The Magazine

The Holy Seers

Two churchmen-one Polish, one German- transform the throne of Peter.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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Most important of all is to see, with Benedict, that "at the beginning of all things stands the creative power of reason." Gregg explains that, in Benedict's view, "agnosticism and atheism ultimately rely upon a rational affirmation that all is ultimately based upon irrationality." But even while defending reason's lofty vocation, John Paul and Benedict stress that being rational isn't enough, for rationality itself points to the existence of truths that reason alone cannot grasp, truths that can only be known through God's revelation, accepted by faith. In other words, man needs to embrace reason without embracing rationalism.

When reason concludes that there are truths about God and the universe that reason itself cannot ascertain, that man's finite reason cannot exhaust the infinite, this could open the door to legitimizing faith in anything--and everything. Gregg is careful to point out that the modern papacy's engagement with modernity is just as critical of theistic thinkers who attempt to ground faith's legitimacy in what amounts to little more than blind leaps.

In the media circus surrounding Benedict's Regensburg address, few commentators took the time to note that the main thrust of his remarks was criticism of European, not Islamic, thought. Criticizing those rationalists who castrated reason's true scope, Benedict also challenged Christians to recover the traditions of philosophical theology, to reject the voluntarism that detached God from the rational order, and to see God as Logos. Our understanding of God must be informed as much by our reason as by our acceptance of God's communication by way of Scripture, and this acceptance of revelation itself must be made for good reason, pointing to the reasonableness of the act of faith. In other words, man needs to embrace faith without embracing fideism.

Although knowledge of God's inner Trinitarian life, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Communion of Saints can be known only through the revealed texts of the Bible, Gregg argues that the modern papacy is clear that these biblical truths can be fully grasped only if the Bible is read intelligently, in light of the philosophical truths that grace builds upon, and in a reasonable, integrated manner consistent with the entirety of the biblical canon. As Gregg explains, "In the absence of reason, believers are more susceptible to fanaticism and terrorism, precisely because God becomes for them an idol when they are in fact simply worshiping their own will." In other words, man needs to embrace the Bible without embracing Biblicism.

The modern papacy cares about getting the relationship of science, reason, faith, and the Bible right because it sees itself as ultimately articulating nothing less than the truth about man and God. And it is this truth, John Paul and Benedict insist, that sets man free. So much of the Enlightenment's political efforts were directed at securing man's liberty, and yet the 20th-century results yielded more bondage than ever. The gamble was on supposing that a "Dictatorship of Relativism" (as Ratzinger put it) provided a more secure ground for human liberty than the "Splendor of Truth" (as John Paul put it). Only if man is capable of knowing truth--including moral and spiritual truths--can he be capable of freely directing himself toward ends freely chosen, away from evil and toward goods that are to be pursued. If man is ultimately the measure of all things, if man purports to create good and bad, right and wrong, rather than discern these naturally existing realities and respond accordingly, then what at first seemed like unlimited freedom results in stultifying nihilism. If whatever I decide upon is good, then the significance of the choice is eviscerated.

Freedom untethered to truth in the political realm truly does lead to dictatorship, either of the despot who gains power through force or of the majority that imposes its will on a minority without justifying reason. For if reason is unable to arrive at truth, what does a political community have remaining to appeal to when organizing common life? Those who ground democracy on relativism, then, undercut the very foundations that support democratic institutions in the first place: a proper concern for the authentic good of each member of the community and a respect for each member's ability to participate in this process of discernment. Gregg notes that rights, as a result, become "increasingly justified by reference to majority opinion and defined by the will of the stronger or according to some utilitarian calculus," not by appeals to nature or nature's God.