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Benedikt XVI, Modern Times, and Faith

Notes on the Pope's Regensburg Lecture


From Herder-Korrespondenz, 2006/11, P. 551-554
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Regensburg University lecture of Benedict XVI at first led to massive irritations in the Islamic world. But the at present politically explosive situation must not tempt us to hush up questions in the interreligious dialogue. This applies also to the relation of faith and reason.


If religious conceptions are not compatible with an ethically sensitive principle of reason, which has its fixed point in the general acknowledgment of human dignity, then arbitrariness and violence threaten. That is why we must be able to presuppose the synthesis of reason and morality also in God, if religion is not to become a danger escalating into violence. Thus one may also be grateful that Benedict XVI - in the general excitation after his Regensburg lecture - tried hard to give reconciling clarifications, and that he urgently invited to dialogue, but did not correct anything of his fundamental conviction that religion has to be led by reason.

A wrong irenic attitude in the interreligious dialogue serves nobody. For arbitrary use of reason in religious matters means nothing but fundamentalism, and opens the door to terror. European Christianity had to bitterly experience this often enough, particularly at the time of religious wars. Only by the imposed disentanglement of religion and state the religious potential of violence could be calmed down. For Europe's population this form of secularization meant a great blessing.

When the Pope now demands the due synthesis of faith and reason, and in connection with this puts also other religions under the obligation of using generally communicable principles of reason, and so also speaks out in favour of the right of free worship, then he actually adapts at least part of the European inheritance of Enlightenment. The relationship between both of them is not to be underestimated. The modern acknowledgment of egalitarian liberal basic rights has one of its roots in the Biblical human rights ethos. Religious claims to truth find their barrier in individual rights. The pending inter-religious discussions have to be led by this principle.

With that no relativism threatens, but we only give room to the insight that truth wants to achieve its right through our free acknowledgment (of it). The explosive question in the dialogue with Islamic societies and conceptions sounds of course whether one can reach agreement on these principles, that is to say on principles corresponding to those of democratic civil societies, and presupposing the separation of religion and state, which however is something especially difficult in Islam.

But Islam was only one topic of the Regensburg lecture. With the exception of some commentaries from the Protestant area the Popeís Regensburg lecture was hardly ever discussed theologically. That surprises. By his lecture Benedict XVI obviously by no means wanted to give an impulse to the more and more needed inter-religious discussion with Islam. Its higher topic is the synthesis of faith and reason, first of all related to the Occidental history of ideas.


The Pope and Western History of Ideas

The lecture is one of the many variants of the one topic which accompanies the entire life history of Joseph Ratzinger. Time and again he looks at a reason which says goodbye to its metaphysical width, and at best concentrates on the practical reason, or reduces itself to the technically feasible. To such a narrow-minded reason not only the question of God gets lost as a topic of mankind. It threatens to become pathologic and misanthropic. Therefore it is not only "contrary to the nature of God", "not to act reasonably". It is also contrary to the nature of the human reason to pretend to be deaf for the reality of the divine. According to Benedict XVI the derailments of a modern age that has become secular here have their root. Ethics holding on to general human dignity at any price etsi deus non daretur seems inconceivable.

With regard to the history of ideas it is informative, but above all important for the in Europe so urgent discussion between faith and post-metaphysical thinking, how in this lecture the genesis of modern age and of modern ideas is reconstructed from an erroneous trend of theology.



To formulate it pointedly: The European disaster begins at the moment when the synthesis of Christian and Greek thinking begins to dissolve. That also the Christian history of theology has by no means run smoothly is admitted in the Regensburg lecture with regard to Islam "for the sake of probity". Also "in the late Middle Ages of Europe tendencies developed in theology" which "blew up the synthesis of Greek and Christian thinking."

A topic which may seem unimportant theologically is in truth one of the most exciting debates, which up to this day has not really been settled, and has substantial consequences not only for theology, but also for the understanding of man and for a theological interpretation of the secularized western world. With Duns Scotus (1266-1308), so Benedict XVI, a line of thinking was established that - similar to positions in Islam - "could lead to the image of an 'arbitrary God', who is also not bound to truth and good".

Benedict XVI alludes here to the distinction between potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta, a distinction that is of course made in Nominalism - here is no need to conceal distortions - to make conceivable the perfect absoluteness of God's freedom. God should not be determined by any necessity, neither in his act of creating nor in his act of salvation, which with regard to mankind remains a free act. And in the Old Testament the famous name of God (Ex 3:14) insists already on the fact that God's freedom is absolute. God is faithful, says faith, but he loses not its freedom with that.


God's Freedom as Reason's Abyss

But if God is not only free originally but permanently, then God indeed becomes unfathomable for human reason. If it wants to trust in God, it depends on His self expressions, on His revelation. Out of itself however it cannot secure God's reasonableness in the sense of perfect kindness. This inscrutability is found analogously in all free relations among men that are based on confidence. At the latest when - in view of inexpressible misery and bestial cruelty - the so depressing question of theodicy is asked, "Where has God been?" - so Benedict XVI in Auschwitz -, this question begins to burn and makes man ask whether there arenít dark sides in God himself after all.

Should it be that there is a remainder of arbitrariness in God based on His potentia absoluta? Also the God-trusting reason worries here, doubts, turns to complaints. Others are overwhelmed by the experience of His standing aside, they despair of the faith in the kind and just God handed down to them. He does not even intervene where human freedom rages brutally.

The philosopher Hans Blumenberg, deceased in 1990, spoke of human self-assertion in face of such a God of arbitrariness. One prefers to get rid of God to having to reckon with the arbitrariness of a God who seems to be mercilessly overlooking the misery of men. In and despite of His potentia absoluta God refuses to end suffering. Not to act is actualisation of the potentia absoluta, an expression of liberty. But if one does not miss God and not even holds him capable of acting out of freedom, one leaves the ground of believing in God as the Lord of history.

It remains to be discussed whether saying 'goodbye' to God is the only possible reaction to the nominalistic God. For the genesis of the modern age this distinction in the conception of God, enforced by the Bible, was of immense anthropological importance. Here a central aspect of the conception of liberty is conceptually taken seriously. Freedom is here no longer only thought of as freedom to achieve the good, but as ability of a being to determine itself by itself, and in this way to be able to react to everything possible, the difference of good and wrong included.

But it was not only the discovery of the nature of freedom, which overturned a lot of things that had been taken for granted in the past. At the same time the faith in the possibilities of philosophical reason began to limit itself. It is true Descartes doubts radically, but in carrying out the methodical doubt about everything he saves the certainty of the Ego as well as the existence of God. Kant however guarantees the reality of freedom via the fact that we are to be determined morally; whereas God's existence escapes theoretical arguments

For Benedict XVI here the crucial reason is to be found why after Kant man is more and more committed to t h i s world, and no longer reaches the level of objective truth. Benedict XVI quotes Kant's statement, "he had to get rid of thinking in order to give way to faith"; the synthesis of reason and faith breaks up with far-reaching consequences.

With Adolf von Harnack faith did not go beyond an ideal of humanity, but was no longer faith in Christ's divinity. The business of science was now limited to the pure science of mathematics, and to the study of the empirically accessible reality. By this however man is "reduced", and at the same time endangered: "For the actually human questions, those about our 'where ... from' and 'where ... to', the questions of religion and ethos can no longer find a place in a common reason defined by 'science', and must shift into the subjective area. The subject with its experiences decides about the matters which seem religiously tolerable, and the subjective "conscience" in the end becomes the only ethical instance."



As already touched, Benedict XVI recognizes the crucial reason for this development in the fact that the - in his view - already successful synthesis of faith and Greek thinking within the New Testament has been given up. God is again carried far away into transcendence inaccessible to human reason. But if God cannot be recognized by human reason, man no longer knows that he is anchored in a God who is the unity of reason and kindness - hence he takes the place of God.


Faith and Practical Reason

From this perspective not only the narrowing of the conception of science must be criticized, but also the project of an autonomous moral has to be rejected as unfounded and impracticable. Either man commits himself to God or he rejects absolute demands, which are demands of the good, because they are demands of the good absolute. Hence Benedict XVI urgently warns of all programs of 'Enthellenisierung' (de-hellenization) of faith, as he warns man against separating from his relation to transcendence. Only when "reason and faith find in a new way to each other" and when the "self-restraint of reason to things which can be falsified by experiment" is overcome and "the whole width of reality is opened to reason again", only then man can be protected against the risks of his freedom. There a r e pathologies on both sides, on the side of reason and on the side of religion. As time and again emphasized already before his pontificate, e.g. in the famous discussion with Jürgen Habermas in the Munich Academy, there is need for a mutual "cleansing and healing".

If one in this way puts the Pope's Regensburg lecture in its proper place, it does not contain anything substantially new. It applies to Islam statements made before and now again particularly with regard to the secular west and also to a Christianity that - like any other religion - is always in danger to say good-bye to reason, and so to become inhuman. The Catholic Church is not free from these pathological dangers, as John Paul II impressively expressed in his plea for forgiveness to the Jewish people.

Benedict's XVI Regensburg lecture was programmatic, but as university lecture it is necessarily also oriented towards dialogue. But there remain questions, if one asks for its meaning for the societies which are up to this day determined by the processes of European Enlightenment. In the Munich Academy discussion with Habermas the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith admitted that natural law had unfortunately become blunt. Obviously he too has hardly any hopes that the respective historical processes could be revisable. They are not, also for philosophical reasons. The "metaphysical homelessness" (Theodor W. Adorno), which became the signature of broad currents of the twentieth century, has a strong root in our missing God.

God becomes homeless by abysmal experiences of suffering, and so loses His plausibility. It is not arbitrariness that prevails in this detachment from Jewish-Christian experiences of faith, but an abysmal fright about the utter hopelessness of the world. This Godís loosing plausibility forms a coalition with a philosophical expounding the problems of the conception of God the name of Kant stands for.

It is true Kant knows unavoidable questions which consequently let necessarily raise the question about God. In particular the morally sensitive subject will not carelessly give up the hope which is included in the conception of a God who in His omnipotence wants to care also for the murdered, the humiliated and carried off by life - a God who saves and reconciles. This is why Kant explained that God must necessarily be postulated by a reason that commits itself to moral standards.

But: It postulates the existence of a saving God, without being able to prove Him. And it identifies this God with the God it has a presentiment of in view of the "starry sky" above it. But it remains a thesis for which there are sufficient reasons, but it cannot - in the strict sense - be proved. The need for God guarantees His existence as little "as the agony of people starving to death guarantees food" (Adorno). In a world where with the insight into the limitation of human reason metaphysics becomes the "Blaue Blume / blue flower" (Hermann Krings) of philosophy,



the whole drama of Pascal's bet on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of whom Christians believe that he himself was present in the flesh of the man Jesus, becomes finally apparent.


More than Theological Hair-Splitting

If one reconstructs the conception of human liberty, as it is for the first time reflected by Kant, out of the traditions of Nominalism then something else becomes apparent. The freedom reflected here is by no means a pure arbitrary freedom dissociating itself from all ethical standards. For the formulation of the European human rights ethos, as it is reflected in the UN-human rights Charta until today, Kant's categorical imperatives, which in their substance contain nothing else but the Biblical Ethos, are of crucial importance.

But above all the insight is found with Kant (at least formulated rudimentarily) that true morality comes into being only for its own sake, and not for any heteronymous reason - even if its name was God. Hence liberty in its fundamental meaning as self-determination is raised here to the highest principle not by chance but because the idea of humanity is founded on this concept. This applies also to the questions of religious freedom. Regardless of manís obligation to look for truth - an obligation which exists only on the basis of the nature of his liberty and the relation between freedom and truth connected with it - liberty has its right even when it is mistaken. In the Declaration on Religious Freedom the Second Vatican Council took a clear stand on this.

This recourse to the central principle of modern independence of man, to liberty, exactly follows a distinction theologically prepared in nominalism: that of potentia ordinata and absoluta. It remains of course disturbing that one ought to think so radically about God as liberty: that all statements about him are exclusively bound to what he tells us about himself, that they are based on the faith in His faithfulness, revealed once and for all.

But also the statements about God's identity, as they are found in the Bible, reflect on experiences which presuppose Godís action - and risk then on this basis conclusions about God himself. Thus however also becomes comprehensible why revelation is needed. If one conceives the synthesis of reason and faith in the Greek way, and if human reason is already by itself able to prove God's kindness, then as reason for God's historical action only original sin remains, which is historically compensated by Godís cleansing and sanctifying reason in the historical meeting with Him.

But perhaps the synthesis can only succeed if God proves that he is a fact of history, so that faith becomes possible only for that reason that He in His perfect liberty made himself the exegete of His decisiveness for man. If one chooses this theological approach, a God appears who in deeply contingent way is related to His creation, who in t h i s and no other way. that is to say in a true human form, speaks His absolute YES to man.

Again and again anew in the history of theology there have been and there are attempts to be able to think this, and thus to believe. In his Bonn inaugural lecture as professor of theology in the year 1959 Josef Ratzinger formulated, "The adoption of the philosophical concept of God by the apologists and the Church's Fathers was certainly legitimate, even required by the nature of faith." But there was also "no denying that this adoption not always took place in a sufficiently critical way." After all God's liberty is at stake, His power in history, and thus His relation to the contingent reality, and that is what at that time prompted Ratzinger to this assumption. But then also the effort to achieve the synthesis of reason and faith must be led by the principle of freedom. As Benedict XVI suggested in his Regensburg lecture, Greek thinking can be adopted only critically, if faith is not to be misrepresented.

One can the debates mentioned dismiss as theological hair-splitting. But they reflect in theology what Benedict XVI demanded so urgently in Regensburg for the inter-religious dialogue and for Islam. To bring faith and reason always anew to a synthesis must be a permanent task. But thereby faith remains faith, as the Pope noted in his Auschwitz speech. Its truth remains in dispute as far as it can be shown as thinkable, hence as reasonable, but it cannot be proved in the strict sense.

Hence in inter-religious dialogue it remains a real perspective, which could obtain its attractiveness especially from its humanizing power Ė and so for the west as well after it has gone through the processes of secularization. It need not degenerate to a cultural good, but can influence individuals and change social life, because in it the synthesis of reason and faith succeeds: What man is yearning for, faith asserts as promised. The problem of theodicy even then remains unfathomable, but it can be kept open spiritually in view of a God who himself suffered indescribably. Even if the classical syntheses of faith and Greek philosophy should never again be renewed, because this is not possible for philosophical reasons, such a Logos of faith remains justifiable also in a secularized world, and thus at national universities.


    {*} Magnus Striet (born in 1964) was habilitated in 2001 in Münster, and since 2004 is professor for fundamental theology at the University of Freiburg. Main fields of work: theology, theodicy, eschatology and questions of theological anthropology.


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