Class Lecture: The Regensburg Lecture

This semester, Spring 2016, I have been teaching Ecumenism and Inter-religious Dialogue. This is the first of three lectures from the class that I am posting here. This first lecture introduced the question of the relationship between faith and reason, an issue that is vital to look at if one is going to truly engage in ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. 

Regensburg lecture

Why the Regensburg lecture? Why did I have you read it for this class? This course is “Ecumenism and Inter-religious Dialogue”: dialogue between Christians with the ultimate goal of coming together again as one united whole and dialogue among different religions with the ultimate goal of all coming to the Lord and Savior of all, Jesus Christ. However, there is a challenge that presents itself at the outset of this course. The prevailing view of our culture is that this dialogue is unnecessary, that it is enough to simply respect one another, to say, “Can’t we all just get along?” and “coexist”. Regardless of the reasons one may hold for thinking this way, it is rooted in the separation of faith and reason, and the relegation of faith to a purely private and subjective sphere. If faith isn’t reasonable then there really isn’t any point in a dialogue between different religions and by extension cultures. This issue of faith and reason is our starting point for this class and so too the topic of the Regensburg lecture.

I would like to address the structure and progression of material in the lecture because there were a few students who voiced that there were things Benedict didn’t need to say or that it was disjointed in the sense that he would be talking about one thing and then suddenly begin speaking about something else. I also what to go over the structure of the lecture because having a clearer picture of the whole will help to better understand what exactly Benedict is saying about faith and reason, and the conclusions he draws at the end. First, though, it is important to remember that the intended audience of his lecture is not the world, but rather a group of professors at a university. Therefore, his remarks must always be understood in this context.

He begins with introductory remarks. He genuinely is happy to be there and to once again be giving a lecture at a university that he had once taught at. But his remarks about memories of being a university professor are not mere pleasantries; they lead him to speak specifically of the dies academicus held once a semester during which professors from every department would appear before all the students. This event was a witness to the students that the professors despite their working in different fields comprised a whole and that they all worked on “the basis of a single rationality,” including the theology faculty. This also introduces his topic – faith, reason, and the university.

From there he begins to speak about faith and reason, and he uses a conversation between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian as his starting point. Why does he use this? For one reason and one reason only: the emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, said, “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.” It is this statement from the emperor to which Benedict will refer back. It is the ground of his lecture. He also observes that the editor of this work, Theodore Khoury, comments that this statement is self-evident for the emperor because he is shaped by Greek philosophy, but that it is not self-evident for the Muslim for whom “God is absolutely transcendent.” This brings us to a crucial question concerning God’s nature and our understanding Him: “Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God’s nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?” Benedict answers this question immediately by referring to the Gospel of John, originally written in Greek – which says “In the beginning was the Logos and… the Logos was God”. The word logos used by John is the very same word that is used by the emperor. As was already said in class multiple times, logos means “word”, but it also means “reason”. Because God is Reason it is always and intrinsically true that acting unreasonably is contrary to God’s nature – it is not merely a Greek idea. This, Benedict says, is the final word on the biblical concept of God, which is given to us by the Apostle John. Benedict, however, is never one to simply make an assertion and not support it with reasons. He proceeds to give evidence of the rapprochement between Greek philosophy and biblical faith preceding St. John and his saying that the Logos is God. This is why he mentions the Macedonian calling to Paul, the revelation of God’s divine name, I AM, the revelation of God during the exile as God of heaven and earth accompanied by a mockery of false gods, the writing of later Wisdom literature in the Old Testament, and finally the translation of the Scriptures to Greek which was itself an inspired action. He then returns to his starting-point saying that it is both “from the very heart of Christian faith” and from “the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith” that the emperor is able to say that not acting with logos is contrary to the nature of God. Finally, he offers a brief afterthought on this theme by making note of negative theological trends in the late Middle Ages, the Church’s opposition to these trends, and the historical importance of the rapprochement of Biblical faith and Greek philosophy. This ends the first part of the Regensburg lecture.

This rapprochement between faith and reason, however, is no longer part of the understanding of reason in the West. The second part of the lecture is a critique of modern reason, showing its limitations and ultimately its need for faith. The modern understanding of reason, however, is not a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries. It has its root at least 500 years in the past and grew through successive stages of dehellenization. This is why Benedict devotes so much space to this subject.

Dehellenization began with the Protestant Reformation and their doctrine of sola Scriptura. The propagation of this doctrine resulted in what we know philosophically being divorced from faith and, so, eventually leading the philosopher Immanuel Kant to reject the reasonableness of faith. Kant believed that all knowledge was attainable solely through the use of faithless reason. When Benedict says that Kant “anchored faith exclusively in practical reason,” he means that Kant anchored faith in ethics. In other words, faith was for the masses of simple-minded people so that they would live morally upright lives since they were not intelligent enough to achieve such a life through pure reason. (Incidentally, this thought isn’t original to Kant. Averroes, a Muslim philosopher who lived 600 years before Kant, expressed a similar thought).

Kant’s separation of faith and reason found “theological” expression in the liberal Protestant theology that began with Adolphe von Harnack. Harnack followed a strict empiricism, which led him to deny all supernatural aspects of faith including the divinity of Jesus Christ and His Resurrection. For Harnack the good news of the Gospel was merely a humanitarian message.

Finally, Benedict comes to the third stage of dehellenization, a form of dehellenization that is new to our time: the expunging of Greek thought in light of cultural pluralism. This is the denial of any particular cultural context in which God revealed Himself. Instead adherents of this form of dehellenization wish to give whatever they think the simple moral message of Jesus Christ is stripped of all cultural context – it is “acultural”.

In his conclusion Benedict quickly points to many problems with our modern understanding of reason that has come about through the process of dehellenization. For instance, the inability of reason without faith to overcome the dangers arising from the new possibilities that have been brought about through advancements in technology; the inability of a faithless culture to dialogue with cultures of faith,* which is the vast majority of cultures throughout the world; and, finally, the inability of scientific reason to explain why there is a rational structure of matter.


*This week I came back to this point when speaking of the massive failure of the secular West to fruitfully interact with Muslims. Camille Paglia recently gave an interview in which she touched on this same situation in relation to feminism and non-Western cultures. The interview can be viewed here.


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