Lee Harris: Why the Pope Quoted Emperor Paleologus
Lee Harris, in "Socrates or Muhammad? Joseph Ratzinger on the destiny of reason" (The Weekly Standard, 10/2/2006, Volume 12, Issue 3), has offered an interesting analysis of Pope Benedict XVI's controversial lecture. It is not the Pope speaking as Pope "but simply as Joseph Ratzinger, an intelligent and thoughtful man, who makes no claims to any privileged cognitive authority .... [and who] has come, like Socrates, not to preach or sermonize, but to challenge with questions."
Harris notes Ratzinger's provocative quote from Manuel II Paleologus -- "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached" (though I would translate the German expression "Schlechtes und Inhumanes" as "bad and inhumane") -- and he offers his understanding of why Ratzinger chose this quote:
Ratzinger's daring use of this provocative quotation was not designed to inflame Muslims. He was using the emperor's question in order to offer a profound challenge to modern reason from within. Can modern reason really stand on the sidelines of a clash between a religion that commands jihad and a religion that forbids violent conversion? Can a committed atheist avoid taking the side of Manuel II Paleologus when he says: "God is not pleased by blood -- and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature . . . . Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats . . . . To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death."In Harris's view, Ratzinger's quote was not primarily directed at Muslims but at modern, self-critical, rational Westerners. In effect, he was asking them, "What sort of God would you prefer, one whose nature is supremely rational or one whose nature is absolutely willful?" Now, Ratzinger might also, secondarily, be asking Muslims, "Which sort of deity is Allah?" -- and if so, he has received a preliminary answer -- but he's more centrally concerned with what Westerners think about this.
Harris is an atheist, but he replies to Ratzinger's provocative question by affirming that he prefers a reasonable deity because a religion based upon such a God will produce a community of reasonable individuals:
Modern reason, to be sure, cannot prove scientifically that a community of reasonable men is ethically superior to a community governed by violent men. But a critique of modern reason from within must recognize that a community of reasonable men is a necessary precondition of the very existence of modern reason. He who wills to preserve and maintain the achievements of modern reason must also will to live in a community made up of reasonable men who abstain from the use of violence to enforce their own values and ideas. Such a community is the a priori ethical foundation of modern reason. Thus, modern reason, despite its claim that it can give no scientific advice about ethics and religion, must recognize that its own existence and survival demand both an ethical postulate and a religious postulate. The ethical postulate is: Do whatever is possible to create a community of reasonable men who abstain from violence, and who prefer to use reason. The religious postulate is: If you are given a choice between religions, always prefer the religion that is most conducive to creating a community of reasonable men, even if you don't believe in it yourself.For Harris, the choice is to support Christianity, for early in its intellectual development it joined Greek rationality to the Hebraic tradition and created a reasonable faith.
Even within Christianity, there have been theological developments that sundered faith from reason by emphasis upon God's radical willfulness, such as the nominalist theology of Duns Scotus:
For example, Ratzinger notes that within the Catholic scholastic tradition itself, thinkers emerged like Duns Scotus, whose imaginary construction of God sundered the "synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit." For Scotus, it was quite possible that God "could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done." If God had willed to create a universe without rhyme or reason, a universe completely unintelligible to human intelligence, that would have been his privilege. If he had decided to issue commandments that enjoined human beings to sacrifice their children, or kill their neighbors, or plunder their property, mankind would have been compelled to obey such commandments. Nor would we have had any "reason" to object to them, or even question them. For Scotus and those who followed him, the ultimate and only reason behind the universe is God's free and unrestrained will. But as Ratzinger asks, How can such a view of God avoid leading "to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness?" The answer is, it cannot.The insightful German philosopher Hans Blumenberg has argued in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age that Christian theology led more or less inevitably to the Scotus position because its initial overcoming of Gnosticism had merely repressed rather than solved the possibility of a deceptive God and that the modern world had decisively overcome the Gnostic problem by centering reason in the self-assertive human being and disregarding the absolutely willful God.
Ratzinger and Harris disagree, arguing that Modernity's rationality stems from Medieval Christianity's mainstream understanding of a rational God and that our current imperative is to recognize this fact.
Whether modern reason can be severed from that Christian tradition and yet survive is the question reasonably posed by both Ratzinger the Christian and Harris the atheist.