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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Let us begin by taking seriously Benedict's claim that in his address he is attempting to sketch, in a rough outline, "a critique of modern reason from within." He is not using his authority as the Roman pontiff to attack modern reason from the point of view of the Church. His approach is not dogmatic; it is dialectical. He stands before his learned audience not as the pope, but simply as Joseph Ratzinger, an intelligent and thoughtful man, who makes no claims to any privileged cognitive authority. He has come, like Socrates, not to preach or sermonize, but to challenge with questions.

Ratzinger is troubled that most educated people today appear to think that they know what they are talking about, even when they are talking about very difficult things, like reason and faith. Reason, they think, is modern reason. But, as Ratzinger notes, modern reason is a far more limited and narrow concept than the Greek notion of reason. The Greeks felt that they could reason about anything and everything--about the immortality of the soul, metempsychosis, the nature of God, the role of reason in the universe, and so on. Modern reason, from the time of Kant, has repudiated this kind of wild speculative reason. For modern reason, there is no point in even asking such questions, because there is no way of answering them scientifically. Modern reason, after Kant, became identified with what modern science does. Modern science uses mathematics and the empirical method to discover truths about which we can all be certain: Such truths are called scientific truths. It is the business of modern reason to severely limit its activity to the discovery of such truths, and to refrain from pure speculation.

Ratzinger, it must be stressed, has no trouble with the truths revealed by modern science. He welcomes them. He has no argument with Darwin or Einstein or Heisenberg. What disturbs him is the assumption that scientific reason is the only form of reason, and that whatever is not scientifically provable lies outside the universe of reason. According to Ratzinger, the results of this "modern self-limitation of reason" are twofold. First, "the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity." Second, "by its very nature [the scientific] method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question."

In making this last point about God, it may appear that Joseph Ratzinger, the critical thinker, has switched back into being Pope Benedict XVI, the upholder of Christian orthodoxy. Defenders of modern reason and modern science can simply shrug off his objection to their exclusion of God by saying, "Of course, the question of God cannot be answered by science. This was the whole point of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. Science can neither prove, nor disprove God's existence. Furthermore, by bringing in the question of God, you have violated your own ground rules. You claimed to be offering a critique of modern reason from within, but by dragging God into the discussion, you are criticizing modern reason from the standpoint of a committed Christian. You are merely saying that modern reason excludes God; we who subscribe to the concept of modern reason are perfectly aware of this fact. Maybe it troubles you, as a Christian, but it doesn't bother us in the least."

Can Joseph Ratzinger, the critical thinker, answer this objection? Yes, he can, and he does. His answer is provided by his discussion of jihad. Contrary to what the New York Times reported, Ratzinger is not providing merely "a note on jihad" that has no real bearing on the central message of his address. According to his own words, the topic of jihad constitutes "the starting-point" for his reflection on faith and reason. Ratzinger uses the Islamic concept of jihad to elucidate his critique of modern reason from within.

Modern reason argues that questions of ethics, of religion, and of God are outside its compass. Because there is no scientific method by which such questions can be answered, modern reason cannot concern itself with them, nor should it try to. From the point of view of modern reason, all religious faiths are equally irrational, all systems of ethics equally unverifiable, all concepts of God equally beyond rational criticism. But if this is the case, then what can modern reason say when it is confronted by a God who commands that his followers should use violence and even the threat of death in order to convert unbelievers?