Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Redemption of Reason

Book Review: Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures (Ignatius Press, 2005) and Values in a Time of Upheaval (Ignatius Press, 2006) by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

To listen to New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris tell it, one would think that Christianity is the greatest threat to reason in our time, that Christians are fanatical devotees of absurdity and blindness. Their assertions are the result of a kind of blindness and fanaticism. What the New Atheists have done, as Joseph Ratzinger so astutely observes, is to radically constrict the meaning of reason so that it applies only to what can be empirically demonstrated; reason is confined to what he calls "technical rationality" which focuses only on the efficient accomplishment of tasks and judges all thought and action by the canons of efficiency and utility. In short, reason and truth are confined to what is acknowledged by the empirical sciences which are understood to be the sole source of truth.
This means, of course, that religious truth is relegated to the realm of mere subjectivity and may be tolerated at the level of private belief (for now) but must be kept out of the public domain because it is inherently idiosyncratic and "divisive". Further, the whole realm of what Ratzinger calls "ethical reason" falls into the same category--all ethical values and principles are subjective and relative. While this way of thinking may be helpful for the sciences (which have unquestionably born much fruit), it essentially destroys the foundation of the good which leads to the undermining of law; the ultimate casualty, so Ratzinger argues, is reason itself. This may sound like an improbable thesis, but the essays collected in these two books make Ratzinger's case over and over again.
In an essay entitled "Searching for Peace: Tensions and Dangers" (delivered as a speech on the sixtieth anniversary of the Allied invasion of France during the Second World War), Ratzinger argues that world peace can only come about through the reconciliation of reason and religion. We must, he says, deal with the "pathologies" of both reason and religion for this to happen. The pathology of reason is to cut itself off from its roots and to focus on narrow matters of procedure and process; under this pathology there is no Truth, only "information". Such an approach leaves reason crippled: "Sick reason ultimately regards as fundamentalism all knowledge of definitively valid values and every insistence that reason is capable of discerning truth. The only task remaining to sick reason is dissolution, deconstruction..." A reason without roots ultimately can establish nothing but can only be an intellectual acid which finally dissolves everything to which it is applied. Modern "scientific" notions of determinism are a good case in point. When no objective good exists, when all law is but the assertion of power and when no objective criteria exist to evaluate the morality of science then we are left with the law of the jungle which is power divorced from the good. There is also a "pathology" of religion which involves a "partisan image of God," an image of God where God is understood to be "on our side" and the good is understood to be that which advances our standing. (Obviously, this could easily apply to both certain forms of Islam and certain forms of Christianity.) Ratzinger makes the case, a convincing one to my mind, that such a pathology is essentially foreign to both the Bible and to orthodox Christianity for which God is essentially Logos (rationality) and Love.
For Ratzinger, Christians have as a mission the purification of religion by reason and the nourishing of reason by religion: "We Christians are summoned today, not to limit reason and oppose it, but to resist its reduction to the rationality of production. We must struggle on behalf of the capacity to perceive the good and the good person, the holy and the holy person. For that is the true fight on behalf of man and against inhumanity. Only reason that is open to God, only reason that does not banish morality into the realm of the subjective or degrade it to the level of calculations, can resist the misuse of the concept of God and sick forms of religion and bestow healing". In short, part of the public mission of the Church is to keep religion and reason both in line and aligned. In this notion, Ratzinger is building upon the work of the Church Fathers and the work of St.Thomas Aquinas.
All this is more than a matter of intellectual discussion as the essay "The Significance of Religious and Ethical Values" makes clear. Here, Ratzinger takes up the issue of religious and ethical values in modern, pluralistic democracies. On one hand, Ratzinger notes, the modern democratic state must have some element of relativism in that the state should not be the arbiter of all values and all ways of living--this is the only way to avoid some type of totalitarian state. On the other hand, however, we have to think about the basis of law since there must be more to law than the action of of the state; law can not be simply whatever is enacted by a legislature. Historically, because of its Christian roots, the West has grounded law in some vision of the good. There are certain rights and certain truths which are not simply granted by the state but acknowledged by the state as existing beyond any political authority. What this means is that law is not simply a set of procedures for living together but, rather, law must enshrine within itself a moral vision of what human beings are and the dignity proper to them. For Christianity, and the civilization which came out of it, human dignity and human rights were derived from the notion of man as a unique creation of God. The whole notion of human rights is both historically and conceptually a fundamentally Christian notion. It is for this reason, Ratzinger argues, that the flourishing of religion within a democracy is essential to the survival of democratic government. The Church is not the enemy of democracy but its greatest ally. Democracy can not be supported by technical reason and law understood as merely a set of procedures alone--reason and law must be nourished by a religious vision of human nature and the nature of the good.
Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures contains an important essay on the rationality of faith and an equally important essay on the right to life. In the latter essay, Ratzinger makes it clear what it really at issue in the Christian opposition to abortion. While some frame this issue as a question of when life begins or a question of maternal rights versus fetal rights, Ratzinger sees it in terms of human rights. The failure to protect fetal life (the weakest and most defenceless of all life) is finally the triumph of the law of the jungle, the triumph of the powerful over the powerless: "It follows that a state that claims the prerogative of defining who is and who is not the subject of rights, and that consequently accepts that some persons have the right to violate the fundamental right to life of other persons, contradicts the democratic ideal...For when it [the state] accepts that the rights of the weakest may be violated, it also accepts that the law of the jungle prevails over the rule of law."
These essays reveal Joseph Ratzinger to be the most gifted theologian ever to hold the petrine office and one of the most important Christian thinkers of our time.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I want to encourage you to continue this very good work of reviewing Christian books. Your reviews are very helpful. I will be reading both or Ratzinger's books and looking at CS Lewis's Abolition of
man again.

September 5, 2008 at 5:29 PM  

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