(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)
Whether or not one agrees with the pope’s historical analysis of de-Hellenization, he is surely right about its profound and deleterious influence. It is plainly the case that most Western intellectuals view Christianity in the same way that Emperor Manuel II Paleologus viewed Islam¯as a religion of violence. The Oxford biologist turned philosophe Richard Dawkins clearly thinks that faith invades, infects, and debilitates the mind. You don’t have to spend much time around postmodern lit profs to learn that Christianity is a terrible dogmatic project out to "police difference." Just google theocon if you want to read some extremely shrill warnings about the oppressive impulses of those motivated by faith. Remember Margaret Atwood’s award-winning novel The Handmaid’s Tale ? It won awards because it expressed such widespread prejudices. Christianity brings violence, oppression, and the diminishment of life. Obviously, this is not good for Catholicism. Her own ability to discern faith’s fulfillment of reason depends upon the collective efforts of all men and women of goodwill. It takes a culture to raise a fully orbed mind both grounded in faith and capable of embracing the broad scope of the human quest for truth. But Benedict’s concluding remarks address other dangers, ones facing Western culture and its God-forgetfulness. Two issues come especially to the fore. The first returns the pope’s listeners back to the question of Islam and the West. Without mentioning the emerging clash of civilizations explicitly, Benedict observes that we urgently need a "genuine dialogue of cultures and religions." It is hard to see how Western intellectuals, who have dismissed faith as a subrational, childish piety, can possibly provide leadership in this dialogue. One need not be an Islamic fundamentalist to see their antipathy and feel their condescension. The second issue was a preoccupation of Benedict XVI’s predecessor. As the post-Christian West renounces its theological heritage and puts aside centuries-long inquiries into the complex relationship between faith and reason, our capacity to provide an ultimate context for reason atrophies, and our ability to defend truth-seeking is diminished. If I might press the pope’s point still further: Scientific culture is not a perpetual-motion machine, and the larger questions of the possibility, meaning, and purpose of the life of the mind, themselves insoluble by means of experimental method, must be asked and answered. If we fail to do so, then we risk regressing into a clever, technologically sophisticated, and well-armed culture unable to distinguish between power and reason. Indeed, our postmodern prophets tell us they are one and the same. It is at this point that, perhaps, Pope Benedict wants us to think yet again about what he surely knew was a controversial quotation about violence and Islam. In the twilight of the Byzantine Empire, with the military power of Islam bearing down upon Constantinople, the urbane Christian emperor cast his lot with the power of Christian speech and reason against the might of the Muslim sword. What of our own age and our own supposed guardians of culture? Threatened from without just as it decays from within, I worry that our spiritually undisciplined and intellectually undercapitalized velvet barbarism of God-forgetfulness may turn hard, cruel, and vicious.