Our last post, here, brought us up through the Reformation and the Enlightenment to roughly the beginning of the twentieth century, and this is where the damage has started to really show. Although as our own Chalcedon has noted in his post Post Christian, it was visible much earlier to those with eyes to see.
Many years ago, C.S. Lewis commented that the great change in the modern world was the shift from a culture where belief was intelligible, to one where it was not. The process of the Christianisation of Europe (and thus the Americas) has turned out to be reversible. The ideas about man’s nature and his destiny (I use the word in the traditional, ungendered sense) which have formed so great a part of our history are now all but unintelligible to many of our fellow citizens. Without them, the reductionist assaults from economics (which sees man’s destiny in utilitarian terms as producer and consumer), psychology (which sees man as the sum of his neuroses) and science (which sees man purely in terms of his existence in this one realm) are hard to resist. Everything is material and everything is now, so, coming as we do from nowhere, for nothing, we go on to nothing, and so we must eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Indeed, even the injunction to be kind to each other is tempered, for if we can gain more for ourselves by being unkind, why not?
Within this society, the Church is even more of an oddity than it was in the one where it originally grew. The Romans and the Greeks had, after all, many gods, they acknowledged another realm, they saw the need to self-restraint, they saw the fragility of life in this world because they measured it against a world elsewhere: holiness, sacrifice and atonement were not concepts unknown to the pagan world: they are not ones to which our world is attuned.
That is indeed the world we live in, and why we must try to remember that while we are in the world, we are not the world, and we haven’t been for a very long time now.
Returning to Benedict
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 an initial 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 simply false, but 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 marvellous 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 – as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector – the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit. 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 falsifiable, 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. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology. 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 programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act 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.
I strongly urge you to red and ponder the entire address: Faith, Reason and the University Memories and Reflections. It is a rare opportunity to see one of the best minds of our times in action.
Here, I simply quote the remainder of his address because I can’t see anyway to excerpt it without destroying its logic.
I think we see here the outcome of present trends, and why it so important to our faith and the world it (and we) have built to remove this false dichotomy from our thinking and our faith. And as the illustration accompanying this article indicates; this not a problem for only the Roman Catholic Church. It is a major problem for us all.
And thanks for your patience, this subject grew which grew far beyond what I though would be one post. 🙂