Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Hitchens talks Papal bull

I couldn't help being amused by Christopher Hitchens' non-defence of the Pope in this Slate piece. What to do when the representatives of two monotheisms you despise are at each other's throats? Adopt a 'plague on both your houses' approach, it would seem:
"Yet of all the words he could have chosen, to suggest that religion might wish to break its old connection with conquest, intolerance, and subjugation, Ratzinger had to select an example that was designed to remind his hearers of the crudest excesses of the medieval period. His mention of Manuel II was evidently not accidental or anecdotal. He refers to him repeatedly and returns to him again in the closing paragraph, as if to rub it in."
Hitchens has clearly come down on the side of those who think the Pope's words were calibrated to offend. This may well be so. But I think it's also worth considering the possibility that the Pope doesn't spend quite as much time as Christopher Hitchens does thinking about the most effective way to piss people off. Because I doubt many people do.

Hitchens also points out the hypocrisy of linking Islam to violence whilst glossing over the medieval Church's history of violence and oppression. A reasonable yet rather obvious point. Behind this, though, is another obvious observation: Hitchens' problem is that the Pope - as has been remarked upon before - is indeed a Catholic. I can't see any other reason for Hitchens' attitude here. Was the Pope's linking of Islam to violence in some way less subtle than the Danish cartoons? I don't see why. Yet Hitchens felt the need to 'defend Demark' and was, as I understand it, instrumental in organising demonstrations for 'free expression' to this end.

But the motivations of Jyllands-Posten seem somewhat less pristinely secular when one considers they apparently refused to publish cartoons that lampooned Jesus Christ. Fundametally, I can't see why what the Pope said was instrinsically more offensive than the cartoons, which had the added factor of breeching the Islamic taboo on iconography.

Anyway, the Pope's speech was rather more subtle than Hitchens gives it credit for. For example, he writes that:

"He pretends that the word Logos can mean either "the word" or "reason," which it can in Greek but never does in the Bible, where it is presented as heavenly truth."
I'm assuming that Hitchens, being an intelligent chap, knows that the New Testament was written in Greek and that the Gospel in question - St John - was specifically written for a Greek audience, so I'm wondering what he's at here. It is certainly true that the Logos in John doesn't mean quite the same as it does in the everyday Greek but it does not simply mean "heavenly truth". Rather, it is taken to mean the unifying principle of the universe, which is to say God.

The Pope's point, in making reference to the "Logos becoming flesh", I think, was to defend the idea that this Principle was revealed progressively within history and was capable of being apprehended by reason. Conservative? Certainly. Intellectually disingenuous? Quite possibly. But it is not quite the same idea as the notion of sola scriptura - an idea inherited by scripturalist branches of Islam.

Ratzinger's airbrushing of history notwithstanding - and at the risk of courting controversy - I don't think his idea that this mode of interpreting holy books is intrinsically less flexible and less amenable to compromise is by any means absurd.

And as one commentator said below Hitchens' piece, making the charge of hypocrisy is besides the point. The Pope may well have deliberately avoided any discussion of Hume and Spinoza to give the impression that his version of "revealed truth" is in some way compatible with the Enlightenment. But the observation that fundamentalists of all confessional stripes never feel the need even to do this, is a valid one.

But there's a more basic political issue here, which is much more simple and obvious: would it have killed Hitchens to make a defence of the Pope, not because of what he said, nor on the grounds of what he represents, but on the basis of freedom of speech? He has done so in the past for less deserving expressions, in my view.

The point of all this? None of us are free from prejudice; not this blogger and certainly not Mr Christopher Hitchens.

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