NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CATHOLIC FAMILIES - MEMBERS' NEWSLETTER
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Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
We would meet before and after lessons
in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with
historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two
theological faculties. Once a semester there was a dies academicus,
when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the
entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas:
the reality that despite our specializations which at times make it
difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working
in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various
aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason-- this
reality became a lived experience.
The university was also very proud of its
two theological faculties. It was clear that, by inquiring about the
reasonableness of faith, they too carried out a work which is necessarily
part of the whole of the universitas scientiarum, even if not everyone
could share the faith which theologians seek to correlate with reason
as a whole. This profound sense of coherence within the universe of
reason was not troubled, even when it was once reported that a colleague
had said there was something odd about our university: it had two faculties
devoted to something that did not exist: God. 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.
I was reminded of all this recently, when
I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part
of the dialogue carried on-- perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks
near Ankara-- by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus
and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and
the truth of both. It was probably the emperor himself who set down
this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402;
and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail
than the responses of the learned Persian.
The dialogue ranges widely over the structures
of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially
with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly
to the relationship of the three Laws: the Old Testament, the New Testament,
and the Qur'an. In this lecture I would like to discuss only one point--
itself rather marginal to the dialogue itself-- which, in the context
of the issue of faith and reason, I found interesting and which can
serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.
In the seventh conversation edited by Professor
Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The
emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: There is no compulsion
in religion. It is 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 turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question
on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these
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 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
God is not pleased by blood, and not acting
reasonably 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....
As far as understanding of God and thus
the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we find ourselves faced
with a dilemma which nowadays challenges us directly. Is the conviction
that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea,
or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see
the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the
word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first
verse of the Book of Genesis, John began the prologue of his Gospel
with the words: In the beginning was the logos. This is the very word
used by the emperor: God acts with logos.
The encounter between the Biblical message
and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul,
who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man
plead with him: Come over to Macedonia and help us! (cf. Acts 16:6-10)--
this vision can be interpreted as a distillation of the intrinsic necessity
of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry.
This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Ps 115). Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature.
Today we know that the Greek translation
of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria-- the Septuagint-- is more
than a simple (and in that sense perhaps less than satisfactory) translation
of the Hebrew text: it is an independent textual witness and a distinct
and important step in the history of revelation, one which brought about
this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of
Christianity. A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place
here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From
the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of
Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to
act "with logos" is contrary to God's nature.
In all honesty, one must observe that in
the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this
synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast
with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose
with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that
we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of
God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of
everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which
clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead 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 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.
Dehellenization first emerges in connection
with the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the 16th century.
Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the Reformers thought
they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy,
that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system
of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical
Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The
principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its
pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics
appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith
had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When
Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room
for faith, he carried this program forward with a radicalism that the
Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively
in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.
The liberal theology of the 19th and 20th
centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization,
with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was
a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this program was highly
influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure
Pascal's distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God
of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959,
I tried to address the issue. I will not repeat here what I said on
that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was
new about this second stage of dehellenization. Harnack's central idea
was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath
the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple
message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of
humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favor of morality.
In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message.
The fundamental goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with
modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical
and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the
In this sense, historical-critical exegesis
of the New Testament restored to theology its place within the university:
theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore
strictly scientific. What it is able to say critically about Jesus is,
so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can
take its rightful place within the university. Behind this thinking
lies the modern self-limitation of reason, classically expressed in
Kant's "Critiques", but in the meantime further radicalized
by the impact of the natural sciences. This modern concept of reason
is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism)
and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology.
On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter,
its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how
matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak,
the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other
hand, there is nature's capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and
here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation
can yield ultimate certainty. The weight between the two poles can,
depending on the circumstances, shift from one side to the other. As
strongly positivistic a thinker as J. Monod has declared himself a convinced
This gives rise to two principles which
are crucial for the issue we have raised. First, only the kind of certainty
resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements
can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science
must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such
as history, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, attempt to conform
themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is
important for our reflections, is that 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.
We shall return to this problem later.
In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt
to maintain theology's claim to be "scientific" would end
up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But
we must say more: 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" 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
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.
Before I draw the conclusions to which
all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of
dehellenization, which is now in progress. 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. The latter are said
to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament
prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their
own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse
and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and
bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity
as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution
of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures.
Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between
faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they
are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.
And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt,
painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within
has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the
Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive
aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all
grateful for the marvelous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind
and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us. The scientific
ethos, moreover, is the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such,
it embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity.
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 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.
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. At the same time, as I have attempted to show,
modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears
within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities
of its methodology.
For philosophy and, albeit in a different
way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of
the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith
in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an
unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding. Here I am
reminded of something Socrates said to Phaedo. In their earlier conversations,
many false philosophical opinions had been raised, and so Socrates says:
"It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed
at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised
and mocked all talk about being - but in this way he would be deprived
of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss".
The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur - this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God", said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.
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GRANT US, Father a spirit of wisdom and insight, so that we may know the great hope to which we have been called.
Let peace and harmony reign among all the dwellers on the earth.
To those who exercise the ministry of authority in the service of their brothers, send a spirit of wisdom and humility.
Grant us, O God, to fill up in our own flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for his Church.
To our families and benefactors grant the blessing of everlasting life.
Be ever mindful of your mercy, exalt the lowly; fill the hungry with good things.
Both in life and death, let us be yours, O Lord.
Free the world from its slavery to corruption, to share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
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