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Pope's lecture also shakes Catholic theologians By Bernward Loheide

Deutsche Presse Agentur
Published: Monday September 18, 2006

By Bernward Loheide, Regensburg, Germany- Last week's lecture by Pope Benedict XVI that provoked angry protests in the Islamic world has also triggered a cry of protest in the arcane worlds of philosophy and theology. Former theology professor Joseph Ratzinger only mentioned Islam in passing in the lecture, which surveyed thousands of years of western thought and set out Benedict's views on rationalism in a debate that has been roiling Christianity for the past two centuries.

The pope quoted from both Byzantine emperor Manuel II and verses from the Koran as he explored the history of rationalism, and his audience understood this not as an insult to Islam, but rather as criticism of prevailing western views about liberty and reason.

Benedict's thesis about the relationship between faith and reason has its foundation in ancient Greek philosophy.

However, a sizeable number of Catholic and Protestant theologians argue that this so-called neo-Platonic perspective is inadequate for 21st century theology.

"The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance," said Benedict, who contends that Christianity reflects much of the thought of the pre-Christian Greek philosopher Plato.

Christianity, he said, was a rapprochement between Jewish belief and Greek thought. Faith and reason are in harmony when God is understood as truth, beauty, goodness and universal reason, which are there for all human beings to grasp.

In the world of Christian theology, most competing ideas have been around for a long time. Benedict's ideas can be traced back to St. John the Evangelist whose gospel began, "In the beginning was the logos." Logos is a Greek term that means both reason and the word.

Johannine-Hellenist theology was developed by St Augustine in the late classical period, then by St Bonaventure, who died in 1274, in the Middle Ages. Benedict would say theology has been going downhill ever since as the synthesis of Greek and Jewish thought unravelled.

By quoting emperor Manuel II, Benedict was criticising a modern view of God as radically free, an utter mystery who cannot be known through human reason. In that view, God and reason are things independent of one another.

This philosophy was developed by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose critique of reason was an attack on Greek philosophy. Kant, a German, contended that each human being is a law unto him or herself.

Benedict sees this as the fount of what he calls the modern error of "relativism."

"The subject then decides... what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective 'conscience' becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical... Ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter," Benedict said.

Thomas Proepper, who teaches Catholic dogmatic theology at the University of Muenster in Germany, is one of many who argues that Kant, not Plato, is closer to Christian views, and would offer a better basis for a dialogue between philosophy and theology.

Magnus Striet of Freiburg University, also in Germany, defends Kant's influence on modern Christian theology, and denies that Kant's idea of the autonomy of the individual is the "arbitrariness" which Benedict rejects.

Other theologians, such as Johann Baptist Metz and Tiemo Rainer Peters of Muenster, have criticised Hellenist-cum-Christian metaphysics as lacking a sense of history and as being inadequate to explain human suffering.

They would ask, "Where was God, if he is supposed to be pure reason that suffuses the whole world, when Auschwitz happened?"

The pope did in fact offer a rationalist response to that in May during a visit to Auschwitz, saying the Nazis had sought to destroy God and annihilate any force higher than the human will to power.

At the University of Regensburg last Tuesday, Benedict's focus was not on the criticism of Islam by Manuel II in the year 1391 but rather on the Byzantine emperor's insistence that "not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God."

At the end of the lecture, Benedict invited Islam to a "dialogue of cultures" and to explain its contemporary views about reason.

Benedict's Catholic critics retort that such a dialogue is impossible with those, including western atheists, who do not accept the neo-Platonic understanding of divine reason.

Striet said, "I think it is better to rely on the sort of reason that Christian and agnostic people share with one another."

© 2006 DPA - Deutsche Presse-Agenteur