On September 12, on his visit to his native Bavaria, Benedict XVI gave a formal academic lecture at the University at which he formerly was a professor. It is a brilliant, stunning lecture, and it is a lecture, not a papal pronouncement. It brings into focus just why there is a papacy and why Catholicism is an intellectual religion. Indeed, it is a lecture on why reason is reason and what this means. The scope of this lecture is simply breathtaking, but also intelligible to the ordinary mind. In watching my computer and listening to various colleagues the day after this address was given, I felt a kind of hush in the air. Something important had happened, something more than the ordinary went on in Regensburg, something that was addressed to the heart of modernism but also to Islam, our current enigma. When I read the lecture, I understood why.
We are familiar with John Paul II’s many academic discourses. These two men, Wojtyla and Ratzinger, are of the same elevated stature, men who speak to us of the highest things when almost no one else will or even can. They can somehow go over the heads of the censors, whatever they are called, in media and politics who will not talk about what is really true. Benedict brings his own style, his own scope of mind that ranges critically over the whole range of philosophy, history, theology, politics, and ordinary common sense.
This lecture is in the direct line of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio, but with Benedict’s more direct emphasis on the distinctiveness of Catholicism and its mind. Not every “ecumenical” idea is a good one. Some ideas are not true, even though untruth can contain some truth. Benedict, make no doubt, is the clearest and most incisive mind in the public order in the world today. This fact will not make everyone happy and will make not a few furious. Not everyone, as we are warned in our scriptures, is willing to accept the truth. We should not be na夫e about this, nor should we despair of the truth because it is refused. It is a seed that will grow in good ground.
Pope Ratzinger is clearly at home here in Regensburg. He affectionately recalls the many familiar chats, discussions, and, I suppose, arguments in which he participated in its coffee shops and recreation rooms with his students and colleagues. He obviously has fond memories of the place. Indeed, the word “memories” appears in the title of the lecture. A university, he reminds us –with shades of Ex Corde Ecclesiae — ought to be a place where the highest things can be spoken of without apology and without fear of reprisal from the political structure of society or, for that matter, from the political structure of the university itself, no mean feat on either score.
We would be fools if we thought that this freedom to speak the truth is not a serious problem in today’s world, particularly when we speak of the Islamic world, a topic with which the pope begins his lecture. Indeed, this may be the first time since Urban II that a pope has formally taken up the question of Islam in any way. It is something that I have often thought was the greatest contemporary need of modern culture and politics, as well as the modern Church. Benedict obviously knows that the proclamation and teaching that God is Triune and that Christ is the incarnate Word, true God and true man — the central doctrines of the Christian faith — are not allowed public space in Islamic lands or in Islamic law.
So it is a welcome surprise that he finds a gentle way to talk about precisely this problem from within the historic relations between Islam and Christianity. Furthermore, he talks about it precisely in terms of the theological and rational understanding of God and the world. This lecture is an almost fierce defense of reason both within philosophy and within the faith. Thus, it is a challenge to both Western and Islamic thought. It is also another effort to recall Europe to what it is, a unique place because of its history — not just another “culture.”
This pope can be amusing. He begins with a reflection that when he taught at the University of Bonn there were two faculties of theology; I presume one was Catholic and one was Protestant. A skeptical professor once quipped of this odd situation that in this university “it had two faculties devoted to something that did not exist: God.” But, of course, Professor Ratzinger did not let the colleague get by with this too facile excuse for not thinking about God. The gentleman’s disbelief in God still had to stand the test of reason; it has to justify itself, if it could. When looked at, the reasons for disbelief in God were not all that persuasive.
The pope begins the lecture by recalling an encounter, during the siege of Constantinople in the early 1400’s, between the learned Byzantine Emperor Manuel II and a wise Persian gentleman on the differences between Islam and Christianity. The very fact that the pope would bring this topic up is a sign that he recognizes the crucial importance of this difference. As readers know, I have long been advocating that the Catholic Church in particular must begin to tell us what it thinks Islam is, with its claims for an understanding of Allah as pure will, with its denial of otherness in the Godhead or the possibility of the Incarnation. Benedict makes a very significant beginning here, I think. What the pope presents is a very brief, but very incisive critique of the notion that the proper understanding of God is that God can contradict himself in his decrees so that certain political or moral actions are thereby justified as obedience to God.
We should understand the significance of this issue. Can God change his “reason,” that is, can he make what was evil to be good or reasonable? Is what is good or evil dependent on a kind of whim of God so that worship of God means following whatever God is said to say even if it is contradictory to what He said previously. Does the Koran negate the Old and New Testaments? Does it negate reason? In other words, is God’s revelation stable? Can we rely on its truth to be true everywhere and always?
We obviously have the suicide bombers clearly in sight here. We have the jihad here. Can such things be God’s will? Can killing oneself along with innocent others be an act of “martyrdom?” Must we worship God by being “submissive” to such theories? What is the source of such ideas? What the pope makes clear is that it is not the Christian scripture that would justify such things. In brief, he rejects that central notion that Allah or God is pure will who can make anything right or wrong such that religion means simply “obedience” to whatever is proposed no matter how lethal.
But the pope does not only have Islam in mind. He has universities in view, as well as modern thought and other “cultures.” The scope of this lecture is breathtaking. But essentially, it is first a theology of history — it was no accident that the early apostles went to Macedonia, to the Greeks with their minds. The first thing that the early Christian mind had to encounter was mind itself, best represented by the Greeks, perhaps only by them at the time. What was at stake was this very issue about the Word — the Logos — about whether it was a kind of amorphous flux that could be this or that, good or bad, according to whatever it decided. Or was there a fundamental distinction in things, a realism that would eventually justify science and all else that man has discovered? Science, after all, has certain theological presuppositions that make it possible to be practiced.
This address is likewise a brief history of modern European philosophy — that philosophy with roots in the two Testaments and in Greek and Roman thought. But Benedict recognizes that the modern mind is now more relativistic and skeptical. The modern mind doubts that there is reason, and doubts that we can both know and believe. It doubts that faith and reason belong to the same sphere, yet that is what Europe is. And Europe is not just another “culture,” but is the culture in which the confrontation of reason and revelation took place and in which the relations were hammered out.
It is not without profound interest that the pope chose precisely a university in which to deliver this lecture. It is not an encyclical. It is not a “doctrinal” statement. It is not a homily. It is a lecture to a university faculty and to its students — and not just to those in Regensburg sitting before him. In this sense it strikes at the very heart of the intellectual acaedia, to the intellectual sloth, of our time, to the refusal to think about the important thing with the tools that we have been given. What we know as universities in the modern world originated in the Church, in a space in which the whole could be talked about. Benedict knows that all disorders in politics and morals originate in the minds of the learned. It is there that we must begin to address our public issues, including that of Islam, but also questions of life, of morality, and of what we are about.
The Holy Father had already made clear in Deus Caritas Est that love of our neighbor is not primarily a government project, that justice is not enough, and often is not even a beginning. We simply cannot just talk of “faith” and “justice” without beginning and ending in charity and the reasons for it. The Christian suspicion is not that we must first be just and then we can be loving and charitable, but that we will, in all likelihood, only be just if we first find caritas. And this realization often means the Cross and suffering, just as Christ taught.
But with this lecture we are in heady academic surroundings. All is genteel. All is formal. All is, yes, “intellectual.” But it is here where the real battles lie hidden. What we see in Regensburg are, after Deus Caritas Est, the second shots of the new pope at the heart of what is wrong in our world and its mind. These “shots,” however, are designed to do what all good intellectual battle does, namely, to make it possible for us to see again what is true and to live it.
The Regensburg Address, I suspect, will go down as one of those seminal and incisive analyses that tell us who we are and where we are. It will remind us of what we are by teaching us again to think about the God that the skeptics, the dons, the theological faculties, including Muslim faculties, have too often obscured for us. Civilization depends also on thinking rightly about God and man — all civilization, not just European or Muslim. Such is the reach of this lecture.