Why Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture Remains Relevant

Tragedies have a way of making time stand still. When threatened, we recede into our most primal selves; dominated by fight and flight impulses geared towards the most basic demands of the situation at hand. Objective analysis, reasoned judgment, and even emotion are swept away for an instant as we are seized by the immediacy and terrible reality of the moment. It is only after our initial shock has passed that our analytical human faculties return to us, and only then can we ask the most important questions and begin working on the needed answers. It is only in the aftermath that we can allow our emotions to run their course, and let grief and sorrow slowly begin to seek understanding, resolve, and purpose. It is only in its wake that we can ask the two important questions, “Why?” and “What now?” The day after a tragedy we move from experiencing it to living with it. The former is governed primarily by instinct; without our consent and largely through only reactive responses. The latter provides the opportunity for poise and reflection, and must be governed by reasoned, pro-active responses.

September 12, 2001, was one such day. On that day the world once again began to turn, lurching ahead with fear and uncertainty after being temporarily frozen in time. The prolonged moment of terror had given way to a new world, with its brokenness laid bare for all to see, and for all to deal with. Some chose to deal with it with renewed patriotism, perhaps of the militant sort. Others chose to deal with it with naïve optimism; claiming that the evil of 9/11 was an isolated one, ignoring its participation in a greater darkness creeping over the world. Many chose to deal with it by believing and spreading the notion that the violence exhibited that day was authored by a splinter group, motivated by a self-created hatred that, though explicitly rooted in their religious beliefs, must surely have only belonged to them, and surely would die with them. Some chose to deal with it by viewing the atrocities of 9/11 as attacks on a secular brand of Western culture that had more to do with technology and materialism than with creed, forgetting that, at least until recent history, Western culture had for the world been synonymous with Christianity. This naïve group chose to deal with it by viewing the attacks as attacks against the West, in general, rather than against Christendom, in particular, which would have been made evident to them by a quick historical review of the significance of the date September 11.

On September 12, 2006, five years to the day after the first “day after” the terrorist attacks, our Holy Father chose to deal with it in the only way he knew how: with truth and sincerity. Pope Benedict XVI, in his now famous address given at the University of Regensburg, chose to take the hard road demanded by honesty, and the only road that leads anywhere meaningful. While others took the dead ends and detours leading to ignorance, or worse, acceptance, Benedict gave the world the prescription it needed to begin healing religious differences, and, in a way fitting to his learning and wisdom, it came in the form of theology. If we wanted to work towards as a worldwide community of people living peaceably under one God, we needed to know who God is. It is only with that proper theological understanding of God’s nature that we can begin to make claims about what God wills, and how we ought to participate with that will. Benedict taught us that the most divisive problems in the world, and the ones that pose the most dangerous threat to our existence, are not at their core purely political, social, sexual, or cultural. They are, at their root, theological problems. To sort them out, the world did not need a lesson in tolerance, acceptance, or multiculturalism; it needed a lesson in theology.

The particular thing Benedict addressed was the heretical notion that, for his own reasons, God could desire violence against the innocent, and, by extension, authorize and be pleased by violence initiated by his subjects on his behalf. God is love, as Benedict had taught so beautifully in his first encyclical released 9 months before Regensburg, therefore hatred, coercion, and violence have no part in him. But the general thing Benedict spoke of was the consistency of God: God can never be anything other than himself. This is the essence of divine simplicity. The Regensburg address condemned voluntarism: the belief that God’s will exists independently of his nature, and can therefore choose even things which contradict it. This belief suggests that God can even act against his own word.

On the contrary, Benedict explained that while God is omnipotent, he can never will something which opposes himself. He is bound by nothing, except his own nature. His Word (logos) is not something external to himself but internal; it sheds light not on a particular teaching of a deity divided by love and wrath, but instead reveals the inner ordering principle of a God who has no parts. While human beings can be duplicitous and inconsistent, making arbitrary acts of the will swayed by our momentary passions and weaknesses, this is not the case with God. There is no distance between who God is and what God does. God is immutable: unchanging in past, present, and future.

This concept has clear ramifications for those who might want to claim that acts of murder, abuse, and slavery could be divinely sanctioned. Proper theological reasoning prohibits this possibility. An understanding of a non-violent, loving God is agreed upon by most Christians, though we may vary in our application of that notion to certain concrete issues. Benedict’s main point in the Regensburg address, however, challenges not only violent perversions of theology, but also overly passive anti-judgmental ones. He challenges those who divorce God’s will from his nature on either end of the spectrum. God does what he is, he does not do what we want him to do. His will is unchanging; it will not and cannot deviate from his nature.

In his address, Benedict not only refuted the Islamic Ibn Hazm, who “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” and suggested that “were it God’s will, we would even have to practise idolatry,” but also challenged Duns Scotus, suggesting that with him arose “a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.”

One of Scotus’s most famous positions was that the Incarnation of the Son was not necessitated by human sin. For Scotus, the Incarnation was an act of the divine will to manifest his glory, not a requisite for justice. In other words, God sent his Son to save us because he wanted to, not because his justice demanded it. Benedict points out that the theology of Scotus, though not as dangerous as that found in the Quran, is problematic so far as it errantly overemphasizes the unboundedness of God’s will. According to Benedict, “This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.”

This means that just as we are mistaken to assume that God can sanction violence for his own hidden reasons, in opposition to his nature and his revealed word, we are also mistaken when we assume that God can accept sin, which would likewise be in opposition to his nature and revealed word. In an age of individualism where making any sort of objective judgment between right and wrong is seen as oppressive discrimination, our culture has found the idea of an omni-accepting God to be much more palatable than the God of the Bible. We ease our own fears by assuring ourselves that the Lord is a loving God who will save us at any cost, even in ways that we cannot understand.

We tell ourselves that his Godliness makes him incomprehensible, and conclude that he must mysterious reconcile things which are rationally irreconcilable. Since God is God, and we know God loves us, some say, his will to save us will supersede the demands of justice. He will accept all persons, wherever and however he or she stands; obediently or disobediently, it doesn’t really matter because, after all, God is God, right? While some may assume that God can and will accept things which we humans find unacceptable because he is God, Benedict teaches us that it is precisely because he is God that he cannot and will not accept certain things, namely sin, whether in the form of violence, irresponsible tolerance, or anything in between.

Make no mistake; there is truth and beauty to be found in the theological perspective that emphasizes God’s mysterious mercy, when approached with honesty and authenticity, and genuine hope can and ought to be found there. We ought to hope that God’s mercy will prevail, simply because he wills it, even in cases where it appears to be impossible. But we cannot ignore the valuable teaching of Benedict, who reminds us “God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf.” Divine love is unrelenting, and is as stern as death (Song of Songs 8:6). It will settle for nothing less than our love in return.

One of the temptations towards idolatry for the ancient Jews was that, unlike the God of Israel, pagan gods were the work of their own hands; they reflected back to the wayward Jews their own faces as in a mirror. They did not make moral demands of the Israelites, nor did they reprimand for transgressions. They were essentially craven “yes men,” used as puppets to support the fashions and tastes of the day. Pagan gods had no consistent will of their own, only the superimposed will of their worshipers. The modern desire to create a God who makes no judgment upon sin is an act of voluntarism and, as such, becomes an act of idolatry. May all of us, on either side of the spectrum between intolerance and acceptance, mine the depths of Benedict’s wisdom and strive to worship the one, true God who has revealed himself in his Incarnate Word, rather than worshiping a false god of our own making.

(Photo credit: AFP)


Dusty Gates currently serves as the Director of Adult Education at the Spiritual Life Center for the Catholic Diocese of Wichita, KS, and as an adjunct Professor of Theology at Newman University in Wichita, KS, where he resides with his wife and three children.

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