The Magazine

Socrates or Muhammad?

Joseph Ratzinger on the destiny of reason.

Oct 2, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 03 • By LEE HARRIS
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To the memory of Oriana Fallaci

On September 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an astonishing speech at the Uni versity of Regensburg. Entitled "Faith, Reason, and the University," it has been widely discussed, but far less widely understood. The New York Times, for example, headlined its article on the Regensburg address, "The Pope Assails Secularism, with a Note on Jihad." The word "secularism" does not appear in the speech, nor does the pope assail or attack modernity or the Enlightenment. He states quite clearly that he is attempting "a critique of modern reason from within," and he notes that this project "has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age. The positive aspects of modernity are to be acknowledged unreservedly."

Benedict, in short, is not issuing a contemporary Syllabus of Errors. Instead, he is asking those in the West who "share the responsi bility for the right use of reason" to return to the kind of self-critical examination of their own beliefs that was the hallmark of ancient Greek thought at its best. The spirit that animates Benedict's address is not the spirit of Pius IX; it is the spirit of Socrates. Benedict is inviting all of us to ask ourselves, Do we really know what we are talking about when we talk about faith, reason, God, and community?

For many, it will seem paradoxical that the Roman pontiff has invoked the critical spirit of Socrates. The pope, after all, is the embodiment of the traditional authority of the Church, and the Church is supposed to have all the answers. Yet Socrates was famous as the man who had all the questions. Far from making any claims to infallibility, Socrates argued that the unexamined life was not worth living, and he was prepared to die rather than cease the process of critical self-examination. Socrates even refused to call himself wise, arguing instead that he only deserved to be called a "lover of wisdom."

Socrates skillfully employed paradox as a way to get people to think, yet even he might have been puzzled by the paradox of a Roman Catholic pope who is asking for a return to Socratic doubt and self-critique. Benedict must be perfectly aware of this paradox himself, so that we must assume that he, too, is using paradox deliber ately, as Socrates did, and for the same reason: to startle his listeners into rethinking what they thought they already knew.

But why should Pope Benedict XVI feel the need at this moment in history to emphasize and highlight the role that Greek philosophical inquiry played in "the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe"? Christian Europe, after all, was a fusion of diverse elements: the Hebrew tradition, the experience of the early Christian community, the Roman genius for law, order, and hierarchy, the Germanic barbarians' love of freedom, among many others. In this cultural amalgam, Greek philosophy certainly played a role, yet its contribution was controversial from the beginning. In the second century A.D., the eminent Christian theologian Tertullian, who had been trained as a Roman lawyer, asked contemptuously: "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" For Tertullian, Athens represented hot-air and wild speculation. Many others in the early Church agreed, among them those who burned the writings of the most brilliant of all Greek theologians, Origen. Yet Benedict's address can be understood as a return to the position of the man who taught Origen, the vastly erudite St. Clement of Alexandria.

St. Clement argued that Greek philosophy had been given by God to mankind as a second source of truth, comparable to the Hebrew revelation. For St. Clement, Socrates and Plato were not pagan thinkers; they prefigured Christianity. Contrary to what Tertullian believed, Christianity needed more than just Jerusalem: It needed Athens too. Pope Benedict in his address makes a strikingly similar claim: "The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance." This encounter, for Benedict, was providential, just as it had been for St. Clement. Furthermore, Benedict argues that the "inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history." For Benedict, however, this event is not mere ancient history. It is a legacy that we in the West are all duty-bound to keep alive--yet it is a legacy that is under attack, both from those who do not share it, namely Islam, and from those who are its beneficiaries and do not understand it, namely, Western intellectuals.