You can listen to the interview using the audio player below.
A lack of reason may lead to violence and an inability to respond to crises, but that didn’t stop the West from abandoning it. In a new article for the Catholic World Report, Acton’s Samuel Gregg reflects on Pope Benedict XVI and his 2006 address near Regensburg, Germany. “Ten years later,” Gregg laments, the West is “still in denial.”
On September 12, 2006 Benedict made global news with his lecture–his words enraged, gained support, and were analyzed countless times. The speech was concerned with the “deep problems of faith and reason that characterize the West and Christianity today,” particularly in relation to Islam. Despite causing great controversy, this speech is considered to be one of the most important papal addresses on world affairs. Benedict argued that our understanding of the divine ultimately creates the foundation for how we view and “can judge particular human choices and actions to be unreasonable.” Gregg continues:
Most commentators on the Regensburg Address did not, however, observe that the Pope declined to proceed to engage in a detailed analysis of why and how such a conception of God may have affected Islamic theology and Islamic practice. Nor did he explore the mindset of those Muslims who invoke Allah to justify jihadist violence. Instead, Benedict immediately pivoted to discussing the place of reason in Christianity and Western culture more generally. In fact, in the speech’s very last paragraph, Benedict called upon his audience “to rediscover” the “great logos”: “this breadth of reason” which, he maintained, orthodox Christianity has always regarded as a prominent feature of God’s nature. The pope’s use of the word “rediscover” indicated that something had been lost and that much of the West and the Christian world had themselves fallen into the grip of other forms of un-reason. Irrationality can, after all, manifest itself in expressions other than mindless violence.
Acton Institute Director of Research Samuel Gregg joined host Shelia Liaugminas on Relevant Radio’s A Closer Look to examine those times and places where religion can become pathological – when divine and human reason are set aside. They look back ten years to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address, in which he addressed this issue in what would become one of the most controversial moments of his papacy.
You can listen to the interview via the audio player below.
In 2006, then-Pope Benedict made a speech at Regensburg. As papal speeches go, it wasn’t a “biggie;” it was an address to a meeting of scientists. What was to be a reflection on faith, reason and science quickly became a firestorm. Benedict was accused of being anti-Islamic, offensive, insensitive and out-of-touch.
The primary problem was that what he really said was taken entirely out of context. In his 30 minute speech, the pope quotes an ancient emperor on the theme of “holy war.” It is important to note here that Benedict was quoting someone else; this is one of the things his critics got wrong. From Benedict’s remarks:
In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις – controversy) 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 some of the experts, this is probably 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, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, 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 (σὺν λόγω) 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…”.
On Catholic Online, Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse praised Pope Benedict XVI for his “deep understanding” of the Christian patrimony of Christendom. “The Christian foundation of culture should be self-evident to most, but in our post-Christian (and poorly catechized) age our historical memory has grown increasingly dim,” he said.
Jacobse, a priest in Naples, Fla., and president of the American Orthodox Institute, also lauded the pope for his work at healing the East-West divide between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. “The Orthodox wonder about Pope Benedict’s replacement,” Jacobse said. “If the new Pope is a cultural conservative in the mold of Popes Benedict and John Paul II, then we know that the rapprochement of the last four decades will continue. If not, it will be more difficult to find common ground.”
Benedict, he said, also had a deep understanding of the Orthodox patrimony within Christendom.
In a special report, the American Spectator has published Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg’s new article on the “civilizational agenda” of Pope Benedict XVI. Special thanks also to RealClearReligion for linking the Gregg article.
Benedict XVI: In No One’s Shadow
By Samuel Gregg
It was inevitable. In the lead-up to John Paul II’s beatification, a number of publications decided it was time to opine about the direction of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. The Economist, for example, portrayed a pontificate adrift, “accident-prone,” and with a “less than stellar record” compared to Benedict’s dynamic predecessor (who, incidentally, didn’t meet with the Economist‘s approval either).
It need hardly be said that, like most British publications, the Economist‘s own record when it comes to informed commentary on Catholicism and religion more generally is itself less than stellar. And the problems remain the same as they have always been: an unwillingness to do the hard work of trying to understand a religion on its own terms, and a stubborn insistence upon shoving theological positions into secular political categories.
Have mistakes occurred under Benedict’s watch? Yes. Some sub-optimal appointments? Of course. That would be true of any leader of such a massive organization.
But the real difficulty with so much commentary on this papacy is the sheer narrowness of the perspective brought to the subject. If observers were willing to broaden their horizons, they might notice just how big are the stakes being pursued by Benedict.
This pope’s program, they may discover, goes beyond mere institutional politics. He’s pursuing a civilizational agenda.
And that program begins with the Catholic Church itself. Even its harshest critics find it difficult to deny Catholicism’s decisive influence on Western civilization’s development. It follows that a faltering in the Church’s confidence about its purpose has implications for the wider culture.
That’s one reason Benedict has been so proactive in rescuing Catholic liturgy from the banality into which it collapsed throughout much of the world (especially the English-speaking world) after Vatican II. Benedict’s objective here is not a reactionary “return to the past.” Rather, it’s about underscoring the need for liturgy to accurately reflect what the Church has always believed — lex orandi, lex credendi — rather than the predilections of an aging progressivist generation that reduced prayer to endless self-affirmation.
This attention to liturgy is, I suspect, one reason why another aspect of Benedict’s pontificate — his outreach to the Orthodox Christian churches — has been remarkably successful. As anyone who’s attended Orthodox services knows, the Orthodox truly understand liturgy. Certainly Benedict’s path here was paved by Vatican II, Paul VI, and John Paul II. Yet few doubt that Catholic-Orthodox relations have taken off since 2005.
That doesn’t mean the relationship is uncomplicated by unhappy historical memories, secular political influences, and important theological differences. Yet it’s striking how positively Orthodox churches have responded to the German pope’s overtures. They’ve also become increasingly vocal in echoing Benedict’s concerns about Western culture’s present trajectory.
But above all, Benedict has — from his pontificate’s very beginning — gone to the heart of the rot within the West, a disease which may be described as pathologies of faith and reason.
In this regard, Benedict’s famous 2006 Regensburg address may go down as one of the 21st century’s most important speeches, comparable to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Address in terms of its accuracy in identifying some of the West’s inner demons.
Most people think about the Regensburg lecture in terms of some Muslims’ reaction to Benedict’s citation of a 14th century Byzantine emperor. That, however, is to miss Regensburg’s essence. It was really about the West.
Christianity, Benedict argued at Regensburg, integrated Biblical faith, Greek philosophy, and Roman law, thereby creating the “foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.” This suggests that any weakening of this integration of faith and reason would mean the West would start losing its distinctive identity. In short, a West without a Christianity that integrates faith and reason is no longer the West.
Today, Benedict added, we see what happens when faith and reason are torn asunder. Reason is reduced to scientism and ideologies of progress, thereby rending reasoned discussion of anything beyond the empirical impossible. Faith dissolves into sentimental humanitarianism, an equally inadequate basis for rational reflection. Neither of these emaciated facsimiles of their originals can provide any coherent response to the great questions pondered by every human being: “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?”
“Where am I going?”
So what’s the way back? To Benedict’s mind, it involves affirming that what he recently called creative reason lies at the origin of everything.
As Benedict explained one week before he beatified his predecessor: “We are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis.”
It’s almost impossible to count the positions Benedict is politely assailing here. On the one hand, he’s taking on philosophical materialists and emotivists (i.e., most contemporary scholars). But it’s also a critique of those who diminish God to either a Divine Watchmaker or a being of Pure Will.
Of course none of this fits into sound-bites. “Pope Attacks Pathologies of Faith and Reason!” is unlikely to be a newspaper headline anytime soon. That, however, doesn’t nullify the accuracy of Benedict’s analysis. It just makes communicating it difficult in a world of diminished attention-spans and inclined to believe it has nothing to learn from history.
So while the Economist and others might gossip about the competence of various Vatican officials, they are, to their own detriment, largely missing the main game. Quietly but firmly Benedict is making his own distinct contribution to the battle of ideas upon which the fate of civilizations hang. His critics’ inability to engage his thought doesn’t just illustrate their ignorance. It also betrays a profound lack of imagination.