The uproar over recent statements in which Pope Benedict XVI called Islam “evil and inhuman” can be viewed from many perspectives. One way to look at the controversy might be to start with the stated intent of the Pope’s speech. The academic lecture given at the University of Regensburg in Germany was above all an appeal to the critical role universities can play in intercultural and interfaith dialogue. I know this only because I have actually read the entire speech. The fact that this appeal was lost amid the controversial statements of a medieval Byzantine emperor demonstrates once more that an academic lecture is not a press release. The incompatibility of academic discourse and media relations is a painful lesson universities have had to learn over and over again.
Pope Benedict began his lecture with a nostalgic review of his days as a student and professor. Those were the days. Back then, the university was a place of decorum, respect and, above all, reason. He illustrated this point with an anecdote that recalled the apocryphal words of a skeptical colleague. The University of Bonn was home to an unusual combination — not one, but two departments that dealt with something that did not exist: God. And yet the point of the anecdote is that dialogue between those who hold radically opposing views must continue — a fact, claimed Benedict, once unquestioned within the hallowed halls of academe.
Benedict went on to explain to his audience that the hellenization of the early Christian faith, evident in Emperor Manuel’s thesis that irrational action is contrary to God’s will, gave European Christianity its basis in rational thought. The Pope then discussed three periods of dehellenization, the concept of Logos and faith, the role of science and empirical knowledge in modern society, Socrates and the primacy of truth, Kant’s critique of practical reason; in short, he ranged far and wide in an attempt to come back to the university’s role in fostering an intercultural dialogue based in a rational inclusion of questions of faith. All of this, of course, was lost on those who sought to turn the words of a medieval emperor into Benedict’s own.
It is perhaps unreasonable to expect that an academic lecture be understood as such by a non-academic audience. Scholarship’s attempts to deal with complex issues in subtle questions and sometimes open-ended explanations cannot satisfy a society’s desire for immediate affirmation of firmly held truths. This need is satisfied by politicians.
We should ask ourselves, however, what role our own university might play in all this. The pope calls on us, the University, to find partners in a dialogue of cultures. But can we find a way to distinguish between scholarship and public relations? Can we, in our quest for dialogue, resist the temptation to give in to easy answers and ignore uncomfortable partners? Benedict has been criticized for not having vetted his speech with media-savvy experts, who would have been able to expunge his thinking of anything that could in any way be misunderstood by anyone. But his real failing was in his idealistic view of what a university can do. Can we be a proponent of thoughtful dialogue if we shun controversy and bow to the will of uninformed and mean-spirited pundits? Or should we persist in the belief that reason and faith can share common ground, and that the best answers are not always the easy ones?
William Whobrey is an assistant dean of Yale College and a lecturer in Germanic languages and literatures.