Pope Benedict at Regensburg III
Bill Long 9/16/06
What The Pope REALLY Was Trying To Say
When you look at what Pope Benedict was really trying to say, after he had shot himself in several vital organs with his careless words about Islam, you see that his point is that the modern university ought to enlarge its present-day conception of reasoned inquiry to include the question of God's existence and care for the world. The purpose of this essay is to lay out Benedict's theory of the "de-rationalization" of reason in Western culture so that today it is associated simply with science, mathematics and things that can be directly observed. I think this programme, of enlarging the scope of reasoned inquiry, lies at the heart of what Benedict would like to see accomplished in his papacy.
Benedict's Approach to Reason and the West
The Pope argued that in the history of Western thought there was an early synthesis of the Greek and Christian Spirit. This uncontroversial point is then followed by his recogntion ("in all honesty") of a tradition of "voluntarism" in Western thought, identified with Duns Scotus, which would attribute to God all the characteristics of transcendence which the Muslim thinker Ibn Hazn attributed to God. But, fortunately, for the Pope, this false pathway didn't affect the "inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry." Actually, many theologians, even in the Catholic tradition, would question whether there was an "inner rapprochement" between Christian thought and Greek philosophy. But Benedict is really saying pretty standard things at this point.
Then he went on to point to three instances in the West in which this rapprochement was questioned. He calls it a three-fold process of "dehellenization" of Christianity, terminology that is reflective of theology-speak about 50 years ago. The first example of dehellenization was through the "postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century." In other words, the Reformers abandoned close connection with Greek philosophy for an emphasis on "Sola Scriptura"--the Bible alone. Since Benedict was speaking in the safe confines of a university which only has a Catholic theological faculty, he could be sure that no tomatoes would come his way when he made this point. But, had he spoken at Goettingen or Heidelberg or Marburg he might not have been able to avoid the brickbats, for Protestants would have preferred that their break from the Catholic Church be more charitably characterized: they had recaptured the Bible or had liberated it from non-biblical categories.
Benedict's characterization of Protestantism as dehellenization is a good example his tendency which I pointed out in my previous essay--that is, to see the world and characterize it through the lens of polemical theology. You characterize your opponents in negative terms, terms that they would never accept for themselves, rather than with words that would be charitable toward them. In any case, in making his point about Protestantism being the first example of dehellenization of Christianity, Benedict does one other offensive thing to Protestants: he gave an example of the direction to which Protestant theology tends that the Protestants themselves would have rejected. That is, he gives the example of Immanuel Kant, the great German theologian of the late 18th century. Kant anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole. This is a development which the "Reformers could never have foreseen," but, alas, the very clear implication of Benedict's statement is 'this is what you get if you abandon the 'fine balance' between Greek philosophy and Christian faith.' The polemical theologian has again taken over, even though Protestants will probably not get upset at the Pope. They won't get upset because nothing the Pope can say will bother them--because they have basically "triumped" in the intellectual "game" of the past four hundred years.
Other Examples of "Dehellenization"
If the Protestant Reformation brought us the first instance of "dehellenization" of Christianity, liberal Protestant thought of the 19th century, exemplified in the work of another German, Adolf von Harnack, brought us the second stage of it. It really isn't necessary to go through the Pope's argument at this point; all he wants to do is argue that the end result of this manner of thinking was to eliminate all metaphysical speculation about Christianity in the university and replace it with the simple human Jesus of the Gospels. Modern reason, then, had to be liberated from the superstructure of Greek and Scholastic philosophical categories. It had to be able to pursue its course unfettered by theological categories. Theology still had a place in the university, for Harnack, but it was to be examined historically and scientifically. Modern tools of historical criticism were to be used to pare away the intellectual scaffolding of Christian theology.
Finally, the Pope talked about the third instance of dehellenization of Christianity--and that is in the modern world as people more and more are talking about religious pluralism and diversity. In his words:
"In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures."
Proponents of cultural diversity or cultural pluralism argue, the Pope claims, that new cultures ought to be able to receive the Gospel just from the simple message of the New Testament and then adopt the categories of thought into which the message should be placed according to their own desires and needs.
In fact, according to the Pope, what is needed is a rediscovery of or, better said, an enlargement of the concept of reason in current Western intellectual life. While not wanting to give up on the "advances" of the past centuries, he would have universities bring God back into the curriculum. "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." He wants, therefore, the concept of reason in our current culture to be expanded by including consideration of religion and the divine.
This is at the heart of Benedict's programme. The references to Islam were thrown in rather gratuitously at the beginning. No one will ever hear the major part of the address, which really says nothing new. Conservative theologians have for years decried the exclusion of God from universities and intellectual culture in the West. I actually think that Benedict has at least 1/2 of a defensible point, even though he makes it an outmoded manner of argumentation. I, too, think that the university ought to be the home for constructive theological endeavor as well as descriptive study of religions. But, of course, I mean that you ought to have a Muslim theologian next to a Jew, next to a Buddhist and next to a Christian. I am not so sure this is what the Pope had in mind. In any case, he will probably be ignored on this score, and excoriated on his treatment of Islam. He ought to be. He said some things he shouldn't have said in a method that draws its strength from polemics. No wonder that Muslims are hopping mad.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long