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Reflections on
Fides et Ratio via Cardinal Ratzinger


Dr Deborah Savage

I. Introduction

I want to first congratulate you on your name and say that it is a unique privilege to give what I am thinking of as almost the inaugural lecture for this august group.  I know it really isn’t since Dr. Lemmons has already gotten you kicked off with Our Lady the Philosopher. But it would be hard to imagine a more fitting topic than Fides et Ratio for your first meeting under the official title of Truth Seekers.

Now in order to avoid giving you just a commentary on a commentary on this incredible document, I want to say at the outset that I intend to ground my remarks in the original a bit. In taking a fresh look at F/R, I must admit I found it difficult not to bring my own favorite passages and insights to our reflections here today. But our time is short and so our objectives must be as well. My plan is to zero in on just one theme in Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary on FR, one that I think is especially important for the aims of this group.

But first I think the thing we need to do is to remind ourselves of what is at stake.  No doubt this is well known to you, or you would not have decided to call yourselves Truth Seekers. But still – a couple of minutes on the stakes is in order it seems to me.

Let me start with an example. My niece lived with us for about 6 months after running away from home after falling under the influence of some rather shady people. It was a good thing too – she was just 18 years old so legally free to do what she pleased – but not yet a high school graduate. She was applying to colleges and had to write an essay in order to complete most of her applications. She decided to write hers on the perils of smoking and the evil tobacco companies.  After struggling with it for a week or so, she came to me in complete innocence and said to me “Aunt Deborah – I am having trouble figuring out how to say that smoking is wrong and the tobacco companies are evil without sounding like I am trying to say something that is actually true. I mean, I know there is no such thing as truth – like an absolute, right? You have your truth and I have mine, etc. So how does this work – if there is no such thing as truth then how do I write this essay?”

Quickly I remembered something I heard in a philosophy lecture. The argument that there is no such thing as truth does not trump every truth claim. It has to be supported with argument, it has to be demonstrated. And of course, as soon as you try, you lose the argument on the basis of some rule of logic – circuitous reasoning, right?

I was so angry I could hardly stand it – my little Paula had been taught in high school that there was no such thing as truth, which of course was why she was so ill-equipped to defend herself from the predators that had persuaded her that her parents were evil and boring and wrong and should be left behind.

The fact is that if you give up on the category of truth, you give up on everything. Indeed the first section of Fides et Ratio is entitled “Know Yourself.”  The search for truth is a “journey of discovery” and above all, the quest for meaning. To give upon this journey does not just lead to skepticism or subjectivism or relativism – ultimately it leads to nihilism and results in a young man in the U.S. influencing a young man in Finland to gun down innocent people because their lives have no meaning to him since his life has no meaning to him.

In F/R, JPII says, it seems self-evident that we are “driven by the desire to discover the ultimate truth of existence. A favorite philosopher-theologian of mine, Bernard Lonergan argues that the desire to know, to understand, to ask questions is a natural one, a fact that is obvious to anyone with children. He says that, by definition, knowledge can only be of the true, since knowledge of the false is not knowledge at all – and that it requires - not just a recognition of a truth as an objective reality – but the concomitant perfection of the knower.  To know, and to know truly requires that I simultaneously bring myself into correspondence with the truth that I discover; a mind under the sway of any kind of bias will not be able to grasp it.

So – you are probably aware of this, but by calling yourselves truth seekers, you are calling into question some of the most basic and entrenched assertions of our era.

2.  A Basic Distinction

Now we are here to speak about faith and reason and so we have to be clear about one fundamental assumption that is at the basis of the Catholic intellectual tradition. It is laid out in F/R and affirmed in CR’s gloss. You may already know this so forgive me if you do.  But the understanding of relationship between faith and reason in the Catholic intellectual tradition – that they are unified, coexisting along a continuum, complementary movements in the search for ultimacy – this understanding has been central to the quite evident potency of the tradition and has led to the vast treasure evidenced by its thought and contributions to art and culture.

JPII points out that it was Aquinas and St. Albert the Great who were the first to recognize the autonomy which philosophy and the sciences needed if they were to perform well in their respective fields of research. But this took a dangerous turn during the ascendancy of rationalism and there emerged a philosophy which was separate from and absolutely independent of the contents of faith.  What had been for the patristic and medieval thinkers – in both theory and practice – a profound unity, producing knowledge capable of reaching the highest forms of speculation, became a rupture - the sundering of knowledge from faith. (FR 45) The rationalists rejected knowledge born of faith; the fideists rejected knowledge born of reason.

Not so the Church. Grounded in the thought of Aquinas, we continued to persevere in the quest for ultimacy using all of our faculties – on the assumption that all of them are God-given and designed to help bring us home. The reformers and the rationalists arrived at a radical discontinuity of faith and reason: for them, they were not even on the same plane. But the Church and her philosophers and theologians see it quite differently. Aquinas posits the continuity of faith and reason: we can go as far as we can toward ultimacy – relying on human reason – but at a certain point in the journey, it is only God and God’s revelation that can bring us into contact with the complete truth.

So this is one of the underlying assumptions in Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary, this continuity, this unity of faith and reason.  It is essential to grasping the significance of his insights – for he begins by calling into question one of those modern day assertions I mentioned earlier – the so-called historical interpretation of anything said by anyone at any time, which claims to be objective since it refuses to pronounce anything as true, except those things that seem to refute what over 2000 years of reflection on human experience in light of God’s word have concluded.

The Cardinal points out that behind this façade of objectivity lies a fundamental perspective on reality – a philosophy which has at its heart two equally false presumptions that at the same time contradict each other – first, a conviction that the human person lacks the capacity for truth, and secondly, the conviction that the individual somehow occupies a position of superiority to it.

It seems odd doesn’t it, that a man of God, in the person of both the Pope and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, would have to take it upon themselves to – as CR says – “restore to humanity the courage to seek the truth, that is to encourage reason once again in the adventure of searching for truth.”

CR argues: “Man is not trapped in a hall of mirrors of interpretations; one can and must seek a breakthrough to what is really true; man must ask who he really is and what he is to do; he must ask whether there is a God; who God is, and what the world is. The one who no longer poses these questions is by that very fact bereft of any standard or path.”

So – though I have the impression that this is essentially a philosophical group, it seems to me that F/R in particular gives you permission to operate in full continuity with the tradition – to continue to push the boundaries of what can be known about ultimate questions through reason.  For truly, philosophy, when coherent, is always done within the horizon of faith; at the end of the day it cannot be divorced from that reality fully – or it becomes merely the “empty seriousness” of Jaspers that CR mentions.

3. The Real Issue

Now it seems to me that CR is pointing to very high stakes indeed in his commentary here. He is confronting the very questions that concern us here at UST and that are implicated in our hope to contribute to the future of the human race.  He states that anyone who wishes to seek the truth confronts immediately the problem of cultures and their mutual openness. He asks us to consider how we can reconcile Christianity’s claim to universality – a claim grounded in the universality of truth – in the face of multi-culturalism and the Church’s missionary activity, which, according to the contemporary critique, seems to have at best ignored the diversity of cultures – or at worst – subjugated them to the hegemony of the Christian (a.k.a. white man’s) world view.

But he asks this question from outside of history – which is the only vantage point from which we can understand it. For what is behind this critique of the church and her missionaries is a fundamental question concerning the unity of mankind – what is being questioned is fundamentally what it means to be human. Here is what he says:

The position is gaining ground which maintains that human rights are the cultural product of the JudeoChristian world and which, outside this world, would be unintelligible and without foundation. But what then? What happens if we can no longer recognize common standards which transcend individual cultures? What happens if the unity of mankind is no longer recognizable to man?

Will not division into separate races, classes and nationalities become insurmountable? The person who can no longer recognize a common human nature in others, beyond all such boundaries, has lost his identity. Precisely as a human being, he is in peril. Thus, for philosophy in its classical and original sense, the question of truth is not a frivolity to be enjoyed by affluent cultures which can afford the luxury, but rather a question which concerns the existence and nonexistence of man.

So, the stakes are high. And how are we to be seekers of truth without doing violence to those for whom this word is euphemism for a kind of cultural hegemony, the eurocentrism mentioned and acknowledged by JPII in F/R? Was not Christianity compromised from the very beginning as it sought to adapt itself to the philosophical matrix of the Greek world and thus entered forever after into the mix of culture and praxis that came to be known as the western intellectual tradition? Does Christianity have a universality that can be distinguished from its synthesis with western culture? Is it a universality that can encompass the diversity of cultural and philosophical frameworks that have begun to make themselves felt in our current milieu? As seekers of truth who begin from the premise that Christ is the way, the truth and the life – how are we to go about our mission?

I believe that CR shows a way; it is found by entering into the point at which the movement of self-transcendence  - something that is either active or latent in every culture, in every human person – is occurring in the culture.

He argues that “in the radical critique of the Christian missionary effort from the standpoint of cultures, there is something deeper at work: it is the question of whether there can be a communion of cultures within the truth that unites them, the question of whether truth can be expressed for all people beyond cultural forms or instead whether, finally, behind the diversity of cultures, truth only appears asymptotically because of its importance.  The Cardinal points out that JPII dedicates several paragraphs of the Encyclical to this question (FR 6972), underscoring the fact that when cultures are deeply rooted in what is human, they bear witness in themselves to the human person's 'characteristic openness to the universal and the transcendent' (FR 70).

Therefore, cultures, as the expression of man's one essence, are characterized by the human dynamic, which is to transcend all boundaries. Thus, cultures are not fixed once and for all in a single form; they have the capacity to make progress and to be transformed, as they also face the danger of decadence. Cultures are predisposed to the experience of encounter and reciprocal enrichment. As man's inner openness to God leaves its mark on a culture to the extent to which that culture is great and pure, so there is written in such cultures themselves an inner openness for the revelation of God. Revelation is not something extraneous to cultures, but rather it responds to an inner expectation within cultures themselves.

CR retraces the history of revelation within this context, pointing out that in the OT and the NT, as each culture was engaged in this movement of self-transcendence, God’s revelation intersected with it; Israel's faith required a continual self transcendence, an overcoming of its own culture, in order to open itself and enter into the expansiveness of a truth common to all. The pattern is repeated in the encounter of the Christian message with Greek Culture - an encounter which did not begin with the proclamation of the Gospel, but had already developed within the writings of the Old Testament, above all when these were translated into Greek, and which continued in early Judaism. The encounter was made possible because at the same time a similar process of transcending the particular had begun in the Greek world.” Think of Paul’s talk in the agrophobia? On the unknown god.

“The Fathers of the Church did not simply mix an autonomous and selfstanding Greek culture into the Gospel. They were able to take up the dialogue with Greek philosophy and use it as an instrument for the Gospel, because in the Greek world a form of autocriticism of their own culture which had arisen through the search for God was already under way. Beginning with the Germanic and Slavic peoples, who in the period of the great migrations came into contact with the Christian message, and then later with the peoples of Asia, Africa and America, the Christian faith introduced these people not to Greek culture as such, but rather to its capacity for self- transcendence, which was the true connecting point for interpreting the Christian message. It drew them into the dynamic of self transcendence.”

Thus the connection of most interest to us who would seek the truth and wish to proclaim it is to enter into the culture at the point at which it is beginning to transcend itself – at the point where it has begun to open itself to universal truth and thus to lead it out of the enclosure of – as CR states – the mere particularity of any existing cultural milieu. (paraphrasing)

What examples come to mind? The environment! World poverty and peace! The sacred nature of children and their safety! The theology of the body!

4. Discussion.

5. Conclusion

I would like to close by returning to CR’s commentary and his own conclusion in which he refers to “a comment on the Encyclical which appeared in Die Zelt, a German weekly newspaper which is not usually very favorable to the Church.” Apparently, the commentator, Jan Ross, grasped the essence of the Pope's message very well when he noted that the dethroning of theology and metaphysics had made human thought 'not only more free, but also more narrow', indeed, he was not afraid to speak of a '`dumbingdown through unbelief'.

He writes: 'As reason has turned away from the ultimate questions, it has become indifferent and tiresome, it has become incompetent for addressing the life questions of good and evil, of death and immortality'. The voice of the Pope has 'inspired many persons and entire peoples, it has sounded harsh and trenchant to the ear of many, and even aroused hatred, but if it falls silent, this would be a moment of dreadful silence'.

CR ends with pointing out that when we choose to silence ourselves on the context within which human reason exists - if we no longer speak about God and man, about sin and grace, about death and eternal life, then all that remains is sound and fury, a useless attempt to cover up the silencing of what is authentically human. He calls us all to follow the Pope who “with the fearless frankness of faith…has pitted himself against the danger of this silence and in doing so he has rendered a service not only to the Church, but to humanity as well.

CR states that we must be grateful to JPII for rendering this service. But I would add, we have no choice but to imitate him. Our lives and the future of humanity truly are at stake.

Copyright ©; Dr Deborah Savage 2010

Version: 17th April 2010

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