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Debate beyond Secular Reason (part 2)


Perhaps most importantly, Benedict sketches the contours of an alternative politics that is beyond the division between the secular and the religious. To this end, he calls for a new form of engagement among the faiths and between cultures and religions. Having argued that contemporary Western conceptions of reason are utterly impoverished as a result of equating rationality with positivism, the Pope goes on to say that his theologically informed critique of modern rationalism “has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age.” Instead, science and religion share the belief in the existence of truth and in the need to use reason rightly. Coupled with the quest for knowledge, science and religion must debate the nature of progress and the limits on new technologically feasible possibilities. More fundamentally, Benedict says that the hegemony of positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it is intellectually dead and politically bankrupt because “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”—an implicit recognition perhaps that Islam has resisted the secularisation of religion and culture more consistently than Christianity.

So in order to challenge the dehellenization of the West (and the concomitant separation of reason and faith) and to inaugurate an alternative politics, the first step for Benedict is to recover the whole breadth and depth of rationality, for “this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.” As such, theology is always already public and political and does not need to justify its interventions in discussions on politics or culture.

The second step is to accept that the three monotheistic faiths can (indeed must) engage on non-secular non-fundamentalist terms, not on the basis of blind fideism or narrow rationalism but in the light of the great logos which comes from God—”both reason and word, a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.” In other words, theology is rational in the sense that it operates on the basis of a wider rationality which encompasses faith; a faith moreover which is intelligible to natural reason. Such a theological engagement between different religions concerns primarily monotheism because the hallmark of the three monotheistic faiths is the blending of Greek reason and scriptural faith by way of combining metaphysics and revealed theology. In this sense, Benedict distinguishes monotheism from other world religions.

The third step is to recall that Europe was not only constituted by the convergence of Greek philosophical inquiry and Biblical revelation and the addition of the Roman heritage but also exists and remains truly European only by preserving and extending this joint philosophical and religious foundation—though Benedict did not expand upon this in the Regensburg address.


On the point of inter-religious dialogue and the related issue of the religious foundations of Europe, it is therefore instructive to draw on two other texts: first, a book co-written by the then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and the (self-described non-believer) Italian Senator Marcello Pera with the title Without Roots, The West, Relativism, Christianity and Islam; secondly, a debate with Jürgen Habermas on the pre-political moral foundations of the liberal state.

The first text featured Ratzinger’s critique of contemporary politics and culture on the grounds that Europe has lost its faith and thus the foundations of its particular identity. The result, according to Ratzinger, was a European value system that “seems hollow, as if internally paralyzed” and “at the end of the road.” What is worse, Europe and the world at large are marked by relativism—all cultures are equivalent and there are no longer any limits on the power of the state, the market or hegemonic ideologies. Relativism is wholly in league with nihilism and absolutism because it denies the existence of objective truths, above all moral truths. Thus, it believes in nothing at all and surrenders to the greatest power. As such, the liberal secular model, which is procedurally sophisticated but lacks any theory or practice of a substantive public good, is constitutively incapable of providing an exit from this impasse.

In the same book, the Cardinal also called for a debate with Islam based on reason and for “more authentic reciprocal knowledge,” such that Christians and Muslims can engage in a dialectical dispute which is framed by a quest for truths and which is mutually transformative. Just as Muslims rightly demand respect for their beliefs and values in Western societies, so Christians are entitled to full legal protection and rights to worship in the Islamic world.

Finally, in his discussion with Habermas in 2004, Ratzinger already celebrated the “divine light of reason” in correcting the “pathologies of religion.” But he also questioned the secular liberal idea that the democratic process generates its own grounds of allegiance, noting that majorities can be blind or wicked. What we need instead is a standard of justice that transcends the “play of majorities” and can secure the common good. Such a standard is provided by natural law—a conception which once again is shared by all three monotheistic faiths, at least by those medieval theologians such as Avicenna, Maimonides, and Aquinas who fused Greek reason with revealed faith.

However, Ratzinger goes a step further and argues that the natural law tradition does not rest in religious faith but instead appeals to human nature—it comprises that body of principles binding on all humans in virtue of their membership in the common species. As such, it is truly intercultural, cosmopolitan and universal: discussions of natural law “must today be conceived and pursued interculturally. For Christians, it would have to do with the creation and the creator. In the Indian world, this might correspond to the concept of ‘Dharma,’ the inner lawfulness of being; in the Chinese tradition to the idea of the ordinances of heaven.”

So what emerges from Benedict’s Regensburg address is neither Islamophobia nor dogmatic conservatism but on the contrary a cogent critique of religious and secular violence as well as the contours of a genuine alternative. The mark of his critique and his alternative is that they are both metaphysical in inspiration. For Benedict believes passionately that nature provides us with rational grounds for knowledge of an ultimate transcendent source of being and for action aimed at perfecting the world according to its transcendent universal warrant. This universal translates into a peaceful ordering of particular because it is governed by the Good—the highest principle of justice. A politics and culture that are non-relativistic and non-violent require a rational critical engagement on primary virtues, not secondary values. Such an engagement must include faith because faith is in accordance with God’s nature. As such, the struggle is not one of Christianity versus Islam. Instead, the three faiths are involved in a common contest with secular post-Christian ideologies on the future of Europe.


At the end of November, Benedict will travel to Turkey. He will meet not only Muslim leaders but also Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and thus “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox Communion. This will be the first official visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate by a Pope of Rome in over 1,000 years. Thus, this papal voyage seems to be aimed not only at continuing the critical debate between Catholicism and Islam but also at promoting the unity of Christians, primarily of the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. Unlike the late John Paul II who after the fall of the iron curtain looked to Africa and Asia, Benedict has so far focused on the fate of Europe. He believes that Europe ought not to be abandoned to secularisation. United, Christians (and Muslims) may stand. Divided, they will surely fall.

Part 1 of this article appeared on Wednesday

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