October 5, 2006


Fr. James V. Schall on Benedict XVI at Regensburg (Ken Masugi, September 12, 2006, Claremont.org)

KM: But why does Benedict choose this particular example from medieval history and philosophy? Surely he knew it would prove inflammatory.

JVS: It is in order that he can bring up a much more general and basic problem that is not exclusive to Islam, though by using this particular instance of a Byzantine Emperor himself being attacked by Islam, the Pope reminds us that this is not a new problem. Islam in the first hundred years of its existence conquered a good deal of the Africa, Spain, and Asia by force of arms. Certain intellectual affinities, moreover, exist between Islamic voluntarism and modern relativism and multiculturalism, something the Pope has long been concerned about. (See my "Ratzinger on the Modern Mind,") Islam itself, if we read its medieval philosophers, is already caught up in philosophic questions that arise from its own claims to explain and understand what it is. Like medieval Christian and Jewish theology, both begun centuries before Islam appeared on the scene, Islam has had to face the question of what to do with Greek philosophy. It had to articulate its own basic tenets in intelligible terms that could be tested and judged by reason and mind.

The citation about Islam that Benedict used is placed already within a philosophical context about the understanding of God, whether He be "logos" or not, whether He be sola voluntas or not. Once the Holy Father arrives at this point, he can get about the main business of examining the whole structure of mind in the modern world, something he discusses under the sophisticated name of "dehellinization," that is, removal of Greek philosophy, that is reason, from the requirements of mind. Islam is in the news. Jihad is in the news. Suicide bombers are in the news. No one can avoid thinking of these issues.

One explanation for such violence is clearly "religious." It holds that Allah could make what is violent to be good, or what is wrong to be right. Or perhaps more basically, the divine will, presupposed to no "logos," is what makes right and wrong. No objective distinction can exist between the two that Allah cannot change at will. Will in this understanding becomes blind power, something that will reappear in Western political thought.

KM: Nietzsche?

JVS: The Pope did not invent this theory. He is merely citing its existence, the first and necessary step in intelligence. But to cite a passage includes also understanding what it means. Islam claims to be a revelation subsequent to Judaism and Christianity. It claims to give the final revelation of God that rejects the previous Christian revelation's two basic tenets, the Trinity and the Incarnation. Within this claim is an understanding of submission to Allah that cannot question whatever Allah might be said to decree, since to do so is blasphemy.

The Greek Emperor whom the Pope cites anxiously wants to know whether God can approve violence. Obviously, He can, if He is ruled only by will such that nothing in nature or revelation needs be what it is. On this supposition, we cannot "reason" with Allah, only obey him whatever he says. The Pope's academic question is this: is this view tenable? It is tenable if Allah is ruled by a will that has no relation to reason, to logos. Most Muslim philosophy holds precisely this view. Muslim custom and polity decrees uphold it with its law and force. Assuming these are obvious and prevalent statements of what is held and practiced in Islam, the Pope proposes a discourse about their validity in a forum where no one is threatened for simply suggesting that this question needs attention..

Basically, I think it could be argued that the Pope did a very great service, both to the free world and to Islam itself, to bring up this precise question about rationality. One can only say that the widespread reaction was precisely "irrational." It is an attempt to impose a rigid view of academic and intellectual investigation on everyone in the world so that no reasonable discussion about these tenets is allowed. There is left no academic or intellectual space to examine the truth of a claim. There is only violence in enforcing its stated and unexamined position. The Pope's initiative made it clear, by the response to it, as nothing else does or can, that the political and ordinary culture of Islam has little place within it for a reasonable discussion of the truth of its own tenets. And it does not want them discussed outside its own control either. This is the heart of the issue and the world needs to know this. An Islam that bases itself on this proposition that Allah is bound only by pure will can only require obedience, not rational obedience. What else can one conclude from reaction to a simple scholarly invitation to discuss the truth of its own clearly stated positions?

KM: You say that the Pope is not primarily interested in Islam. What then is he driving at?

JVS: The principal thing that concerns him is the status of reason within Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, which are themselves admittedly not philosophical books. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" (Tertullian) is a question going back to the beginnings of Christianity. The Pope does a remarkable thing. He intimates that both in the Old and the New Testament there are intimations of reason. Leo Strauss, Leon Kass, and Thomas Pangle have done important work to show how, even in spite of its concern with Yahweh, who Himself almost at times seems to be an Allah whose will is wholly arbitrary, there are certain intimations of reason throughout the history and texts of Israel and much more so in the New Testament. Clearly, Augustine, Aquinas, and the central line of Christian thought have accepted that there is an order in God, in the cosmos, and in man. The Pope notes that there is also voluntarism in the late scholastic philosophy. This view means that what we know is only "ordered will" (anything, good or bad, can be ordered), not natural law or reason.

In a striking affirmation, the Pope gets into the whole Augustinian question of the theology of history. The Holy Father suggests in his lecture that the confrontation between Christian revelation and Greek philosophy was no mere "accident," but a step in providence itself. Greek philosophy at its best is necessary to and part of the faith, not in the sense that philosophy is "revealed" in Scripture but in the sense that philosophy is needed to understand revelation and to give us the tools by which we can accept its veracity, or at least see it is not contradictory. This view does not diminish but enhances the truth of God who is able to create beings themselves endowed with reason. Like Augustine and Aquinas and other philosophers, the very wording and understanding of Yahweh's definition of Himself as "I Am" and the Johannine gloss in the Prologue that recalls that in the beginning God "created the heavens and the earth," as it says in Genesis, but, as it says in the Preface, not before the Word, which was uncreated.

This reflection brings us to the heart of the lecture. The expectation that God will not violate reason is based on the view that He will not contradict Himself. This does not mean human minds are "equal" in power to the divine mind, just that there is mind in all that God accomplishes outside of Himself. But this reliance on reason is an act of bravery on the part of the Pope. He understands the danger of a system that affirms that God can make evil good and good evil. In this lecture at Regensburg, the Pope is absolutely unarmed. He postulates that Islam itself is challenged by its own claims, by the need to defend in reason that God can command what is evil to be good. Benedict does not want this issue to be decided in the streets, though its need of a decision on this score may be most manifest there. It must first be decided amidst the dons. He must find a place where what is held can be accurately stated. We have seen that even when stated, it will not always or even often be responded to in reason or with reason. But the bravest act of our time is the act that insists, in a public university lecture, that what is unreasonable must defend itself in reason.

KM: Does not the Pope's three steps in "dehellenization" sound like Strauss' three "waves" of modernity?

JVS: Actually, it does a bit, quite a bit. Scott Walter sent me a report of a debate between Ratzinger and Habermas (Le Monde, 27.04.2005), in which Cardinal Ratzinger cited the witticism of Strauss about the truth of relativism that "if all positions are of equal intellectual merit, then cannibalism is only a matter of taste." I suppose one could even wonder just what cannibals taste when they taste something, but the point is the same as the problem involved in the primacy of will, namely, that nothing objective exists to distinguish one view from another except power or choice or, yes, taste.

The Pope's three stages are as follows: First is that the Reformation rejection of scholastic theology was precisely because "reason" in theology supposedly prevented the pure Scripture from being understood. Faith was encumbered with philosophy. "The principle of Sola Scriptura…sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word." The biblical "Word" evidently had no relation to the philosophic tradition of "Word." In this process, the Pope sees Kant as drawing the logical conclusion that faith can have no "rational" groundings. Our minds do not reveal a real world. They can only deal with "practical" things, how to live, but this not as an understanding but only as a supposition, an obedience without reason.

The second step had to do with Harnak in the 19th Century. Jesus is no longer God, but a very nice man. We follow Him not because of who and what He is (a divine Person), but because of His simple "humanity." We do not, in this understanding, "worship" Christ as if he were God, rather we imitate Him because he has good manners. "In the end, he (Christ) was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message." Both philosophy and theology were out of place in this project. Theology is now "historical" and therefore "scientific" in the way modern science is scientific. Theology is now in the university because it is "scientific" that is, it studies what this pious man (Jesus) did, like studying Caesar. The primacy of "practical" reason, that Stoic position, means that what is true is what we can do, whatever it is.

The Pope next brings up, by implication, the controverted question of "intrinsic design." "The modern concept of reason is based…on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology." Notice that the Pope approves of technology. He even goes out of his way to emphasize this affirmation in the lecture. Still, we must "understand" our thought This means we must explain "modernity," something I tried to do in At the Limits of Political Philosophy. Modernity is basically the claim, as Yves Simon says in his A General Theory of Authority, that the first principles of reason are themselves subject to will. Modernity, in its philosophic sense, means that we are bound by nothing because there is no order in things or mind, for that matter. This view was developed to protect us from the notion that truth obliges us. The real question thus becomes what "limits" reason? The answer, in terms of classical metaphysics, is what is, reality.

The Pope proceeds to make the issue more specific, but he sees in modernity what can be saved. Modernity "presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is … the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature." We might also recall that the medieval idea of the quadrivium, which everyone had to study in the university, was based on the study of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. What differentiated these disciplinary studies was in effect the Pope's point. Arithmetic studies numbers in themselves, geometry studied number in space, music studied it in time, and astronomy studied it in both space and time. And the study of Plato's Republic also shows the central place of numbers in the formation of our minds. Yet, we still need to confront the metaphysical problem of what is the relation of a reality that displays order to its source? This is an issue that this lecture does not hesitate to confront.

This same science, following Bacon, but also Genesis, refers to the fact that we can use this nature and its order for "our purposes." We can verify and falsify our attempts to understand nature or make something out of it. What is normally meant today by science is this "interplay of mathematical and empirical elements." This is good as far as it goes, but this method, "by its very nature" excludes God and makes efforts to understand His presence to be "unscientific" because this one method is the only one permitted.

What do we do about this situation? First, if we maintain that "theology" must be "scientific, not in Aquinas' sense, but after the manner of physical sciences in order to be respectable in the university, then we reduce what the whole discipline is to the terms of mathematical inquiry. But God is not a big number. Not only does this method reduce God to a number but it reduces man to the same status. In losing God we lose man, something John Paul II pointed out again and again. "The specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by 'science' and thus must be relegated to the realm of the subjective." This means that such basic questions can no longer be asked in a spirit of "reason."

What follows from this rejection of reason? Logically, "cultural pluralism," the third 'dehellenization.' Strauss made the same point about "historicism." Everyone or every culture comes up with his own truth. There is no difference between what the cannibals do and what the saints do. When the Church, however, sought to "inculturate" itself into other cultures, it did so on the basis of at least something that all cultures either had or should have in common, namely, reason. This is what was learned from Greek philosophy. Obviously, each culture may do what we do by genuflecting differently. But "the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are elements of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself." Faith is addressed to a reason that has asked the basic philosophic questions of itself and not found complete answers. It is not "reasonable" to say that it is "reasonable" not to inquire about such questions.

This multicultural third "dehellenization" implied that those cultures that do not have a tradition of reason need not examine themselves about their own theoretic premises. The classic notion of Christian "mission" always included, or should have included, this element of reason. It proposed itself not as a conquest but as understanding what was good in a culture. What was unreasonable and therefore against the true human good and ultimately against the possibility of faith also needed attention. Agonizing controversies, thus, were pondered over whether having ten wives was "cultural" or "unreasonable." Distinctions had to be made.

In his conclusion, Benedict again remarks that he is not interested in "putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment"—this is a remark that may well illuminate Stauss' ideas about the need to return to the classics to find what has gone wrong with our modern mind. What we find in Strauss is reason plus some Hebrew revelation, but we do not find Christian revelation with its own claims on reason. This is fair enough, but the Pope has argued a consequence of the historicist position. And in a hint of "intrinsic design," he adds, "the scientific ethics, moreover, is the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies the attitude which reflects one of the basis tenets of Christianity."

Benedict indicates that the modern limitation on the use of reason in the more complete sense described in Fides et Ratio is "self-imposed," that is, such limitation is not itself a requirement of reason. There is more than one method in philosophy. Things that are not "mathematical,"—what is—including ourselves and our minds, really are known. Theology thus belongs to the university, as does metaphysics, because both use reason to address themselves to questions that are real but which are not currently permitted to be explored by any other method but 'scientific,' in the restricted or reductionist use of that term

The "positivist" reason, to which Strauss (and Voegelin) also referred, cannot enter into "dialogue" with other cultures that are concerned with meaning of God and man. Thus, the Pope's concern with Islam is also his concern with India, China, and other cultures on the same basis. It is more immediately also a concern with our own Western mind that, in multiculturalism and in positivism, has denied reason its rightful place, even its rightful understanding. Multiculturalism is, logically, but another way of saying that "cannibalism is all right." Why not? But if not, give reasons. We all know what happens to many bodies of aborted fetuses. It makes cannibalism look positively rational. Islam, on this score, to give it credit, is not so irrational as many in the West are.

The Pope states the issue clearly, an issue that goes to the very core of the supposed conflict between science and faith: "The West had 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 debate of our time." One might note in passing that the one thing Benedict does not touch on in this lecture is the condition of theology itself, a theology that neglects reason, something that Fides et Ratio did note.

Benedict, finally, concludes, ironically, by repeating precisely what Manuel II, the much maligned Byzantine emperor under siege from Islam before his city, told the learned Persian gentleman, "Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God." One cannot be "reasonable" and avoid the implications of this argument.

This lecture, in the end, reminds me of nothing so much as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Harvard Commencement Address ("A World Split Apart") of 1978. Indeed, the two lectures are remarkably alike, not only in subject matter but in occasion and in reception by the intellectual elite.

But Solzhenitsyn spoke truth to power, not the powerless.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2006 4:37 AM

"The specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by 'science' and thus must be relegated to the realm of the subjective."

Of course they have to. It is only through empirical feedback that we can know anything objectively. Empiricism brings external objects into our awareness, whose behavior is not subject to our moods or notions. Any thought or idea that is not tested against external reality is by definition subjective.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at October 5, 2006 5:22 PM

You're almost there. But empirical feedback, by definition, is likewise subjective. The only way we can know anything objectively is to accept it on faith.

Posted by: oj at October 5, 2006 5:27 PM