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On The Risk of Listening | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 26, 2008 | Ignatius Insight

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"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 [1]

"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. [2]


"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scientific caution: "At some time, we cannot know whether in the near or distant future the Big Band theory may be superseded by some more complete and comprehensive explanation of the origin of the universe.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." [3] 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 limitations.

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.
Humanity's 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.


[1] Cited in Camillo Cardinal Ruini, "Intelligent Creator God: Best Hypothesis," L'Osservatore Romano, June 11, 2008, from L'Europa di Benedetto.

[2] Interview with Fr. Funes, S. J., Director, Specula Vaticana, L'Osservatore Romano, June 11, 2008.

[3] Benedict XVI, "Widening the Horizons of Rationality," LOsservatore Romano, June 11, 2008.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

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 website.

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