Culture & Religion
August Fri 07, 2009
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For Pope Benedict XVI the main issue of our time, as it has been for all the saints and doctors of the Church down through the ages, is the memory of God and his centrality in our lives. Thus he asserts that all the problems of the West can finally be traced to a forgetfulness of God. It is this question of God, of his presence or absence, that lies at the heart of the faith-reason problematic. My question is this: how does Benedict understand the task, as he puts it, of keeping the world awake to God, and what does his understanding imply for America?
Regarding God in America the principal phenomena are two. On the one hand, as the public opinion polls attest, God does not seem to be absent: the great majority of Americans continue to believe in God and indeed to give him an important place in their lives. And there is no need to doubt the sincerity of what people have recorded in these polls. In America the thesis that modernity brings with it secularism, or the death of God, therefore seems to be contradicted. At the same time, equally pervasive in America is the view that the reality of God is not properly a matter of reason. However important it may be as a matter of inspiration, relation to God cannot be integrated into the logic of reason as exercised in the public life of the academy, politics, economics, or indeed morality. In short, the God who appears to be pervasively present in America remains absent to reason in what the culture considers reason‘s legitimate meaning. The God of believers appears to non-believers to be an arbitrary God who is a threat to the integrity of public argument.
For Benedict, a God who is truly God must make a difference to everything all the time. Affirming the truth of Romans 1:20 that, since the creation of the world, God can be seen in the things he has made–and not only by believers–, Benedict stresses that the question of God is inescapable. This indeed was one of the main–and often overlooked–points of his Regensburg lecture, whose burden was twofold: to insist, vis-a-vis the problems posed by some forms of Islam, that God is inherently reasonable; but to insist also, at the same time, in relation to the West, that reason realizes its integrity only when it comes to terms with its constitutive or structural openness to God.
The whole of the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI as it bears on culture and cosmos may be said to be centered on this basic fact that ?I do not come from myself; rather, I come from another. What reason most basically is, therefore, is a dialogue with God: whatever the content of our conscious acts, we always speak at least implicitly about the reality of God and of our relation to him. No act of creaturely consciousness remains neutral or can remain silent with respect to the creator. It follows that the religious dimension of our existence can never be rightly understood as a merely voluntary, extra-rational, or private addition to the life of reason. What Benedict‘s work shows, in a word, is that the marriage of modernity and religion in America is a marriage between modernity and a religion already formed in the reductive terms of a peculiarly modern–for example, post-Puritan and post-Enlightenment –understanding of God, creation, and reason.
Now, it is important for Benedict, if he is not to fall into the kind of reductive religion he is rejecting, that he give reasons for this argument that are persuasive at least in principle to those who do not share his faith. To be sure, Benedict makes his proposal as a Catholic and hence as a theologian. Speaking from within his faith, he nevertheless offers a renewed interpretation of the conscience and the natural law that are common to all human beings, and in so doing makes also a philosophical claim that makes reasonable demands on all human beings.
What Benedict‘s views on God, creation, and reason imply for the various areas of life in America can scarcely be hinted at here. Suffice it to say, first, with respect to the academy: the search for truth, about being as love and finally about God, needs to take its place at the heart of the modern university, in a way that respects while reconfiguring the rightful autonomy of the disciplines. Renewing this search implies the deepening of reason to include interiority and contemplativeness–or more concretely, humility and obedience–as integral to the methods of research proper to the academy. Experience must find its proper place as more basic than experiment as a source of knowledge in the sciences–social and natural. And so on.
Benedict‘s understanding of reason does not reject the heritage of the Enlightenment. For him, the problem with the Enlightenment is not that it overemphasized reason, but that it unduly narrowed reason to a matter of technical control. Benedict means to affirm reason, recovering its full scope and depth.
Second, regarding freedom and rights: freedom for Benedict is most basically an act of love in search of God, which includes even as it transforms America‘s dominant view of freedom as an originally indifferent act of choice or exercise of options. Rights for Benedict flow from the natural desire and thus responsibility to love God and others, and this includes even as it transforms America‘s dominant view of rights as primarily immunities from coercion.
Finally, regarding religion and the political order. Benedict unequivocally affirms the West‘s separation between Church and state. However, he rejects the idea of a purely juridical state. The fact that the state is not the source of truth about man and God does not mean that the state can ever be neutral or indifferent to that truth. Indeed, the pervasively juridically-conceived state in America has been an integral part of the public ethos that permits and encourages ongoing debate–but only so long as the debate does not terminate in any substantive truth that would be binding on all citizens. For Benedict, the purely juridical state implies a reductive view of human conscience and a formalistic notion of natural law. In fact, the juridical state with its proceduralist public ethos leads logically to nothing less than what Benedict has termed a dictatorship of relativism.
In sum, Benedict‘s theology does not reject the distinctive goods realized in America‘s institutions. On the contrary, he accepts these goods in their most basic and natural intentions. This does not mean that he accepts America‘s achievements in their dominant present form, to which he would then wish merely to add a Christian difference–a difference that would then inevitably be received as a merely private difference, in the end not making much of a difference at all. Rather, Benedict‘s theology endorses America‘s achievements, but with a dynamic for transformation that begins from inside our cultural and institutional logic. This dynamic, for example, changes the dominant notions of reason and freedom all the while taking over, now in an enlarged sense pointing toward their final Gospel meaning, all that America wishes to protect regarding human autonomy and dignity by means of its dominant notions of reason and freedom.
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