Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Philosophical Reactions to Pope Benedict's Lecture on the De-Helenization of Religion

See the article: Pope's lecture also shakes Catholic theologians:
Last week's lecture by Pope Benedict XVI that provoked angry protests in the Islamic world has also triggered a cry of protest in the arcane worlds of philosophy and theology.
The Holy Father's lecture was primarily an attack on modern philosophy, which attempts to divorce ancient Greek thought from Christianity, a process called 'de-Hellenization'. Christianity has traditionally been intellectually based on the philosophy of Socrates and Plato and their followers. Newer interpretations of Christianity are based on subjective, skeptical philosophies, which tend to doubt even the basic concept of truth.
Benedict's thesis about the relationship between faith and reason has its foundation in ancient Greek philosophy.

However, a sizable number of Catholic and Protestant theologians argue that this so-called neo-Platonic perspective is inadequate for 21st century theology.

'The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance,' said Benedict, who contends that Christianity reflects much of the thought of the pre-Christian Greek philosopher Plato.
However, modern philosophies do not add anything to philosophy, but only subtracts from the intellectual framework of the ancients. What has been lost? Perhaps we need to look at the current state of society to answer that question.
By quoting emperor Manuel II, Benedict was criticising a modern view of God as radically free, an utter mystery who cannot be known through human reason. In that view, God and reason are things independent of one another.
The right-wing version of this modern view is Fundamentalism, while the left-wing version is Liberalism. It is ironic that these two systems of belief, which are always attacking each other, are based on the same theological reasoning. In both, religion and reason are separated, and this leads to chaotic action by their followers.

Modern philosophy is based on Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who rejected the Greek philosophy of Plato. Kant, argues the Pope, is the basis of moral relativism.
Thomas Proepper, who teaches Catholic dogmatic theology at the University of Muenster in Germany, is one of many who argues that Kant, not Plato, is closer to Christian views, and would offer a better basis for a dialogue between philosophy and theology.
Except that for more than 1400 years, Plato and Christianity had been inseparable. His argument that Kant offers a better basis for dialogue is flawed: it would be equivalent to us having to embrace Communism so that we can better dialogue with North Korea.

Benedict's lecture was primarily a call to dialogue with other religions, and asked modern secularists to reevaluate Greek philosophy.
Benedict's Catholic critics retort that such a dialogue is impossible with those, including western atheists, who do not accept the neo-Platonic understanding of divine reason.

Striet said, 'I think it is better to rely on the sort of reason that Christian and agnostic people share with one another.'
Socrates did not argue with the Sophists using their own philosophy; rather he questioned their philosophy as a part of the dialogue. Likewise, modern agnostic reasoning has to be questioned, and not merely assumed, as these critics seem to want.

The classic definition of Socratic dialogue has people discussing their differences in a genial atmosphere, and working to come to a common ground despite varying philosophy. But modern "dialogue" is where, say, a Catholic and Muslim discuss their differences, and then come to an agreement by both embracing Marxism. That isn't dialogue at all!

Kant's philosophy is described concisely by Fr. Jonathan Robinson, of the Toronto Oratory, in his book The Mass And Modernity: Walking to Heaven Backward.
At the close of the Enlightenment period there stands the austere and unbending figure of Kant, and Kant presents us with a perfect example of what happens to Christianity when we begin to discount the Bible and the Creeds. We are left with a moral religion that leaves room for God but does not leave room for much else in the way of religion....

Kant is the philosopher, par excellence, of human freedom and human rights, and he teaches the unconditioned obligation to treat others as possessing absolute value as members of a "kingdom of ends" Yet he ends up by condemning prayer, sacraments, and the Church...[as] actually pernicious....
His philosophy is based on the idea that the human intellect is simply incapable of grasping ultimate, transcendent reality, so instead of trying to see beyond the mere appearances of our experience, he says that we should give up before we even start. Reason, he thinks, should be strictly limited to nature and experience, and must avoid all speculation. This is a solid, but also stultifying foundation for thought, that automatically limits inquiry. However, unlike most sciences, modern theoretical physics does not follow the philosophy of Kant, and has made tremendous progress.

Many Catholic theologians, following Rahner, have tended to assume that Kant was right, but often just as a means to attack tradition; these same theologians often would ignore Kant in areas of their own interest.

Kant reduces morality, in his "Categorical Imperative", to a version of the Golden Rule. His reasoning behind this is very convoluted, and according to some theologians, leads inexorably to traditional Catholic understanding of morality, as Pope Benedict states. However, this is not the mainstream view. According to this view, God only exists as a support of the Categorical Imperative, and nothing else, and that a belief in God is only to ensure morality.

Kant's morality tends to mere duty, and ignores the Greek idea of a person reaching his Final End, which is blessedness or happiness, and that morality is a way of achieving blessedness.

Kant's view of morality "leaves no room for a church founded on anything specifically Christian."
The church is invisible because it is the union of free moral agents, and their ethical commonwealth has no essential relationship to either the state or other members...
This is troublesome because even an oppressive state-controlled church would "still be free", and of course this model of church would otherwise lead to endless protestant-style division and conflict.

Kant does not dismiss scripture and tradition, but only finds it helpful to explain his understanding of morality.
Yet there is nothing important or necessary about the relation of this religion with anything historical. The historical elements in any religion may be necessary for a time, and in certain places, as a means to teach the fundamental truths of all religion, but this is to say they have value only as means, and not in themselves.
This leads eventually to the dismembering of religion. Liberal religions, for example, be they Jewish, Catholic, New Age, or Protestant, have chapels and politics that often seem to be indistinguishable from each other.

Kant views prayer and churchgoing as useless in themselves, and only have good if they help someone lead a moral life. Likewise, the sacraments are only useful as symbolic initiation ceremonies. This sums up modern Church life, doesn't it? Prayer and churchgoing are weak, with political correctness having higher value, and the sacraments are viewed only as niceties.

A follower of Kant, then, would see himself as being a member of an invisible church, in union with other right-thinking individuals, without regard to any particular visible church membership. I've met people like that: Unitarians or freethinkers who join the Church without giving up their former beliefs or congregations; these also feel quite superior to faithful Catholics.

Missing from Kant's duty-based morality is the concept of love, which is a crucial part of Catholicism.

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