Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Pope’s language

A marine scientist, upon seeing the damage of the recent oil spill on Guimaras, is likely to say to his fellow scientists, “The biota exhibited a 100 percent mortality response.”

We journalists would write, “All the fish died.” It thunders in its simplicity and you couldn’t get more dramatic than that.

Author Kurt Vonnegut says that his favorite line among James Joyce’s stories is from the short story “Eveline”. The sentence: “She was tired.” At that point, Vonnegut says, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

“Simplicity of language,” he says, “is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively 14-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’”

The subject of simplicity in language—and its sacredness—was going through my mind while I was going over the lecture that Pope Benedict XVI delivered at the University of Regensburg in Germany last week. It was not a papal “to the city and to the world” (Urbi et Orbi) speech, by the way, only a lecture for a select group of intellectuals in an academic compound.

A sentence in that lecture has so infuriated Muslims who felt that Islam was demeaned. That sentence was not the Pope’s own words. The Pope was merely quoting a Byzantine emperor who bashed the Prophet Mohammed’s way of spreading the faith. (I do not wish to repeat that sentence here.) The Pope thought the emperor said it “with a startling brusqueness” but he went on to quote it anyway in his lecture. By quoting that statement, the Pope wanted to merely illustrate a point. He did not say he agreed or disagreed with it.

Well, the Pope should have made himself clear in the next breath, because how were the Muslims to know that the offending sentence’s intent was not something also his?

The Pope’s lecture that I read—four times the length of this column—was not easy. It was an English translation from German and the subject was philosophy and more.

The Pope has said he was sorry his words (the quote he used) caused offense, something he did not mean. He did not say he was sorry that he used the quote. If the Pope was deliberately testing the waters or proving something by using that offending quote, then he certainly got some answers from the way Muslims reacted.

Many documents and encyclicals of global significance have come from the popes of recent years and one could easily say that these were not crafted by the individual popes alone but were the handiwork of theologians and experts from various fields. Same with the brief speeches and homilies they deliver during their papal visits.

But the Pope’s lecture in Regensburg (much like his controversial 2004 “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World” while still the Josef Cardinal Ratzinger) seemed like he crafted it by his lonesome. A lecture is the lecturer’s own, something straight out of the lecturer’s mind.

The Vatican website calls this piece “Lecture of the Holy Father” and has the title “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections.”

The Pope began and reminisced as only he could: “It is a moving experience for me to be back again in the university and to be able once again to give a lecture at this podium. I think back to those years when, after a pleasant period at the Freisinger Hochschule, I began teaching at the University of Bonn. That was in 1959, in the days of the old university made up of ordinary professors…There was lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties. Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making a genuine experience of universitas…

“The university was also very proud of its two theological faculties…(I)t was once reported that a colleague had said that there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God.”

Well, after those sweet reminiscences the Pope dived briefly, but intensely, into the subject of Islam and Christianity, the Koran and the Bible, and the face-off between Byzantine II Paleologus and his educated Persian interlocutor. It was here that that offending statement by the Byzantine emperor was quoted.

One more paragraph on God’s nature according to Islam and Greek philosophy and then the Pope segued into God’s transcendence and otherness, the “de-hellenization of Christianity”, dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.

Taste the flavor of Pope Benedict XVI’s language.

“A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures…

“For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.”

That offending quote in the early part did not stray there accidentally. It was put there for a reason. For at the end of his long lecture about a subject that was above ordinary mortals (Jesus spoke more simply), the Pope again took up the debate between the Byzantine emperor and his Persian interlocutor. Once more, he stressed reason as the basis for a great dialogue, not debate, of cultures.

Great. But by then, one would have become bewildered, befuddled and lost in that arcane language that you either knew or didn’t know what offended you.