ON SEPT. 12 at the University of Regensburg, Pope Benedict XVI gave a lecture titled “Faith, Reason and the University, Memories and Reflections.” He proposed reason as a basis for the dialogue of the minds between Muslims and Christians. While this kind of dialogue may suit the Western mind, we suggest that for the Filipino (and perhaps) the Asian mind, the better basis is the dialogue of the heart.

The Pope did not foresee that quoting a medieval author would unleash controversy. But the Islamic comments were blown out of proportion. His lecture was an academic activity and his purpose was to promote inter-religious dialogue through the use of reason, not violence. The Pope’s lengthy and somewhat complicated speech was essentially about the weaknesses of the Western world, its disdain for religion, and that both Christianity and Islam are against rejecting the link between religion and violence. He was concerned about the excesses of secularization in his homeland Germany and in Europe in general, like attempts to exclude religion from the realm of reason.

By way of introduction, he cited a quotation from the Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, and his dialogue with an educated Persian: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by sword the faith he preached.”

The Pope continues: “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul…. To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death.” A recent event illustrates this point. Last Aug. 14, four masked gunmen abducted two Fox News correspondents in Gaza City. In their two weeks of harrowing captivity, they were blindfolded and forced at gunpoint to say on video that they had converted to Islam. The captors threatened them: either convert to Islam or die. The two captives had to convert to Islam under duress but later recanted to the media after their release. This attitude is against what the Qur’an (2:256) says: “There is no compulsion in religion.”

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The world-wide Muslim reaction can partly be blamed on the media, for distorting the quote out of its academic context. Ali Bardakaoghu, head of the Religious Affairs Directorate of Turkey, condemned the Pope’s statement but admitted later that he made his statement before reading the Pope’s lecture.

Representatives of Christian and Muslim communities in Pakistan have issued a joint press release that the Pope had no intention to insult Islam or Prophet Muhammad. “In fact the Pope’s lecture was an appeal for dialogue and harmony,” it says in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language. It blames some media for “playing a negative role” in reporting the Pope’s speech and for not considering “the good relations the Catholic Church has” with Muslims and people of all religions.

But then, even if mainline Islam declares itself as a religion of peace, the majority cannot control Muslim revivalists who seem to want global attention. That mainline Muslims cannot do much is because Islam is a decentralized religion, unlike the centralized authority in the Catholic Church.

Let us return to the Pope’s proposal, that is, a dialogue of theological exchange between experts or the “dialogue of the head.” This type of dialogue is just one of the three other types as proposed by Pope John Paul II in his 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (57) and in the 1991 Vatican document, Dialogue and Proclamation (42). The other types are the dialogue of life, the dialogue of action (or “dialogue of the hands”), and the dialogue of religious experience (or “dialogue of the heart”).

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Will the dialogue of the head suit the typical Asian? While Western culture is largely indebted to Greek culture with its emphasis on reason (logos), the East takes another path. In Hindu thought, for example, God is better reached through experience because the divine is beyond words. This difference is also in positive (or kataphatic) theology and negative (or apophatic) theology, both of which are orthodox. Because human language is limited, the experience of God is better said negatively (neti-neti) or through poetry as seen in the works of St. John of the Cross.

In our own context, the Filipino mind is concrete and arrives at the truth more through intuition, using symbols such as metaphors from proverbs as means for arriving at the truth. The Filipino devotee who contemplates at the image of the Hesus Nazareno gets his theology without words. This is because the Filipino devotee as a mystic theologizes more with the heart than with the head.

In other words, if there is left-brain thinking (which uses reason) and right-brain thinking (which is intuitive and symbolic), dialogue has to use both means. While we do not discount the importance of the dialogue of the head, when scholars meet, they tend to debate. But when mystics meet, they embrace each other. The dialogue of the heart will have less controversy and will promote better understanding between Muslims and Christians.

Fr. Leonardo N. Mercado, SVD, PhD, is the coordinator of Missiological Education Studies and Research of the Divine Word Missionaries in the Philippines, board member of the Asian Conference on Religion and Peace, and former executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. He is a professorial lecturer at the UST Graduate School.

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