Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Central challenge of our time

In his book entitled "Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions," Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had this to say: "Perhaps the finest and most succinct expression of this new Christian synthesis is to be found in a confession in the First Letter of Saint John: ‘we know and believe the love’ (1 Jn 4:16). Christ had become for these people the discovery of creative love; the rational principle of the universe had revealed itself as love - as that greater reason which accepts into itself even darkness and irrationality and heals them...Reason and mystery had met together; the very fact that the whole had been brought together in one person had opened the door for everyone: through the one God, all could become brothers and sisters...Can this evident truth, which at that time struck the ancient world to its depths and transformed it, be reinstated? Or is it irrevocably lost? What is standing in its way? There are many reasons for the current collapse, but I would say that the most important consists of the self-limitation of reason, which is paradoxically resting upon its laurels: the laws of method that brought it success have, through being generalized, become its prison. Natural science, which has built a new world, rests upon a philosophical foundation whose origin must be sought in Plato. Copernicus, Galileo, and even Newton were Platonists. Their basic assumption was that the world is mathematically and rationally structured and that, starting from this assumption, we can decipher it and by experiment can make it equally comprehensible and useful. The innovation consisted in associating Platonism and an empirical approach, ideal and experiment. The experiment is based on an existing interpretative concept, which is then tried out in a practical test, corrected, and opened up to further questions. This mathematical anticipation alone can permit subsequent generalization, the recognition of laws, which then make possible appropriate action. All our ideas about natural science and all practical applications are based on the assumption that the world is ordered according to rational, spiritual laws, is imbued with rationality that can be traced out and copied by our reason. At the same time, however, our perception of it is associated with the test of experience.

Any thinking that goes beyond this connection, that tries to look at reason in itself or to see it as preceding the present world, is contrary to the discipline of scientific method and is therefore utterly rejected as being a prescientific or unscientific way of thinking. The Logos, Wisdom, about which the Greeks spoke, on the one hand, and the Israelites, on the other, has been taken back into the material world and cannot be addressed outside of it. Within the specific path followed by natural science, this limitation is necessary and right. If, however, it is declared to be the absolute and unsurpassable form of human thought, then the basis of science itself becomes contradictory: for it is both proclaiming and denying the power of reason. But above all, a self-limiting reason of that kind is an amputated reason. If man cannot use his reason to ask about the essential things in his life, where he comes from and where he is going, about what he should do and may do, about living and dying, but has to leave these decisive questions to feeling, divorced from reason, then he is not elevating reason but dishonoring it. The disintegration of man, thus brought about, results equally in a pathological form of religion and a pathological form of science. It is quite obvious today that with the detachment of religion from its responsibility to reason, pathological forms of religion are constantly increasing. But when we think of scientific projects that set no real value on man, such as cloning, the production of fetuses - that is, of people - simply in order to use their organs for developing pharmaceutical products, or indeed for any economic exploitation, or if we think of the way science is made use of to produce ever more frightful means for the destruction of men and of the world, then it is obvious that there is such a thing as science that has taken a pathological form: science becomes pathological and a threat to life when it takes leave of the moral order of human life, becomes autonomous, and no longer recognizes any standard but its own capabilities.

That means that the scope of reason must be enlarged once more. We have to come out of the prison we have built for ourselves and recognize other forms of ascertaining things, forms in which the whole of man comes into play. What we need is something like what we find in Socrates: a patient readiness, opened up and looking beyond itself. This readiness to look at things, in its time, brought together the two eyes of reason, Athens and Jerusalem, and made possible a new stage in history. We need a new readiness to seek the truth and also the humility to let ourselves be found. The strict application of methodical discipline should not mean just the pursuit of success; it should mean the pursuit of truth and the readiness to find it." (Truth and Tolerance, pp. 155-159, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004).

This is the central challenge of our time: To restore the older, traditional, and larger notion of reason. We need to return to the simple truth that faith precedes understanding and that understanding is greatly aided by faith, an idea which was expressed so beautifully by the medieval formulas credo ut intelligam (I believe in order that I may understand) and fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).

In the words of Pope John Paul II, "What is distinctive in the biblical text is the conviction that there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith. The world and all that happens within it, including history and the fate of peoples, are realities to be observed, analyzed and assessed with all the resources of reason, but without faith ever being foreign to the process. Faith intervenes not to abolish reason’s autonomy nor to reduce its scope for action, but solely to bring the human being to understand that in these events it is the God of Israel who acts. Thus the world and the events of history cannot be understood in depth without professing faith in the God who is at work in them. Faith sharpens the inner eye, opening the mind to discover in the flux of events the workings of Providence. Here the words of the Book of Proverbs are pertinent: ‘The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps’ (16:9). This is to say that with the light of reason human beings can know which path to take, but they can follow that path to its end, quickly and unhindered, only if with a rightly tuned spirit they search for it within the horizon of faith. Therefore, reason and faith cannot be separated without diminishing the capacity of men and women to know themselves, the world and God in an appropriate way. There is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action.." (Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio, On the Relationship between Faith and Reason, Nos. 16, 17).

Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) hit the nail on the head when he said that we have to come out of the prison we have built for ourselves and recognize other forms of ascertaining things. Our age is enslaved by the perverse illusion that reason alone is sufficient without faith and that mankind possesses unlimited possibilities of achieving everything and knowing everything through its own strength and through the use of reason alone.
Where will this illusion lead us? Again, in the words of Pope John Paul II: "...the Chosen People understood that, if reason were to be fully true to itself, then it must respect certain basic rules. The first of these is that reason must realize that human knowledge is a journey which allows no rest; the second stems from the awareness that such a path is not for the proud who think that everything is the fruit of personal conquest; a third rule is grounded in the ‘fear of God’ whose transcendent sovereignty and provident love in the governance of the world reason must recognize. In abandoning these rules, the human being runs the risk of failure and ends up in the condition of ‘the fool.’ For the Bible, in this foolishness there lies a threat to life. The fool thinks that he knows many things, but really he is incapable of fixing his gaze on the things that truly matter. Therefore, he can neither order his mind (Prov 1:7) nor assume a correct attitude to himself or to the world around him. And so when he claims that ‘God does not exist’ (cf. Ps 14:1), he shows with absolute clarity just how deficient his knowledge is and just how far he is from the full truth of things, their origin and their destiny." (Fides et Ratio, No. 18).

Already we see the symptoms of a society which has become spiritually sick because it has abandoned these rules. We are witnessing the fruits of suppression of truth as outlined by St. Paul in Romans 1: 18-32:

"The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper. They are filled with every form of wickedness, evil, greed, and malice; full of envy, murder, rivalry, treachery, and spite. They are gossips and scandalmongers and they hate God. They are insolent, haughty, boastful, ingenious in their wickedness, and rebellious toward their parents. They are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know the just decree of God that all who practice such things deserve death, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them."


Anonymous said...

Terribly impressive post Mister Melanson!!! And to make it short Pope Benedict the XV1 once stated that without the light of Christ, the light of reason is not sufficient to enlighten humanity and the world.

William said...

I think every Catholic needs to read Fides et Ratio very thoroughly. This amazing encyclical hasn't received the attention it deserves from the laity.

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