Editor's Choice Archive 1

The Pope and the Missing Point

The Dialogue of Cultures

By Patricia Keegan

As the outrage churns in reaction to Pope Benedict’s recent speech, it appears that the Pope is fallible in understanding the sensitivities provoked by historical references.  If he had it to do over again, he might also reference the Christian crusades for the sake of equality. But the core of his lecture was more directly connected to the opening of honest and frank dialogue between all faiths; in fact, it was an examination of the very essence of faith. In a world hooked on sensational sound bites, most will never return to the full transcript of the Pope’s speech. Nevertheless, it is a thought provoking exercise.

In his meeting with representatives of science at the University of  Regensburg in Germany, Pope Benedict XVI presented a lecture entitled Faith, Reason and the University — Memories and Reflections. In looking over the transcript of the Pope’s lecture, his tone is one of a philosophical, free flowing inquiry rather than rigid dogma or pointing a finger at any other religion.

From the beginning of his remarks, one has a sense that this lecture was intent on embracing four major topics — the early stages of Greek and Christian thought, modernity, the importance of dialogue, and the Nature of God — all under the heading of Faith and Reason.  He said he was painting, with broad strokes, a critique of modern reason.

It is important to remember that he was speaking to academics and scientists not widely known for embracing faith or intuition as guideposts in life.  In his opening statement he seemed nostalgic for the kind of open dialogue that was once encouraged between students and faculty.  He recalled his university days in Germany when students and faculty intermingled, when professors were accessible to their students.  He said there was an ongoing and lively exchange between historians, philosophers, philologists.   His main point was how beneficial for the entire community were the dies academics held each semester when faculty and students came together to discuss the right use of reason and the reasonableness of faith.

In agreement with Pope Benedict, I believe this subject is important and worthy of debate. We know that life is difficult and dangerous for a major part of the world’s population. Faith can make a difference by bringing hope, but, as he says, it must be grounded in reason.

While the West thrives, there is plenty of evidence that we, too, are living in a dangerous world, and that awareness can deplete our quality of life.  It becomes even more distressing when we hear that the war on terrorism will last for generations. This bleak outlook, together with the cynicism that is rampant in today’s culture, is stultifying.

Opening our minds to constructive dialogue with other religions can play a tremendous role in breaking this cycle of frustration and despair. In the Pope’s provocative, yet positive lecture, he makes us rethink the whole concept of Faith.

Where does faith come from? What energizes it? How do faith and reason bring balance and even joy to our lives?

His predecessor, Pope John Paul said, “Although faith, a gift from God, is not based on reason, it can certainly not dispense with it.  At the same time it becomes apparent that reason needs to be reinforced by faith, in order to discover horizons that cannot be reached on its own.” He is saying that reason can only take us so far, as many scientists — even Albert Einstein — discovered.

Pope Benedict, in the most interesting part of his lecture, calls for a genuine dialogue of cultures. Referring to modernity, he said that while we rejoice in new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities, and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them.  He believes the answers will appear only if reason and faith come together in a new way. “If we can only overcome the self-imposed limitations of reason to the empirically verifiable, we can, once more, disclose its vast horizons.”

He also says that theology belongs in the university alongside the wide ranging dialogue of science, not merely as historical discipline, but as an inquiry into the rationality of faith.  Through a definitive effort of openness, learning and exchange of ideas, Pope Benedict believes we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures so urgently needed today.

In reference to some of the obstacles in the Western world, he gave Europe and the entire Western world something to ponder. He said it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. “But when you examine the world’s profoundly religious cultures, one sees this exclusion of the Divine from the universality of reason, as an attack on their most profound convictions.  A reason that is deaf to the Divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”

Toward the conclusion of his address he says the West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality and can only suffer great harm thereby. “The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason and not the denial of its grandeur — this is how a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters the debates of our time.”

If the Pope believes that Faith without Reason can become violent, and Reason without Faith is empty, the gigantic abyss standing between East and West can, at best, be filled by the combination of Reason and Faith which could expand our thinking.  Perhaps this is the greatest challenge of the 21st century and may even be, if truly understood, the discourse for which the world yearns.

Pope Benedict closed his talk with an invitation for all to enter into this dialogue.  “It is to this great logos, (i.e. the rationality of the human mind that seeks to attain universal understanding and harmony), that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.'

This is the hopeful note that has not been the focus of reports on the Pope’s speech, but here is an urgency that we must respect.