A decade ago, a 79 year-old soft-spoken, white-haired German theologian returned to visit a university at which he had spent much of his academic career. On such occasions, it’s not unusual for a distinguished professor-emeritus to offer some formal remarks. Such reflections rarely receive much attention, and are often seen as exercises in reminiscing by scholars whose most substantial achievements are behind them.
In this instance, however, the speech delivered at the University of Regensburg on 12 September 2006 by the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Pope Benedict XVI, had immediate global impact. For weeks, even months afterwards, newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, and even entire books attacked, defended, and analyzed the almost 4,000 words which came to be known as the Regensburg Address. Copies of the text and effigies of its author, however, were also ripped up, trampled on, and publicly burnt throughout the Islamic world. Television screens were dominated by images of enraged Muslim mobs and passionate denunciations by Muslim leaders, most of whom had clearly not read the text.
Also noticeable, however, was the frosty reception accorded to Pope Benedict’s remarks in much of the West. Descriptions such as “provocative,” “ill-timed,” “insensitive,” “un-feeling,” and “undiplomatic” appeared in religious and secular media outlets. Certainly the Pope had plenty of vocal defenders in North America and Europe. Among other things, they suggested that some Muslims’ frenzied reaction to the Regensburg Address proved that Benedict’s gentle query about the place of reason in Islamic belief and practice was dead on-target.
Yet there’s no doubt that Benedict’s words at Regensburg touched a nerve—perhaps even several nerves—in the Western world. For while the Regensburg Address received so much attention because of nine paragraphs in which Benedict analyzed a fourteenth-century exchange between a Byzantine Emperor and his Persian Muslim interlocutor, the text’s primary focus concerned deep problems of faith and reason that characterize the West and Christianity today. And many of these pathologies quickly surface whenever and wherever Islamist terrorism rears its head. They continue to enfeeble the West’s response to people whose acts in locations ranging from Brussels to Paris, Beirut to Jakarta, Jerusalem to San Bernardino, Abuja to London, and Lahore to New York reflect many things, including a particular understanding of the nature of the Divine.
The West contra Logos
One of the basic theses presented by Benedict at Regensburg was that how we understand God’s nature has implications for whether we can judge particular human choices and actions to be unreasonable. Thus, if reason is simply not part of Islam’s conception of the Divinity’s nature, then Allah can command his followers to make unreasonable choices, and all his followers can do is submit to a Divine Will that operates beyond the categories of reason.
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.
That irrationality is loose and ravaging much of the West—especially in those institutions which are supposed to be temples of reason, i.e., universities—is hard to deny. Take, for instance, those presently trying to turn Western educational institutions into one gigantic “safe space.” In this cocoon, those who maintain, for instance, that gender theory fails basic tests of logic, or that the welfare state has negative cultural effects, or that not all forms of inequality are in fact unjust (to name just some propositions which many today consider offensive), are regularly designated as “haters” or some word to which the suffix “phobe” is attached.
One especially relevant example of this refusal to reason was underscored by Darío Fernández-Morera in his recent book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (ISI, 2016). This text squarely challenges, if not demolishes, the common claim that Islamic Spain was an oasis of tolerance and pluralism in an otherwise bigoted world. Drawing on primary sources as well as recent archaeological discoveries, Fernández-Morera shows that religious, political and cultural repression of Jews and Christians by Muslim authorities was the norm for Islamic Spain’s entire history: “the plain fact,” he states, “is that Islamic law imposed humiliating conditions on Christian dhimmis to ensure that absolute power remained in the proper hands.”
In a way, however, this is not the principal point of Fernández-Morera’s book. His broader argument is that dispassionate study of the truth about Muslim-ruled Spain has been obscured for decades by its subordination to ideological agendas associated with causes such as multiculturalism as well as a determination to cast medieval Christianity in a negative light. Occasionally some scholars challenge the politically-correct narrative on this and similar subjects on the basis of logic and evidence. But those who do, such as the French medievalist Sylvain Gouguenheim (whose 2008 book Aristote au mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe chrétienne demonstrated that Islam was not the source for the West’s “rediscovery” of Greek minds such as Aristotle), are, as Fernández-Morera shows, invariably demonized.
The problem is that maintenance of myths about such subjects by intellectuals and their perpetuation by political leaders serve the interests of no one—least of all Muslims. Societies built on misrepresentations or denial of truth are storing up long-term trouble for themselves. Western Europeans are presently discovering this as they wonder why some adherents of what they have been told over and over again is a religion of peace continue to engage in deeply un-peaceful acts in the name of that religion while substantial percentages of believers in the same faith hate Jews and hold that sharia law should trump the laws of the European societies in which they have dwelt for decades. But above all, clinging to falsehoods does not serve the cause of truth: that which should be at the core of the mission of any university worthy of the name.
This was one reason why Benedict’s Regensburg remarks underscored the centrality of Logos for the university and the public square more generally. Logos, for the Greeks, was not only a word for Divine Reason. It also meant to reason and explain one’s thoughts. The dismissal of Logos thus implies a choice to (1) decline to think critically, (2) refuse to debate and (3) shut off the capacity to give an account of what one believes in intelligible terms.
Once such a choice has been made, three options remain. One is that which has been chosen by Islamic jihadists—violence replaces reason, and reason is subordinated to a Divine Will that itself has no interest in reasonableness. The second is mass sentimentalism and appeals to emotivism to terminate perfectly legitimate debates. The third is to reduce reason to its empirical dimension.
Empirical and scientific reason have, Benedict affirmed at Regensburg, their place. They have been the source of much genuine progress and technological developments for which, he said, “we are all grateful.” The downside is that empirical reason is ill-equipped to address, for instance, issues of good and evil or discern the proper ends of human choice and action. To the extent that they try to do so, such modes of reasoning cannot help but lurch in the direction of utilitarianism: that which tries to determine good and evil by seeking to measure that which cannot be quantitatively measured.
These are just some examples of how, as Benedict stated at Regensburg, “The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality and can only suffer great harm thereby.” The only way out of this cul-de-sac is to acknowledge that reason has greater breadth and depth which includes but also goes beyond the natural and social sciences. This, however, raises the question from where such reason comes. At that point, many Western minds turn away and decline to consider this matter. Why? Because it points straight to the question of God—an entity that much of the West has for some time been trying to do without, or reduce to the status of a soft-toy, which amounts to much the same thing.
Christianity: Losing Faith in Reason
That God question was at the forefront of the Regensburg Address. Benedict’s focus, however, was less on Islam’s view of God’s nature than with the ways in which Christianity’s treatments of the place of reason has developed—and occasionally deteriorated—at different points of history. For the West this matters, because Christianity is at the heart of Western culture: the same culture that, from the time of the Greeks, has claimed to take reason seriously.
Critics of Judaism and Christianity are apt to argue that the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures seems almost as arbitrary as what many believe the God of the Koran to be. But if this was the case, why would a fourteenth-century Christian emperor of Byzantium hold, as cited by Benedict at Regensburg, that “not acting according to reason is contrary to God’s nature”?
According to Benedict, part of the answer is that God of the Bible is also Divine Reason. To act in defiance of the Truth who is the revealed God is thus to act against reason. That is why the first verse of the Gospel of Saint John matters so much. When its author penned the words “In the beginning was the Logos,” part of the point was to ground Logos in the God who manifests himself in the Book of Genesis, who identifies himself to Moses as “I AM” (and thus as a real being rather than a myth or an idol created by human hands), and who Christianity teaches is definitively revealed in Christ. For, Benedict noted, “Logos means both reason and word—a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.”
Clearly there is something Greek about all this. But to Benedict’s mind, “The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.” Christian faith needed philosophy. It needed the tools of rational inquiry inscribed into man’s very reason: the same reason which itself is derived from the same God revealed in the Scriptures.
Yet for all Christianity’s attention to reason, Christians have not always managed the relationship between faith and reason, Revelation and philosophy, very well. The Protestant Reformation was partly a reaction against the hyper-scholasticism that—as no less than Catholic saints like Thomas More lamented at the time—characterized much Catholic thinking in the late-fifteenth century and which seemed to marginalize Scripture. This very real problem led, Benedict commented, many Reformers to believe that “they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy.”
At Regensburg, however, Benedict sought to draw our attention to the flip-side of this problem: the waves of what he called “dehellenization” which have surged through Christianity and the West at different points. By dehellenization, Benedict meant any fading of the commitment to coherent philosophical reasoning which Christianity partly absorbed from the Greek world and used to further apprehend the truth which permeates the Scriptures.
Whenever such distancing from reason has occurred, some Christians have embraced a type of submission to God that avoids or even discourages exploration of the “whys” of such obedience. On the other end of the spectrum, Benedict argued, many theologians from the nineteenth century onwards increasingly fell (like much of the academy) into the trap of equating reason with empirical methods of inquiry. They thus gradually ceased to think about Christ and Revelation from any standpoint other than that which could be verified by scientific research methods. Hence, in the words of James V. Schall SJ, “In eliminating philosophy from Scripture, we ended up by eliminating the divinity of Christ.” And that, for all intents and purposes, nullifies the essence of Christianity. In this light, we see that the marginalization of Logos leads straight to the disappearance of natural theology, attempts to replace natural law with consequentialist ethics, a habit of excessive deference to disciplines such as sociology or psychology, and the insistence that people’s experiences trumps the conclusions of sound moral reasoning when we assess the goodness or otherwise of our choices.
Diseases of the modern Western Mind
These developments have left much of Christianity spectacularly ill-equipped to even begin grappling with Islamic jihadism, let alone making meaningful contributions to combatting this phenomena. One does not need to look hard within the Christian world—including the Catholic Church—to find those who endlessly repeat the “religion of peace” mantra, or who equate reasoned, carefully-worded, and historically-informed critique of various Muslim tenets and customs with “Islamophobia”. To this degree, they echo the same banalities of those Western political leaders who, immediately after an attack by Islamic terrorists, immediately assert that it has nothing to do with Islam. Unfortunately for them—and the rest of us—those Muslims who immolate themselves while carrying out suicide-bombings clearly believe their actions do owe much to their religious faith.
Dehellenization’s effects, however, go beyond Christianity. Reason’s reduction to the empirical helps explain why, for example, much contemporary economics has degenerated into a sub-branch of applied mathematics that often obscures the powerful insights of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Empiricism also helps account for sociologists trying to measure happiness without being willing or able to define what happiness actually is. Again, it’s not the technique that is at fault. The mistake is viewing empirical reason as the only valid form of reasoning: a position that, ironically enough, cannot be proved empirically. Then there is the fact that empirical reason has nothing to say about the theological dimension of something like Islamist jihadism, since it is incapable of entering into a serious discussion about God’s nature—something that is, by definition, beyond quantification or measurement.
It was against this backdrop that Benedict’s Regensburg Address reiterated the Catholic Church’s continuing commitment to reason in all its fullness and the need for Christians and the West more generally to re-engage reason in all its dimensions. Of course Christianity is not a philosophy. It is ultimately about God and who He is: a subject about which reason can by itself comprehend a great deal but which is only fully made known through Revelation. Yet without reason, the truth about that reality can easily become obscure. In that regard, the danger for Christianity at present is surely less one of fundamentalism but rather of sentimentalism: that which characterizes far too many contributions to public discourse in the West today—including those made by more than a few Christians—and which lies helpless and befuddled in the face of Islamist terrorism.
This is the stupor from which a gentle man, who has always tempered intellectual rigor and moral courage with genuine humility, tried to awaken Christians and the West at Regensburg. Ten years later, it seems, many remain fast asleep.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!