Pope's speech gives rise to bigger questions about reason


Now that the furore over Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg has died down, it may be worth reflecting on the tumult itself rather than on the Pope’s speech.

In his speech, the Pope argued that to build a peaceful and happy society, faith and reason must come together. A faith that leaves no space for reasoned reflection on the world has no bulwarks against tyranny and brutality. Nor does a use of reason that confines itself to empirical and technological questions, ignoring the ultimate questions of purpose. The Pope sets himself against both religious and scientific fundamentalism, which arbitrarily exclude respectively questions of reason and of faith.

The response to the speech by both his supporters and critics perhaps made the Pope’s point for him. He was either criticised or praised for identifying Muslims with violence. It was evident from what they said that the critics had not read or attended to his speech, in which the reference to Islam was incidental, even if regrettable.

The speech and its response, however, raise the interesting question of why reason is central to human peace and happiness. As you might expect in a speech delivered at the university where, almost fifty years ago, he delivered his introductory academic lecture, the currency of the Pope’s speech was large philosophical and religious frameworks. They included the appropriation by theologians of Greek philosophy, the recovery of Aristotle in the Middle Ages, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

The public response to the speech, however, raised the perhaps more interesting question of what constitutes a generally reasonable style, whether used for reflection on faith or on human affairs. Reason surely begins by asking questions in order to seek answers. Its first move is not to give answers in order to control questions.

When we engage one another as reasonable human beings, we first ask, “What do you think?”, or “What do you mean?” Reading asks these questions at second-hand. The need for the Pope’s speech is perhaps demonstrated by the fact that few interpretations of it, whether by admirers or by critics, would have survived even a cursory reading.

To ask questions also implies that we are ready to stay for an answer, and to explore it when it is given. It is tempting to shortcut this process by consulting an outsider’s judgment of our conversation partners, and dealing with them in our world accordingly. This is a failure to listen. Listening requires exploring how they account in their view of the world, the questions that we raise out of our own intellectual framework.

The responses to the Pope’s speech show him to be the victim of a failure to listen carefully. Critics have read his words quickly, often through the judgments of others, and have placed his thought within the categories of their own intellectual framework. They can then condemn him for being too sectarian, too religious or too Western.

But as Dan Madigan, who certainly has read the Pope’s speech carefully, has pointed out, Pope Benedict himself works within a Western academic culture which encourages thinkers to begin by asking a question out of one’s own intellectual tradition, to place the philosophies of others into that grid, and to criticise them by their failure to correspond to the logic of one’s own framework. Conversation begins from an assured position, and returns to it the more assured. The Pope is at home in this intellectual style.

Listening and exploring, however, lead to a more modest engagement with the world. In reading the world from the perspective of a reasonable faith, we may identify the nihilism and brutality that threaten when either pole is lost. That should then lead us to conversation with the good people and good thinkers who have a different perspective, and see how they cope with these risks in their own view of the world. We will also be led to explore the positions of those who resolve the relationship between faith and reason in a way similar to our own, but can then justify barbarous action, like torture and capital punishment.

There is a practical advantage in focusing on asking questions, listening and exploring, too. You might wait a little before judging, and find time to reflect on yourself as well as on your target.



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Existing comments

Andrew, a very good article on the ned for all of us to listen deeply to each other. I could add more. Regards, Vince
Vince Hurley SJ | 26 September 2006

Listening - really listening - is I am afraid an almost forgotten art but one that is absolutely necessary in each and every one of us. Too often those barricades against our cherished beliefs go up long before we have understood what is being said.
Patricia Ryan | 14 May 2009

How can you rationally explain the immaculate conception, which is gynaecologically impossible and the resurrection, which is physically impossible?
D M Cunningham | 07 September 2012


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