Saturday, September 16, 2006

Three stages of Dehellenization

This weekend I read Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture titled “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections” given at the University of Regensburg on September 12th. As I suspected it had little to do with “insulting the Prophet Mohammed” or “attacking Islam.”

Rather, with broad strokes, Pope Benedict presented “a critique of modern reason from within (that) has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age.” He challenged the academics to overcome “the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable” and made the argument that “theology rightly belongs in the university and within 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” thus allowing us to become capable of “that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today.” Thorough his lecture, Pope Benedict argued in favor of the “great task” of allowing faith and reason to once again meet in the university.

Pope Benedict XVI is both an intellectual and a man of Faith, so it is not unexpected that, like Pope John Paul II, he would have much to say in depth about the topic of “faith and reason.”

His argument quoted a dialogue between “Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both” as the point of departure to introduce the topic of faith and reason. This point of departure illustrated how a particular notion of God can hinder access to reason and, as a result, a worldview in which Faith and reason are not in harmony.

Its point was to illustrate that past academic studies have noted that for “Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” Pope Benedict presented the commentary of others on this dialogue: A consequence of this notion of “absolute transcendence” would mean that, “God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.”

In his line of thought Benedict presented three “stages” of dehellenization that the Christian Faith has encountered (i.e., The separation of classical Greek philosophy from Faith.)

The first stage of dehellenization, Pope Benedict presented was during the Reformation in the sixteenth century.
[T]he Reformers thought they were confronted with a faith system totally conditioned by philosophy, that is to say an articulation of the faith based on an alien system of thought. As a result, faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system. The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, sought faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word. Metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become once more fully itself. When Kant stated that he needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith, he carried this programme forward with a radicalism that the Reformers could never have foreseen. He thus anchored faith exclusively in practical reason, denying it access to reality as a whole.

Liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought the second stage of dehellenization according to Benedict.
[The] central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality.

The third stage of dehellenization, according to Benedict, is now in progress. It has to do with pluralism, inculturation, and a “return to the simple Gospel message”.
In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures. The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, 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.

Sola Scriptura, “morality without worship”, and re-inculturation of a “simple message” are the broad lines that Pope Benedict traveled in his Regensburg lecture. These are very interesting topics that are encountered often even, if they are not always identified as such. Given the depth and breadth of the lecture presentation, it is safe to say that these are the topics that occupy a great part of Benedict's time. (It is obvious that "insulting Islam" is no where in the Holy Father's orbit of interests).

Photo: Parthenon Temple in Athens © Patrik Rzezwicki
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