Talking Turkey

If it’s in Time, it must be the talk of the town. (If it’s in the Economist, it’s ahead of the curve, and few may be ready to talk about it.)

The latest issue of Time puts the spotlight on Pope Benedict XVI’s risk-ridden visit to Turkey next week. The cover story defines the stakes:

Benedict, 79, will arrive carrying a different reputation: that of a hard-knuckle intellect with a taste for blunt talk and interreligious confrontation. Just 19 months into his tenure, the Pope has become as much a moral lightning rod as a theologian; suddenly, when he speaks, the whole world listens. And so what takes place over four days in three Turkish cities has the potential to define his papacy–and a good deal more.

It may also end his papacy. I am happy to note that security officials are taking the possibility of a post-Regensburg backlash very seriously indeed.

As usual, I turn to the estimable John Allen to understand the coming visit.

He poses the question: Which Pope Benedict will show up in Turkey?

Pope Benedict XVI heads to Turkey next month, his first visit to a majority Muslim state. Of all the question marks surrounding the trip, perhaps the most consequential is this: Which Benedict will show up?

Will it be the Benedict of Regensburg, challenging his Muslim hosts to embrace rationality, hence to renounce violence and to respect religious freedom? Or will it be the post-Regensburg Benedict, seemingly determined to project a "kinder, gentler" face to Islam, missing no opportunity to send signals of reconciliation?

Can he, in some fashion, be both?

He nuances the policy of "reciprocity," which the Pope is widely expected to emphasize:

As Benedict XVI’s Nov. 28-Dec. 1 trip to Turkey draws near, one concern both in the Vatican and at the Phanar, the headquarters of the Patriarch of Constantinople, is that the post-Regensburg emphasis on Christian/Muslim relations will overshadow the ecumenical thrust of the pope’s visit, intended to cap several decades of rapprochement between Rome and the "first among equals" in the Orthodox world.

One issue that could tie the two themes together is "reciprocity," meaning the demand that religious minorities in Islamic states should receive the same rights and freedoms as Muslims in the West. Reciprocity is a core element of Benedict’s challenge to Muslims — inviting them to embrace reason with respect to religious affairs — and the dismal conditions facing Turkey’s small Christian population, including the tiny flock of the Patriarch of Constantinople, offers a classic case in point.

Benedict will have to choose his words carefully, however, because there’s a unique history in Turkey that could easily make such a challenge sound like a threat. Over the centuries, European powers repeatedly intervened in Turkey to demand special privileges for Christians, a process that many Turks associate with the slow undermining of the Ottoman Empire. If the pope is to avoid awakening those historical ghosts, he’ll have to find a vocabulary that makes it clear he’s talking about a matter of universal human dignity, not about special treatment for Christians.

He even sets previous attempts at Christian-Muslim dialogue, or perhaps the better term is encounter, in context (with a timely assist from Avery Cardinal Dulles).

Christianity’s original experts on Islam were neither impartial scholars nor specialists in inter-faith dialogue, but rough-and-tumble medieval apologists – that is to say, writers from the 7th through the 14th centuries whose aim, in no uncertain terms, was to show why Christianity is right and Islam is wrong.

This grab-bag of colorful ecclesiastical characters includes John Damascene, Theodore Abu Qurrah (a Melchite bishop in the 9th century who wrote treatises against the Muslims in Arabic), Peter the Venerable, Raymond Martini, Raymond Lull, Ricoldus de Monte Croce, Dionysius the Carthusian, Cardinal Juan Torquemada, Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa, and even the Florentine reformer Savonarola (of "bonfire of the vanities" fame).

At first blush, their work might seem an unpromising vein to tap as Pope Benedict XVI tries to pick up the pieces following his controversial Sept. 12 comments on Islam. Yet whatever their limitations, the medieval apologists represent the first sustained Christian attempt to grapple with the challenges posed by Islam, based on knowledge of Arabic and the Koran, which was a project largely forgotten by the dawn of the modern period.

Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Jesuit widely considered one of America’s premier Catholic theologians, believes a study of this history – both its strengths and its weaknesses – can offer useful insights for Muslim/Christian relations today.

PS. Thoughtful Allen writes lead paragraphs that are constructed like link-ready summaries — an act of charity, if you ask me.

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3 Comments

Filed under Readings in Religion

3 responses to “Talking Turkey

  1. Hi John.

    I’ve only had the time to catch up on reading people’s blogs. Great entries and links.

  2. I figured, what with Daniel Craig taking up the rest of your time : )

  3. Haha! I wish.

    I was only able to catch the movie because we had Thursday off (Thanksgiving).

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