Death threats issued to Pope Benedict XVI, Muslims burning the Pope in effigy, promises to conquer Rome and slit the throats of Christians, at least seven churches in the region of Palestine torched, a nun murdered in front of a children’s hospital in Somalia, claims of Benedict participating in a U.S.-Israeli conspiracy against Islam. Do we fail to see the irony in all of this? Violent protests from a religion of peace in response to the suggestion that Islam may be fundamentally misguided in its conception of God. This was Benedict’s underlying argument in reference to Islam last week. And taken as a whole, it was only one of the many interconnected points Benedict was making in his Regensburg lecture, “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections.”
Yet the many commentaries, news reports, and editorials seem to miss Benedict’s central message: Human reason can apprehend the truth—though not the entire truth—of God and man. Reason isn’t at odds with faith. And the modern university performs a great disservice to the well-being of all mankind in relegating the truths of religion to personal preferences and radically subjective, private beliefs. The resulting impoverished Christianity and shriveled secular reason are unable to sustain a culture or respond to challenges.
Benedict’s lecture merits repeated readings, careful examination, and deep reflection, for it offers a profound exposition on the nature of God, particularly in relation to man and man’s ability to know the divine. The world was gifted with Benedict’s first installment on these topics in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love). For Benedict, God is capable of being Love precisely because God is Reason.
It is this emphasis on God’s nature as rational and charitable that informs his strong rebukes to competing conceptions of God. As he made clear during his homily before the conclave that elected him pope, Benedict is no relativist. Not all conceptions of God are true; not all true conceptions of God are equally so; not all gods are the same; and the human person is capable of acquiring true knowledge of God. For Benedict, the particularity of the gospel of Jesus Christ and of the Triune God is not something to be shied away from, for this particularity is not closed in upon itself. Rather, it is this self-communicative truth of God that opens God to all people and invites all peoples to know and love him. And as demonstrated by the doctrinal note Benedict issued as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, he isn’t one to downplay “the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ.” For Benedict, Jesus is the way and the truth and the life for all people, and this is something that can be known by all people.
Benedict opened his lecture by telling the story of a skeptical colleague who found it odd that their university “had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God.” Yet Benedict argued that “even in the face of such radical skepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.” That radical skepticism about the ability of the human intellect to ponder divine things has now become the norm is cause for great concern, for it will leave the university—and all those shaped by the university—incapable of engaging the vast majority of people and cultures throughout the world, i.e., religious believers and their communities, and in particular Muslim believers and cultures.
To highlight this inability to engage with the other, Benedict chose an example—perhaps demonstrating what he takes to be the pressing issue of our time—drawn from the resources of history and yet ever important today. While much ink has been spilled over the implications of the citation chosen from a Byzantine emperor, and how it caused—and somehow justified—the violent Muslim response, little has been said about the pope’s broader argument. The emperor was able to engage his Muslim interlocutor by appealing to a shared, natural human reason and its ability to apprehend the truths of God. As the pope summarized, the emperor was able to articulate “the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.” He continued: “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. . . . The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”
But why does acting in accord with reason follow from the nature of God and man? This question leads Benedict directly to a scriptural exegesis arguing that the best of Greek philosophy is affirmed by Christian revelation. The pontiff points to the beginning of the fourth gospel: “‘In the beginning was the logos.’ This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word—a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.” And since man is created in the image and likeness of God, he too possesses the same powers and participates in this logos.
Yet this understanding of God as both logos and caritas has been challenged, and on the pope’s reading of history, this challenge—and its misconstrual of God’s nature—has directly led to the problems facing the world today. And these problems are ones that a post-Christian culture lacks the resources with which to respond. Thus, Benedict invites us to rediscover the breadth and depth of Biblical faith and to embrace once again human reason’s ability to apprehend truth, even religious truth.
The challenge of which Benedict speaks is the unintended result of the theology of John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) and many of the Protestant reformers who sought to create a Christianity untethered to philosophical truths of what they considered a “foreign” philosophical system. As the pope put it, this leads “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.” This yields the modern attitude of the “clash” of faith and reason, or the “blind leap” of faith. Lost is the reasonableness of the act of faith itself, gone are the reasons one has for believing—reasons one has for accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ as true revelation. Lost also is the convergence of faith and reason, as his predecessor, John Paul II, put it, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” And it is only a true conception of God and man that can ultimately sustain a culture in both virtue and freedom.
For these reasons, Benedict forcefully reminded his audience that this bastardized view of the relationship between faith and reason, and of the nature of God as capricious and voluntarist, is fundamentally at odds with the teaching of the Church. As he explained: “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—as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated—unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. 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.” In other words, there is no competition between God and man; God is divine reason and love, and man is a creature, but also a participant, in the intelligent exchange of love.
This conception of God as logos was the driving force in the establishment of the great Western civilizations. The abandonment of the logos, and with it reason as a whole, is the driving force in their complete destruction. As Benedict describes it: “This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance, not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history—it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.” And thus, a return to its roots will be the only way for Europe to preserve itself.
As the pope notes, currents of Reformed Christianity and modern liberal Christianity will not be able to secure the foundations of Europe, as they lack the rational foundations to present non-Christians with reasons for accepting the truth of Christianity. On the other hand, the modern agnostic and scientistic approach to reason found in Europe’s universities and parliaments lacks the intellectual firepower to present a compelling and coherent account of the human condition or Western values. It is precisely the metaphysical boredom, nihilism, and positivistic approach to reason—hallmarks of modern Western culture—that preclude it from engaging other cultures, particularly radical Islam.
Benedict describes this modern mentality as narrowly scientific, where “only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. . . by its very nature this method 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.” Addressing this question was precisely the point of the Regensburg lecture. Benedict continues, in a passage that deserves to be quoted at length:
If science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for 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,” so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology end up being simply inadequate.
The turn to subjective experience and personal preference in the realm of ethics and religion leads to the complete disintegration of culture. For, if there is no shared understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful, what remains to undergird a community of people? If there are no common truths or values, if—as George Weigel is fond of saying—there is my truth and your truth but nothing known as “the truth,” if there are my values and your values but nothing known as “values,” what is to settle disagreement and conflict? This is the state of modern European and, to a troubling degree, American culture. The post-Christian argument posits that because there is no truth (or that we cannot know the truth), everyone is therefore entitled to his own conception of truth. This modus vivendi may work well when there are no major conflicts, where everyone is more or less an enlightened twenty-first-century secular liberal. But what happens when those with radically different values—ones based upon an image of God as pure will—enter the scene? What resources does the post-Christian West have to respond to a religion of submission to God’s will, especially when conceptions of God’s will run counter to prevailing Western attitudes? What resources can Westerners draw upon when they lack any coherent narrative explaining why tolerance, respect, and freedom should be embraced? Having jettisoned the Christian understanding of human dignity resulting precisely from our ability to grasp the truth and reason together, how can a post-Christian secular West engage Islam in dialogue?
This was the heart of the pope’s challenge: to wake Europe from its intellectual slumber. And, as Benedict sees it, it centers on the modern university: “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.” In other words, truncated European reason is impotent when it comes to cultural engagement.
In this respect, Benedict’s lecture last week at Regensburg was primarily targeted to his Western audience. And secular liberals, like the editorial board at the New York Times, completely missed this. (The Times, it should be noted, like modern Europe, also lacks any compelling grounds on which to issue a demand for an apology. And one may question what role the media has played in causing and fanning this controversy.) But those who rush to the pope’s defense in saying that he didn’t really mean to be critiquing Islam also miss the thrust of Benedict’s address. Benedict was challenging both those who have relegated religion to the realm of personal superstition and thus embraced agnosticism or atheism, and those who have pictured God as will detached from reason and thus embraced a version of Islam that can condone violence and terror. Benedict was arguing that both have failed to appreciate the true grandeur of man as a participant in the being of God and thus failed to grasp the centrality of human reason.
Benedict’s final invitation is one that all people of goodwill should welcome: “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 this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of 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 thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.”
Benedict understands that the great challenge of our time—like the great challenges of all times—is a battle of ideas. A battle of ideas about who and what God is, if God is; a battle of ideas about who and what man is, and what man’s place in the cosmos may be; a battle of ideas about faith and reason, and their ability to apprehend truth. Thankfully, in the battle of ideas, Benedict has proven himself a skilled warrior.
Ryan T. Anderson is a Junior Fellow at First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?