Regensburg watch over, pope raps Biblical fundamentalism

September 12, 2008

Pope Benedict delivers speech on faith and culture, 12 Sept 2008/poolAs Pope Benedict delivered his major speech on faith and culture in Paris today, some of those listening in the medieval hall and in the press centre listened closely to hear what he would say about … Islam. The Muslim faith was by no means the subject of the lecture addressed to 700 French intellectuals. But two years ago to the day, the former theology professor gave a similar lecture in Regensburg and, seemingly out of nowhere, quoted a Byzantine emperor saying that Islam was violent and irrational. The reaction in the Muslim world back then was violent and irrational. So would he make another gaffe?

France is the European country with the largest Muslim minority. Eight Muslim leaders were especially invited to the speech because time constraints made it hard to fit in a meeting with them at any other time. It seemed so unlikely that Benedict would say anything controversial that it hardly seemed worth looking out for. But in the speech, he warned about “fundamentalism” and “fundamentalist fanatacism.” As soon as it was over, journalists wondered whether this referred to Islam. Editors checked with correspondents. Was this Regensburg redux?

No, it wasn’t — it was actually a B16 shot across a different bow. The context of the speech makes clear that his first reference to fundamentalism meant Christian fundamentalists. It was a clear statement that the Bible cannot be read literally, without any reference to its context and history. Why he chose to say this now is not clear. The Vatican has just announced it would hold a conference next March on Darwin and evolution, a subject it said has caused many “emotional and ideological reactions.” Could he be thinking of creationists?

Here’s the passage about Christian fundamentalism:

“Scripture requires exegesis, and it requires the context of the community in which it came to birth and in which it is lived. This is where its unity is to be found, and here too its unifying meaning is opened up. To put it yet another way: there are dimensions of meaning in the word and in words which only come to light within the living community of this history-generating word. Through the growing realisation of the different layers of meaning, the word is not devalued, but in fact appears in its full grandeur and dignity. Therefore the Catechism of the Catholic Church can rightly say that Christianity does not simply represent a religion of the book in the classical sense. It perceives in the words the word, the Logos itself, which spreads its Parisians follow pope’s speech on TV screens along River Seine, 12 Sept 2008/Charles Platiaumystery through this multiplicity. This particular structure of the Bible issues a constantly new challenge to every generation. It excludes by its nature everything that today is known as fundamentalism. In effect, the word of God can never simply be equated with the letter of the text.”

The second reference opposed “fundamentalist fanaticism” to “subjective arbitrariness,” two extremes he said societies could fall into if they rejected religion and reason. That could apply to anybody. Given the crowd he had seated before him, the audience for this comment seemed to be sceptical French secularists who believe religion equals unreason and should be kept out of the public sphere. They are slowly being put a bit on the defensive, as my analysis earlier today on the return of religion pointed out.

The Muslims in the audience don’t seem to have read anything into the references to fundamentalism. Haydar Demiryurek, a vice-president of the French Muslim Council, told me: “It was a very good speech, very interesting and very eloquent. It was a privilege to be there and get to meet the pope afterwards.”

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