I’ve often thought that Pope Benedict XVI has his current job primarily because he was far and away the best choice to lead the Catholic Church’s primary mission of this century—to salvage Europe for Christendom—and because this mission cannot be separated from its corollary, which is to determine how Western Christian culture can coexist with fundamentalist Islamic culture. In his recent lecture at Regensburg University, he entered the fray, and not a moment too soon. Here’s hoping that there is much more to come, for this brilliant theologian/philosopher has much to say in depth about the historic relationship between faith and reason (Jerusalem and Athens, if you will) over the centuries, and important questions that must be addressed by the intellectual classes of all faiths, as well as secularists, agnostics, and atheists, if the age of right reason, properly understood, is to survive this century.In the book, Salt of the Earth, then Cardinal Ratzinger speaks of the essence of Islam, noting that it does not have the separation of the political and the religious sphere that Christianity has had from the beginning. The Koran is totalitarian—sharia law shapes everything in society. Consequently, Islam is “not a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society”. In other words, the liberty of conscience, so integral to the belief system of the West, is not embodied in Islam. Nor is there in Islam a “teaching authority” that openly pursues errors and inconsistencies and promotes dialogue and public introspection among Islamic scholars and laymen. For these attributes, the West owes a debt to the Greeks beginning with Socrates with his discipline of critical self-examination and the subsequent assimilation of the reason of Athens to the faith of Jerusalem that formed the basis of the Western intellectual tradition, a tradition based on the right reason of a law-ordered universe discoverable by man. It is about the future of this tradition of reason wherein Benedict’s questions are so timely.
The most insightful commentary on the Pope’s speech that I have seen came from Lee Harris in The Weekley Standard, to wit: At Regensburg he was reminding us that “the encounter between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance, not only for religion, but for world history. Further, this is a legacy that we in the West are duty-bound to keep intact, yet it is a legacy that is under relentless attack, both from those who do not share it, namely Islam, and from those who are its beneficiaries, namely, Western intellectuals”.
So, according to Harris, the critical challenges in the form of questions (more directed to Western elites than to Islam) posed by Pope Benedict are these: Is it really a matter of subjective choice whether men follow a religion that respects human reason and that refuses to use violence to convert others? Can even the most committed atheist be completely indifferent to the imaginary gods that the other members of his community continue to worship? If modern, scientific reason cannot persuade men to defend their own communities of reason against the eruption of disturbing pathologies of religion and reason, then what can persuade them to do so? Shall we delude ourselves into thinking that the life of reason can survive without courage and character? And, most decisively, shall we be content with lives we refuse to examine, because such examination requires us to ask questions for which science can give no definite answer?
In his book, The Universal Hunger for Liberty, Michael Novak begins the final chapter by asking whether Islam can come to terms with democracy but, as with Benedict’s challenge, ends up with questions directed primarily to the West, such as: why in a world without purpose, resulting from blind chance, should human beings follow reason?, of what avail is reason in a reasonless world? and, what legacy of reason are we left by the secular West’s fundamental right to the individual’s untrammeled freedom of choice?
I am more convinced than ever that Islam is in the midst of a long period of reformation and that we in the West are its unwitting catalysts. However, the Muslim community is not alone in its need for introspection in dealing with the post-9/11 world, and our own intellectual leaders had best listen seriously to the questions posed by the philosopher-Pope. The final exam will come soon enough.