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The lecture nobody read

James Matthew Wilson | Friday, September 29, 2006

On Sept. 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a short lecture at his former academic home, the University of Regensburg, on the subject of faith and reason in the Western university. As with so many of Benedict’s cogent and eloquent works, this one went almost entirely unread. Not, of course, unnoticed. Unread.

In brief, Benedict XVI’s argument proceeded as follows. He recalled that the faculties at Regensburg, including the Protestant and Catholic theological faculties, used to gather routinely for the exchange of ideas. Although deep intellectual differences divided them on one level, they were united in a sense of a “shared responsibility for the right use of reason.” This responsibility expressed itself in the physical gathering of the members of the University together, a ceremonial affirmation that, though opinions may be diverse, though disciplines may claim their own methods and terrains of competence, the Truth is one, the fount at which all acts of reason drink.

This image of the meeting of faculties from different disciplines in a Western university rhymes conceptually with another meeting, that of the “erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus with an educated Persian” in the fourteenth century. In the recorded dialogue, the Emperor exclaims that “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 reason properly.”

These two faculties – reasoning and communicating – are what makes the “meeting of faculties” in every sense possible. They are ultimately one, since reasoning is the conceiving of a mental word that describes the world to the intellect; and speaking allows for the expressing, the in principle complete opening, of one intellect to another.

Benedict XVI then turns to a theme he first explored many years ago in his Introduction to Christianity (1968). Not by accident did Paul and the Apostles first take the Gospel into the heart of the Hellenistic world. Although he avoids the word in his lecture as well as in that early work, he suggests Providence guided the good news about the Logos of God into the centers of Greek culture, where philosophical thinking about the logos, the reasonable structure of the cosmos, was most sophisticated.

The Greeks understood that the cosmos was constructed according to rational laws, behind which was the superlatively rational Intellect. This insight immensely aided the Christian faith in a loving, personal God to unfold productively over the centuries. We could study God’s free creation in the light of His free revelation, and vice versa. One is powerless before revelation; indeed one can only “suffer” it. But once living within its light, one has a responsibility to explore its reasonableness (its logos) and to join it by myriad analogies to the other branches of human inquiry.

Cardinal Newman justly expressed the Hellenic Christian vision of Truth as having the form of a perfect circle: it is eternal, and it is comprehensive, excluding nothing. There is no reason this capacious vision of the life of faith and reason could not survive in history for all perpetuity. As Benedict XVI notes, however, it could not survive unchallenged. Perhaps the greatest threat mankind faces is posed by the continued, various forms of zealotry that would break off one shard from the circle and mistake it for the whole.

In the 16th century, the Reformers seemed to break off faith from reason, dispensing with the latter. Horrified by the vision of “half-men” who condemned as merely depraved the powers of their natural reason, rationalist thinkers and their obsession with mathematical and empirical “certainty” emerged. That is, rationalism broke off a small morsel of reason from the circle of truth and mistook it for the whole. Though the story is more complicated than one simple break, it has traditionally been understood that reductive fideism and rationalism are the two camps into which much of the West has become more divided down the centuries.

Benedict XVI, like all his predecessors before him, seeks to heal this rift. Clarifying the problems with Intelligent Design Theory, though it grabs the headlines in America, is an almost irrelevant part of this healing. The pope’s first duty, as the voice of Christ, who healed the blind and deaf, is to correct a “reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures.”

Liberal opinion has always claimed that, by relegating to the private sphere all ideas about which there can be significant disagreement, one can preserve a minima moralia necessary for the maintenance of state sovereignty. One does not have to be a theocrat to see this is false. Social, political questions have to be argued, and the best arguments are those which provide the most complete intelligible account of themselves – those that survive inquiry down to their deepest foundations; and this always entails an approach to Being and the divine.

To pretend that what one worships and what one does the rest of the time is merely one’s personal business is a vicious doctrine. To pretend society is merely a collection of minimal doctrines to keep order between private interests for another day invites catastrophe that only the full breadth of reason (a reason that takes faith to its breast) can resolve.

Benedict XVI wishes to restore to the public life of Europe the understanding that it is not by disqualifying as “irrational” everything not self-evident or subject to the grasp of mankind’s power that one sustains a just political life. Only by plumbing the depths of our creation and nature and sharing our findings can our experiences be made intelligible to each other and our common good promoted.

The zealotry of Islamic extremism, with its burned effigies and bombed edifices threatens the common life of reason. So also does the deafness of western rationalism, which seems intent on squandering a providential gift: the opportunity to help faith in revelation fulfill its destiny, by helping it to seek a rich rational understanding of itself and a full life in this world and the next. The West is decadent. Not because it does not worship Allah. Rather, just as the Islamic East seems to have forgotten how to read, the West has forgotten how to hear.

James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin Research Fellow. His daughter, Livia Grace, was born on the great and challenging day Pope Benedict XVI delivered his address in Regensburg, and he hopes she may grow and live a long life in the light and wisdom of the Holy Father’s teachings. He can be reached at

[email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.