Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fides Quaerens Intellectum

Some years ago at a faculty meeting at the University of Virginia, there was a spirited debate about whether the college of arts and sciences should approve an area elective on “moral and religious reasoning.” In the discussion, a prominent professor in the English department, a man of culture and learning, rose to oppose the proposal on the grounds that he didn’t see that religion, and in particular Christianity, had anything to do with reason.

In his 2006 lecture at Regensburg, Benedict XVI argued that reason cannot be shackled by the constraints placed on it in the modern university. That was one of the deepest points he made in the lecture, but it was ignored by most commentators. In our time, the pope said, people assume that reason has to do only with what can be established on empirical or mathematical grounds. Other forms of thinking are considered a matter of feeling or sentiment or faith. “In the Western world,” he said, “it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid.” As a consequence, the scope of reason is severely reduced. But the ancient Greeks, the first teachers in our civilization, understood that one could reason about the soul, about metaphysics, about cosmology, about transcendent things and the divine—that is, about what could not be seen or touched.

If reasoning about the soul and God, and hence about what it means to be human, is excluded from the university, the intellectual enterprise makes itself a captive of the present, welcoming the past only on present terms. The dialogues of Plato will be read as works of literature, not of philosophy, and the grand tradition of Christian thought will be viewed as a tribal subculture, historically instructive but without any cognitive claim on those who study it. In that atmosphere, which is the air university faculty breathe today, there can be no genuine dialogue or intellectual exchange across cultures or religions. The best one can muster is: “How –interesting!”

The pope reminded his academic audience of the wisdom of Socrates’ words in Plato’s Phaedo: “It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions [bandied about in the dialogue] that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being—but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer a great loss.” To which Benedict added: “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 the program with which a theology grounded in biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.”

- Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

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