4 Nov

The religion of the Logos

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 11/04/20

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on acknowledging the Source of rationality

On April 1, 2005 — the day before Pope John Paul  II died — Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger received the St. Benedict Award for the promotion of life and the family in Europe. During the award ceremony held in the convent of Saint Scholastica in Subiaco, Italy, Cardinal Ratzinger gave an address titled “Europe in the Crisis of Cultures.” In 2004, a heated debate was waged over whether the text of a new European Constitution should explicitly mention the role of Christianity in shaping European culture. A number of Christian leaders insisted that a more vague reference to “religious values” failed to recognize the Christian distinctives that acounted for the shape of Europe’s cultural formation.

In his address, Cardinal Ratzinger examined the clash in modern Europe — and I might add, as an American, in the modern West more broadly — between two competing forms of rationality: a reason open to the transcendent and a calculating, functional, instrumental reason, defined and exercised within a purely immanent framework. He saw Europe presented with a choice between ordering its life in accord with an Enlightement understanding of reason — a reason without God and hence without adequate grounds for human dignity — or a reason ordered toward God, a reason formed by the Logos who is Love.

The text of the lecture was published in the journal Communio, and later published in book form as Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. Here are some excerpts from the lecture: 

“Of course, Christianity did not start in Europe, and so cannot be classified as a European religion, the religion of the European cultural realm. But it was precisely in Europe that Christianity received its most historically influential cultural and intellectual form, and it therefore remains intertwined with Europe in a special way. On the other hand, it is also true that, beginning with the Renaissance, and then in complete form with the Enlightenment, this same Europe also developed the scientific rationality that not only led to the geographical unity of the world, to the meeting of continents and cultures in the age of discovery, but that now, thanks to the technological culture made possible by science, much more deeply places its stamp on what is now truly the whole world, indeed, in a certain sense reduces the world to uniformity. And, in the wake of this form of rationality, Europe has developed a culture that, in a way hitherto unknown to humanity, excludes God from public consciousness, whether he is totally denied or whether his existence is judged to be indemonstrable, uncertain, and so is relegated to the domain of subjective choices, as something in any case irrelevant for public life. This purely functional rationality, to give it a name, has revolutionized moral conscience in a way that is equally new with respect to all hitherto existing cultures, inasmuch as it claims that only what is experimentally provable is rational. Since morality belongs to an entirely different sphere, it disappears as a category in its own right, and so has to be identified in some alternative fashion, since no one can deny that, after all, we still do need morality in one form or another. In a world based on calculation, it is the calculation of consequences that decides what is to count as moral or immoral. And so the category of the good, which Kant had put front and center, disappears. Nothing is good or evil in itself, everything depends on the consequences that can be foreseen for a given action. Although, on the one hand, Christianity found its most influential form in Europe, we must also say, on the other hand, that Europe has developed a culture that most radically contradicts, not only Christianity, but the religious and moral traditions of humanity as well. This helps us understand that Europe is going through a true ‘stress test’; it also helps us understand the radical nature of the tensions that our continent has to face. But also, and above all, what it brings to light is the responsibility that we Europeans have to assume at this moment in history: what is at stake in the debate about the definition of Europe, about its new political form, is not some nostalgic battle at the ‘rearguard’ of history, but rather a great responsibility for the humanity of today. . . .

“From its very beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the logos, as the religion according to reason. It found its precursor, not primarily in the other religions, but in the philosophical enlightenment that cleared the way of traditions in order to devote itself to the pursuit of the true and the good, of the one God who is above all the gods. As a religion of the persecuted, as a universal religion that reached beyond states and peoples, Christianity denied the state the right to regard religion as a part of its own order, and so claimed freedom for faith. It has always defined men, all men without distinction, as creatures of God and images of God, and has always in principle proclaimed their equal dignity, albeit within the inevitable limits of given societies. In this sense, the Enlightenment is of Christian origin and it is not an accident that it came to birth precisely and exclusively in the domain of Christian faith. True, in that very domain Christianity had unfortunately contradicted its own nature by becoming a state tradition and a state religion. Despite the fact that philosophy, as a quest for rationality — including the rationality of faith — had always been the prerogative of Christianity, the voice of reason had been too much tamed. The merit of the Enlightenment was to insist once again on these original values of Christianity and to give reason back its voice. . . .

“That having been said, the two parties need to reflect on themselves and to be ready for self-correction. Christianity must always remember that it is the religion of the logos. It is a faith in the Creator Spiritus, the source of all reality. This faith ought to energize Christianity philosophically in our day, since the problem we now face is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is therefore nothing but a ‘byproduct,’ and perhaps a harmful one, of its development — or whether the world comes from reason, so that reason is the world’s criterion and aim. The Christian faith tends towards the second position. From the purely philosophical point of view, then, it has a truly strong hand to play, despite the fact that many today consider the first position alone to be “rational” and modern. But a reason that springs forth from the irrational and that, in the end, is itself irrational, is no answer to our problems. Only creative reason, which has manifested itself as love in the crucified God, can show us the way.

“In the necessary dialogue between Catholics and the secular-minded, we Christians have to take special care to remain faithful to this basic principle: we have to live a faith that comes from the logos, from creative reason, and that is therefore open to all that is truly rational. But at this point I would like, as a believer, to make a proposal to secular folk. The Enlightenment attempted to define the essential norms of morality while claiming that they would be valid etsi Deus non daretur, even if God did not exist. In the midst of confessional conflict and the crisis of the image of God, the attempt was made to keep the essential moral values free of contradiction and to undergird them with an evidence that would make them independent of the many divisions and uncertainties of the various philosophies and confessions. The idea was to secure the bases of coexistence and, in general, the bases of humanity. At that time, this seemed possible, inasmuch as the great basic convictions created by Christianity still held and still seemed undeniable. But this is no longer the case. The quest for a reassuring certitude that could stand uncontested beyond all differences has failed. Not even Kant, for all of his undeniable greatness, was able to create the necessary shared certainty. Kant had denied that God is knowable within the domain of pure reason, but, at the same time, he thought of God, freedom, and immortality as postulates of practical reason, without which it was impossible to act morally in any consistent way. Doesn’t the situation of the world today make us wonder whether he might not have been right after all? Let me put it differently: the extreme attempt to fashion the things of man without any reference to God leads us ever closer to the edge of the abyss, to the total abolition of man. We therefore have good reason to turn the Enlightenment axiom on its head and to say that even those who are unable to accept God should nonetheless try to live veluti si Deus daretur, as if God existed. This was the advice that Pascal gave to his non-believing friends; it is also the advice that we would like to give to our non-believing friends today as well. Thus, no one’s freedom is restricted, but everything human gets the support and the criterion it so urgently needs.

“What we most need at this moment of history are men who make God visible in this world  through their enlightened and lived faith. The negative witness of Christians who spoke of God but lived against him obscured his image and opened the door to unbelief. We need men who have their eyes fixed straight on God, and who learn from him what true humanity is. We need men whose intellects have been enlightened by the light of God and whose hearts have been opened by God, so that their intellects can speak to others’ intellects and their hearts can open others’ hearts. God returns among men only through men who are touched by God.”