On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an oft-misrepresented lecture at the University of Regensburg addressing “faith, reason and the university.” Reminding his hearers of the historic importance of such scholarly conclaves, he pointed to an earlier gathering near Ankara, Turkey, in 1321, between Manuel II Paleologus, the Byzantine emperor, and a noted Persian intellectual. Challenging the historic Islamic commitment to Jihad, the Christian ruler highlighted the blatant contradiction between one of Mohammed’s early declarations—“There is no compulsion in religion”—and his later endorsement and implementation of Jihad, holy war. Manuel II issued a challenge: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Spreading the faith with the sword is wrong, Manuel argued, because such violence violates the very nature of God. “God,” the emperor said, “is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak and reason properly, without violence and threats.” To a Christian ruler, “shaped by Greek philosophy,” Pope Benedict says, “this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality” (#14). Unlike Muslims, Christians believe that in the Logos and an intricate harmony between faith and reason. Unfortunately, this balance was lost as Nominalists (such as William of Occam) in the late Medieval world joined Muslims in elevating God’s Voluntas above His Logos.
Protestants such as Luther further tended to de-hellenize theology—even despising, in Luther’s case, reason itself. Immanuel Kant’s 18th century effort to anchor “faith exclusively in practical reason” (#35) arbitrarily reduced religious faith to a purely subjective response, making it a “personal experience,” and liberal theologians in the 19th century (following Schleiermacher) effectively discarded the “God of the philosophers” in order to seek personal encounters with the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” This complex historical development, cogently summarized by Benedict XVI, has led to the pervasive skepticism and relativism so baneful in the modern academy.
Removing reason from religion, voluntarists—whether Mohammed or Duns Scotus, Luther or Kant—paved the way for the pervasive irrationalism so evident everywhere. With Kant, they mistakenly tried to protect religion by discarding metaphysics and setting “thinking aside in order to make room for faith” (#35). So we now face a world clearly described by Socrates, in Phaedo, when he appraised the many conflicting philosophies pervading Athens and said: “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 great loss.” However difficult the challenge, Benedict urges us to side with Socrates—and Emperor Manuel II—and discern the truth of being, the Logos whereby all exists, and find our real raison de etre.
Benedict’s lecture, says James Schall in The Regensburg Lecture (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, c. 2007), “is one of the fundamental tractates of our time” (p. 9). It deserves extended commentary as well as reading and re-reading. The Pope “has an amazing capacity to get to the heart of things. He is a wise man in the proper sense of that term. That is, he knows how to find the order in things. He knows the foundational issues” (p. 5). Open to Reality, he wants to “straighten out our minds about where we are and what we are about. Acting correctly presupposes thinking correctly, presupposed understanding what is” (p. 10). Rightly understanding what is about God rightly concerns us. “Is He logos or not, is He sola voluntas or not. We need to grasp the import of such inquiry” (p. 44). Christians who worship a reasonable God and Muslims who worship an arbitrary, voluntarist Allah do, in fact, worship different gods! Therein lies the radical, irreconcilable differences between these two religions. Christian martyrs die for their Lord; Muslim suicide bombers randomly kill, taking others’ lives in the name of Allah.
Remarkably akin to Islam, the modernity crafted by Western intellectuals such as Descartes and Rousseau and Marx assumes “that the first principles of reason are themselves subject to will. Contrary to Aristotle, they do not ‘bind’ reason to what is. Modernity, in its philosophic sense, means that we are bound by nothing. There is no order in things or in the mind, for that matter, that would ground any order. There is only the order we ourselves make and impose on things. This view of modernity has developed, in large part, to protect us from the notion that truth obligates us. The real question thus becomes, in the classical sense, what ‘limits’ reason? The answer is what is, reality” (p. 106).
Eminent Christian theologians, from Origen onwards, have relied on Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle as well as biblical revelation. Western Civilization stands as witness to their invigorating intellectual work. We need (personally and collectively) both good philosophy and theology. As the 21st century begins, the West has, sadly, fallen on hard times. (I saw hints of this when, mid-way through my career as a history professor, World Civilizations replaced Western Civilization as a staple in the general core. Jesse Jackson’s orchestrated marches at Stanford University toward the end of the ‘80s—chanting “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ Has Gotta Go”—memorably marks that transition.)
Professor Schall’s exegesis of Benedict’s lecture amplifies and illuminates its message. We must reestablish the truth at all things were made by the Word—God, essentially, is the Mind making all that is coherent. As rational creatures, we are called to behold this Mind and conform our minds to His. “Mind is universal, as Cicero often said” (p. 128). Either God capriciously calls for Jihad or rationally pleads for brotherly love. Between the two gods there is simply no common ground. Reasonable discussion, the Pope hopes, might lead to a common commitment to what our minds, open to what is, simply must tell us what is true regarding the “One in whom we live, and move, and have our being.”
Gerard Reed is a retired professor of history and philosophy, most recently Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is the author of three books--The Liberating Law; C.S. Lewis and the Bright Shadow of Holiness; C.S. Lewis Explores Vice & Virtue--as well as a variety of articles and book reviews.