The Muslim rage at Benedict XVI’s citation of a late 14th-century Byzantine emperor who condemned Muhammad’s call to spread Islam through war has obscured the numerous cultural implications of the Pope’s learned speech. One of them is the unique importance for Western civilization of classical thought, in general, and Greek thought, in particular—as preserved and transmitted by Christianity.
Greek thought clearly informs the Christian sacred texts, particularly Saint John’s Gospel, in language and content. It is not evident, however, in other monotheistic religions’ sacred texts, such as the Koran or the Tanakh. As the Pope notices, when John writes, “In the beginning was the logos” (“Logos means both reason and word”), he is adding to, and therefore, from the Christian viewpoint, completing the Revelation already present in the Old Testament. (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”) So the New Testament makes explicit that Revelation includes a Greek mode of understanding the sacred and the universe.
Although Benedict does not mention it, this mode of understanding goes back at least to Heraclitus of Ephesus in the sixth century B.C.: for Heraclitus’ proto-monotheistic thinking (at times, he spoke of “theos,” not of “theoi”) the logos constituted the intelligible Law of the universe.
Christianity preserved and transmitted a good deal of classical culture after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The best known examples of this salvaging effort are the Benedictine monasteries. Less appreciated is the role of the Christian Greek Orthodox Roman Empire—the Byzantine Empire—in the preservation and transmission of Greek culture. Muslims did not “preserve” or “give” to the West the texts of classical Greece, as is sometimes repeated. These Greek texts had been “there” all the time, preserved in the Byzantine Empire, cut off from the Latin West by the great division within Christendom between Latin Catholic and Greek Orthodox. When Muslims conquered the Middle East from the Christian Byzantines in the seventh century A.D., they obtained some of the texts from the Christian Syrian scholars, who had translated them into Syrian. From Syrian, Muslim scholars translated them into Arabic.
So these preserved Greek texts and, indeed, Greek culture did not reach the West until the 15th century, brought over by Christian Greek scholars fleeing the Muslim onslaught. We will never know how much of classical Greece was lost in the three-day sacking and raping of Christian Byzantium by its Muslim conquerors in 1453.
Classical culture, at its best—that is, when not overcome by the political correctness that forced Socrates to commit suicide and Aristotle to flee—made open discussion possible. The agora was a tough marketplace of ideas, as Saint Paul found out when he preached to the Athenians.
Benedict XVI pointedly used the word universitas not too subtly to remind his probably religiously indifferent academic audience that the Catholic Church created the sort of institution where that audience worked. As heirs to classical culture, the medieval universities could, at times, serve as a forum for then potentially “offensive” questions—such as attacking the validity of arguments that “proved” the existence of God.
As shown by the debate mentioned by the Pope, between the Byzantine emperor and the Persian scholar, in the Christian Middle Ages, a Christian and a Muslim could fiercely argue the strengths and weaknesses of their religions. In the 21st century, they cannot. Muslim fundamentalists might kill both, or cause a major stir, as happened after the Pope’s speech. Such a no-holds-barred debate—as opposed to nice let-us-find-what-we-all-have-in-common “ecumenical” gatherings–would also be unthinkable today even in a Western university, because bringing up certain issues can damage an academic career, prevent hiring or worse, and make even a powerful academic step down—as the case of a university president at Harvard illustrates.
Another statement by Pope Benedict offers more material for reflection: “[W]e made up a whole.” He referred to the situation among faculty at Regensburg during his time as a teacher. But his subtext may be again the Greek principle of rational organization–the logos–underlying Christianity’s organic view of things. The logos is God and is with God. This equivalence makes rational whatever God creates. Therefore, the universe is rational, even if humans cannot fully understand its rationality. In fact, God cannot act against reason because reason is part of God. This viewpoint, the Pope remarks, stands in contrast to Islam, where Allah is not limited by anything, not even Himself, and can therefore conceivably be irrational. In the West, the holistic Christian viewpoint has been largely supplanted by ethical, epistemological, and metaphysical fragmentation. So the Pope’s universitas has withered away, especially in the so-called humanities, which originate in the studia humanitatis, but which may no longer be properly called “the humanities.” The Pope’s statement also brings to mind the divisions within Christianity and some of their consequences, such as abandoning Byzantium to its fate and leaving Catholicism to fight without Protestant help the Islamic threat during the 17th century.
The Pope errs in placing Sura II—where the Koran asserts that there is no compulsion in religion—among the early Suras. It is a late one, though perhaps abrogated by the also late but less peaceful Sura IX. In any event, Sura II did not stop Islam from conquering the Arabian peninsula, the Middle East, Persia, Byzantium, the Balkans, North Africa, and much of Spain, among other places. So another possible implication of the Pope’s speech is that, just as Christianity was once crucial in preserving classical thought and its rational strain, so the Faith may be the only hope of preserving them today. If this is true, then the abandonment of Christianity by Western Europe may already have left it ideologically defenseless against determinedly holistic systems stronger than the desire for material well-being, longevity, parliamentary elections, and the latest electronic device.