Sunday, April 12, 2009

Public Reason and the Truth of Christianity in the Teachings of Benedict XVI Part I

By Giampaolo Crepaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the director of the Cardinal Van Thuân International Observatory

Public reason is human reason that believes it can attain, through dialogue and research, certain truths about man and, in particular, about man in society. Public reason is certainly a critical reason, but is also a constructive reason that is not only capable of achieving the "consensus" of opinions, but can also attain the truth and the good of man in society for which it has a cognitive and an arguing ability.

The ability to understand the foundations of the dignity of the person, the main elements of the common good, the inalienability of human rights, justice, the meaning of individual freedom and of community ties, all depend on the possibility of a public reason.

The primary problem of public reason is to determine if it is possible and, secondarily, whether it is self-sufficient, or whether it needs a relationship with religion and, in particular, with the Christian religion. Benedict XVI has addressed this topic on several occasions and in different places, talking on the one hand of the truth of reason and, on the other, of the truth of religions.

The public use of reason and relativism

Public reason is not possible in a culture that is dominated by the "dictatorship of relativism,"[1] for a very simple reason: Relativism is a dogma and therefore it a priori rejects rational argumentation, even toward itself. Those with a taste for paradox could say that relativism is a fundamentalism.

On several occasions, Benedict XVI said that now it has become a dogma, or a presumption, and that it cannot be sustained if not through some sort of faith.[2] Hence, relativism rests upon blind faith. This is unquestionably contradictory because the words "dogma" and "relativism" are incompatible.

The thing is that relativism becomes a faith in order to overcome its internal contradiction, only to fall into a new one. Relativism, in fact, cannot be argued; otherwise it would refer to a capability of reason to argue the truth. In this case, relativism would contradict itself because it would admit the possibility of non-relative truths. Thus, relativism can only be "dogmatically assumed."

The "dictatorial" character -- in the cultural sense -- of relativism, prevents the use of public reason because it prevents the public use of reason. At this point, it could be interesting to go back to the writing where this public use was strongly proclaimed for the first time -- the short essay entitled "An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?" written by Kant in 1784.

For Kant, reason has a public use that serves a critical purpose. To illustrate this public use, Kant especially dwells on the rational critique of religion, i.e. the complete freedom of citizens, indeed even the calling, "to impart to the public all of his carefully considered and well-intentioned thoughts concerning mistaken aspects of that symbol, as well as his suggestions for the better arrangement of religious and church matters."[3]

Reason, with its own categories, claims to be the testing ground and the measure of faith and religion too. Why is a public reason to which Kant assigned such challenging tasks now reduced to relativism, which is incapable of critiquing not just religion, but even itself?

Public reason and the self-limitation of reason

The reason lies in the "self-limitation" of reason, as Benedict XVI has suggested many times.[4] This self-limitation underpins the dogmatically blind assumption of relativism and its inability to play any kind of critical role. The faith in relativism can exist only when the scope of reason has been drastically limited.

The self-limitation of reason consists in its being reduced to mathematical-experimental[5] knowledge, i.e. a type of rationality that is incapable of founding even relativism. This type of knowledge -- the mathematical-experimental type -- simply has "no evidence" of relativism, nor can have any because it is not an empirically observable fact.

Relativism is a philosophy and not a fact, and its foundation would require a different kind of reasoning which, however, is excluded by self-limited reason. This is why relativism can only either be "implicit" -- lived and not justified -- or dogmatically "assumed" -- accepted, for example, by an act of faith. In this sense then, the "dictatorship of relativism" is the necessary conclusion of the "self-limitation" of reason. However, with relativism, the public role of reason fails.

Actually, this self-limitation was already present in Kant's thought. In the above-mentioned 1784 short essay he "pretended" to assign to reason the public role of critiquing even religion, but it was an incautious claim as his vision of reason was already confined to mathematical-experimental knowledge. This is why that claim has to be denied, however, while nevertheless rejecting it and showing how it leads to relativism. It must also be said that a different reason, a reason that can fully breathe, can play a public role and can also engage in some sort of critique of religion.

In 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger participated in a debate with philosopher Jurgen Habermas in Munich that focused exactly on the public role of reason.[6] On that occasion, he argued that if terrorism that is fuelled by religious fundamentalism is the symptom of a pathology of religion that must be corrected by reason, then in the same way the technical-scientific capability of producing human beings is the symptom of a pathology of reason that needs to be corrected by religion.

This is his conclusion: "There are extremely dangerous pathologies in religion that require us to consider the divine light of reason as a control mechanism ... there are also pathologies of reason that are not less dangerous … therefore reason has to accept warning as to its limits and must be willing to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind."[7] As we can see, he credits reason with the ability of "controlling" religion. Christianity, then, does not ask reason to shrink from its public role but to fully fulfill it; however, in order to do that, reason needs to rediscover its own greatness. Christianity wants a reason that is able to breathe and is willing to help reason do that. It wants to be "put to the test" by this reason.

Philosophical relativism and religious relativism

What are the repercussions of the dictatorship of relativism and of such a reductive vision of religions on the part of reason? The consequence of philosophical relativism can only be religious relativism: All religions are different and yet actually the same. They are irrational, they are the result of an unfounded choice, and thus they cannot be compared.

Relativism, unfoundedly dogmatic, views religions as unjustified beliefs. Because it does so in an unfounded manner, it cannot demonstrate it, hence it simply "believes it." Relativism "believes" that religions are unfounded, thus they cannot be compared. In other words, it believes that religions have nothing to do with reason and truth. Then all religions are dogmatic, in the trivial sense of the word, i.e. in the sense of "accepted without evidence" (just like relativism, but relativism does not seem to be aware of that).

In the current relativistic vulgate, in fact, the word dogma generically and superficially means "something that is accepted without evidence and thus in a dogmatic manner." Just as philosophical relativism deprives religion of a true public role, the corresponding religious relativism deprives religion from playing its public role. As we will see better later, the public role of reason and that of religious faith either stand together or die.

In this way, all religions are reduced to myth, i.e. to a way of exorcizing mysterious, bizarre and irrational forces. If religions are unfounded, it means that the divine forces they refer to are irrational and that arbitrariness rules the word. If the primordial forces are arbitrary, religion is a form of insurance against the repercussions of this imponderableness. Therefore religious relativism regresses to a kind of religious primitivism: religion is a way of exorcizing irrational forces.

The critique of religion as myth of the Greeks and Israel

To consider religion as something irrational, according to Benedict XVI, is entirely inconsistent with our whole Western and Christian history. In fact, both Greek thought and the Jewish religion, as well as Christianity, of course, rejected the vision of religion as myth and conceived religion as knowledge and God as Logos.[8]

Let us take a brief look at Greek thought. If we examine the Greek religions of "the mysteries" and even the Olympic religion, we find the characteristic features of the pre-rational myth: mysterious and unfathomable forces, arcane, obscure, underground impulses, the arbitrariness of the gods where the same human action can be either good or bad depending on the deity, man's struggle to placate divine wrath and exorcize these unforeseeable forces.

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