Wisdom’s self / Oft seeks to sweet retired Solitude. – Milton
When Benedict XVI was elected almost eight years ago, I knew relatively little about him and I had read nothing by him. Since then, while I have by no means become an expert on his work, I have learned to deeply appreciate his thought. Many of the topics he writes about are well-known and oft-reported in the press―secularism, the interpretation of Vatican II, the spirit of the liturgy, and so on. However, there are two themes in his writing that I think are not dwelt upon enough: the relationship of faith and reason, and the virtue of hope.
Faith and Reason
We live in a culture where faith and reason are often bizarrely pitted against one another. I met a young woman recently who told me about joining the Church as an adult. After having a powerful religious experience she had decided to take concrete steps towards becoming a Catholic, even though she assumed that she would have to leave her brain behind in the process. It was a sacrifice she was reluctantly willing to make because of her profound experience of God. To her surprise, when she began taking classes of religious instruction, she discovered that no such sacrifice was necessary. In fact, becoming a committed Christian caused her to use her reason more than ever.
Thankfully, this young woman’s misconception was corrected, but there there are many others who are not as lucky as she and consequently never make it through the front doors of a church. It is for this reason that I think that Benedict’s thoughts on the relationship between faith and reason are extremely timely―and unfortunately, under-reported. What is particularly frustrating is that one of his most succinct and articulate discussion of the topic, his Regensburg Address, is famous not its substance but because in it he controversally made use of a fourteenth century quotation about Mohammed. However, leaving aside the perhaps impolitic choice to include this infamous quote, the speech is a magnificent reflexion on the relationship between faith and reason.
In the address, which was directed to faculty members at the University of Regensburg in Germany, Benedict warns of the danger of sundering reason from faith, stating that faith is not authentic unless it is in harmony with reason. He reiterates a favourite thesis of his: “The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.” This position is discussed more extensively in his 1968 work Introduction to Christianity, in which he argues that in Christianity, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob truly became the God of the philosophers. Faith is not reducible to reason, but Benedict insists that religion without reason is not true religion at all. Clearly, one target he has in mind is religious fundamentalism, especially the forms that lead to violence, but his message extends to all people. A faith that checks its brain at the door is severely lacking, for God himself is the divine logos, who creates the world in accordance with Reason itself.
Benedict further challenges the modern world to expand its conception of reason. In the Regensberg Address, he calls upon contemporary culture to broaden “the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically falsifiable” so that its “vast horizons” can be uncovered. If reason is restricted to the merely scientific, then it is cut off from its very ground: “Modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology.” Any attempt to circumscribe reason, is then, as Benedict believes, fatal. The modern tedency to covertly (or even unintentionally) baptise scientific theories as metaphysical foundations are one of the results of this error. For example, in the introduction to a volume summarising a conference on creation and evolution, Benedict points out that a “comprehensive theory of evolution, intended to explain the whole of reality, has become a kind of ‘first philosophy’”. This, he believes, is to have radically misunderstood reason itself, which certainly can understand the material world (and hence evolution), but must go beyond it to find its basis. His challenge is one that should, in theory, be amenable to our culture: open your minds!
The Virtue of Hope
A second theme of Benedict’s thought that is even more under-discussed, and yet perhaps more important than the first, is hope. When his three encyclicals are mentioned, there is usually some commentary on the first and the third, but the second, Spe Salvi, is almost always passed over. And yet in this document, Benedict explores the aspect of human nature that literally drives everything that we do. He makes the simple but profound point that what we hope for determines how we live.
What do we hope for? In many ways, we cannot even describe it. He explains:
In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope” which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity.He then explores the attempts made in modernity to discover what this “thing” is that we hope for, looking at the political and philosophical landscape, and shows that many of the seductive but ultimately false answers that have been given―technological progress, political systems, personal autonomy and so on―spring from a ruthless individualism that removes both God and genuine human communion from the sphere of hope. Even Christianity itself, he believes, has in many ways been co-opted by this; hence Benedict warns: “Flowing into this self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots.”
Benedict makes the simple proposal that we must return to placing our hope in God in an altogether authentic way. Because this means coming to love and know God through Jesus Christ, is is a radically outward-oriented kind of hope.
This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.… His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is “truly” life.One gauge for the quality of our Christian hope is our attitude towards the Ascension of the Lord. Today, this great event is often treated with mild embarrassment or is even ignored, though it stands firmly in Sacred Scripture and the Creeds. In the last chapter of the second volume of Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict proposes a recovery of the centrality of this dogma of faith. Do we really place our hope in the ascended Lord who is preparing a place for us? Or do we really think of the Ascension (if we are honest with ourselves) as the moment when Christ left us behind to our own human devices? Are we set on building the Kingdom of God with our own resources, thereby transferring our hope to a merely man-made kingdom? Or are we filled with “great joy” as the apostles were after Jesus ascended (Lk. 24:52), ready to place our hope in the Lord, to co-labour with him and to help souls come to eternal life―the eternal life which means living in justice and truth in this world but also eagerly awaiting the next? For the God we hope in, by physically becoming distant has in reality drawn closer:
Christ, at the Father’s right hand, is not far away from us. At most we are far from him, but the path that joins us to one another is open. And this path is not a matter of space travel of a cosmic-geographical nature: it is the “space travel” of the heart, from the dimension of self-enclosed isolation to the new dimension of world embracing divine love.
Spreading the Word
Yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI resigned. Perhaps one way to give thanks for his service of unity in the Church (c.f., Lumen Gentium, §23) would be to ponder these two great themes and seek to communicate them—or any other teaching you have found helpful for yourselves—more broadly. Often we complain that the true message of the Church is ignored in the modern world, and perhaps rightly so, but in the end, who will hear it unless we ourselves proclaim it (c.f., Rom. 10:14–15)?