The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this programme was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal's distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.The speech, especially in translation, does not make easy reading, and I have gone over it several times. How far those gathered would have been able to pick up some of the finer nuances, I'm not sure. What does seem clear is that the media could and should be reporting this speech more responsibly. I am neither a Catholic nor a Muslim, but it is clear that the remarks that are now being widely quoted function in the context of the speech in a way that is not being reported accurately. Most media sources (e.g. today's BBC One O'Clock news, which I often catch while eating my breakfast here) are able to see that when talking about violence, the Pope was quoting Manuel II Paleologus (described as "the erudite Byzantine emperor", late 14th century), but what is more important is that the remarks are quoted in order to get to what in fact is the theme of the whole speech, Faith, Reason and the University,
In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959, I tried to address the issue, and I do not intend to repeat here what I said on that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was new about this second stage of dehellenization.
Harnack's central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message.
Fundamentally, Harnack's goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, as he saw it, restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific.
What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university . . . .
. . . . Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures.
The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself . . . .
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident.Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that a little extra caution might have been useful given the brief nature of the quotation and discussion of Manuel II Paleologus. I am not an expert on Islam, but I would be troubled by the implication that some might take that Islam does not embrace reason, especially here:
But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury [editor of the Manuel II Paleologus dialogue in question, MSG] quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state 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 practise idolatry.This is where, I think, some additional clarity and sensitivity might make a useful contribution. And on the other side, those who are overreacting to the speech might well wish to demonstrate the importance of reason in their thinking by engaging it rather than caricaturing it.