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Belated Pope Thoughts

September 25th, 2006 · 3 Comments

Well, I’m late to the papal party, but with the consolation that I can at least outsource some of what I might have said earlier to fellow Wagnerite Jacob Levy. Conrad has one of his characters in Heart of Darkness opine that Kurtz “would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party– Any party.” By the same token, I think I would’ve made a pretty good fundamentalist. (I pause here for my liberal friends to entertain the requisite snarky thought vis a vis my political views.) If I genuinely thought abortion clinics (and IVF clinics, for that matter) were little abattoirs in which large numbers of small defenseless persons were routinely slaughtered, I imagine I’d regard some kind of violent action as not only justified but possibly obligatory. And if I thought, as presumably Benedict does, that the Christian Bible were the inerrant word of God, the lone bridge from infinite perdition to infinite pleasure, I don’t know how I could regard efforts to augment and “improve” it, thereby luring others off the unique divinity-approved path out of hell, other than as “evil and inhuman.” (Though that is, recall, a quotation from an ancient dialogue Benedict’s invoking, not his own characterization.)

I’m only too happy (as a secularist) to endorse Benedict’s broader point that persuasion, rather than violence, is the proper response to this sort of problem, and I’ll stand by my remarks the other day about multiplicities of interpretations. But I do seem to recall the Koran being fairly clear in its prediction of an Allah-tantrum in store for those who try to steer good Muslim boys from the straight and narrow. (History, fortunately, suggests it’s less clear-cut what other mortals are supposed to do about this.) Shouldn’t both sides regard, and expect their counterparts to similarly regard, attempts to lure folk from the One True Faith as “evil,” even if an appreciation of human fallibility means not necessarily judging the people who do this, presumably with the best intentions, as themselves evil?

Anyway, all of this is a bit of a surprising sideshow, since the real gist of Benedict’s talk is the putatively special Hellenic/Christian union of faith and rationality in the form of a divine logos. A number of claims here strike me as at least dubious.

First, when Benedict talks about the fusion of reason and “biblical faith,” he’s really got to be talking about Catholic faith (not terribly surprising, him being pope and all): At least from my outsider perspective, the tendency of evangelical (Protestant) Christian worship seems to cut in very much the other direction. I’m not even sure how much the view Benedict espouses really applies to most lay Catholics. “God works in mysterious ways” is a familiar expression for a reason, and seems to suggest that if there is a divine logos, we shouldn’t expect it to be intelligible to ordinary humans. It’s not wholly clear what the practical difference is between asserting that God is beyond rationality and asserting that there is some kind of divine rationality, but it’s totally ineffable.

Second, while I’ll assume (since I don’t really know) the accuracy of Benedict’s view that contemporary mainstream Islam doesn’t attribute logos to God, it’s worth observing that there at least used to exist a tradition of Islamic philosophy that also drew on ancient Greek texts (which, incidentally, is how we in the West got them) and coincided with the peak of the Muslim world’s golden age in science and mathematics. Now, unfortunately, that strain or trend seems to have gotten quashed to a large extent some 900 years ago, but it’s another reason to be wary of talking about “Islam” as such, rather than a currently dominant set of trends or doctrines. Then maybe we could talk about how to refocus attention on that particular strain of Islam.

At any rate, Benedict had better hope this is possible, because otherwise one of the core planks of his argument doesn’t make sense. Part of his project here (ironically, given the public reaction to his remarks) is to reopen cross-cultural dialogue by means of this notion of an expanded reason (“reason plus,” let’s call it) that seeks to fuse rationality and theology. Because the kind of dialogue he’s talking about has to be premised on the notion that whatever differences in revelation there may be between cultures, we can reason in common about the nature of the divine and maybe come to, if not full agreement some kind of shared understanding. But if your interlocutors don’t have any conception of a divine, and to some extent humanly intelligible, logos it’s not clear why you’d expect this to be possible.

Finally, a couple quick notes on the real target of Benedict’s attack here, which isn’t Islam but Western secularism. First, it’s not actually remotely clear to me that hardcore Islamists who feel “threatened” by the West have a problem with our secularism in particular, but would be delighted to have some kind of dorm room bull session with Catholics. Are a ton of people in the Muslim world seeing George W. Bush speak on television and thinking: “You know, the problem with the U.S. is it’s aggressive atheism”? Second, for a well-read guy who doubtless knows his Euthyphro, and in particular for someone who puts so much emphasis on the rational intelligibility of divine will, it’s odd to see it baldly asserted that a religious outlook is somehow going to leave us in a better position when it comes to developing an ethical code. If the attribution to God of properties like goodness and reason is going to be meaningful (as opposed to tautological, where “rational” isn’t defined independently from features of the divine mind), then presumably you should be able to appreciate whatever moral rules end up being part of the theological framework without God actually doing any work in the system, except as enforcer. And on the flip side, the offhand assertion that “attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate” is both incredibly crude as a description of what secular ethicists get on about, and not backed by any terribly good reasons to think it has to be true.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jadagul // Sep 25, 2006 at 5:32 pm

    One of the things I’ve always liked about Catholicism (I’ve said that if I had to pick a religion, I’d be a Catholic) is it’s emphasis on reason as an independent way of understanding the divine. Traditional Catholic teaching—especially in the Jesuitical and Thomist strains—teaches that all moral precepts can be determined independently of divine revelation, and that God’s word is just a shortcut for helping us figure out the right answers. I hope Ratzinger isn’t moving the church away from that.

  • 2 Steve Sailer // Sep 26, 2006 at 9:11 pm

    “And if I thought, as presumably Benedict does, that the Christian Bible were the inerrant word of God…”

    I wasn’t aware that the Pope was a Protestant fundamentalist.

  • 3 Christopher M // Sep 27, 2006 at 6:13 pm


    From the 1992 Catechism: “The inspired books teach the truth. ‘…[W]e must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.'”

    Inerrancy and literalism are two different things. The Catholic Church adheres to the first, but not the second.