the tradition and interpret it, there’s an inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new situations.

An interviewer then asked Fessio, “And so the pope is a pessimist about that changing, because it would require a radical reinterpretation of what the Koran is?” Fessio replied, “Yeah, which is it’s impossible, because it’s against the very nature of the Koran, as it’s understood by Muslims.” Fessio’s remarks caused something of a scandal, after which he apologized for “making too crude a distinction” between the Koran and the Bible, while insisting that he had “paraphrased the Holy Father with general accuracy.”

At the end of the day, we have two different accounts of the views of Benedict XVI with respect to Islam, one (Weigel’s) that sounds very much like the view of the George W Bush administration, and another (Fessio’s) that is consonant with the direr pronouncements of Magdi Allam. Too much might be made of this opposition. The pope is more than the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, whose views on the petrified character of the Koran are a matter of record: he is the head of both the Catholic Church and the Vatican State, whose pastoral as well as diplomatic requirements impose the prudence of high office.

Ratzinger the theologian well knows that the absolutely transcendent god of Islam is a different entity than the revealed God whom Jews and Christians worship. As Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote in a May 2 note on the First Things website, “The Christian understanding of God is not that of an omnipotent deity handing down commands from on high, but that of God’s emptying himself of glory (kenosis) in order to become one with his human creatures, inviting and enabling us to be lifted up by participation in his eternal life. In other words, incarnation; in other words, ‘the human face of God’.” I addressed this issue through the theology of Franz Rosenzweig in a recent article.

Ultimately, neither the diplomats nor the theologians will decide these issues. This is the prerogative of converts like Magdi Allam. History is not made by rational design but by the demands of the human heart, which has its own reason as well as unreason. Great institutions and sovereign states will address each other, except in wartime, with cautious respect; not so the individuals whose existential needs ultimately steer the fate of nations.

In this respect Benedict XVI is wise, not only with his own 80 years, but with the accumulated wisdom of the 80 generations since the founding of his church. Neither Ratzinger the theologian nor the bishop of Rome has the final word; by receiving Magdi Allam into the church on the eve of Easter he entrusted the great questions to the hearts of the people who will carry it to their eventual conclusion.


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