In the above photo, Pope Benedict prepares to give his Regensburg Address, which resulted in a firestorm of controversy throughout the world. Please read post 72 to get the essential background of this address. In that post, I discussed Pope Benedict’s idea that it was the relationship between Greek philosophy and Christian revelation that built Western Civilization. In this post, I examine Pope Benedict’s thoughts on what went wrong and how to repair the damage.
Benedict claimed that it is reason and not the sword that must be used to propagate the faith. This reason is the eternal logos, which is Christ Himself. As humans, we have been endowed with reason since we are made in God’s image. This is what we share with God. It is the union of faith and reason that has built Western Civilization and what once was Christendom.
A God of Love Versus a God of Capriciousness
Pope Benedict explains this point further in Regensburg Address:
As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which — as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated — unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. 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.
The above statement is profound and needs unpacking. In the past, Christian philosophers have struggled with defining the relationship between man and God, especially in light of God’s transcendence. If God is so far above us, how can we possibly know anything about Him or have anything in common with Him? Benedict pointed to the nature of the Muslim god who is pure transcendence, but without a semblance of immanency. There is such a great gulf between this god and us, that he is virtually unreachable and unknowable.
This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.
As such, God becomes capricious since He is characterized by pure power and will rather than reason, logos. There is so much to say about this that it is difficult to know where to begin. First of all, lest we think that this is an entirely Muslim problem, in the late Middle Ages, these same ideas crept into Catholic philosophy with the rise of nominalism and voluntarism. Since these are complex matters, I plan to dedicate future posts to these ideas. In the West, we are basically swimming in a sea of nominalist and voluntarist ideas. So much so that we have inverted the God-man relationship so we humans become the ones with the power, so we think, to create reality according to our own wills.
The Paradox of the Unreachable God:
Rather than God being unreachable, we have become gods and as such, our age is characterized by immanency without any transcendence. The paradox of creating an unreachable God of pure transcendence in the West has been to completely erase any separation at all between God and man. If a God possesses any remaining attribute, it is love; however, it is not consider as divine love. Instead it is the love of a senile grandfather who puts his stamp of unconditional approval on any and every deviancy. God is love, and we are power and will. But in effect, this love is purely immanent, permeating everything, and not calling anyone to anything above ourselves.
If emphasizing God’s transcendence at the expense of His immanence have led to a benign and impotent God in the West, in Islam it has had the opposite result, which is what Pope Benedict pointed out in his Regensburg address – the purely transcendent god of Islam is not bound, even by his own righteous nature. He is pure will and as such, can be capricious in his dealings.1 It is interesting, though, that when these ideas were first being worked out in Islam, some Muslim philosophers like Averroes opposed these ideas of a capricious God stating that if such a being existed, the distinctions between good and evil would be erased:
But they say: “As for Him [God] who is not under obligation and does not come under prohibition of the Law, in His case there does not exist any act which is just or unjust, or rather all His acts are just and nothing is unjust in itself.” . . . This is extremely disgraceful, because in that case there would be nothing which is good in itself and nothing which is evil in itself; but it is self-evident that justice is good and injustice is evil.2– Averroes
Unfortunately, Averroes’ ideas did not prevail, but he was on the right track.
Logos and the Link Between God and Man
Rather than a god of love, in Islam, Allah is wholly transcendent and as such is pure will and power. The capriciousness of such a being tends to foster a servile fear since one is never sure what he will do. Nothing can cross the divide between god and man, not even reason; there is no analogy that can bridge the gap. To repeat what Pope Benedict said above in Regensburg Address:
God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.
This is a hopeless situation indeed. This is where the Christian God gives us hope. God is transcendent, and in that regard more unlike us than like us, but not completely. He is also immanent, and as such there must be some analogy between God and man, some commonality that enables us to understand something of Him.
This is what Pope Benedict said above in his Regensburg Address:
As the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated — unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language.
The key point of his address is that it is logos that bridges the gap. In what I would consider the key sentence of his address, Benedict clearly explicates this:
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.
Logos is Reason
Logos is reason, for God is reason and has endowed that ability to us as humans, which sets us apart from the rest of earthly creation. But logos in not just reason; it is a person. God Himself manifested in the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, which shows us not just logos but His love.3 As St. John stated, God is love and and Jesus Christ’s appearing was a manifestation of this love.
God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.– 1 John 1:8-10
Benedict then quotes St. Paul in stating that this love transcends even knowledge. It is through Jesus the Logos that we can understand God rationally, but even more, we can know God’s love which transcends all things. Pope Benedict states in his Regensburg Address that Christianity is the only religion that preserves the transcendence of God while maintaining reason – logos – and love. The West was founded on these principles and had the most complete expression of the Christian faith due to the combination of divine revelation and rational thought or logos, which was predominantly manifested through Greek philosophy. So what went wrong?
The Dehellenization of Christianity
I think that this is the most fascinating part of Benedict’s discussion and reveals his unique insight and contribution into the matter. In essence, Benedict describes how Christianity underwent dehellenization in three distinct stages:
- Reformation of the 16th century
- Liberal theology of the 19th and 20th century
- Cultural pluralism now in progress
At the beginning of modern age, theologians and philosophers would not have denied that Greek heritage was integral to Christianity. Of course, nowadays most Christians and even theologians are clueless on this matter. But being aware of this connection, these early modern thinkers sought to decouple the two. Benedict puts it very succinctly:
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.
Benedict then goes on to explain why these theologians would even desire such a thing. He claims that these three stages clearly interconnect, but yet are distinct. Let us move forward and unpack each one.
The Reformation and the Decline of Philosophical Thinking
Dehellenization first occurs with the postulates of the Reformation. As I have discussed in other articles, medieval scholastics sought to integrate Christian faith – that time, Catholic – with Greek philosophy. The high-water mark of this endeavor was the synthesis of Aristotle and the Catholic theology by Thomas Aquinas. In my other posts, I talk in depth about why we should not disparage human reason, as God gives us the gift of reason and creates us in His image, leaving an indelible mark.
Human reason done right—and the Greeks were the best at it—prepares man to understand and use divine revelation. The Greek language was also most suited to being the language of theology, and philosophy, because of its nuanced distinctions. Why did God choose that language out of others with which He could have chosen to write the New Testament?
Finally, the concepts of Greek philosophy gave theologians tools by which they could define and express difficult theological concepts. At the time, no other culture could fulfill these requirements as Alexander the Great spread the language throughout the world. And it was no accident that Alexander was a student of Aristotle. The connection is obvious.
In his Regensburg address, Pope Benedict was being too kind to the memory of Martin Luther, likely to avoid offending. So instead of mentioning him by name, he talks about “the reformers.” It was Martin Luther who set the tone for the Reformation and conditioned the thinking of the other reformers. The point is that Martin Luther was no friend of philosophy. For one thing, he did not have a philosophical mind and did not understand it. He despised Aristotle, the greatest philosopher who had ever lived up until that point.
Nominalism, which presented God as a capricious being whose primary attributes were will and power, dominated the Catholic seminaries during the time of Martin Luther’s attendance, as another important point to consider. Such a capricious God fed into the insecurities of an already guilt-ridden and emotionally unstable young Luther who had difficulty controlling his passions. He had both an anger and a lust problem. And such an individual, controlled by the passions of his lower nature, would have little reserve left to think philosophically or even to do sound theology for that matter.
For reasons just mentioned, such ideas would give Luther a very distorted view of philosophy. This lead him to start a movement that would undo 1500 years of intellectual work by theologians and philosophers. Modern Christianity’s anti-intellectual gene was introduced by decoupling faith from reason, especially in the US, that still plagues us today. Many evangelical circles consider it spiritual, and even a badge of honor, to not exercise intellect when dealing with faith.
And sadly, even among high-level clergy today in the Catholic Church, those who try to resurrect the philosophical ideas of earlier thinkers such as Aquinas are consider as “too rigid.” Pope Francis is a good example of a modern prelate who does not have a philosophical, let alone a theological, mind. I would say that he doesn’t have a philosophical bone in his body. What is interesting is that if one jettisons right philosophy, then it will distort the theology over time because correct thinking is necessary to properly do theology.
Benedict states the following in his address:
Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word, but one element of an overarching philosophical system.
The other leg of this early theological catastrophe was sola scriptura. Benedict states:
The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself.
Of course the doctrine of sola scriptura is a doctrine that undercuts itself by its own premises. It is true that a Church council made the final decision on what books were in the New Testament canon. If only the Scriptures are infallible and the council fallible, some inspired books may have been left out. If the council chose the inspired books infallibly, ensuring that all the correct books were included in the canon, then that would undercut the idea of Scripture alone as the only authority. But this is a discussion for another time.
Luther opened a can of worms that others, like Kant, radicalised.
When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this program forward with a radicalism that the reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.
It was only a matter of time before someone like Kant came along and took Luther’s ideas to logical end. Luther was not a sound thinker and could never have done this, but a genius like Kant was more than able as he clearly saw the implications of Luther’s ideas. For Kant, we could not know reality as it is, but only what our senses tell us, save for certain categories of thought, albeit limited, that we are all born with. Thus we have only practical reason with which to categorize and make sense of the sensory input that we receive.
As such, there is no place for metaphysics as had been known traditionally. Metaphysics is instrumental in understanding reality; without it, we are epistemologically groping along the walls. And without metaphysics, there is no room for Greek thought. It becomes supply only for used book stores to sell as a novelty at bargain prices. The key phrase above is that Kant “thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole”. This is why post-Reformation philosophy founds itself in a dark and nihilistic cul-de-sac.
Liberal Theology and the Decline of Philosophical Thinking
The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative.
Before I read the Regensburg Address, I had never heard of van Harnack, but it seems that he played a key role in this new way of thinking. Benedict talks about his early days as a student, when his education reached a “point of departure.” Pascal called this the difference between “the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Why is this important? Because A basic theological premise completely divides faith and reason, making it impossible to reconcile them. If there is such an error at the beginning, then there is no hope of having a grasp on the truth in the entire system of thought that develops from this premise.
Harnack’s central idea was, according to Benedict, as follows:
Harnack’s central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: This simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favor of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message. (italics mine)
Putting an end to worship, the subject of the first three of the Ten Commandments, leaves Christianity as nothing but an empty shell of humanistic thinking. This sound a lot like what Freemasons have been trying to propagate on culture for several hundred years.
Benedict goes on to say:
Fundamentally, Harnack’s goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, as he saw it, restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific. 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.
There is certainly a lot to comment on here, but I will try to keep it brief. Harnack’s main goal was to replace classical Greek reasoning, which is true philosophy, with a shortened form of reasoning that rejects good thinking based on philosophical principles. Also, remember what I said above: if we reject sound philosophical thinking, we can’t have sound theological thinking. Since theology and philosophy are linked, it’s not surprising that Harnack rejects both.
This new theology, according to Harnack, sans “unimportant” items such as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, is a humanistic idol crafted in the image of man by humanistic artisans. Only then, Harnack says, can theology be restored back to the university in its “proper place” like a domesticated dog with all of the wildness of Greek philosophy tamed out of it. It is also akin to taking a beautiful mountain lion in a nature preserve, killing and stuffing it, and then “restoring” it back to the preserve in its lifeless form.
If we have to submit to a theology higher than ourselves, we are not in control. Modern man wants to be in control. He wants to be the one calling the shots. Therefore, any theology has to be domesticated to do our bidding. Harnack’s language is a language of arrogance to say the least.
One may state that Harnack is not throwing philosophy out at all for he talks about “reason.” But his reason is scientific and not philosophical. This has given rise to the heavy-handed scientism of our time that we all labor under like obedient slaves. This is “practical reason,” which is very Kantian ,which should be distinguished from the logos of God.
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.
Since I am running out of space and I can’t articulate these things better than Benedict, I will simply include the rest of his address below. I could probably write an entire book on just the following material:
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.
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 decisive 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.
I will return to this problem later. In the meantime, it must be observed that from this standpoint any attempt to maintain theology’s claim to be “scientific” would end up reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self.
But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science” so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.
In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.
Cultural Pluralism and the Decline of Philosophical Thinking
Benedict states that we are now living in a time of cultural pluralism, which was true when he gave the address and, I believe, still true today. The concept of cultural pluralism is that we should get back to the “simple message” of the New Testament without all of the baggage of Greek philosophy since we should not expect cultures that we evangelize today to have to accept Greek thought along with the Gospel.7
Benedict’s response to this is:
This thesis is not simply false, but it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed.
True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.
After this, Benedict comes to his conclusion of hope for the future of once again realizing the union of faith and true reason, for the sundering of the two is at the root of many of our problems today in the West.8
I naively thought that I could cover this address in two posts, but I miscalculated. So, I will dedicate one more post to this address and hopefully bring this topic to a conclusion.
Reason is the devil’s whore.– Martin Luther
Please leave your comments below and don’t forget to subscribe or press the follow button. Thank you!
To read the entire address for yourself, please click the following link: https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2006/september/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060912_university-regensburg.html
Footnotes and Endnotes
- I cover these ideas more fully in post 65 entitled “Euthyphro’s Dilemma and the Relationship Between God and Goodness”.
- Hourani, George F. “Averroes on Good and Evil.” Studia Islamica, no. 16, 1962, pp. 14-15
- Post 38 entitled “St. John Declares that Jesus Christ Is the Eternal Logos – Creator of the Universe” is devoted to explaining how Jesus Christ is the eternal Logos of God.
- Dealing with great minds like Benedict’s sometimes necessitates inventing new vocabulary words like “dehellenize.”
- This idea of how nominalism affected Martin Luther is something that I have seen very little written about, but yet, I think, it is very important in understanding Luther’s thinking and his animus against the Catholic Church. I hope to explore this in later articles on this blog.
- “Trust the science” and let grandma die alone in the nursing home because of a virus is just one of myriad examples from modernity.
- We have even moved further than that today, especially with Pope Francis who continually states that we should not evangelize other cultures. I pray that one day Pope Francis will be converted to Catholicism.
- The moral decadence that we see today is a direct consequence of rejecting sound reason and separating it from faith. It is no accident in light of this that my pope, Francis, has lost his moral compass. I would like to do a future post on this topic as well.
Agbaw-Ebai, Maurice Ashley, Light of Reason, Light of Faith, Joseph Ratzinger and the German Enlightenment, St. Augustine’s Press, 2021
Guerra, Marc D., Liberating Logos: Pope Benedict XVI’s September Speeches, St. Augustine Press; 1st edition (November 30, 2014)
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Western Culture Today and Tomorrow: Addressing Fundamental Issues, Ignatius Press, July 1, 2019
Jaeger, Werner, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia, Harvard University Press, 1961
Schall, Father James V., The Regensburg Lecture, St. Augustine Press; 1st edition (April 30, 2007)