American Proscenium

Pope Benedict and Islamic Intolerance

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...

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