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On The Risk of Listening | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 26, 2008 | Ignatius Insight
"The 'best hypothesis'
which, to be accepted, requires that man and his reason 'give up their position
of dominance and take the risk of humbly listening.'" — Joseph Ratzinger
"To be precise, the
universe is not infinite. It is very big, but not infinite, because it has an
age: about 14 billion years, according to the most recent findings. If it has
an age, it must also have a spatial limit. The universe was born in a certain
moment, and it has been in continual expansion ever since." — José
Gabriel Funes, S. J. 
"We live in a transparent
universe," the Director of the Vatican Observatory remarked. "We can see the
light: the light from the most distant galaxies, for example, has reached us
after 11 or 12 billion years. We must remember that light travels at 300.000
kilometers per second. And it is this very limit which confirms that the
universe we can observe today is not infinite." The universe is "transparent"
to our eyes and thus to our minds. It is not infinite. The speed of light is a
constant. If some scientist suddenly discovers that the speed of light is
really, say, 150.000 kilometers per second, that means the universe is half the
size we thought it was. On second thought, it is much less than that, for if a
diameter is half of another, the circumference of the first circle is much less
than half of the second. In any case, the 300.000 seems safe for now.
Funes thinks that the
so-called Big Bang theory is "the best explanation we have had so far of the
origin of the Universe, from the scientific point of view." He adds the usually
scientific caution: "At some time, we cannot know whether in the near or
distant future the Big Band theory may be superseded by some more complete and
comprehensive explanation of the origin of the universe. At the moment it is
the best one, it is reasonable, and it is not in contradiction to our faith."
Presumably, Funes is aware of scientific theories that may be in contradiction,
as a completely materialistic philosophy surely is. If that contradictoriness
seems to be the case, a scientist who had the faith would suspect that there is
something wrong with the theory as science. He would seek to find out why. In
that sense, it would be precisely because faith was present that a clearer
understanding of science or philosophy comes about.
Funes suggests that there
might well be other worlds and life on them. "Astronomers hold that the
universe is formed of 100 billion galaxies, each composed of 100 billion stars.
Many of these, or almost all of them, could have planets. How can we exclude
that life may have developed in other places?" One presumes, of course, that
above cited "100 billion" figures are, shall we say, "rounded-off," results of
theory not of actual counting.
Funes does not think that
the Incarnation of Christ could have happened anywhere else. "Jesus became
flesh only once. The incarnation is an event which cannot be repeated." Yet
this would not, in theory, exclude some other way of salvation should other
worlds exist. Such considerations were the drama present in C. S. Lewis' famous
space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.
In an address to a Symposium
for University Professors in the Vatican, Benedict spoke of the "urgency of
re-launching the study of philosophy in the universities and schools."  The
term to "re-launch" suggested that philosophy was in another place, another
era, already "launched," that it was flourishing. We know from Socrates that
there has always been an intimate connection between cosmology and philosophy.
Indeed, Socrates turned to the study of human things, ethics, precisely because
of the difficulty in studying such transcendent things. He related the study of
the world, and its causes or origins, with the study of man, a project the pope
also touches on in this address.
The pope is initially
interested in restoring the confidence of philosophy in itself, that it is a
needed and worthy way of life. Philosophy professors "should continue with
confidence to philosophical research, investing intellectual energy and
involving new generations in this task." Socrates was concerned with "potential
philosophers," with calling the young sons of the Athenians to a higher life.
Benedict says, "I would like to invite you to encourage youth to engage in
philosophical studies...." He does not add, but I suspect implies, that they
should do so because the studies themselves are intrinsically fascinating.
Benedict speaks of a "crisis
of modernity." He makes a very interesting distinction. He is not against
modernity. He just wants to save its soul. The crisis of modernity is not to be
identified with the "decline of philosophy" as such. This caveat does not mean
that modernity is not a philosophical problem. Rather it means that the way out
of problems of modern confusions involves a genuine realism in philosophy. This
is what Fides et Ratio was about.
The "true nature" of a modern crisis is itself a philosophical problem.
Benedict next points out
that European philosophy in recent centuries has not really come to grips with
the real nature of the "anthropological question," of where man fits into the
whole philosophic and scientific reflection. "Modernity is not simply a cultural
phenomenon, historically dated; in reality it implies a new planning, a more
exact understanding of human nature." This "more exactness" is what Robert
Sokolowski was about in his Phenomenology of the Human Person. Many of Pope Ratzinger's books have dealt with this
very problem. A more "exact" understanding of human nature does not exclude
what Christianity has to say about man. The anthropological problem, man's
knowing himself, is at bottom an aspect of the Christological problem. In other
words, even when it is right, philosophy must remain open to explanations that
in fact when spelled out assist philosophy in knowing its own purpose.
"Giving credit to some
authors' proposals in regard to religions and, in particular, to Christianity
is an evident sign of the sincere desire to exit from the self-sufficiency of
philosophical reflection." The central version of what is called "modernity"
did, in fact, maintain that man is self-sufficient to explain everything about
himself. A genuine philosophy would, on its own terms, reach the point where it
recognized its own incompleteness to know the whole, to admit its own
The pope adds a very
important self-reflection at this point: "I have listened attentively to the
requests that reach me from the men and women of our time and, in view of their
expectations, I have wished to offer a pointer for research that seems to me
capable of raising interest to re-launch philosophy and its irreplaceable role
in the academic and cultural world." What Benedict suggests arises out of his
listening. Probably no one in the world is in a position to listen to more of
the real sentiments and ideas of actual men and women. His point of departure
is never abstract or an abstraction.
What is the "pointer" that
the pope employs towards philosophy? Mindful of something he also said in the
Regensburg Lecture about why Paul went to Macedonia, Benedict here cites a
passage previously written in his early Introduction to Christianity. In this era in which the "scientific" study of
"religions" is something of an academic growth industry, Ratzinger wrote:
"Christian faith has made its clear choice: against the gods of religion for
the God of philosophers, in other words, against the myth of mere custom for
the truth of being." Christianity does not consider itself another "religion"
to be conceived in terms of abstractions and myths. It did not begin as a myth,
nor will it end as a myth.
In the light of the comments
of Funes on astronomy, we can hardly underestimate the importance of the turn
to "truth itself." Christianity does not turn to the religions to replace them.
Rather it turns all religion, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Judaism
and Protestantism, towards philosophy and through that to reality, to what
is. This is not to say, as some
theologians have said, that Catholicism rejects revelation in favor of
philosophy, but rather that, in accepting revelation, it accepts everything
else that is compatible with it, including what is true in other religions.
The "Christian journey from
its dawning" is "completely actual." This actuality means that we begin with
real people, in real time, where in fact we are living. We do not start with
philosophy or ideas, but with people living and trying to explain themselves to
themselves. This real beginning is why we encounter those who are actually
alive with their ideas, hopes, and sufferings, which we seek to understand.
"The risk that religion, even Christianity, be strumentalized as a
surreptitious phenomenon is very concrete even today." A serious warning is
contained in these words. That is, Catholicism is said to be just a myth, that
it does not confront real things and real people. "Christian faith cannot be
enclosed within an abstract world of theories; but it must descend into the
concrete historical experience that reaches humanity in the most profound truth
of his existence." The love of God and neighbor, with a true understanding of
limited nature of politics, of Caesar, must always be present.
Benedict can thus speak of a
"true understanding of modernity." This "true understanding" depends on
speaking to actual human beings in actual places, something a pope does almost
daily, as he implies.
desire for fullness cannot be disregarded. The Christian faith is called to
take on this historical emergency by involving the men and women of good will
in a simple task. The new dialogue between faith and reason, required today,
cannot happen in the terms and in the ways in which it happened in the past. If
it does not want to be reduced to a sterile intellectual exercise, it must
begin from the recent concrete situation of humanity and upon this develop a
reflection that draws from the ontological-metaphysical truth.
There is a remarkable
realism at work here, one that does not doubt that it can understand others,
while at the same time capable of rejecting ideas that have not worked in the
name of a valid philosophical approach that does.
For this we need "high-level
academic centers in which philosophy can dialogue with other disciplines, in
particular with theology...." Benedict does not directly say, one way or another,
whether such centers exist. We do know that he is willing to speak to any
academic body, including ones like La Sapienza in Rome, that allows itself to prevent the risk of
hearing. The reform of the university probably has much to do with the
philosophy to which Benedict points. We suspect that it is not much in
prevalence. Many modern academic institutions are amazingly closed to the
whole, to the full wonders of what is there to be considered and thought about.
Camillo Cardinal Ruini also
addressed the same group in Rome that Benedict did. Ruini is a good mind. He
points to the prevalent understanding of science as a "metaphysical materialism
which attributes to science the task of demonstrating that every aspect of
reality consists of material processes." Ruini also refers to some comments by
the pope's friend, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, for whom modernity
seems to imply the elimination of religion on the basis of science. Habermas
thought that the Regensburg Address was "anti-modern" because it did not
"break" the relation of Greek philosophy and Biblical faith. The German
philosopher wants to consider religion to be "myth," with nothing to add or
address to reason.
Ruini remarks that "Joseph
Ratzinger, at the philosophical level, however, does not place the intelligent
creator God of the universe as the object of an apodeictic demonstration but
rather as 'the best hypothesis.'" That is, none of the other "hypotheses,"
including those of science itself, give a more complete account of all of
reality, of the whole, to which man is open. To accept this fuller view
requires that man and his reason "give up their position of dominance and take the
risk of humbly listening." The
implication is that the "hypotheses of materialism" are themselves reductionist
or closed systems that exclude the most important levels of being.
Ratzinger prefers that
modern man accepts the whole reality, of reason, and not rely only on a narrow
reductionist understanding of it. The limitations of this narrow scientific
view are why the pope constantly seeks to talk to actual people, including
diplomats, professors, scientists, and members of other religions. This is the
basis of his new initiative. Christianity, in the beginning, directed itself
not to religion but to philosophy. When philosophy itself becomes
un-philosophical, no longer rooted in being, as can happen, it needs to be
called back to what it is. It is more than curious that the loudest voice in
the world today calling philosophy to be philosophy comes from the Church.
On the basis of real
encounters with human beings in need and in wonder, Benedict—himself
learned in modern philosophy and its overtones—challenges science to take
the "risk" that there is in fact something more in being and knowing than its
own narrow world allows. If the universe itself was born at a certain moment
and has been expanding ever since, Benedict sees no reason why philosophers
cannot see when they themselves were born and return to the openness that
characterized Greek philosophy searching for answers that it did not itself
know except for the passing over to Macedonia and the announcement to the
philosophers of the "unknown God." These were the philosophers who understood
the "Word" but not, as Augustine said, in a memorable phrase, "the Word made
flesh." It is this latter subject to which Spe Salvi is addressed and in which document Benedict points
out that it is a Marxist philosopher who in modern philosophy best sees the
logic of the resurrection of the body in the name of actual justice.
 Cited in Camillo Cardinal Ruini, "Intelligent Creator God: Best Hypothesis," L'Osservatore
Romano, June 11, 2008, from L'Europa di Benedetto.
 Interview with Fr. Funes, S. J., Director, Specula Vaticana, L'Osservatore Romano, June 11, 2008.
 Benedict XVI, "Widening the Horizons of Rationality," LOsservatore Romano, June 11, 2008.
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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, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning,
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006),
The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is
The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his
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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