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Religion and Society

If the Enlightenment separates faith from reason

Now that the polemic is over, it is worthwhile to return to the 'lecture' that the Pope held in his university to take up again its central subject and rediscover the nexus that links Greek philosophy to Christian revelation and links these to other religions.

The reactions to the address given by the Holy Father in Regensburg are well known about. But now that the polemic had died down, not least following the expressions of esteem for the Muslim faithful that accompanied the journey of the Holy Father in Turkey, we can ask ourselves with greater serenity: what did the Pope want to say in his magisterial lecture given in Regensburg? What are the philosophical and religious dimensions that underlie that lecture?

 

The text states that violence is against the nature of God and against the nature of man. This is the opinion on which the Pope based himself and it is to be located within Greek philosophy. It is not, therefore, possible to understand this statement if one does not have such a background, a premise of evident clarity, but one which can explain some of the misunderstanding.

 

For example, the Pope spoke in his talk about the Enlightenment. If on the Muslim side it is not borne in mind that the Enlightenment, which was born as criticism and self-criticism but with time became hostile to faith and to the concept of religion, to the point of reaching the denial of the existence of God and the very possibility that a god can exist, one cannot understand the reason why the Pope, on the one hand, appreciates some achievements of the Enlightenment, but, on the other, also invites us to engage in a criticism of it and to go beyond it.

 

In his address, which was of an academic character as is explictly declared by the place where it was given, as has too easily been forgotten, the Pope wanted to state one thing that God in His essence is reason and that God has given man reason. But how is it possible to construct contemporary thought on reason and separate it from God, what is the source of this? This, the Pope affirms, is exactly what the West did during the age of the Enlightenment. He dwells at length on this point to emphasise that Western culture must absolutely rediscover the spirit and moral values, and in the final analysis God Himself. In doing this, that culture will be able to engage in dialogue with those other civilisations that are strongly religious.

 

We should, therefore, not forget that the Pope for the most part of his talk addresses his criticism to dominant Western thought: how can we hope to engage in dialogue with other cultures, Benedict XVI asks, if we reject what these other cultures are based on, that is to say faith?

 

The profoundly religious cultures of the world see specifically in this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason an attack on their innermost beliefs. A reason that is deaf to the divine and refuses religion in the sphere of sub-cultures is unable to place itself in the dialogue of cultures.

 

Now that certain misunderstandings have been removed, not least because of subsequent clarifications made by the Holy Father, it is clear that the subject of the lecture given in Regensburg is neither Islam nor the West but the relationship between reason and faith. This subject led the Supreme Pontiff to identify two dangers that threaten contemporary man. The first is blind and irrational adherence to faith, which is in contrast with God, as reason, and with man, who is distinct from animals precisely because of this reason, and which is therefore in contrast with a healthy concept of religion, for example when faith is invoked to justify violence. But an equal and opposite danger also exists: reason without openness to religion.

 

With great realism the Pope observes that both these positions are widely present in the contemporary context and concludes from this that a dialogue between that current of Western thought that excludes the religious dimension and that Eastern position opposed to reason is impracticable. Indeed, no common element exists between this West (not the West tout court) and this East (not the East tout court), because the element that is shared by an atheist, a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim is reason. But at the same time the Pope makes clear what he means by reason and what meaning he employs for this term.

 

This lecture, therefore, is a critical attempt actuated within contemporary reason without yielding ground in any way to those currents of thought that would like to put back the hands of history to before the Enlightenment, rejecting the beliefs which the contemporary epoch has reached.

 

One is dealing instead with an enlargement of our concept of reason and its use. Because with all the joy in the face of the possibilities of man, we also see the threats that emerge from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can master them. We will be successful only if reason and faith are united in a new way; if we go beyond the self-decreed limitation of reason on what is verifiable through experiment; and once again open it up to all its breadth.

 

The third way: this is the project to which the Pope calls us through his positive criticism. And this way is what we, Christians and Muslims, need. St. Paul exhorts the Christians of Thessalonica to test everything and hold fast what is good [cf. Thess 5:21]. Specifically in this spirit the Pope, when addressing contemporary Enlightenment thought, affirms that there are positive and magnificant elements in it that should not be criticised but that there also negative aspects in it that we must go beyond. If we, Christians and Muslims together, manage to carry out this operation, we will have performed this task. Only then, the Pope concludes, will we be able to engage in a true dialogue between civilisations and religions, which is something that we all need.

 

To sum up: the Pope exhorts us to engage in a dialogue of reason, a dialogue that is critical and based upon thought, avoiding the opposing rocks of the exclusion of the religious analysis from the field of reason, on the one hand, and violence on the other. 'It is to this great logos, to this vastness of reason, that we invite our interlocutors to the dialogue of cultures'

 

Is this not a project that we are all searching for? Is this third way not precisely what we lack?

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