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The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man
| Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 15, 2006
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
naïve 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
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
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
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.
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.
Comments? Thoughts? Questions? Share them on the Insight Scoop blog!
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Are Truth, Faith,
and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
First Musings on Benedict XVI's First Encyclical | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
The Encyclical: God's Eros Is Agape | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
9/11 Revisited | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Molochs of Modernity | Dr.
Spartans, Traitors, and Terrorists | Dr.
Plato's Ring in the Sudan: How Freedom Begets Isolation of the Soul | Dr.
The Echo of Melos: How Ancient Honor Unmasks Islamic Terror | Dr.
Martyrs and Suicide Bombers | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The One War, The Real War | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Wars Without Violence? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his
website and on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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