Both Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb criticized faithless modernity, echoing Benedict's prophetic address
Pope Francis made history this week when he became the first Catholic pontiff to visit the United Arab Emirates – which is to say, the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam. His presence here gave succour to the region’s often-persecuted Christian minorities, uplifted the more than 120,000 faithful who packed a stadium for Tuesday’s papal Mass and marked a bright new chapter in relations between the Holy See and the Muslim world.
But one thing went unremarked amid all the justifiable enthusiasm: namely, that Francis’s visit vindicated the wisdom of his predecessor’s much-maligned Regensburg lecture.
Back in 2006, religiously illiterate Western reporters and opportunistic Islamist preachers alike distorted Benedict XVI’s 2006 address into a crude harangue against Islam. It was anything but. Benedict’s polemic was directed against modern intellectual movements that seek to exclude religion (Islam as much as Christianity) from the realm of reason, treating faith as at best a purely subjective matter. Put another way, his target was Western modernity.
By insisting that the only questions worth asking are those with scientific or technical answers, Benedict warned, Western scientism and materialism reduced man to a status much lower than the one that revealed religions and classical philosophy and metaphysics (including Islamic metaphysics) granted him.
As a result, “man’s origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, … have no place within the purview of collective reason.” Hamstrung to such a degree, modern “reason” could neither promote nor enter into a genuine dialogue among cultures. And a backlash was inevitable, since “the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions.”
In Abu Dhabi, Francis and his Muslim counterpart, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar in Cairo, picked up on many of the same themes. Though neither equalled Benedict’s depth or precision at Regensburg, nevertheless the two men laid out a vision of Christian-Muslim dialogue centered on a shared critique of modernity’s various individualistic, materialistic and scientistic trends. Regensburg’s echo was unmistakable.
In his address at the Abu Dhabi Founder’s Memorial, Francis emphasised the human family’s common metaphysical origins: “He who is the Creator of all things and of all persons wants us to live as brothers and sisters, dwelling in the common home of creation which he has given us.” This shared heritage, Francis added, means that “fraternity is established here at the roots of our common humanity, as ‘a vocation contained in God’s plan of creation.’” That last bit about “a vocation contained in God’s plan of creation” was a quotation from a 2010 speech by his predecessor.
Francis also railed against “individualism” and “utilitarianism” – that is, the rotten political and ideological fruits of the materialism and scientism that Benedict had in mind. “A purely utilitarian development cannot provide real and lasting progress,” he said. Instead, he called for an “integral” form of development that takes into account humanity’s metaphysical origins and destination – considerations that the modern scientistic worldview is incapable of grasping.
Remarkably, Sheikh Tayeb sounded many similar notes. At the root of our contemporary confusions and discord, the Grand Imam of Sunni Islam’s oldest and most authoritative seminary said, were the “rebellions against God” and “unbound freedom” and anti-religious outrages unleashed 300 years ago – that is, by the century of “Enlightenment” leading up to the French Revolution. At this – and I know this because I was in the room, just 30 feet away – Pope Francis nodded deeply and knowingly.
Most secular media outlets only heard the notes about interfaith dialogue and fraternity. What they didn’t appreciate – and couldn’t, precisely because they are outgrowths and proponents of the modern scientistic worldview – is that neither the Pope’s nor the sheikh’s moral claims would be intelligible without the religious foundations on which they rest. But precisely by making these grand claims against the impoverished ideology of the age, Francis and his Muslim interlocutor, each in his own way and within his own tradition, vindicated the prophetic German pontiff so badly misunderstood when he sat on Peter’s chair.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the just-published memoir, From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)