This is the third and final part of a series on Pope Benedict’s Regensburg Address on “Faith and Reason”. If you wish, you can start at post 72 if you have not read it yet, and then proceed post 73, but that is not necessary. You can also read this as a standalone.
Benedict gave this groundbreaking address before a group of distinguished scientists in Germany on September 12, 2006. In a nutshell, he explained how science must be rooted in transcendent ideas to be most effective. It is one of the best explanations of philosophy in modern times.
The whole point of Benedict’s speech and of this blog is to show how strange it is that we have separated faith and reason, something that most philosophers before the Enlightenment would have found hard to understand. We will only be happy and whole as people and culture, when we get back to that natural state.
Luther and the End of Reason
I ended the previous post discussing Benedict’s view of Kant. But the ideas from Kant that help us understand our present-day dilemma really started with Luther. With his rejection of philosophy, Luther bifurcated faith and reason. Reason was decommissioned, so to speak, in order to get back to the “pure” form of faith found in the Word of God.
With the tools of philosophical reason out of the picture, the “faith” was boiled down to subjectivism. If there is no objective way for all of us to figure out what God’s Revelation means, then it is up to each person to figure out for himself or herself what the Bible means. The irony is that by eliminating the Pope and Magisterium, Luther vested that power in every individual Christian believer.
Each individual has the same power to interpret the Word of God that was reserved for the Magisterium. It should be no surprise that after Luther’s break from the Church, Protestantism started splintering almost immediately. This continues to this day with about 60,000 different variations and counting. If each individual is his own pope, then theoretically, each individual could start his own sect. Why has this happened? Well, if the Word of God does not change, then the only explanation is deficiency in and lack of the universal philosophical or reasoning principles that are required to correctly interpret the Word, thus the myriad of interpretations.
Kant Continues the Work of Luther
But this was just the beginning. As I mentioned in the previous post, Luther did not have the philosophical acumen to carry his ideas to their logical conclusions or to see the implications of them. Kant was a genius compared to Luther, and he did just that.
Benedict says the following:
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.
Again, there are so many ironies in this whole story that I could go on forever. Luther tried to get rid of philosophy with a pitchfork, but Kant brought it back with a vengeance. Not only did this complete the split between faith and reason, but it also gave life to a new kind of reason that was scarier, like how Dr. Frankenstein gave his soulless monster life. And by doing that, he put the last nail in the coffin of what used to be called “biblical faith.”
Where Descartes tried to resurrect reason, Kant severely restricted it, even more than Luther, thus his Critique of Pure Reason. Since Luther didn’t believe in philosophy, he looked at the issue from a purely theological point of view. Kant, on the other hand, looked at the issue from a purely epistemological point of view. This really makes the rest of Kant’s conclusions fall apart, because he has to use the premises of an epistemological system to severely limit the scope of epistemology in general and metaphysics in particular, which is the final blow. He had no use for metaphysics, and neither did Luther, but Kant reached this conclusion philosophically through epistemology. Therein lies the sophistication of Kant compared to Luther.
In this light and in comparison to Kant, Luther’s objections are not only not philosophical, but they do not even seem as theological as they appear at first glance. Instead, they seem to be a mere visceral and emotional reaction to the scholastic system as a whole.
A Radical Concept of Reason is Born
To continue the conversation about what Benedict said above, Benedict says that the natural sciences have made this new way of thinking even more radical. Kant’s rejection of metaphysics meant that he didn’t believe in any higher forms of knowledge, especially revelation. This was ironic, since Luther was the one who came up with the ideas that became metaphysics and revelation. We only have a few simple “categories” that we all learn as children that help us sort and make sense of the sensory information. This is Kant in a nutshell. We cannot make any sense of reality except for our innate categories and our sensory input. This is where Benedict, to repeat a part of the above statement, gets to the heart of the matter:
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.
Rationalism and Empiricism
I separate this sentence out because it is such a key foundational thinking in this entire address. Since the Enlightenment, the two siblings – rationalism and empiricism – had been in constant war with one another. The rationalists were represented by thinkers like Descartes and the empiricists by philosophers like Hume. Not only were faith and reason split, but reason was fragmented into pure thought and pure sensory data.
Kant tried to synthesize faith and reason in a soulless, faithless system without revelatory or metaphysical elements. It was a system without a soul. Kant is like the father who, once and for all, settles a dispute amongst his sons. His answer may have been a dysfunctional one, but it did keep the peace for a while. Once again, Dr. Frankenstein’s example is very apropos. Like Dr. Frankenstein, he created a monster that had a independent life , even apart from its master and creator.
I just have to pause to say that these insights of Benedict are positively brilliant. It’s hard to believe he got these insights from a speech that he gave to a group of scientists.
Let’s continue as Benedict unpacks the above statement:
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.
A new system has emerged from the Reformation’s ashes, similar because it has two poles but radically different, almost unrecognizable. The previous bipolar system of faith and reason no longer exists in the modern world. It was destroyed by the Reformation/Enlightenment and eventually replaced by a system of Kant’s making. The split between rationalism and empiricism was a result of the split between faith and reason, and most thinkers couldn’t stand the chaos that followed. It was Kant who saved the day. Descartes and Kant did for the modern era what Plato and Aristotle did for the classical and mediaeval times. They are like Plato and Aristotle, but with terrible results. They are the logical result of Luther separating faith and reason in the first place.
What are the poles of this new system?
On the one hand, there is the Platonic (Cartesian) system, which is the Plato-Descartes pole. On the other hand, there is the empirical pole, which is based on strict sensory input and scientific measurement. It is important to emphasize that these are now two poles of the same system. Kant had brought warring parties to the table and compelled them to sign a peace treaty. Like the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, this treaty sowed the seeds of relativism and postmodernism.
Before proceeding, a little housekeeping is in order. We need to answer the question of why Benedict lumps Plato and Descartes together? The short answer is that they were both mind-body dualists. Of course, They had differences, but we don’t need to discuss them now to understand Benedict’s views on this topic.
This is a difficult topic, but I will try to simplify it since It’s a post, not a book. Both Plato and Descartes made a sharp distinction between mind and body, between the abstract and the tangible. Plato expressed this through his theory of Forms and Descartes through abstract thought. Plato was heavily influenced along these lines by Pythagoras, even though he would not readily admit that. Nevertheless, for Plato, who said that God forever geometrizes, the fundamental structures of the cosmos were geometrical shapes.1 In particular, he believed it was the triangle.2 This idea really anticipated atomic theory.
A New Radical Scientism is Born
Descartes developed his Cartesian system in which any point, line, or curve could be defined with mathematical formulae, thus converting geometry to algebra. For both Plato and Descartes, numbers are predictable and consistent, thus integral to understanding the universe. But numbers are also abstract, thus providing an anchor of sureness by which we can find stability and predictability in a world constantly changing. This mathematical component formed the pole of reasoning, taking the place of transcendental revelation.
What do we do with the ever-changing cosmos?
In this realm, far less consistent than mathematics, we simply use empirical means to make sense of it: We measure it. We tame wild nature through the scientific method. We examine seemingly random events and find predictability. The freezing and melting of water seems haphazard, but if we take a multitude of measurements, we will find that water consistently freezes and melts at 32 degrees F or 0 degrees C.
Instead of the uncertainties of the old philosophy, especially scholastic philosophy, we now have something that will not only give us more certainty, but also, because of that, will be far more useful in using and even exploiting nature for practical purposes. No more discussions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; rather, we can take the raw materials of the earth and build sophisticated products such as smart phones and life-saving pharmaceuticals.
A new secular reasoning system with two components, mathematics and scientific empiricism, replaced faith and philosophy. One component is rooted in the abstract world of thought, while the other is rooted in the everyday material world. And this system appears to work. Science has given us much to be thankful for in the last 200 years by making our lives better in a myriad of ways. I love technology and am not a Luddite, but there is a certain dark side to this new radical reasoning that we must examine in order to understand the times in which we live.
Benedict states that there are two crucial principles that we need to examine:
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.
For one thing, we have only two tools in our toolbox now – mathematics and the scientific method. We used to have revelation, metaphysics, and sound human reasoning or philosophy. But now we can only measure anything using the two available tools. Nothing spiritual, an equally valid metaphysical reality, even ends up on the radar screen, thus giving us not only a distorted view of humanity and the cosmos, but often very harmful and even deadly treatments of the maladies that afflict us today. These maladies are not just physical but emotional, mental, and spiritual as well. It is as if a doctor only had a stethoscope and was attempting to measure the amount of glucose in his patient’s blood.
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.
This is something that all of us people of faith acutely feel most of the time living in the West. Any time that we bring up an issue of faith, we feel as though it is a second-tier article of knowledge, less certain and even irrational, compared to the surety of science. Science is now the all-powerful god through which we get our directives and to whom we must answer. Whenever there is a dispute between faith and science, science always trumps faith. This has led to a severe lack of confidence, especially in the academic and medical communities, among people of faith. Because of this, we often remain silent and go underground.
Who wants to ridicule?
Even if it means that a person dies alone in a nursing home during a pandemic, a horrible fate to say the least, not to mention the loss of dignity, we cannot question the science.
We are not dealing with science, which is a blessing, but with scientism, a faith in empiricism that rules every area of life like a dictator whom we cannot question.
Thus, the logical conclusion that speaks for itself:
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.
How ironic that Luther’s “faith alone” approach has led to a complete discrediting of any faith whatsoever, and has replaced it with a bastardized form of distorted philosophy, the very thing that Luther despised. That’s what happens when you see a problem and take matters into your own hands, relying on your own wisdom.
The Tyranny of Relativism
Benedict does not mention this explicitly in this address, but he talked about, in other contexts, what he termed the “tyranny of relativism,” which is the logical conclusion of what happens in the spiritual realm if we adopt such a radical stance of secular reasoning.
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.
This relativism only runs one way, though. That is why Benedict called it a tyranny. The relativist crowd beats us down, accusing us of being overly rigid and “intolerant,” if we try to posit a spiritual truth as objective and absolute, such as that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Even Pope Francis sadly says such things. Pope Francis strikes me as a very earthly man and even a political one, and either way, one with a very weak intellect.
On the other hand, when the secularists make a statement about our faith, such as there is no scientific evidence that Jesus rose from the dead (remember that science is the absolute arbiter of all truth), then we should seriously doubt that account. It is relativism for thee, but not for me. The “tolerant” crowd uses a hard club to beat down anyone who does not agree with them due to their own blind faith in science.
One of the greatest tragedies of all of this is the loss of connection and sense of community that we suffer from in the West, starting especially in the early 20th century. The 20th century was a time of alienation never experienced before in the West. This sense of alienation was exquisitely captured by philosophers and writers such as Sartre, Camus, and Kafka. Since then it has only grown and now is in epidemic proportions. This is the true pandemic, a pandemic of alienation, depression, anxiety, and hopelessness that now characterizes the West. The very science that we have prostrated ourselves to and groveled in the presence of just stares back at us with the steely stare of cold indifference, even mocking us at times. Where is our god now?
And finally, there is the complete loss of morality. All of you who are reading this know exactly what I am talking about. This is the end result of such a system, another one of Luther’s ironies. The very one fighting against immoral practices of the Catholic Church has now inadvertently foisted complete lawlessness on the entire Western world, everything from oppression of the poor and weak to complete sexual debauchery. It would be too simplistic to lay all of the blame for our present ills at the feet of one man, but at the very least, he started the ball rolling in that direction.
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.
Hope for the Future
What is the hope for the future? First of all, Benedict, above, states that:
…we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.
He talks about needing to question this limited perspective that the new science and reason give us. Pope Benedict was a very intelligent man, especially philosophically, but he was also, by accounts of those who knew him, a very gentle man. It seems as though we need to do more than just question. Rather, we need astute philosophers to be able to articulate not only apologetics for the faith, especially in light of modern challenges, but strong polemics as well to be able to assault and dismantle the ideological strongholds that remain firmly intact.
Secondly, Benedict does not desire, and neither do I, a return to the medieval period in which we seek to recreate, as closely as possible, that historical period of time. I personally like the many advancements of science and technology. Benedict states:
This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly: we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us.
Thirdly, Benedict states that theology should be restored to the rightful place it held in the Middle Ages. He doesn’t use the term, but what he meant was that theology should once again hold its place as the Queen of the Sciences, a term used in medieval times. And for those, especially Protestants, who feel that the medieval thinkers put too much emphasis on philosophy, the scholastics considered philosophy as “the handmaiden of theology.”
In this sense theology rightly belongs in the university and within the wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith. Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.
I think the intention is all well and good, but I am not optimistic that this will ever happen, what with the present climate in the secular universities. To establish entirely new university systems that place theology at the center is what we need to do; otherwise, the modern university will continue treating theology as an extension of secular humanism.
Benedict’s fourth point is very astute:
In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.
This point is not only astute, but hilarious. In the West, our secular university system is always espousing “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” But at the same time, it walls off from itself any serious discussion of real faith matters whether they be Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or otherwise, thus alienating people of any faith. So, on one hand they pat themselves on the back for their diversity, but on the other, because of their ideology, they don’t take people with faith seriously and often even patronize them.
At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology.
Even within modern science, there are remnants of faith in a transcendent rational God, for the very Platonic elements built within the system point to a rational source of the universe above and beyond the universe itself. Plato called these Forms, but Christians afterward recognized these “forms” as ideas in the mind of God. Maybe that is why science works as well as it does. As hard as modern thinkers tried to expunge from science any semblance of a transcendent God, remnants remain. These remnants not only make it possible to do good science, but also to act as a touchpoint by which to introduce God and true faith back into the picture.
He then ends with a quote from Plato’s Phaedo dialogue:
It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being — but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss.
If someone denied something as foundational as being, he would harm himself by depriving himself of the truth of existence.
The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur — this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.
Like someone trying in vain to suppress a beach ball in a pool, so modern man has tried in vain to suppress the truth of a divine, transcendent rationality that undergirds not only science but all that we do. It is a great and glorious thing that we try to suppress.
It behooves all of us who are people of faith to have the courage to open that door to the sublime in order to let the rays of divine truth shine once again on our attempts at sound reason. In this way we will engage, as Benedict states, “in the whole breadth of reason.”
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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
- Plato was actually quoting Plutarch, Convivialium disputationum, liber 8,2
- See Plato’s Timaeus, 53b-56c7, which contains his story of creation.
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
Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1637
Jaeger, Werner, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia, Harvard University Press, 1961
Kaplan, Grant, Faith and Reason through Christian History: A Theological Essay, The Catholic University of America Press (September 28, 2022)
Schall, Father James V., The Regensburg Lecture, St. Augustine Press; 1st edition (April 30, 2007)