The Christopher Dawson Society for the Study of Faith and Reason held its second meeting of the year on Tuesday 11 March at the Alexander Hamilton Institute. The group, which consists of students, faculty, and community members, focused its discussion on Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture, “Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections,” which he presented at Regensburg University in September 2006.

The lecture prompted a storm of controversy as many criticized Pope Benedict for his references to a late 14th-century dialogue between “ the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both .” In the lecture, Pope Benedict uses this medieval dialogue to draw his audience’s attention to a fundamental aspect of Christianity—its reasonableness—and to the unreasonable and therefore unacceptable use of violence to spread the faith. As Manuel II put it, “God is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.” Benedict points out that the famous beginning of John’s gospel states that “In the beginning was thelogos,” and that logos “means both reason and word—a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason.” This understanding of God, Benedict notes, represented a “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit” and led the early Church to reject those who claimed that “God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.”

Instead, “the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which . . . unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continued to act lovingly on our behalf.” Benedict argues that the “inner reapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance” that “concerns us even today,” for Christianity “took on its historically decisive character in Europe.”

Although most commentators have focused attention on the implications of Benedict’s lecture on Catholic/Muslim relations, they have generally neglected his lecture’s message about Europe and its historical character. As he states, “this convergence

[between Biblical faith and Greek philosophy], with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.”

The Dawson Society members also discussed at length Benedict’s comments on efforts since the late medieval period that have aimed at the “dehellenization of Christianity.” Such efforts, which asserted that the Greek philosophical heritage was not an intrinsic part of Christianity, fail to recognize, according to Benedict, that “the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.” The members then devoted considerable attention to Benedict’s criticism of the rise of “the modern self-limitation of reason,” which holds that “only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.” Benedict urges his audience to reject this “modern self-limitation of reason” “that by its very nature . . . excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question.” Benedict emphasizes the consequences of such a restricted method of inquiry: “if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by ‘science,’ so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective.” Benedict points out that this reduction of humanity means that the individual human “subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective ‘conscience’ becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way,” he continued, “ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter.” Benedict insists that his critique of modern reason “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.” The challenge, according to Benedict, is to broaden “our concept of reason and its application,” so that “reason and faith come together in a new way,” one that permits us to “overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable” and “once more disclose its vast horizons.”

He concludes the lecture with an impassioned plea for the return of theology to the university as an integral part of the “wide-ranging dialogue of sciences, not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith.” To reject the rationality of faith, to reduce it to simply subjective feeling, is to ignore “the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular,” that constitute a rich “source of knowledge.” To ignore that source, Benedict asserts, “would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding,” a denial of the “great logos,” “this breadth of reason” whose constant rediscovery “is the great task of the university.”

The Dawson Society members discussed at length Benedict’s challenge to the modern university, for it is this challenge, not a challenge to Islam, that lies at the core of the lecture. As Father James Schall, S.J. points out in his response to the Regensburg lecture, Benedict’s challenge “ strikes at the very heart of the intellectual acaedia, to the intellectual sloth of our time, to the refusal to think about the important things with the tools that we have been given. What we know as universities in the modern world originated in the Church, in a space in which the whole could be talked about. Benedict knows that all disorders in politics and morals originate in the minds of the learned. It is there that we must begin to address our public issues, including that of Islam, but also questions of life, of morality, and of what we are about.” Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture, by raising fundamental “questions of life, of morality, and of what we are about,” ensures that, as Father Richard John Neuhaus calls it, “the Regensburg moment” will and should concern all people of faith and of reason for years to come.

All those present at the AHI concurred with Father Neuhaus that the lecture “was a considered reflection on the inseparable linkage of faith and reason in the Christian understanding, an incisive critique of Christian thinkers who press for separating faith and reason in the name of “de-Hellenizing” Christianity, and,” most of all, “a stirring call for Christians to celebrate the achievements of modernity and secure those achievements by grounding them in a more comprehensive and coherent understanding of human rationality.”

The Dawson Society looks forward to its next meeting on April 22 at 7:00 PM when Professor Kathleen Marks of St. John’s University in New York City will lead a discussion of the relation between Christian faith and the Western literary imagination. Check the AHI’s website in the weeks ahead for more information.