This is part four of my reflections on Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger's book, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. If you missed the earlier columns, part one is here, part two is here, part three is here.
Benedict ends chapter 1 with two questions: whether the philosophies of the Enlightenment and the culture they have spawned really constitute the best that human reason has to offer, and whether this Enlightenment culture is truly complete in itself with no need for roots or touchstones of meaning beyond itself.
In chapter 2, he answers both of these questions with an emphatic, 'no.' First we should note that by philosophies of the Enlightenment, the Pope would appear to have in mind 18th century thinkers: David Hume, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and certainly Immanuel Kant among others. Benedict is quick to note that from the collective thought of these and like-minded thinkers, the world has much to be grateful for: the insistence on universal human rights, and the conviction that religion is to be embraced and practiced in freedom.
But there are two other striking and paradoxical characteristics of the thought of this period, and it is on these that Benedict will focus: on the one hand, the exultation at the prospects of human reason with regard to our human situation, and simultaneously, a curtailing, limiting, and impoverishing of that very understanding of reason's possibilities.
Furthermore, Benedict observes that "these philosophies are characterized by their positivist-and therefore anti-metaphysical-character, so that ultimately there is no place for God in them." And he keenly observes that the Enlightenment's curtailing of reason's possibilities corresponds perfectly to the culture which is both cause and consequence of such thought, a culture of the 'new science,' a procedural, mechanical, newly technological culture. Such a conception of reason is a kind of made-to-order notion, a snug fit for an era dominated by a largely pragmatic, legal, mathematized, and - in the modern sense - scientific approach to human problems.
Benedict calls this phenomenon the "self-limitation of reason," and he cogently notes that, left to itself, the further our understanding of reason becomes impoverished, and the more we conceptually distance ourselves from the Creator, the greater the danger that we will end by destroying ourselves. This dark truth was not lost on the authors of the 2nd Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes : "Without a creator, there can be no creature. Once God is forgotten, the creature is lost sight of as well" (GS, 36). Hence, as Benedict notes, it should not be surprising that the very Enlightenment thought that once hailed the quasi-discovery of human liberty, has ended in our day by announcing its non-existence, by informing us - in so many strains of deterministic philosophy - that freedom is an illusion.
And this brings us to the answer to the second question: Enlightenment philosophy suffers a severe degree of self-limitation, cut off by choice, and at its very roots from what Benedict calls "the basic memory of mankind" - the shared patrimony of the profound experience of ourselves as human beings.
This "mutilation" of reason, affirms Benedict, should not only present itself as entirely unacceptable, but, indeed, "irrational." And it is in this light that he critiques the European Union's refusal to acknowledge the Christian roots of Europe. He unmasks that refusal and reveals the deep, underlying motivations of such politicking. Far from meaning to respect the sensitivities of non-Christian peoples in Europe, the move was actually a bold imposition of this impoverished worldview on the member countries. Far from avoiding antagonism with non-Christian religions, the exclusion of the reference to Christianity is a throwing down of the gauntlet that threatens a much more real and perilous antagonism:
The real antagonism typical of today's world is not that between diverse religious cultures; rather, it is the antagonism between the radical emancipation of man from God, from the roots of life, on the one hand, and the great religious cultures, on the other (p. 44).
It is also a most remarkable and brazen instance of a genuinely dogmatic imposition of the relativism that has been the sorry fruit of this culture:
In this way, relativism, which is the starting point of this whole process, becomes a dogmatism that believes itself in possession of the definitive knowledge of human reason, with the right to consider everything else merely as a stage in human history that is basically obsolete and deserves to be relativized (p. 45).
All of which tells us that "we have need of roots"- and on this the Pope has more to say in the following chapters.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).