The Pope reaches the limits of reason

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Pope Benedict
Pope Benedict tests the limits of reason in his latest encyclical ‘Spe Salvi‘ .

In September 2006, Pope Benedict‘s Regensberg lecture contained a pointed criticism of Islam on the grounds of its supposed lack of rationality.

If a faith was ‘born in the soul’ – like Christianity – then it must be supported by reason. A faith truly connected with God would not resort to violence – the ‘unreasonable’ behaviour of Muslims today was thus linked to aspersions on the faith itself.

In building his case, the Pope quoted Professor Theodore Khoury: “… for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality… Ibn Hazm 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 practice idolatry.”

Thus it was the Muslim conception of God that allows them to act ‘unreasonably’. Christian faith, with its concept of a God bound by human notions of rationality, was superior to other faiths (especially Islam). Pope Benedict elaborated the differences: “as opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy… Christian worship is worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason”.

Spe Salvi‘, widely praised in Catholic circles,¬†deals¬†with issues familiar to Muslims such as Purgatory [burzakh], the Judgement and what follows [akhira]. How has he addressed these given a belief in Christian moral primacy and its inherent rationality?

In the encyclical, Purgatory has become a flash instance: “the encounter with him [Jesus Christ] is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God”.

The Judgement too becomes another nano-second encounter. “At the moment of judgment we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the ‘duration’ of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming ‘moment’ of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning – it is the heart’s time, it is the time of ‘passage’ to communion with God in the Body of Christ”.

The issue of eternal life in Jannah – ‘khalideena feehay abada‘ to Muslims – becomes equally elusive in the Pope’s nuanced language: “Eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality – this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – the before and after – no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy”.

The need to place everything within the range of human ccomprehensionhas led to a loss of clarity!

Mercifully, the Pope has reiterated belief in a Day of Accountability – where the dwellers of the Fire cannot be the same as the dwellers of Paradise. In his words, “Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened”.

Salvation however is strictly ring-fenced – note the reference to Jesus’s Banquet above. He also writes: “God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety”. Muslims remain the uninvited guest – whether as part of Europe in this world, or as saved ones in the Hereafter.

Rather than promoting rationality, the outcome is even greater opaqueness!