By LORENZO ALBACETE The New York Times: February 3, 2006
Benedict's conversations with nonbelievers have convinced him that their major concern about Christianity is not its "other-worldiness" but the very opposite. For them, what makes Christianity potentially dangerous as a source of conflict and intolerance in a pluralistic society is its insistence that faith is reasonable — that is, that it is the source of knowledge about this world and that, therefore, its teaching should apply to all, believers and nonbelievers alike. The Christian faith faced a similar criticism before, Benedict has argued, when it first came into contact with the religious and philosophical world of the Roman Empire. The Roman world celebrated religious pluralism and was willing to welcome Christianity as an ethical or "spiritual" option, but not as a source of truth about this world — that was considered to be the realm of the philosophers. At that time, Christianity would not accept a place with the religions of the empire. It saw itself as a philosophy, as a path to knowledge about reality, and not primarily as a source of spiritual or ethical inspiration. The problem was that it claimed to be the only path to full knowledge about the meaning and purpose of life. Indeed, throughout history Christians have used this claim to justify their intolerance of other views, even turning to violence in order to affirm and defend their idea of what is true. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, reminded us that this unhappy tendency was not limited to the Christian faith, but seems inherent in religious belief. If a god offers absolute truth, then those who disagree with that god's teachings are enemies of the truth, and thus harmful to society. It makes no difference whether the intolerance comes from a Christian god, who punishes countries and cities with natural disasters, or a Muslim god, who encourages terrorists to kill the innocent.Hence the pope's insistence on the importance of emphasizing that God is, above all, love, and that love and truth are inseparable. "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred, this message is both timely and significant," he wrote. "For this reason I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us, and which we in turn must share with others." For Benedict, God "loves with a personal love." In fact, human love (eros) and divine love for us (agape) are intertwined. "God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape." That is why God's passionate love can be described "using boldly erotic images." Faith reveals God's love to be a "turning of God against himself" that replaces the demands of justice with the demands of mercy.It's worth noting that in the second part of the encyclical, Benedict says that the charitable mission of the church is informed by the belief that human and divine love are inseparable. This is why believers and nonbelievers can come together to fight poverty and injustice — and why the church can be trusted not to impose its social teachings on "political life."It is for this reason that believers and nonbelievers alike should welcome Benedict's reflection on love. In a time when we are rightfully suspicious of the power of religion to stir violence, Benedict has sent a clear message: No one has anything to fear from a God who is love. Lorenzo Albacete is a Roman Catholic priest.