I also took a moment to recall today as, traditionally, the 1804th anniversary of the martyrdoms of Perpetua, Felicitas, Saturus, and the rest of their company in the Amphitheatre of the Martyrs in Carthage. I don't have my students read that text, currently, but I'd like to work it in somehow: reading Perpetua's journal seemed to make a distinct impression even on my high school sophomores back in South Bend, and I've stayed fond of her over these years.
Habermas Writes to Ratzinger, and Ruini Responds. Allies against the "Defeatism" of Modern Reason
The famous atheist philosopher invokes a new alliance between faith and reason, but in a form different from the one Benedict XVI proposed in Regensburg. Cardinal Ruini highlights the points of agreement and disagreement. And he insists on “the best hypothesis”: to live as if God exists
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, March 7, 2007 – It was his last address as president of the Italian bishops’ conference, CEI. But for cardinal Ruini it was a new beginning instead, the full return to his first vocation: that of a theology and philosophy teacher who confronts today’s culture.
Cardinal Ruini delivered the address on the morning of Friday, March 2, before about a hundred Catholic intellectuals and scientists involved in fleshing out the most ambitious program of the CEI in the past ten years: the “cultural project.”
The general title of the meeting was: “Reason, science, and the future of civilization.” And cardinal Ruini developed his discourse by entering as a third protagonist into the dialogue on faith and reason already underway between Benedict XVI and the philosopher Jürgen Habermas.
Habermas, who defines himself as a “methodical atheist,” is the last great representative of the acclaimed philosophical school of Frankfurt. He took part in a memorable public debate with then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, held in Munich on January 19, 2004. The debate – which later became a book, published in various languages – revolved around the foundations of modern liberal states, and was prompted by the thesis of another German thinker, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, according to whom “the secularized liberal state lives by presuppositions that it cannot guarantee.” Both Habermas and Ratzinger –like Böckenförde before them – asked themselves what religion can offer of its own to this incompetence of modern state. And both, in a different way, proposed a renewed alliance between faith and reason.
As is known, it was precisely to reconnecting faith and reason that Benedict XVI dedicated the lecture held at the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006: a lecture that cardinal Ruini has repeatedly indicated as the axis of the current pontificate.
So it was to be expected that Habermas would reply to this lecture. And this is what he did with a long article published on Saturday, February 10, 2007 in the leading newspaper of German-speaking Switzerland, the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung.”
In his discourse, presented below, Ruini makes a detailed summary of Habermas’ positions and his criticisms of the lecture in Regensburg, before analyzing and contesting them.
Here it’s enough to add that Habermas describes the impulse that drove him to study a new relationship between reason and faith in this way: “the desire to mobilize modern reason against the defeatism that lurks within it.”
Habermas sees this “defeatism of reason” at work both in “positivistic scientism” and in the “tendencies of a modernization run amok that seems to obstruct rather than to foster the imperatives of its moral view of justice.” It’s a secular lesson that has much to teach to Catholics fascinated by modern rationalism.
Here, then, slightly abbreviated and with the addition of section titles, is the March 2, 2007 address in which cardinal Ruini criticizes Habermas’ criticisms of Benedict XVI. Enjoy!
Reason, Science, and the Future of Civilization
by Camillo Ruini
[...] Benedict XVI’s address in Regensburg was followed by polemics over Islam and over its relationship with reason and violence, in addition to its relationship with Christianity. There has been much less discussion of the real topic of that discourse, which was centered upon the assertion that “not acting according to reason is contrary to the nature of God,” and proceeded to lay out a program of making more room from reason, proposing a dialogue, or better, a new encounter between the Christian faith and reason in our time.
A few days ago, J. Habermas, the last great representative of the philosophical school of Frankfurt and the esteemed counterpart of then-cardinal Ratzinger in the debate that took place in Munich on January 19, 2004, revived the proposal for an alliance between enlightened reason, or “the clarified consciousness of modernity,” and “the theological consciousness of the world religions,” which is manifested “both in the postmodern decline of the ‘dialectic of the Enlightenment’ and in positivistic scientism.” [...]
THE ALLIANCE PROPOSED BY HABERMAS
But what sort of alliance is Habermas proposing? Not “ambiguous compromises between things that remain irreconcilable,” or between the anthropocentric perspective of modern reason and the form of reason derived from geocentric and cosmocentric thought. If these two forms of reason or consciousness truly want to speak with each other (and not solely with one another), the religions must recognize the authority of “natural” reason (the quotation marks are those of Habermas), meaning the fallible results of science and the universalistic principles of juridical egalitarianism, while secular reason must not set itself up as the judge of religious truths, even if it remains true that secular reason “ultimately accepts as ‘reasonable’ only that which shows that it can be translated into its own terms,” which must be, at least ideally, accessible to all.
In concrete terms, this is a matter of a form of reason that modern science has forced to divorce itself from metaphysics for good, limiting philosophy “solely to the general competencies of the subjects of knowledge, language, and action.”
According to Habermas, this has shattered the synthesis of faith and reason constructed from the time of Saint Augustine to Saint Thomas. Modern philosophy has been able to assimilate critically the heritage of Greek thought, but it has drastically rejected the Judeo-Christian knowledge of salvation, or revelation and religion.
The issue is not one of healing this rift now, but of understanding that secular reason could overcome the current murkiness of its relationship with religion if it would take seriously the common origin of philosophy and religion that goes back to the revolutionary new way of seeing the world that was introduced halfway through the first millennium before Christ.
Only by understanding both traditions that are traced back to Athens and Jerusalem as substantive parts of its own historical origin will secular reason be able to understand itself fully; and its offspring (Habermas means both believers and nonbelievers) will be able to agree on their identity and their place in the world.
HIS CRITICISM OF THE LECTURE IN REGENSBURG
On this basis, in the last part of his article, Habermas criticizes the discourse in Regensburg, by which Benedict XVI is supposed to have put a surprisingly anti-modern twist on the debate about the Hellenization or de-Hellenization of Christianity, and thus is thought to have replied in the negative to the question of whether Christian theologians should struggle to meet the challenges raised by a modern, and therefore post-metaphysical, form of reasoning.
By referring back to the synthesis of Greek metaphysics and biblical faith elaborated from Augustine to Thomas, Benedict XVI is imagined to have denied the value of the forms of reason that have produce a polarization between faith and knowledge in modern Europe. For all that he asserts that he doesn’t want “to turn the Enlightenment back and turn away from modern science,” he nonetheless shows “that he wants to beat back the force of the arguments against which that metaphysical synthesis ultimately foundered.”
Habermas concludes that it does not seem profitable to him “to put between parentheses – excluding them from the genealogy of a ‘common form of reason’ shared by believers, nonbelievers, and other types of believers – these three catalysts of de-Hyalinization (cf. the Regensburg address) that have contributed to the birth of the modern idea of secular reason.”
TWO POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT WITH HABERMAS
I have lingered over this contribution from Habermas because it permits us to identify precisely the key points in the dialogue/confrontation/new encounter between the Christian faith and contemporary rationality, which Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI tackled most recently in Regensburg, but earlier than that with his inaugural lecture at the University of Bonn in 1959, dedicated to the God of faith and to the God of the philosophers, and then through all of his theological work. [...]
It is impossible not to highlight the fact that in the discourse by Habermas there are a couple of “presuppositions” that are rather dated and, I dare say, anachronistic, which show how even an advanced thinker seeking an alliance with Christian thought can still remain conditioned in his approach to it.
This first is that of applying to Christian faith and theology the perspectives derived from geocentric and cosmocentric thought.
It should be enough to recall in this regard the encyclical “Dives in Misericordia,” no. 1, in which John Paul II asserted that the perspective of Christianity is simultaneously and inseparably anthropocentric and theocentric, formulating this precise diagnosis: “While the various currents of human thought both in the past and at the present have tended and still tend to separate theocentrism and anthropocentrism, and even to set them in opposition to each other, the Church, following Christ, seeks to link them up in human history, in a deep and organic way. And this is also one of the basic principles, perhaps the most important one, of the teaching of the last Council.”
The second presupposition of Habermas lies in maintaining that the synthesis between Greek metaphysics and Biblical faith has been elaborated beginning with Augustine and arriving at Thomas.
Right there in his address in Regensburg, Benedict XVI told us instead that with the assertion “In the beginning was the lógos,” the evangelist John “gave us the decisive word on the Biblical concept of God,” in which “all the often laborious and tortuous paths of biblical faith reach their goal, and find their synthesis,” and thus the meeting between the biblical message and Greek thought “was not a mere accident,” but had instead its “intrinsic necessity.”
In Regensburg, the pope presented in a few words the developmental phases of this process, beginning with the “I am” with which God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush - but Joseph Ratzinger has often dedicated many pages in his books to illustrating and grounding all this. In virtue of this synthesis, the first ecumenical council, held in Nicaea in 325, a good while before Augustine was born, was able to affirm solemnly that the Son is “consubstantial” (omooúsios) with the Father, as a profession of faith binding for all believers in Christ. [...]
THE RADICAL NOVELTY OF BIBLICAL REVELATION
Here I am prompted to clarify a question, advanced above all in Catholic circles, on how to reconcile the assertion according to which the phrase “In the beginning was the lógos” is “the definitive word on the Biblical concept of God” with another, used as the title for the encyclical by Benedict XVI “Deus Caritas Est,” that God is agápe (1 John 4, 8:16) and that in concrete terms “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, 1).
Of course, one can and must first of all specify that in God, lógos and agápe, reason/word and love are one and the same, but Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI does not limit himself to this.
For him, the intrinsic link between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry is only half of the issue: the other half is constituted by the radical novelty and the profound difference of biblical revelation with respect to Greek rationality, above all concerning the central theme of religion, which is God.
The God of the Bible, in fact, radically exceeds what the philosophers had thought about Him, not only because He, as the supremely free Creator, is distinct from nature in a much more decisive way than could be conceived by Greek philosophy, but above all because this God is not a reality inaccessible to us, which we cannot encounter and to which it would be useless to turn in prayer, as the philosophers maintained.
On the contrary, the biblical God loves man, and for this reason enters into our history, gives life to an authentic love story with Israel, his people, and then, in Jesus Christ, not only extends this story of love and salvation to all of humanity, but carries it to the extreme, to the point of “turning against himself” in the cross of his own Son, in order to raise man up again and save him, and even to call him to an intimate union of love with Him.
This is the sense in which the biblical God is agápe, a love that gives itself gratuitously, and is also eros, a love that wants to unite man intimately to itself (cf. “Deus Caritas Est, 9-15).
Thus biblical faith reconciles these two dimensions of religion that before were separate from each other; that is, the eternal God of whom the philosophers spoke and the need for salvation that man carries within himself and which the pagan religions tried in some way to satisfy.
The God of the Christian faith is, therefore, the God of metaphysics, but is also, at the same time, the God of history, the God who enters into history and into the most intimate relationship with us.
This, according to Joseph Ratzinger, is the only adequate reply to the question of the God of faith and the God of the philosophers.
AGAINST A FORM OF REASON CLOSED OFF WITHIN A “STRANGE PENUMBRA”
Let’s return now to the article by Habermas, in order to confront the central point of his disagreement with the Regensburg address, and more broadly with the basic tenets of Benedict XVI’s thought and teaching.
Habermas pursues with personal and intellectual sincerity an alliance between secularized and “enlightened” reason and theological reason, but in reality he conceives this alliance on starkly unequal bases.
In fact, Habermas maintains that while theological reason must accept the authority of post-metaphysical secular reason, this latter, while not setting itself up as judge of religious truths “ultimately” accepts as “reasonable” only that which shows that it can be translated into its own terms, and thus, in the end, it does not accept religious truths themselves on the basis of their transcendent principle (the God who reveals himself) and in their substantial and characteristic content.
In the same vein, “Jerusalem” is accepted alongside “Athens” as part of the historical genesis of secular reason, but not as reasonable any longer. In the final analysis, Habermas does not break out from that “closing off” upon itself which Joseph Ratzinger sees as the limitation of a merely empirical and calculating form of reason.
But the perspective of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI is, by contrast, much more open. In fact, in Regensburg and more broadly in other texts he maintains decisively that the at the origin of the universe is the creating Lógos, on the basis of examining the structures and presuppositions of scientific knowledge, and in particular of the correspondence that cannot help but exist between mathematics – which is a creation of our intelligence – and the real structures of the universe, given that, if this correspondence did not exist, our mathematical forecasts and our technologies could not function. Such a correspondence implies that the universe itself is structured in a rational manner, and poses the great question of whether there must not exist an original intelligence, the common source of this “rational” reality and our reason. [...]
But he is fully aware not only of the fact that these kinds of considerations and arguments go beyond the realm of scientific knowledge and are placed at the level of philosophical inquiry, but also of the fact that on the same philosophical level, the creating Lógos is not the object of an apodictic demonstration, but remains “the best hypothesis,” an hypothesis that demands on the part of man and his reason “that he renounce a position of dominion, and take the risk of listening humbly.”
In concrete terms, especially in the current cultural climate, man is not able by his own power to make completely his own this “best hypothesis”: he remains, in fact, the prisoner of a “strange penumbra” and of the urge to live according to his own interests, leaving God and ethics aside. It is only revelation, the initiative of God who in Christ manifests himself to man and calls him to himself, that makes us truly capable of overcoming this penumbra.
Precisely the perception of such a “strange penumbra” makes it such that the most widespread attitude among nonbelievers today is not exactly atheism – perceived as something that exceeds the limits of our reason no less than faith in God does – but agnosticism, which suspends judgment about God inasmuch as He is not rationally knowable.
THE BEST HYPOTHESIS: TO LIVE AS IF GOD EXISTS
The reply that Joseph Ratzinger gives to this problem brings us back toward the reality of life: in his judgment, in fact, agnosticism cannot actually be lived out in practice; it is an impracticable program for human life. The reason for this is that the question of God is not only theoretical, but is eminently practical, impacting all areas of life.
In practice, I am, in fact, forced to choose between two alternatives, already identified by Pascal: either to live as if God did not exist, or to live as if God did exist and were the most decisive reality of my existence. This is because God, if He does exist, cannot be an accessory to be removed or added without changing anything, but is instead the origin, meaning and end of the universe, and of man within it.
If I act according to the first alternative, I adopt a de facto position of atheism, and not only of agnosticism; if I decide in favor of the second alternative, I adopt the position of a believer. The question of God is, therefore, unavoidable. It is interesting to note the profound similarity that exists in this regard between the question of man and the question of God: both, because of their supreme importance, must be faced with all the rigor and commitment of our intelligence, but both are always eminently practical questions as well, inevitably connected to our concrete decisions in life.
Precisely in considering the believer’s perspective as both the best hypothesis and one that implies a free choice and does not exclude the rational possibility of different hypotheses, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI shows himself as substantially more open than Jürgen Habermas and the “secular reason” that Habermas claims to represent: this form of reason, in fact, accepts as “reasonable” only that which shows that it can be translated into its own terms.
In this “absolutization” of secular reason, we have a sort of counterpart, on the theoretical level, to the “dictatorship” or absolutization of relativism that is displayed when individual freedom, according to which everything is in the end relative to the subject, is set up as the ultimate criterion to which every other position must be subject.
STARTING OVER FROM KANT TO PONDER THE QUESTION OF GOD
I add a personal reflection, which may seem limited to a specific point of philosophical debate, but which in my judgment is a key point difficult to ignore in the new encounter between faith and reason in our time, which is the great objective of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, and also of the cultural project we are working on in the Italian Church. I think, moreover, that such a reflection may permit us to clarify further the decisive point of the reflection that aims at rising up to God from the intelligibility of the universe.
I refer specifically to the question of the conditions under which scientific knowledge is possible, which Benedict XVI invokes extensively to reopen rational discourse to the creating Lógos, but which well before this was at the heart of the reflection of perhaps the most important and decisive thinker for the course of modernity, I. Kant.
Kant, in fact, carried out his “Copernican revolution” – according to which it is not our knowledge that must conform to objects, but the other way around, so that reality as such cannot be known by “pure reason” – precisely in order to assure the conditions for making possible not only mathematics, but also physics: this is the fundamental reason for the path that Kant took from his “Dissertation” in 1770 to his “Critique of Pure Reason” in 1781.
I personally maintain that reflection on the conditions under which scientific knowledge is possible remains, even today, a fundamental task for philosophy (still very interesting in this regard is the book “Insight” by B. Lonergan). But precisely on this level, the direction Kant took must be corrected, for the basic reason, as simple as it is solid, indicated by Benedict XVI in revisiting and reformulating a line of thought often proposed in criticism of Kant’s “Critique.”
The nucleus of this objection is the correspondence between mathematics, a creation of our intelligence, and the real structures of the physical world, a correspondence that is continually verified by the successes of science and technology, and which implies the deep intelligibility – as imperfect and incomplete as the understanding may be – of reality on the part of our reason.
This overturns the central point of the Kantian position, and inevitably brings back into question – because of the very dynamism of human intelligence, which does not give up in the face of certain open problems – the origin of this correspondence, and the “hypothesis” of a creating Intelligence, or God.
At this point there spontaneously arises the objection that this represents a return to the era before Kant, and tends to reject the cultural developments from the past two centuries. But I personally maintain that such a return and rejection does not inevitably follow the challenging of this point, as central as it is, of Kant’s thought.
This is, in fact, a matter of taking absolutely seriously his initial question on the conditions under which science is possible, and of giving a different reply to this, a reply that – apart from taking into account the major transformations that have taken place meanwhile in science itself – does not imply a “revolution” or rupture with respect to the great preceding tradition, but is equally capable of making its own the positive developments of modern and postmodern reason.
In my humble opinion, an alternative answer like this could even be shown as more suitable for furthering the journey that still lies ahead of us.
In other words, I think that the words hold true here that Benedict XVI spoke in Verona on October 19, 2006, on the “courageous break that leads to maturation and healing,” which is typical of the relationship between Christian faith and the cultures and forms of rationality of all the different eras and which does not at all exclude, but rather guarantees and fosters, the acceptance and development of their authentic values.
This is, clearly, only a postulate, or a hope, which would need to be concretely implemented and verified in culture and history.
But it seems to me that Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has placed a solid point of departure at the basis of such hope, and of the paths that this hope might take.
The New York Times
March 3, 2007
Books on Atheism Are Raising Hackles in Unlikely Places
By PETER STEINFELS
Hey, guys, can’t you give atheism a chance?
Yes, it is true that “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins has been on The New York Times best-seller list for 22 weeks and that “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris can be found in virtually every airport bookstore, even in Texas.
So why is the new wave of books on atheism getting such a drubbing? The criticism is not primarily, it should be pointed out, from the pious, which would hardly be noteworthy, but from avowed atheists as well as scientists and philosophers writing in publications like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, not known as cells in the vast God-fearing conspiracy.
The mother of these reviews was published last October in The London Review of Books, when Terry Eagleton, better known as a Marxist literary scholar than as a defender of faith, took on “The God Delusion.”
“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds,” Mr. Eagleton wrote, “and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” That was only the first sentence.
James Wood’s review of “Letter to a Christian Nation” in the Dec. 18, 2006, issue of The New Republic began, “I have not believed in God since I was fifteen.” Mr. Wood, a formidable writer who keeps picking the scab of religion in his criticism and fiction, confessed that his “inner atheist” appreciated the “hygienic function” of Mr. Harris’s and Mr. Dawkins’s ridiculing of religion and enjoyed “the ‘naughtiness’ of this disrespect, even if a little of it goes a long way.”
But, he continued, “there is a limit to how many times one can stub one’s toe on the thick idiocy of some mullah or pastor” or be told that “Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of really nasty things.”
H. Allen Orr is an evolutionary biologist who once called Mr. Dawkins a “professional atheist.” But now, Mr. Orr wrote in the Jan. 11 issue of The New York Review of Books, “I’m forced, after reading his new book, to conclude that he’s actually more of an amateur.”
It seems that these critics hold several odd ideas, the first being that anyone attacking theology should actually know some.
“The most disappointing feature of ‘The God Delusion,’ ” Mr. Orr wrote, “is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology” and “no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions.”
Mr. Eagleton surmised that if “card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins” were asked “to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Africa, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could.” He continued, “When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.”
Naturally, critics so fussy as to imagine that serious thought about religion exists, making esoteric references to Aquinas and Wittgenstein, inevitably gripe about Mr. Harris’s and Mr. Dawkins’s equation of religion with fundamentalism and of all faith with unquestioning faith.
“Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that,” Mr. Eagleton wrote.
In The New Republic last October, Thomas Nagel, a philosopher who calls himself “as much an outsider to religion” as Mr. Dawkins, was much more patient. Extracting a theoretical kernel of argument from the thumb-your-nose-at-religion chaff, Mr. Nagel nonetheless had to point out that what was meant by God was not, as Mr. Dawkins’s argument seemed to assume, “a complex physical inhabitant of the natural world.” (Mr. Eagleton had less politely characterized the Dawkins understanding of God “as some kind of chap, however supersized.”)
Nor was belief in God, Mr. Wood explained two months later, analogous to belief in a Celestial Teapot, the comic example Mr. Dawkins borrowed from Bertrand Russell.
If this insistence on theology beyond the level of Pat Robertson and biblical literalism was not enough, several reviews went on to carp about double standards.
Mr. Orr, for example, noted the contrast between Mr. Dawkins’s skepticism toward traditional proofs for God’s existence and Mr. Dawkins’s confidence that his own “Ultimate Boeing 747” proof demonstrated scientifically that God’s existence was highly improbable.
Mr. Eagleton compared Mr. Dawkins’s volubility about religion’s vast wrongs with his silence “on the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity” and the good that religion has produced.
“In a book of almost 400 pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false,” Mr. Eagleton wrote. “The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah are wiped from human history — and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry.”
In Mr. Orr’s view, “No decent person can fail to be repulsed by the sins committed in the name of religion,” but atheism has to be held to the same standard: “Dawkins has a difficult time facing up to the dual fact that (1) the 20th century was an experiment in secularism; and (2) the result was secular evil, an evil that, if anything, was more spectacularly virulent than that which came before.”
Finally, these critics stubbornly rejected the idea that rational meant scientific. “The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism,” Mr. Nagel wrote.
“We have more than one form of understanding,” he continued. “The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics.”
So what is the beleaguered atheist to do? One possibility: take pride in the fact that this astringent criticism comes from people and places that honor the honest skeptic’s commitment to full-throated questioning.