WHEN Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encyclical ("Deus Caritas Est" or "God Is Love") last month, it took some people by surprise. Many expected the document to focus on the "dictatorship of relativism," which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had denounced in a speech to his fellow cardinals before his election as pope. But love?
After all, the study of human love had never really been a central topic in the cardinal's personal academic work. In that sense, it was surprising that he would choose it as the subject of his first encyclical. I suspect, however, that behind his choice lies a concern that has characterized much of his theological work for the past 40 years or so: the role of religion or, more precisely, fundamentalism in the threats we face today.
The encyclical's release coincided with the publication in English of a book about the future of Western civilization by Marcello Pera, the president of the Italian Senate and an atheist, in which he argues, perhaps surprisingly, that European civilization is no longer able or willing to defend its commitment to freedom and the dignity of the individual because of the weakening of its Jewish and Christian roots. The book also contains a supportive response from Cardinal Ratzinger, who makes the point that the rejection of this heritage stems from a fear of the intolerance of religious fundamentalism. This is an argument he has advanced before, most notably in a debate with Paolo Flores d'Arcais, an Italian scholar, before an overflow crowd in Rome a few years ago.
I believe that interpreted against the background of these discussions, the encyclical offers an important view of where Benedict intends to situate the church in the cultural clashes threatening world peace today.
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.