Andy Smith Says: October 11th, 2006 at 2:53 pm Here it is: Socrates or Muhammad? Joseph Ratzinger on the destiny of reason. by Lee Harris 10/02/2006, Volume 012, Issue 03 To the memory of Oriana Fallaci
This was the question taken up by one of Kant’s most illustrious and brilliant students, Johann Herder. Herder began by accepting Kant and the Enlightenment, but he went on to ask the Kantian question: What were the necessary conditions of the European Enlightenment? What kind of culture was necessary in order to produce a critical thinker like Immanuel Kant himself? When Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, methodically demolished all the traditional proofs for the existence of God, why wasn’t he torn limb from limb in the streets of Königsburg by outraged believers, instead of being hailed as one of the greatest philosophers of all time?
Herder’s answer was that in Europe, and in Europe alone, human beings had achieved what Herder called “cultures of reason.” In his grand and pioneering survey of world history and world cultures, Herder had been struck by the fact that in the vast majority of human societies, reason played little or no role. Men were governed either by a blind adherence to tradition or by brute force. Only among the ancient Greeks did the ideal of reason emerge to which Manuel II Paleologus appeals in his dialogue with the learned Persian.
A culture of reason is one in which the ideal of the dialogue has become the foundation of the entire community. In a culture of reason, everyone has agreed to regard violence as an illegitimate method of changing other people’s minds. The only legitimate method of effecting such change is to speak well and to reason properly. Furthermore, a culture of reason is one that privileges the spirit of Greek philosophic inquiry: It encourages men to think for themselves.
For Herder, modern scientific reason was the product of European cultures of reason, but these rare cultures of reason were themselves the outcome of a well-nigh miraculous convergence of traditions to which Ratzinger has called our attention as constituting the foundation of Europe: the world-historical encounter between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry, “with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage.” Thus, for Herder, modern scientific and critical reason, if it looks scientifically and critically at itself, will be forced to recognize that it could never have come into existence had it not been for the “providential,” or perhaps merely serendipitous, convergence of these three great traditions. Modern reason is a cultural phenomenon like any other: It did not drop down one fine day out of the clouds. It involved no special creation. Rather, it evolved uniquely out of the fusion of cultural traditions known as Christendom.
A critique of modern reason from within must recognize its cultural and historical roots in this Christian heritage. In particular, it must recognize its debt to the distinctive concept of God that was the product of the convergence of the Hebrew, Greek, and Roman traditions. To recognize this debt, of course, does not require any of us to believe that this God actually exists. For example, the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was an atheist; yet in his own critique of modern reason, he makes a remarkably shrewd point, which Ratzinger might well have made himself...For Schopenhauer, as an atheist, the rational Creator worshiped by Christians was an imaginary construction, like all other gods. For Ratzinger, as a Christian, this imaginary construction is an approximation of the reality of God; but for Ratzinger, as a critical thinker, there is no need to make this affirmation of faith. In offering his “critique of modern reason from within,” it is enough for his purposes to point out how radically different this imaginary construction of God is from the competing imaginary constructions of God offered by other religions–and, indeed, from competing imaginary constructions of God offered by many thinkers who fell clearly within the Christian tradition. For example, Ratzinger notes that within the Catholic scholastic tradition itself, thinkers emerged like Duns Scotus, whose imaginary construction of God sundered the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit.” For Scotus, it was quite possible that God “could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.” If God had willed to create a universe without rhyme or reason, a universe completely unintelligible to human intelligence, that would have been his privilege.