Benedict XVI’s speech on Sept. 12 to scientists at the University of Regensburg, where he served as a professor, set off an unintended furor of controversy.  It also highlighted an important dynamic in what Samuel Huntington describes as “the clash of civilizations.” The target of Benedict’s speech was not Islam, but modernity. Benedict took modernity to task for limiting reason to the scientific method and mathematics. He pointed out that such limits deny the “breadth” and “grandeur” of human reason. As he opened this challenge to modernity, Benedict cited the now famous dialogue in A.D. 1391 between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian about Christianity and Islam.

We won’t rehearse, here, the very public controversy that attached to Benedict’s quotation from the 14th-century Byzantine emperor. Instead, we zero in on the important dynamic highlighted by the controversy and what followed. Benedict’s speech, the uproar and his subsequent steps bring into clearer focus the great divide between modernity and Islam, and the relationship of Christian faith to both. How? First, a little background.

In From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook of Christian Political Thought, 100-1625, Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan uncover a 1,500-year tradition of Christian political theory almost forgotten. The O’Donovans follow key developments in Christian political theory: dual authority (church and state), the exercise of authority and power not by autocrats, but by councils and parliaments, freedom of thought and the rule of law. They trace these from Christ’s saying, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” up to Grotius’s theory of federalism grounded in the biblical idea of covenant.

The O’Donovans point out that the early modern political theorists like John Locke adopt the fruit of 1,500 years of Christian political thought. But the modern theorists write as though they aren’t dependent on 1,500 years of Christian political thought – as if suffering from intellectual amnesia.

Most of Canada’s framework of government – cabinets of ministers (privy councils), representative government (parliaments and legislatures), a constitutional tradition (rule of law), and a federal state – comes down to us from Christian political thought. But to listen to most Canadian opinion leaders, you might think this framework is the fruit of modernity. Modernity claims it as its own.

As Islam emerged from the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century, it adopted as its own a framework of sexual mores, a daily schedule of prayer and it privileged marriage and family life in a way similar, but not identical, to seventh-century Byzantine Christianity. (Byzantine Christianity prescribed the covering of women in public, but did not permit plural marriage).

However, Islam does not adopt an understanding of dual, governmental and religious authority or freedom of thought. Modernity gradually sheds prayer, sexual mores, and – perhaps, inevitably – unloads privileging marriage and family life in favour of individual citizens unburdened by these.

Should anyone be surprised that today’s Islam and modernity have so much difficulty talking to – let alone understanding – each other? Isn’t a clash of civilizations an inevitable consequence of what Islam and modernity emphasize, each as distinct from the other?

In this clash, Christians may be the indispensable peacemakers. Christians hold to so-called “modern values” about the rule of law, freedom of thought and speech and representative government. Christians understand the importance of marriage and family, of sexual mores and of prayer. While “moderns” and Muslims continue to talk past each other, Christians are called to speak to both moderns and Muslims on the basis of what we share with each. By so doing, Christians may be in a position to negotiate a modus vivendi – a way of living together – for moderns, Muslims and Christians, as well as others.

We believe that Christian opinion leaders and elected officials are called to reclaim the fruit of Christian political theory from modernity, and to reinterpret it in ways that take account of life, marriage family and sexual mores, as well as their consequences for the health of society and for human flourishing. We believe that Christian opinion leaders and elected officials are called to affirm, promote and defend plural authority and the institutional separation of religious and state institutions, representative government, the rule of law, and freedom of thought and speech among certain other freedoms at home, at the United Nations and around the world.

We believe that Christian opinion leaders and elected officials are called to hold the UN accountable to its founding charter, which affirms the importance of life, marriage and family as foundational to the survival and flourishing of human society globally. And we call upon all Christians to support opinion leaders and elected officials who do this, irrespective of their adherence to Christian faith.

In his meeting with Muslim leaders and officials from Islamic states in the aftermath of Regensburg, Benedict may have shown the way forward.