Commentary on Pope Benedict XVI's Speech (Part III)
As promised, I am including further analysis of Pope Benedict's speech on "faith and reason", which he gave on September 12th.
In addition to pointing out the violent history of Islam while misrepresenting the history of the Catholic Church as peaceful, the Pope engaged in a quite typical framing of history in which he portrayed the Catholic faith as "founded on reason", and as the rightful inheritor of "Greek philosophy".
Firstly it must be stated that this is actually quite an old argument coming from the Catholic Church, and secondly, it was very likely presented here in this context because of the Catholic Church's attempts to get God into the constitution of EU. The Catholic Church, as usual, tries to present itself as the "mind", "body", and "soul" of Europe, without which, we are to believe, all of Europe would be lost to barbarism.
Let us specifically address the statements made by the Pope. The Pope begins his approach to the subject of reason and philosophy with this statement:
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor [Manuel II Palaiologos], as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident.
By the 14th century, when Palaiologos was emperor, the Western world had already long been converted to the Catholic faith by the sword and by destruction, so, of course, at this time, there was not much need for conversion of any kind and "reason" had already been completly subjugated to the faith as well, such that "reason" which contradicted the faith was simply not considered.
At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?
It is certain that this is a Platonic idea, and it is indeed true that Christianity, from the very beginning, was influenced by certain elements of Greek philosophy. Indeed the Christian concept of God has much more in common with Platonic philosophy than it does with Judaism.
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, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the Word".
Much is implied with the phrase "Greek in the best sense". By this the Pope undoubtedly means the non-materialist branches of Greek thought. The introduction of the Gospel of John is clearly patterned on the works of Philo and the neo-Platonic Greek philosophers, this is true, and shows the earthly, rather than "divine", origin of the work.
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.
This certainly can be disputed. The early Christians, while using some of the language of the idealistic philosophers, denounce philosophy and "earthly knowledge", they did not embrace the use of philosophy to examine the world around them, they instead required believers to "have faith" and "not listen to the philosophers". The early Christians mimicked the language of what was at that time the products of established and respected forms of thought in order to try and gain legitimacy.
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 really 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.
The Septuagint is indeed important, but not in any way as a "step in the history of revelation", it is important in understanding how Jews who had integrated into Greek culture began mixing the ideas and culture of Judaism and Greek Hellenism to produce Christianity, showing that it came out of a cultural context, and indeed is not a product of "revelation" at all.
God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, "transcends" knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul [text unclear] worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).
Here, of course, the Pope has gone far out on a limb. "Love", the Pope claims, transcends knowledge, and is capable of "perceiving more than thought alone". Clearly now, we are not only leaving the realm of Greek philosophy, but of reason in general. Claiming that an emotion transcends knowledge and logic is not, in any way, keeping with the traditions of philosophy. To claim that "love" can reveal truths that "logic" cannot is not, in any way, in accordance with "reason".
But, let's take a closer look at the words of Paul in relation to reason and philosophy:
2 Corinthians 10: 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 6 And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.
Colossians 2: 2 My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. 5 For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.
6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.
Paul was hardly a friend to philosophy or reason. Paul encouraged people not to trust their own reason or to trust the arguments given by others, but instead to blindly follow faith. Indeed Romans 12:1, which the Pope cited in his speech, tells people to offer themselves as living sacrifices to God, it says nothing about reason:
Romans 12: 1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Paul's words here do not sound reasonable at all, but rather like the words of a cult leader madman.
Moving on with the Pope's speech, we see that he begins his sell on the idea that the Catholic Church is an integral part of the European Union, which should be formally recognized.
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.
First of all, the Christians did not in any way incorporate Greek philosophical inquiry, they shut it down. What they did do was incorporate a small selection of Greek philosophical concepts and constructs, which they used to give legitimacy to their religion, since this was required to gain some measure of acceptance with the existing culture, by claiming that their beliefs had points in common with existing views.
It is true that Europe today is a product of both the pre-Christian Roman world and the post-Christian world, it can be no other way, but clearly the greatest advances in Western culture have come from the rejection of Christian dogma and the rediscovery and re-embrace of pre-Christian knowledge and thought.
The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity - a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age
This is true. This occurred when the "inmates took over the asylum". With the Protestant Reformation there was a desire to push the Christian system, which was already only nominally rooted in philosophy, completely over the edge and away from reason for two reasons. In the first place because, with the re-embrace of reason it became clear that the Christian faith was not reasonable, and secondly, there was the view that the religion was supposed to be a product of divine revelation, not human thought.
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.
This is a highly confused, and indeed incorrect statement. Modern science and the modern understanding of nature have nothing to do with Plato, indeed they are anti-Platonic. Modern science is rooted in a merger of Aristotelian philosophy and the philosophical materialism of the atomists such as Democritus and Epicurus, which the Christians opposed from the very first days, whose works they destroyed, and whose ideas that completely denounced.
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 Platonist/Cartesian.
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.
Actually, this is false. The early "scientists" and natural philosophers, such as Newton and Galileo did believe that God fell under the purview of objective verifiable experience. Indeed there was an extended effort during the 14th, 15th, 16th, and even 17th centuries to "prove" the existence and qualities of God through the use of mathematics and evidence. Indeed this effort still goes on to a lesser degree. What we have found, however, is that there is no evidence that supports the existence of the Christian god. So, scientists did not exclude "God" from their framework, the lack of evidence for the God that the looked to find resulted in the conclusion that God cannot be verified to exist.
Continued below due to length...
Posted by rationalrevolution.net
at 7:35 PM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, October 4, 2006 10:42 AM EDT