Thursday, September 14, 2006

Holy Father's Speech on the De-Hellenization of Religion

Click the link for the English translation of a speech given by Pope Benedict on Tuesday: "Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization", given at the University of Regensburg. This speech starts with some of Herr Professor Doktor Ratzinger's reminiscences of university life, and then he gets to the controversial part that was widely reported in the media:
I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by professor Theodore Khoury (Muenster) of part of the dialogue carried on — perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara — by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both....

In the seventh conversation ("diálesis" — controversy) edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion." It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war...

[H]e turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature....
This somewhat lengthy part of his speech is not his main point, for it is not about Islam, but is instead about the relationship between Reason and Faith.

This is the critical question: Is acting according to reason also acting according to the Will of God?

This question is answered "yes" according to the ancient traditions of Christianity, but has been doubted by Modern thought. Traditional Catholic and Orthodox Christian thinking is synthesized with Greek thought and philosophy into an irreducible whole. Remarkably, even Jewish and Islamic thinking started with the same synthesis, even to the point that on questions of the nature of the soul and on the attributes (but not person) of God there is practically a 100% agreement. The use of the term "orthodox" does not come from religion, but rather comes from the philosophy of Plato: ortho doxia means "right thinking" and is a key component in the rational pursuit of truth.

"Acting according to reason" is the central concept in Greek moral philosophy. Acting according to the Will of God is the central concept in Jewish religion. And traditionally, Christianity equated both of these.
I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God. Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: "In the beginning was the 'logos.'"

This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word — a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist. The encounter between the biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance.
'Logos' was used by Greek philosophers to refer to the Supreme Being (which, by the way, is another term from Plato). John decisively said that the God of the Greek philosophers is the God of the Jews.

Greek thought is not just found in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament also, especially in the wisdom liturature. And we shouldn't forget that the Catholic Old Testament traditionally does not come from the Hebrew texts, but from the Greek:
Today we know that the Greek translation of the Old Testament produced at Alexandria — the Septuagint — is more than a simple (and in that sense perhaps less than satisfactory) translation of the Hebrew text: It is an independent textual witness and a distinct and important step in the history of Revelation, one which brought about this encounter in a way that was decisive for the birth and spread of Christianity.
By the way, New Testament writers only quoted the Septuagint texts. The use of the Septuagint explains why the names of the books in older Catholic bibles are often different than what is used in Protestant bibles (like Paralipomenon), and also why it has additional books.

The Holy Father states that the unity of Greek philosophy and Biblical faith created Europe.

The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a de-Hellenization of Christianity — a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the program of de-Hellenization:

De-Hellenization first emerges in connection with the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the 16th century... The principle of "sola scriptura"... sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word.
Although, as we see in John and the Wisdom literature, Greek philosophy is assumed.
The liberal theology of the 19th and 20th centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of de-Hellenization... this program was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal's distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob... [The] central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of Hellenization... The fundamental goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God....
Pope Benedict then goes on to describe the modern, restricted definition of science: it assumes the Platonic view of mathematics, that it is objectively true, but it limits reason to purely empirical matters. This strongly limits modern science (although the hard sciences, being more based on mathematics, often do not limit themselves to empiricism). Too many questions are now considered "unscientific". This new definition of science ends up
reducing Christianity to a mere fragment of its former self. But we must say more: It is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by "science" and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective.
Does this seem familiar?
The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective "conscience" becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate....

...I must briefly refer to the third stage of de-Hellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures.

The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux.
The New Testament itself is now edited, with anything sounding Greek being discarded. This has led to abominations such as Marxist Christianity, New-Age Christianity, etc. But:
This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed.
Benedict states that he does not wish to discard the fruits of modern science, but instead regain the broader meaning of reason that was present in ancient Greek philosophy.

Amen. I've noticed that modern philosophy subtracts from ancient philosophy, and adds nothing. Modernism is a radical narrowing of thought, taking only one aspect of Greek thinking and elevating it to a First Thing. For example, modern ethics is variously based on either absolutism, relativism, or subjectivism, while ancient ethics use all three.
The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application.
Puting multiculturalism first leads to the paradox of being unable to converse with other cultures:
Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today... A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.
A return to Greek philosophy can also help modern science:
...modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology. Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based.
Returning to the whole breadth of reason, in all of its grandeur, opens up vast horizons.

UPDATE: click here for official English translation.

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