Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI on "Faith, Reason and the University" - Regensburg, 2006

In 1969, following a tense period at the University of Tübingen (see The difficult years, by Gianni Valente 30 Giorni May 2006), Joseph Ratzinger received the invitation to teach at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria.

Having turned down the initial invitation in 1967, he remarks in Milestones that "I was still dean [of the faculty of theology at Tübingen], but the exhausting controveries I experienced during academic meetings had changed my attitude". So it was with understandable relief that he accepted the invitation. Ratzinger would later reflect on his years as "a time of fruitful theological work" and of "acquiring a theological vision that was ever more clearly my own" (Milestones p. 149/150).

The website of the University of Regensburg proudly features a section devoted to Pope Benedict's years at Regensburg, where he was appointed in 1969 as a professor of dogmatic theology. For B16 history buffs, the website posts a number of wonderful artifacts, including a newspaper announcement and certificate of his appointment, along with his later appointment to the International Papal Theological Commission.

On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI was again welcomed to the university, to give an address to students and faculty. His lecture was titled "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections", the text of which is available at the Vatican website.* While I'll highlight a few points, I recommend a reading of the full text -- it is "vintage Benedict": at once stimulating and provocative.

The Pope spoke about his days teaching at the University of Bonn, of the dialogue between departments, "working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason." By way of illustration he mentions an exchange "by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both, and proceeds to mention one point, "itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole," as a starting point for his reflections on the relationship between faith and reason:

In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "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 the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... 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...".

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?

In answer to this question, Benedict contends that there exists "the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God," pointing to the Christian understanding that "God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason."


Benedict goes on to discuss the significance of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament -- the Septuagint -- which fosters this encounter between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry ("From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act 'with logos' is contrary to God's nature.")

According to Benedict, this integration of faith and reason is at the heart of the Christian conception of God. He notes that there arose in the history of Christianity itself schools of thought which have endangered this very conception, and which, when taken to their logical conclusion, are found to be profoundly incompatible. I personally found the following passage one of the more provocative and stimulating:

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language (cf. Lateran IV). God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love transcends knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is logos. Consequently, Christian worship is λογικὴ λατρεία - worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).

According to Benedict, this "inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry" is not only at the very heart of Christianity, but in the historical origins of Europe as well: "this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe."

In the latter half of his lecture, Benedict voices his concerns with the call for the "dehellenization" of Christianity -- of severing Christianity from its Greek heritage. He observes three stages of this program of dehellenization:

  1. the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, countering what they perfecived to be a philosophically-conditioned and corrupted Christianity with a wholesale reliance upon sola scriptura -- "faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word";

  2. the "liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries", with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. -- Harnack positing a "return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message underneath the accretions of theology," thereby bringing Christianity back into harmony with modern reason through the purging of its theological elements (the divinity of Christ and the Trinity). This is in accord with what Benedict describes as the "modern self-limitation of reason," which confines itself to that which is scientifically (mathematically and emperically) verifiable -- thereby dismissing as irrelevant (subjective) "the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics."

  3. the proposition of "inculturation" -- that, in light of experience with cultural pluralism, "the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures . . . [who] have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux." To this Benedict responds:
    The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.
Against this program of dehellenization, Benedict does not propose a rollback of the Enlightenment. He acknowledges "the positive aspects of modernity", pointing out that the scientific ethos is itself "the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity").


Rather, what is called for is a "broadening of our concept of reason and its applications," overcoming "the self-imposed limitation of reason" to that which is emperically verifiable, and a true restoration of theology to its place in the university, in genuine dialogue with the sciences -- "not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith." Only then, says Benedict, "do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today."

In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. . . .

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

The subject of this lecture is certainly a familiar one to Benedict. Shortly after his election, Zenit News featured an interview with Timothy O'Donnell, president of Christendom College, who spoke on Benedict XVI's Commitment to Faith and Reason in Universities. O'Donnell predicted that the Holy Father's experience as a university professor would have an influence over his pontificate, and that he would carry on Pope John Paul II's legacy "by stressing the synthesis of faith and reason in the Catholic intellectual tradition."
. . . I think that our current Holy Father will continue the good work initiated by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic constitutions "Sapienta Christiana" and "Ex Corde Ecclesiae."

I think he will find it particularly important to continue to speak to the vital role that must be played by Catholic institutions of higher learning in an effort to once again re-engage the culture and communicate effectively to the world the great synthesis of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which unites both faith and reason and recognizes in both of them a common source in Almighty God.

Responses to the 2006 Regensburg Address
  • Mark Scott (Rome of the West) ignores the tangential sound-byte approach of the media and gets to the heart of the address in his post, Holy Father's Speech on De-Hellenization of Religion:
    This is the critical question: "Is acting according to reason also acting according to the Will of God?"
  • Prof. Stephen Bainbridge comes to the point:
    Pope Benedict XVI's speech at the University of Regensburg is a challenging read - it's dense and, in a way, highly technical. Yet, it rewards close scrutiny. . . .

    [T]he Pope is staking out a set of claims about the relationship of man and God that stand in opposition not only to the Islam of Ibn Hazn, but also that of the Protestant Reformers, the Jesus of History crowd, and (an area of particular concern for this pope) post-Christian Europe. The Pope is also renewing the claims of the Church Universal to have a truth that is transcendent, rather than culturally-bound.

  • Oswald Sobrino (Catholic Analysis) has also been taking a look at the speech in its entirety -- part 1 examines the Pope's opening remarks on the use of coercion to spread religion; part two tackles Benedict's critique of the loss of reason in the West:
    . . . the major part of the speech is not about Islam at all but about a wider trend: the abandonment of reason in the modern world. Fanatical religious violence is but one manifestation of that trend. To judge by the number of paragraphs in his speech, what concerns the Pope more is the abandonment of the fullness of reason in the West. The Pope begins his discussion in the fifth paragraph by posing the question: "Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always intrinsically true?" For the Pope, the idea that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature is an intrinsically true idea that is a perennial contribution of ancient Greek culture for all the world, whether Western or not.
    Thanks in large part to the irresponsibility of the media, the Vatican is preoccupied in a public relations venture to safeguard the lives of Christians. But this -- the loss of reason in the West; the integration of biblical faith and philosophical reason at the heart of Christianity, at (according to B16) the very foundation of Europe itself, the question of "dehellenization" -- is what we should be talking about, and I hope what many will be returning to this topic, once the fires of controversy have subsided. (Update 9/18/06) - Here is Part III on Oswald Sobrino's reflection on the Pope's address.

  • The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man, by Fr. James V. Schall. Ignatius Insight September 15, 2006:
    . . . with this lecture we are in heady academic surroundings. All is genteel. All is formal. All is, yes, "intellectual." But it is here where the real battles lie hidden. What we see in Regensburg are, after Deus Caritas Est, the second shots of the new pope at the heart of what is wrong in our world and its mind. These "shots," however, are designed to do what all good intellectual battle does, namely, to make it possible for us to see again what is true and to live it.

    The Regensburg Address, I suspect, will go down as one of those seminal and incisive analyses that tell us who we are and where we are. It will remind us of what we are by teaching us again to think about the God that the skeptics, the dons, the theological faculties, including Muslim faculties, have too often obscured for us. Civilization depends also on thinking rightly about God and man -- all civilization, not just European or Muslim. Such is the reach of this lecture.

Update! 9-23-06


* In reading Benedict's speech I was relying on, and quoting from, the Provisional Text of the Regensberg address, on the website of Vatican Radio. In comparing it to that which is posted on the Vatican website, I see there are some minor variations in translation but I trust the meaning is essentially the same.


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