Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture

Hi Folks.  Below is a short paper I had to write for world religions on Benedict’s Regensburg lecture and how it impacts inter-religious dialogue.  It is short enough for a blog post so I thought I would share it with you.

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As Fr. Neuhaus once said: despite the incessant claims otherwise, Benedict’s Regensburg lecture is not chiefly about Islam: it is about the attempt to de-hellenize Christianity and reduce the horizon of reason to positivism.[1]

If Fr. Neuhaus is correct in his assessment, then we must ask ourselves the question: what has Regensburg to do with religion?  In fact, Benedict’s lecture has a lot to do with dialogue between religions as expressed in the concern for the humanum and the principle of humilitas.

The concern for the humanum is expressed throughout the lecture as a concern for the fundamental experiences of the human person: that which is authentically lived in all humanity.  In one of his many writings as Cardinal, Ratzinger writes that “Poverty is the truly divine manifestation of truth: thus it can demand obedience without involving alienation.”[2]  In other words, God’s self revelation is a manifestation of Who He is in the limitedness of His creation.  God is still God despite entering into an encounter with the world.  Ratzinger’s point here, however, is more anthropocentric: man is still man in his encounter with God.  God cannot alienate us from ourselves in His demand for us to follow Him.  Such a principle is manifested throughout the lecture, as highlighted in two instances.  First is his prefatory note about Islam and voluntarism: if God can even enforce the practice of idolatry, how is this affirming of what is truly human?  Secondly, in his analysis of the encounter between Hellenism and biblical faith, stating that the attempted de-Hellenization of Christianity is a project: it is an attempt to remove the rational from the very structures of faith.  In short,faith demands reasonableness and is, in fact, a reasonable mode of encountering reality.  He will, in fact, say that positivism is a reduction of reason.  He argues elsewhere that the ‘axiological structure of faith’ – the acceptance of reality as it is – is part of being human and that we cannot be human without this element of faith.  We must accept axioms in order to function as human beings, making faith a reasonable element of lived human existence. [3]

Positivism’s demand to know merely the observable in order to make valid judgments is in fact an irrational posture.  The issue with Islam is that it throws reason out the window in favour of voluntarism while the issue with rationalism is that it presumes faith to be irrational.  Both positions, Benedict states, are contrary to the core experience of being human.  Positivism and voluntarism, for Benedict, prove to be ahistorical – hence his emphasis on the history of man and the formulation of ideas – and therefore contrary to the core structure of man who is placed in history.

This leads the principle of humilitas.  The common theme of the entire lecture is to re-invigorate the intellectual openness of the University.  This is the reason behind both his experience of universitas at the beginning of the lecture and, at the end of the lecture, to reaffirm the true function of a university as being based in the logos in the broad sense of the term.  In fact, as a sidenote, the address is really about the true form of universitas, and we can take the universitas model as a means for engaging in all sorts of dialogue.  The consistent element of the lecture, however, is the emphasis on humilitas in its biblical sense: to do actions that set one in a proper relation with God or, more generally, with truth.[4]  In its more general sense, humility is an openness and acceptance of the other who is present to us.  Humilitas, then, is to be expected on both sides of the dialogue.  For Benedict, this means that those who are not Christian – be they Muslim, Jew, atheist, or pagan – must accept Christianity on its own terms as a faith embedded in Hellenistic reason.  Any attempt to impose the other side’s interpretation of Christianity onto Christianity is insufficient for the beginning of a dialogue.  It appears that the process of de-hellenization, then, is a process of removing what is essentially Christian from Christianity.  Christianity practices humilitas with other worldviews (even in a critical manner!), and so ought not other worldviews offer the same consideration to Christianity?

What, then, do these two positions have to do with inter-religious dialogue?  We must first ask the question that Marcelo Pera asks: is dialogue even possible between competing absolute truth claims in monotheistic religions?[5]  Pera thinks it is not,[6] but Ratzinger thinks it is possible if we refocus the terms of what dialogue means.  Dialogue, for Ratzinger, is not an attempt to come to a mutually agreed position.  Rather, dialogue is about accepting the truths that are in accord with our faith from other religions, truths which can even challenge Christianity to rediscover lost elements of truth in its tradition.  Through this discussion, one hopes that truth is reached and thus it is inherently missionary for the Christian.[7]   In these views put forward by Ratzinger, we can see how two principle methods behind the Regensburg Lecture are influential in the practice of inter-religious dialogue.  In regards to the concern for the humanum, we realize that this dialogue must always have the humanum at the center of the discussion: the lived total experience of humanity at its fundamental level in history.  Because of this, constructive criticism can be made towards other religions – and Christianity too! – for not taking the humanum seriously enough.  God, for the Christian, cannot contradict the fundamental reality of humanity.  It is criteria that must be applied to truth, for truth ought not to conflict with what is most basically and fundamentally human.  Humilitas is the extension of the concern for the humanum.  It means allowing each religion and worldview to be itself to the other.  Only when one is truly itself to the other can dialogue truly begin so that we can come to a deeper understanding of each other and the truth, which is at the core of the experience of universitas.  The concern for the humanum and the principle of humilitas, ought to open serious questions and comments between the worldviews.  If there is anything that is proof that these two principles work, it is the response of the thirty-eight and one hundred and thirty-eight Islamic scholars, intellectuals, and clerics who responded to the Pope that Islam’s view of God can be one based in the logos.  This is the true effect of dialogue, but it is only possible when the humanum is placed at the centre and is sought after in humilitas.


[1] Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, First Things – November 2006, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/03/the-regensburg-moment-2.  Accessed February 10th, 2012

[2] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Many Religions – One Convenant: Israel, the Church and the World, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), p. 109.

[3]Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006) pp. 80 – 81.

[4] Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrew W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 11.

[5] Marcello Pera, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians: The Religious Roots of Free Society (New York: Encounter Books, 2008),  p. 133.

[6] Ibid, p. 135.

[7] Ratzinger, Many Religions – One Covenant, pp. 109-113.

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