Thursday, September 14, 2006

Benedict XVI praises logos

Pope Benedict XVI’s September 12, 2006 lecture at a meeting with representatives of the sciences at Regensburg University said three interesting things. First, he makes the argument that the “profound harmony” of Jewish and Greek elements summed up in John’s doctrine of the logos is a good thing. Christian thinking (based on the LXX and expressed in the Greek language) did not side with Hellenism in general but with the best portions of it. The Jewish shema-confession of a monotheistic, transcendent, creator-God cuts away the idolatry from Greek metaphysics in a manner reminiscent of Socrates’s iconoclasm. John’s logos, which is “reason” at its fundamentum, “reason” which ties together God’s transcendence, God’s revelation (Deus dixit), and humanity’s ability to understand, represents a “mutual enrichment.” It is the basis by which Benedict can say,

The faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason, there exists a real analogy in which unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language (cf. Lateran IV).

This in hand, Pope Benedict takes to task those who have desired to strip out every Hellenistic element from Christian theology, which includes (though gently) the Reformers, Duns Scotus (who receives no applause), and Adolf von Harnack (who receives even less). Discretion should be exercised, he says, because, with John and the Church Fathers, “the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.” So that “not to act 'with logos' is contrary to God’s nature."

Second, then, this logos-harmony defrocks any confession of a capricious God. Dun Scotus’s voluntarism, where our knowledge of God is simply what he wishes us to know (voluntas ordinata), and beyond that he is free to be or do whatever he wants, is simply not reasonable. Such a god does not act reasonably, and so he cannot be the seat of logos itself. And here Benedict does something interesting. He links Scotus’s theology with the Islamic understanding of Allah codified by eastern theologians such as Ibn Hazn who “went as far as to state that God is not bound by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry.” Benedict uncovers, then, a subtle apologetic in the gospel link between the revealing, tabernacling logos of John 1.1 and the creating and creative Word of Genesis 1.3. And, if you follow it out, there is an argument here for why Christianity, and even Christian fundamentalism, should not be treated or feared in the same way as faith’s which derive from unreasonable foundations. For Christians, reasonable action is godly action. Christian theology does not threaten the dialogue necessary to a free society of mutually respect and responsible political action. No, such dialogue is part-and-parcel of its deepest theological confession.

Third and finally, Benedict XVI uncovers an element in our modern, scientific notion of knowledge that I’d never thought of before. Scientific reason, he says, has a platonic core. Scientific reason assumes something about the material world that is immaterial, namely, “the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently.” The core simply goes without saying, perhaps pointing to the success of the technologies which it has produced, or the boon to human life and livelihood which have followed. It is true, human beings and cultures have thrived underneath this assumption, and so much so that “the West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality.” The West doesn’t want to ask why our capacities to understand and the ability to understand correspond so well together. Frankly, I’d never thought of this assumption as a latent Platonism, though I’d well-enough identified it as “the modern victory of Aristotle.” Now, the best portions of postmodernity do ask this question. They do seek and discover epistemological room to include much larger portions of human knowing than simply the empirical. But, as above, some kind of nihilistic extreme is avoided in Christian thought because it is unreasonable in the context of the logos.

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