renaissance of reason
The reports by the major news media did not come close to conveying the key points of Pope Benedict XVI's speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany last month. Instead, we were treated to gross superficialities from what Rush Limbaugh accurately calls the drive-by media. These in turn helped generate controversy and ill-will around the world, and then more superficial news.
Vehement Muslim reaction was highlighted while the media in effect egged on Benedict to apologize. The dynamic created was more a kind of media voyeurism than a professional reporting of the news.
Benedict gave an academic lecture at a university where he used to teach. His talk treated several complicated subjects in short order, undoubtedly hard to cover as news. But he did address important issues bearing on practical problems in the modern world.
God, faith and reason
First, Benedict asked whether the reason man possesses bears a connection to the faith traditional religion asks him to follow. Is knowing about God a matter of faith and reason? Is God himself bound up in reason which he has also imparted to his creature, man?Benedict quoted approvingly Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (1350-1425), a Christian, who said in a dialog with a Muslim, "God is not pleased by blood -- and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. ... 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."
Second, the pope described differing concepts of God in Christianity and Islam. Relying on the Islamic scholar Ibn Hazm (994-1064), Benedict pointed to Muslim teaching that God is absolutely transcendent, such that he is not bound even by his own word or by any human categories including rationality. In contrast, Benedict said that Greek philosophy, utilizing reason as a basis for knowledge, served as the human ground in which Christian revelation germinated. "The encounter," said Benedict, "between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance."
The pope highlighted the prologue of St. John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word (Logos)." "Logos," said Benedict, "means both reason and word -- a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. ... Consequently, Christian worship is ... worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason."
Reason narrowed down
Finally, Benedict described how reason, elaborated by the ancient Greeks and critical to Europeans in understanding and accepting the Christian faith, has been truncated in modern times. It has been narrowed down to experimental science based almost exclusively on the "interplay of mathematical and empirical elements." Reason so reduced, said Benedict, "excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned."
Benedict's two main conclusions:
• "The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons."
• "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 dialog of cultures."
Two targets for speech
Benedict's Regensburg address was primarily intended, it appears to me, for two groups: the modern secular West, seemingly hung up on a narrow scientism and materialism; and the Islamic world, seemingly descending to ever greater use of violence.
In both cases this pope, a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, sees benefits for all humanity in a renaissance of reason. His plea alone will not get us there, but perhaps his and others' prayers will.
Observer columnist Tom Ashcraft is a Charlotte lawyer. Write him c/o The Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230-0308, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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