Saturday, December 13, 2008

Benedict at Regensburg

"Jihad injures reason, for it honors a god who suffers no constraints on his caprice, unlike the Judeo-Christian god, who is limited by love. That is the nub of Pope Benedict XVI's September 12 [2006] address in Regensburg, Germany." So wrote internet gadfly Spengler, only a week after Benedict's address, in Jihad, the Lord's Supper, and Eternal Life. Robert Reilly, writing at about the same time in Crisis magazine (The Pope and the Prophet), had a similar reaction: "Finally, a leader has spoken about the real, essential differences in the struggle between the West and Islam ..."

Benedict's now famous address at Regensburg bore the title "Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization." While Spengler, Reilly and most other commentators focused on what they saw as Benedict's critique of Islam's vision of God--which Benedict presented through a quotation from "the dialog carried on ... by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both"--there was, in fact, far more in Benedict's address than met most eyes at the time.

Benedict, as is now well known, has made the theme of the recovery of reason a key project for his papacy, for he sees the recovery of reason as essential for the spiritual recovery of the West. Benedict shares the quite conventional interpretation of the West as "a rapprochement between biblical faith and Greek inquiry." The very identity of the West resides in this "rapprochement," and the spiritual crisis of the West lies precisely in this, that these two indispensable elements of the Western spirit have been sundered by what Benedict calls the "Program of De-Hellenization."

No doubt Benedict may have been happy to clarify those "essential differences" between Christianity and Islam that Reilly refers to, but his address was far more than facile Muslim bashing. But if contrasting Christianity and Islam was not Benedict's primary purpose, then why did he plunge into the question of Islam at the very outset of his address?

Benedict explains his motives by first noting that the point he is addressing in the dialog between the erudite emperor and an educated Persian is "rather marginal to the dialog itself." He then adds that this particular point in the dialog provides a convenient starting point for the entire issue of "faith and reason," which is what he was and is most concerned to address.

Benedict begins his address by reflecting briefly on his own professorial career, a high point in his life. A characteristic of that period, which he looks back to with great fondness, was the regular and wide ranging dialog among professors of all disciplines which took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect for reason on all sides of the many issues that arose at the university. He specifically notes that this collegial dialog included both believers and non-believers. From this reflection, Benedict moves to the dialog between the Byzantine emperor and the educated Persian, a Muslim. For Benedict, the key point that the Emperor makes is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. This is a succinct expression of the orthodox Christian position: nothing that is contrary to reason can be God's will. Benedict expresses his view that this characteristic tenet of the Christian religion was reached after a lengthy period of development in the Old Testament, which included the influence of Greek thought and its spirit of rational inquiry. This view of God reached its ultimate expression in the famous words of the Prologue to John's Gospel: The Word (logos) was God. The Greek word logos carried a wide range of meanings, including "reason" (this etymology is seen in our word "logic"), so for Christians God is by nature reasonable. But this is not so for Muslims. For Muslims:
God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state 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 practice idolatry.
Put bluntly, good and bad are purely matters of God's will--his say so. Idolatry or adultery or murder are bad because God says so, and only because God says so. The slaughter of infidels in a jihad is good because God says so. There is no more to be said. Benedict offers no comment on the matter--he merely states the facts.

Among those facts, however, Benedict feels called to make the following admission and explanation:
In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God's "voluntas ordinata." Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.

This [voluntarism] gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.

As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language (cf. Lateran IV).

God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. ...
Now this is a bit of a can of worms--not least because Benedict omits the very relevant (and well known) intellectual history that leads up to Duns Scotus, as well as omitting the later developments that followed upon Scotus' ideas. We will therefore need to delve into this intellectual history if we are to grasp the significance of what Benedict is saying, but let us first be clear: Benedict is entirely correct that the teaching Church has always insisted--despite what highly honored theologians might say to the contrary--that God is knowable to our human intelligence through the things that God has created. Romans 1:18 has always been seen as the charter for Christian philosophy and natural law. Moreover, Benedict is also entirely correct that the spirit of official Church teaching opposes the notion that we somehow give greater glory to God by denigrating the greatness or goodness or capabilities of God's creatures. On the contrary, the authentic Christian spirit affirms that the greater man's accomplishments, the greater we see God to be.

That said, let's return to this matter of Duns Scotus. First of all, we need to be clear that Scotus was not just some obscure medieval thinker. On the contrary, he was one of the most eminent thinkers in Church history, a luminary of the Franciscan order who was known as the Doctor Subtilis for the subtlety and acuteness of his reasoning. Nor did Scotus emerge out of nowhere and subsequently vanish from history: he was nurtured in the Augustinian tradition of thought that has been the dominant tradition of Western thought and his influence continues to this day. The fact that both John Henry Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins were Scotists is an indication of Scotus' influence over the centuries as well as of his intellectual respectability within the Church (see Harold Weatherby's The Keen Delight for a discussion of these issues). Scotus remains the favored theologian of the large and influential Franciscan order. Seen in this light, it's both remarkable and gratifying that Benedict spoke so forthrightly in this regard, for what he is suggesting is that Scotus' thought gave rise to a voluntarism (from the Latin word voluntas, "will") that is formally the same as the most extreme Muslim currents of thought. And while official Church teaching has never adopted Scotus' voluntarism, neither has Scotus' teaching ever been formally condemned. In light of this, it behooves us to consider how, if the Church has always opposed a "sheer, impenetrable voluntarism," such a development was possible--and where has this development led?

I've said that Scotus was nurtured in the Augustinian tradition. To understand what that means we need to consider what Mircea Eliade termed the "archaic ontology" of archetypes and repetition. Briefly, for the man of traditional, pre-modern cultures, earthly existence is real only to the extent that it shares in the ultimate reality of divine or heavenly archetypes (patterns, models). Meaning or value is derivative: it is possessed in virtue of participation in the archetypal heavenly realities, and it is this relationship that myth--the characteristic mode of expression for archaic man-- is intended to explain. Myth in its "healthy" form (as Chesterton says) thus intends to express insight into the true structure of reality.

The archaic ontology did not die with archaic/traditional culture--it has continued to influence life and thought in the West even as the truths of archaic ontology (as expressed in myth) remain the spiritual life of traditional cultures around the world. In The Myth of the Eternal Return (Cosmos and History) Eliade identified one of the most important forms in which the archaic ontology has been transmitted to the Western tradition of higher culture and thought--Platonic philosophy:
it could be said that this 'primitive' ontology has a Platonic structure; and in that case Plato could be regarded as the outstanding philosopher of 'primitive mentality,' that is, as the thinker who succeeded in giving philosophic currency and validity to the modes of life and behavior of archaic humanity ... his great title to our admiration remains his effort to justify this vision of archaic humanity theoretically, through the dialectic means which the spirituality of his age made available to him (34-35).
A comparison of Plato's thought to archaic ontology will suffice to show the truth of Eliade's contention. Plato saw all earthly realities as unreal in themselves. For Plato, true reality resides in the heavenly Forms or Ideas, in which earthly realities--shadowy imitations of the true reality, as Plato expresses the matter in his Myth of the Cave--only participate. Whereas archaic man was content with the metaphorical expression of this insight into the structure of being, Plato sought a resolution to the puzzle that early Greek dialectic found in archaic ontology: if our knowledge, as far as we can tell, is only of the changeable and ultimately unreal objects of this world, how is it that man attains a knowledge that is necessarily and eternally true? How is it that man's knowledge of abstract and unchanging concepts--the Forms or Ideas--is derived from what is changing and material? For to know these ultimate realities, the archetypal Ideas, provides the true wisdom that alone can guide man reliably in a turbulent world.

Benedict in his address, failing to appreciate the origins of "philosophy" in myth, appears to view the development of both Israelite as well as Greek thought as a struggle to "vanquish and transcend myth:"
The mysterious name of God, revealed from the burning bush, a name which separates this God from all other divinities with their many names and declares simply that he is, already presents a challenge to the notion of myth, to which Socrates' attempt to vanquish and transcend myth stands in close analogy. Within the Old Testament, the process which started at the burning bush came to new maturity at the time of the Exile, when the God of Israel, an Israel now deprived of its land and worship, was proclaimed as the God of heaven and earth and described in a simple formula which echoes the words uttered at the burning bush: "I am."

This new understanding of God is accompanied by a kind of enlightenment, which finds stark expression in the mockery of gods who are merely the work of human hands (cf. Psalm 115). Thus, despite the bitter conflict with those Hellenistic rulers who sought to accommodate it forcibly to the customs and idolatrous cult of the Greeks, biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment evident especially in the later wisdom literature.
That Benedict's interpretation, which was conventional many decades ago, is simplistic at best is clear from Eliade's work: "the best of Greek thought" is in fact a transformation of the archaic ontology, an abstract, ideologized development of archaic ontology. To fail to discern this development from archaic ontology to philosophy is to misunderstand virtually the entire intellectual development of the West. Moreover, as N. T. Wright has shown in his analysis of Paul's letters, Paul's critique of Israel shows clearly that Israelite thought, too, remained firmly tied to the archaic ontology (cf. The Climax of the Covenant and Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire). Parenthetically, we may note that some Greeks at least had a more sensitive understanding of these issues. Aristotle himself wrote in a late letter: "The more I am by myself and alone, the more I have come to love myths," and in the Metaphysics (982b18-20) he noted: "the lover of myths [philomythos] is in a sense a lover of wisdom [philosophos]."

Now, of all the myths that Plato embedded within his dialogues the most influential has probably been the myth of anamnesis or recollection. Plato inherited from earlier Greek thinkers what has come to be known as the problem of the One and the Many. As Etienne Gilson has demonstrated (Being and Some Philosophers), this problem arises from what Gilson calls the "essentialist" nature of Greek thought: the tendency, under the influence of dialectic, to view Ideas or essences as "things," as what is "really real." There can be no doubt that this tendency gained strength from the application of dialectic to the mythic expressions of archaic man's ontology of archetypes, as we have seen. With regard to human knowledge this problem manifested itself in the problem that Plato faced of explaining how man is able to derive eternal, unchanging and necessary knowledge (Ideas) from the changing and contingent world of his experience. As is usual with Plato, when he is faced with an insoluble problem (insoluble as framed) he resorts to myth or a "likely explanation." Thus Plato attributes man's knowledge of eternal truths to anamnesis, our knowledge of the eternally true knowledge contained in the Ideas/Forms must have come from a recollection of ideas that was acquired in a prior life--our recollection of Ideas is then triggered by our sense experience without the realization that this knowledge is from a prior life.

This myth of anamnesis became part of the philosophical current of the Hellenistic world. It's debatable whether Plato regarded this myth precisely as myth--a "likely story" or metaphor--or whether he considered it to be a true theoretical explanation. What is certain is that the myth came in later ages to be treated as theory rather than myth or metaphor. Now, it should be clear that, treated as theory, this explanation of human knowledge has serious flaws, not least the fact that it cannot be verified or even corroborated in any way by human experience. In point of fact, all variants of Platonism have a natural bent toward skepticism because inherent in Platonism is the strong tendency to treat the Ideas (corresponding to the archetypes of archaic ontology) as alone possessing real "being," and the material world as tending toward non-being. All Platonisms therefore have a built-in theoretical difficulty in justifying a movement from knowledge of non-being toward knowledge of the Ideas: true being. For any school of thought that has been influenced by Platonism man's knowledge of material things is thus unreliable and has but a tenuous connection--if any--to the "real" world of Ideas. Not to put too fine a point on it, this Platonic influence leads to rank speculation untethered from objective experience. In fact, since it is our minds alone that form concepts in Platonic styles of thought, the usual product of Platonic styles of thought is a rigid body/soul or body/mind dualism, with experience being viewed as inherently subjective.

Importantly for our purposes, Augustine was greatly influenced by Platonic thought (mainly through the medium of the Neoplatonist thinker Plotinus). It is not too much to say that Augustine regarded this type of thought to be a body of valid knowledge to be quarried when the need arose for the Christian thinker. Of course Augustine recognized that Platonic thought also contained ideas that were unacceptable for the Christian, but his overall approach was to assume that Platonism as he knew it was largely correct and compatible with Christianity. So it's no surprise that Augustine basically baptized the myth of anamnesis, by inserting God in place of recollection. Thus, according to Augustine, God illumines our minds with appropriate Ideas upon the occasion of our sense knowledge. Etienne Gilson, in his History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, succinctly notes the general tendency of Augustine's thought:
The philosophical doctrine of Saint Augustine had largely been a neoplatonist answer to the semi-skepticism in which he himself had lived for some time ... His Contra Academicos, written shortly after his conversion, was a refutation of the skepticism of the New Academy ... Moreover, the Augustinian refutation of these arguments rested upon the acceptance of a Platonic conception of human knowledge which granted to the skeptics at least part of their own arguments. (p. 447)
Despite its manifest weaknesses as theory, this doctrine of divine illumination was widely accepted wherever Augustinian thought gained currency, which is to say, throughout most of the Middle Ages in the schools of the West. Indeed, as Gilson notes, one of the most often-quoted conclusions of Augustine, after 1255, was that "no pure truth can be expected from sensation." Certainly the most prominent medieval proponent of divine illumination was Bonaventure, a General of the Franciscan Order and a saint and Doctor of the Church. Gilson, in an illuminating passage in The Unity of Philosophical Experience, describes the motivations behind Bonaventure's adoption of Augustine's doctrine of "divine illumination." Note, in what follows, the similarity to Islamic thought as sketched by Benedict.

Gilson first observes that, for Bonaventure, the mark of truly pious souls (and for Bonaventure, it is piety that counts most, rather than philosophical accuracy) is that "they claim nothing for themselves, but ascribe everything to God (p. 41)." Thus, in discussing what is to be ascribed to grace and what to nature, Bonaventure maintains that
"however much you ascribe to the grace of God, you will not harm piety by doing so, even though, by ascribing to the grace of God as much as you can, you may eventually wrong the natural powers and the free will of man. If, on the contrary, you wrong grace by crediting nature with what belongs to grace, there is danger."
And he concludes that the safe course is therefore to ascribe more to grace. Now, for a person with this mindset, the idea that the human mind should by its own power be able to gain access to the world of the eternal Ideas was an unthinkable infringement upon the Divine. Therefore, it was only natural that Bonaventure would readily agree with Augustine that
"truth being necessary, unchangeable, and eternal, it cannot be the work of a contingent, mutable and impermanent human mind interpreting unnecessary, changeful, and fleeting things []. Even in our own minds truth is a sharing of some of the highest attributes of God; consequently, even in our minds, truth is an immediate effect of the light of God (pp. 43-44)."
Gilson goes on to describe what should be readily apparent: that this doctrine of divine illumination--pious as it may sound--is utterly destructive of natural human knowledge and, therefore, of human freedom, since human freedom is contingent upon actual and effective knowledge of reality. Thus, divine illumination--pious as it may sound--strikes at the heart of Christian faith. Small wonder then, that, having acknowledged that Augustine was a "star of the first magnitude" in terms of influence, the historian David Knowles observed that "[i]f Augustine was a second Bible to the dark and middle ages, he was all but the gospel of the three great heresies, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Jansenism ..." Not coincidentally, all of these heresies exhibit the same concern to exalt the greatness and power of God by depreciating human nature and the role of man in his own destiny.

The weaknesses of divine illumination as a theory were, of course, too manifest to escape criticism. The problem that arose was how to find a solid alternative. To do so logically required stepping outside the circle of Augustinian tradition, with its Platonic bias against the reliability and value of knowledge derived from the senses:
So long as a master adhered to the doctrine of the divine illumination, he could distrust sense knowledge without falling into skepticism; his certitude came to him from on high, not from sensations. When the doctrine of the divine illumination began to give way and was replaced with the empiricism of Aristotle, it became necessary to find another protection against the arguments of the skeptics. A direct justification of the trustworthiness of sense cognition became necessary. Duns Scotus will provide such a justification in the very question in which he will do away with the Augustinian doctrine of the divine illumination ... It is worthy of note that ... the Platonic elements carried by Augustinianism always exhibited a tendency to spread a certain skepticism with respect to the validity of sense cognition. There always was a danger that this skepticism might outlive its Platonic refutation, and in the fourteenth century it did. (History, p. 447)
Now, in fairness to Scotus, we should note that he did not follow traditional Augustinian teaching blindly. Scotus did not earn the sobriquet Doctor Subtilis for nothing, and Gilson is quick to point out Scotus' acute awareness of the nature of the problem:
By all Franciscan tradition Duns Scotus should have taken up the cudgels against St. Thomas and voiced the suspicion thrown on the sensible by the Augustinians of his Order; but judging the position to be philosophically untenable, he purely and simply rejected it [divine illumination], reserving the right to find some other means of saving whatever truth there is in St. Augustine's doctrine. (The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, p. 240)
Nevertheless, for all Scotus' acute intellect and efforts, he was unable to overcome this powerful tendency in the Augustinian tradition. Despite his clear rejection of divine illumination and his commitment to a justification of sense cognition,
Duns Scotus' whole noetic tends to strengthen as much as possible the independence of the intellect in respect of the sensible order. ... Throughout all [Scotus'] emendations of Augustine's doctrine a vein of Augustinianism persists; sense knowledge is never anything more for him than the "occasion" of intellectual knowledge. (The Spirit..., p. 241)
David Knowles comes to the same basic conclusion:
in the realm of pure philosophy Duns, in reacting against a rigid, cramping, physical interpretation of Aristotle, did in fact narrow the capacity of the unaided human intelligence. (p. 281)
Any doctrine of human knowledge that casts such a degree of doubt on man's ability to come to real grips with the world in which he lives and with the nature of human life and action as experienced in bodily existence is bound to seriously affect moral and ethical theory. The movement from one position to the other may not appear to be inevitable, but the tendency is in practice well nigh irresistible. With reason, therefore, it is to this tendency in the spirit of the Augustinian tradition to depreciate nature and to exalt and extend the action of grace--as if this were a tribute to the Creator--that Benedict referred when he observed: "God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism ..." And it was undoubtedly this spirit that led Scotus to give priority to the will over the intellect, thus laying the foundation for that voluntarism, the dangers of which Benedict decries.

While Scotus did at least perceive the dangers of traditional Augustinian theories of knowledge, another late medieval Franciscan thinker, William of Occam, not only took the voluntarist tendency to new extremes, but also extended the Augustinian tendency to exalt the power of God at the expense of God's creation in the direction of a thoroughgoing skepticism: Nominalism. The result was that in Nominalist theology as it developed up to the time of the Reformation, man was increasingly viewed as an isolated subject incapable of satisfactory communication with either God or his fellow man and dependent for salvation upon an unknowable and arbitrary God who bore little relation to the traditional Christian view of God. Here is Louis Bouyer's judgment on Nominalism, in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism:
What, in fact, is the essential characteristic of Occam's thought, and of nominalism in general, but a radical empiricism, reducing all being to what is perceived, which empties out, with the idea of substance, all possibility of real relations between beings, as well as the stable subsistence of any of them, and ends by denying to the real any intelligibility, conceiving God himself only as a Protean figure impossible to apprehend? (p. 184-5)

... certain systems of thought, such as nominalism, make the mystery of Christianity, the mystery of a God Creator and Redeemer, either inconceivable or absurd. Once this system is admitted, as it was by everyone at the end of the Middle Ages, either we reject the God, "Creator and Father of our Lord Jeus Christ," or, if we still admit him, we do so on such terms that he appears a monster repugnant both to common sense and to moral feeling ... (p. 197)
And yet, such were the dynamics set in play by the Augustinian tradition that, by the time of the Reformation, nominalism had long since become the standard scholastic form of thought throughout the philosophical and theological faculties of European universities. While Benedict doesn't even hint at the widespread acceptance of nominalism within the Church--instead, briefly assuring his audience that "the faith of the Church" "always" opposed these trends--he does succinctly capture the danger, comparing these trends to the most extreme forms of Islam:
This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.
At this point it may be well to recap the ground we've covered. We've seen that Benedict views the spirit of the West as a rapprochement between "biblical faith" and "Greek inquiry," the latter of which terms he appears to identify with pure "reason," the former with pure "religion" or "faith."  To the contrary, however, we have also seen that Greek inquiry in fact resulted from the application of dialectic to the archaic ontology of archetypes that underlays the myths of traditional "religion"--including Israelite thought and religion. Moreover, in the Platonic tradition that was transmitted to the West (via Neoplatonism and Augustine), this ontology of archetypes was preserved in the philosophy of Ideas and Forms that became part of the dominant Augustinian tradition, as well as in the fascination with dialectic. The history of Greek inquiry, reason, in the West reveals that it remained intimately if unconsciously tied to the religious and not merely the philosophical spirit of ancient Greece--and we will see that this has remained the case in modern times. (We will not address "biblical faith" here--and, be it noted, Benedict is not forthcoming about the meaning that he attaches to this term--but a very brief perusal of the Old Testament should assure one that the sacred writers were not unfamiliar with reasoned inquiry regarding religious matters, even before they came under the influence of Hellenism.)

In the summary that follows I'll be relying on the excellent Epilogue to Knowles' The Evolution of Medieval Thought for structure. This will serve as an introduction to a consideration of at least the early stages of what Benedict considers to be the program of "de-Hellenization" in the West.

Knowles begins by observing that the history of medieval thought is largely the account of Christianity's encounter with and gradual reception of Greek thought, which came to the medieval world in two forms: Platonic and Aristotelian. As we noted above, the Platonic element came largely through the medium of Neoplatonism. This type of thought was favored from an early date among Church intellectuals--not surprisingly, since late pre-Christian Jewish thought (such as that of Philo) was heavily influenced by these same currents of Greek thought. In the Latin West, Augustine was the preeminent transmitter of Platonism (largely in its Plotinian form) to the Christian world. This is not to say, of course, that Aristotle was not an influence from an early date, as well. However, the influence of Aristotle in the earlier Middle Ages was largely confined to his works on logic (Gilson's The Unity of Philosophical Experience provides an excellent account of the influence of dialectic on medieval thought).

And yet, as the other major works of Aristotle became known to the West--his works on Metaphysics, Physics, and the Soul--after an initial period of cautious acceptance and integration there was a strong reaction from supporters of the Augustinian tradition, culminating in a series of condemnations of teachings that were clearly considered to be Aristotelian in inspiration. Knowles quotes Gilson's summary of the effect of these condemnations:
After 1277 [the year that the Bishop of Paris issued a wide ranging condemnation], the aspect of the whole of medieval thought is changed. After a brief honeymoon theology and philosophy think they see that their marriage was a mistake. While waiting for the decree of divorce, which is not long in coming, they proceed to divide their effects. Each resumes possession of its own problems, and warns the other against interference.
What are we to conclude from this? There are several points. First, while I have avoided mention of Thomas Aquinas to this point, there was little doubt that much of the animus exhibited by the Augustinians against "philosophy" was motivated by their opposition to Thomas' ideas--indeed, there is ample reason to believe that Bonaventure himself was behind some of the most intemperate attacks on Thomas. These attacks focused broadly on what could be termed Thomas' naturalism: the view that Thomas' anthropology made man too autonomous, and thus offended the dignity and the power of God, seeming to limit the freedom of God (Knowles, p. 249). Of course, Thomas has been amply rehabilitated by the official Church, but opposition to Thomas--often characterized among modern writers simply as opposition to "scholasticism," with which grab bag designation Thomas is associated--has continued to the present. Some might say, especially to the present. In his autobiographical Salt of the Earth, Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) spoke eloquently of his detestation of all things "scholastic" and his love for Augustine and Bonaventure. This is a consistent theme in Benedict's writing and we shall have occasion to return to it shortly.  (Benedict also resorts to terminology drawn from Kant, who in many respects represents the culmination of the Augustinian tradition.)

Second, it is remarkable that Benedict doesn't cite these Thirteenth Century events as a first stage in the "program of de-Hellenization." The "divorce" of philosophy and theology in the aftermath of 1277 would appear to be a textbook example of "de-Hellenization," but instead Benedict refers to the Reformation as the first stage. The reason for this seeming anomaly may lie in the fact that in several respects a close study of these Thirteenth Century events calls into question what could be termed Benedict's sacred cows. For example, according to Benedict's paradigm the Reformation marks the first stage in de-Hellenization; up to that point--with the relatively minor (according to Benedict) matter of voluntarism--the West had experienced a wonderful rapprochement between Greek inquiry and biblical faith, a "synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit." Benedict even refers to "the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas," in contrast to the voluntarism of Scotus. Unfortunately, this irenic account doesn't square with historical facts.

As we have seen, up to the late Thirteenth Century, the "synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit" had largely been a synthesis between Neoplatonism and Christianity, mediated by Augustine, as if Neoplatonism and "the Greek spirit" are coterminous. The resulting synthesis--the Augustinian tradition--has, over nearly two millenia of Western history, unquestionably been the dominant tradition of thought within the Catholic Church. Yet as Knowles observed, contained within that synthesis were tendencies--not, be it noted, sanctioned by official teaching, but powerful nonetheless--which would later lead to the breakup of this synthesis and the slide into skepticism.

Thomas' thought, which Knowles rightly characterizes as "an essentially original system of metaphysics," attacked that Augustinian synthesis on several key points, but also strongly opposed the divorce of philosophy and theology. Thus, in what might seem to some to be a paradox, we will see that Benedict's first stage in the program of de-Hellenization--the Reformation--is inspired by an Augustinian tradition that is steeped in the Hellenist spirit of Neoplatonism, which the Augustinian tradition had confused with the true Christian spirit. And, as we have seen, this tradition uses reason to attack reason, to argue for fideism! (Knowles notes that the break was never complete within the Church as a whole, and that the revised "Thomism" of the Counter Reformation did much to restore the union.) It is understandable, in some respects, that Benedict should wish to reconcile Thomas and Augustine in a common "intellectualism" and to establish some distance between Augustine and the dominant Augustinian tradition in the West, yet it is ultimately not possible. As we move forward to consider Benedict's theory of the program of de-Hellenization we will have reason to consider once again the actual nature of this sythesis.

Finally, we need to emphasize that the breakup of the "synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit" involved disagreements within the Church based on two schools of thought that were influenced by two forms of the Hellenist spirit: the Platonic spirit of Augustinianism and the Aristotelean spirit of Thomas (with this caveat, that Gilson makes the strong case that Thomas' thought is deeply compatible with Israelite thought). It will not do to blame the Reformers solely nor to pretend that voluntarism and nominalism were marginal movements. Equally importantly, however, we must take seriously the fact, now well established, that Thomism, for all its Aristotelean vocabulary, is "an essentially original system of metaphysics" that is committed to the union of faith and reason.

We are now in a position to consider Benedict's theory of de-Hellenization. Benedict first frames the issue generally:
The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a de-Hellenization of Christianity -- a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age. Viewed more closely, three stages can be observed in the program of de-Hellenization: Although interconnected, they are clearly distinct from one another in their motivations and objectives.
Having already discussed the reality that this process began in the Thirteenth Century, we now move to Benedict's first example:
De-Hellenization first emerges in connection with the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the 16th century. Looking at the tradition of scholastic theology, the 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.
Now "scholastic" theology is a very broad term, covering as it does five or more centuries of Christian thought in the West. As is well known, many of the currents of thought that fall within this period and which were presented in a "scholastic" style were very much at odds with one another--we have already discussed the opposition of the Augustinian tradition (which was itself by no means a monolothic body of thought) to Thomism as well as to other more or less Aristotelean schools of thought. Importantly for our purposes, we also briefly mentioned the fact that by the time of the Reformation "nominalism" was far and away the type of theology and philosophy that dominated the European universities. Luther, an Augustinian monk, was trained in nominalism (the latest expression of the Augustinian tradition).

As we have seen, nominalism, taken to its extreme, tended strongly toward a thoroughgoing skepticism. When combined with Christian faith, it tended toward extreme voluntarism, which emphasized the power and majesty of God, and the hopelessness of ever gaining knowledge of God through reason. This type of nominalism was congenial to the new and increasingly popular religious interpretation of Augustine which emphasized the most pessimistic tendencies in Augustine's thought. And Luther's anguished soul sought an escape from this bizarre parody of true Christianity. As MacCulloch expresses it: "[Luther's] whole later career represented a rebellion against ... scholastic nominalist theology and philosophy ..." In Bouyer's words, nominalism had created a "strange and despairing universe" in which we find "a God forbidden to communicate himself to his creature" and "man unable, even by the divine omnipotence, to be torn from his own solitude, from the autonomy of his so arrogant humility ..." In other words, what the Reformation to a great degree represents is a basically Augustinian religious spirit rebelling against the reductio ad absurdam of the Augustinian tradition in philosophy. It is Hellenism rebelling against Hellenism, albeit in Christian guise. Unfortunately, Luther's "escape" was, in fact, a retreat into an essentially Augustinian fideism: sola fide.

But there is another equally important consequence. Benedict writes:
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 program 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.
In orthodox Catholic thought "faith" is essentially reasoned belief. In a philosophy like nominalism, on the other hand, in which God is essentially unknowable by reason and good and evil are mere expressions of the will of God, this view of faith is no longer tenable. And yet, we can from a purely emotional standpoint understand the dilemma of troubled souls: if nominalism tells us that God is inaccessible to reason, what are we to do in a threatening world--recall Luther's dictum that the world is an inn and the devil is the innkeeper!  For many, "philosophy," which they equated with nominalism, was the enemy of the human spirit, the invention that robbed man of peace of mind and soul. Many in that spiritual climate were willing to accept Luther's basically nominalist solution: place your faith in the "biblical Word," which Benedict appears to describe as "faith in its pure, primordial form."

But observe what has become of the word "faith." It's the same word, but the meaning has changed drastically: from reasoned belief it has now become subjective conviction! All well and good, in a social environment in which religion is essentially equated with Christianity of some sort or other, but what happens when social constraints relax and critical opinion accepts the new Protestant meaning of "faith" as subjective conviction? All religion will be discredited as mere subjective prejudice or escapism, unless those who inquire into the matter are unusually diligent students of the history of thought. And history has shown that few of that new breed called public intellectuals are. One is left to wonder what Benedict could possibly mean by "faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word," which appears to express a fundamentally Protestant understanding of "faith." Seen from this standpoint, the Reformation occurred in the context of the breakdown of Augustinian philosophy (Gilson, Knowles) that had used reason to discredit reason--"faith" based on the principle of sola scriptura is not so much a rejection of reason (de-Hellenization) as a seeking for the certitude that reason itself (in the form of the dominant Augustinian tradition of philosophy) had proclaimed that it was no longer able to provide.

Certainly Benedict is correct to link Kant to this type of subjectivism, cast adrift from "reality as a whole," for Kant's thought is perhaps the culmination of the Augustinian tradition--a convulsive but unsuccessful effort to free itself of the ravages that Augustinian thought itself had wrought in the West. For while Protestantism is the victory of the Augustinian religious spirit (as MacCulloch maintains), Kantianism in its essence is a secularized version of Augustine's theory of knowledge. Whereas for Augustine our knowledge of necessary truth is provided by direct illumination of our minds by God, Kant removes God from the scheme and posits "categories of the mind," which impose a necessary order on our experience of ... we know not what. This has been one of the most influential transmutations of the Platonic quest to guarantee the certainty of our knowledge in an uncertain world.

Turning to Benedict's second stage of de-Hellenization, Harnack's attack on a supposed Hellenistic Christianity, we find similar misunderstandings, as well as clues to the reality of what took place. Benedict first observes that those Catholic theologians who were enthused by Harnack were inspired by Pascal's famous distinction:
The liberal theology of the 19th and 20th centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of de-Hellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this program was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal's distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Now, the philosophy that Pascal first embraced in his younger days and then dismissed as "useless and uncertain" was none other than that of Descartes. Like that of Kant, the thought of Descartes amounts to a streamlined version of Augustinian thought--in fact, no less a person than the philosopher/politician Rocco Buttiglione (a favorite of John Paul II) has stated that Descartes was a "misunderstood Augustinian." Just as Kant would later do, Descartes introduced a new mechanism for Augustine's "divine illumination." As with Kant, the mind itself would be the source of our certitude, in the form of a few innate, clear and distinct ideas that would serve as the basis for further deductions. As with every attempt of this sort, the end result of Descartes' venture was to discredit reason rather than assure our knowledge of eternal verities.

For Pascal, philosophy was Descartes. Thus, when Pascal lost confidence in Descartes, he considered that he had lost confidence in philosophy. This is, perhaps, too facile a characterization, since in religious matters Pascal was above all a supremely talented polemicist, whose ideas defy precise systematization. It is certainly true, however, that his understanding of "instinct" or "heart" approaches Descartes notion of innate ideas. The point, however, is that Pascal's thought is unquestionably one more step in the history of the Augustinian tradition and his dispute with "philosophy" is an intra-Augustinian dispute. Thus, his repudiation of philosophy and reason, which Benedict treats as a stage in the program of de-Hellenization, fails to account for reason as it is developed in the Christian philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. In other words, the example of Pascal is one more example demonstrating that what Benedict calls "de-Hellenization" is actually a rejection not so much of reason itself but of the broad Platonic tradition of reason (rooted in archaic ontology) mistaken for the embodiment of reason.

Benedict continues:
In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959, I tried to address the issue. I will not repeat here what I said on that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was new about this second stage of de-Hellenization. Harnack's 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 favor of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message.

The fundamental goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament restored to theology its place within the university: Theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific. What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university.
This, I believe, is an illustration of one of the deepest conflicts in Benedict's thought: on the one hand, Benedict understands that historical-critical exegesis is absolutely necessary and fundamental--a characteristically Thomist position; on the other hand, he appears to believe that such exegesis is fundamentally and somehow irrevocably linked to Harnack's second stage of de-Hellenization, and thus contains within it a tendency that is antithetical to faith. Benedict is unable to overcome his distaste for "scholasticism," and cannot conceive of a philosophy that finds no conflict between reason and revelation, but his perhaps fatal error is to identify the "Greek spirit of inquiry" with the Augustinian tradition and its preferred typological/allegorical exegesis. He clearly fears that Thomism and the historical-critical method are a mortal threat to this type of exegesis that he loves, even as he understands that a Catholic theology that rests on allegory will be discredited in the eyes of the modern world. And ultimately this fear rests upon the belief that an historical approach to theology will lead to relativism. Yet, Thomism logically embraces history, as did God himself in Jesus.

I will not address Benedict's third stage of de-Hellenization, that of cultural pluralism, which I regard as intellectually trivial.


It is at the point that Benedict shifts from his discussion of the dialog between the Emperor and the learned Persian and matters of Islamic thought that we begin to get a glimpse of the true nature of his concerns, which center upon the theme of a recovery of reason as the key to resolving the spiritual crisis of the West:
God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love "transcends" knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Ephesians 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is logos. Consequently, Christian worship is "logic latreía" -- worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Romans 12:1).
For now let's focus on two points. First, in this brief passage Benedict presents God as having revealed himself as logos, the embodiment of reason and intelligibility, even going so far as to call Christian worship "logic latreía." This revelation as logos, says Benedict, is the culmination of a development that began in the Jewish scriptures and reaches full expression in the Prologue to the Gospel of John. The upshot of this revelation is that the proper goal of man is to act in accordance with reason (to be perfect as our heavenly Father is ...) rather than to embrace an "impenetrable voluntarism," for by following our reason we are in harmony with the Eternal word that is God. Our love of God is precisely love of that God who embodies reason and intelligibility, and it is for this very reason that the Christian vocation of the theologian involves inquiry into what Benedict calls "the reasonableness of faith." The Christian faith has always held that God who is the logos and creates through the logos is accessible, according to the mode of the human intellect, to human reason. Having created according to the logos, God loves his creation for a reason: he sees that it is good.

Second, in light of Benedict's comments, Spengler's notion that "the Judeo-Christian god ... is limited by love" is seen not only to have missed Benedict's point and to be unwarranted by anything that Benedict actually said, but to be essentially question begging. For the God who is reason itself, who has revealed himself as logos, cannot love without reason--to do so would reveal the "Judeo-Christian god" to be as capricious as is the God of Islam. Indeed, love without (or even counter to) reason is not love at all. In his own commentary on Benedict's address, "The Pope and the Prophet," Robert Reilly raises these points (I have transposed the order of some of the quoted passages).

As Benedict makes clear, the reason Christianity was insulated from an obsession with God’s omnipotence was the revelation of Christ as Logos in the Gospel of John. If Christ is Logos—if God introduces Himself as ratio—then God is not only all-powerful, He is the fullness of intelligibility.

It is the approach to God through the concept of power--what Reilly refers to as "an obsession with God’s omnipotence"--that leads to a capricious God. That is the God of Islam, but it is also (to differing extents) the God of certain strands of Jewish thought (Reilly cites Judah ha-Levi) as well as certain strands of Christian thought--Calvin comes immediately to mind, but this tendency is not unknown to Catholics, either. This is not to say, of course, that all these types of religious thought are identical, but it is to say that they share a very similar dynamism and direction. Reilly continues:
In addition, Christian revelation claims that everything was created through Christ as Logos. Since it was through Logos that all things were created, creation carries the imprint of its creator as reason. Nature bespeaks an intelligibility that derives from a transcendent source. Benedict recently reiterated this view when he referred to the “world as a product of creative reason.” The laws of nature are not a challenge to God’s authority but an expression of it. Reason and Christian revelation are compatible.
In fact, reason and Christian revelation are not only "compatible," they are inseparable, for Christian faith is not a blind, willed adherence to propositions but a reasoned belief in the historic self-revelation of God in Jesus. This leads Reilly to further reflect:
The metaphysical support for natural law ... also provided the basis for the gradual development of constitutional government. The primacy of power in Islamic thought undermined a similar prospect. If one does not allow for the existence of secondary causes [the orthodox Islamic view], one cannot develop natural law. If one cannot develop natural law, one cannot conceive of a constitutional political order in which man—through his reason—creates laws to govern himself and behave freely. Because democracies base their political order on reason and free will, and leave in play questions that Islamists believe have been definitively settled by revelation, Islamists regard democracies as their natural and fatal enemies.

The curious thing is that it does not matter whether one’s view of reality as pure will has its origin in a deformed theology or a totally secular ideology, such as Hegel’s or Hobbes’s: The political consequences are the same. As Rev. James V. Schall has shown, the notion of pure will as the basis of reality results in tyrannical rule. Disordered will, unfettered by right reason, is the political problem.

Radical Muslims translate their version of God’s omnipotence into a politics of unlimited power. As God’s instruments, they are channels for this power. Once the primacy of force is posited, terrorism becomes the next logical step to power, as it did in the 20th-century secular ideologies of power: Nazism and Marxism–Leninism.
Reilly's reference to the Islamic view of man as a mere instrumentality of an omnipotent but unknowable God points up the stark contrast between Islamic thought and orthodox Catholic thought. For the Catholic, God in Jesus has made man a co-heir (in Paul's phrase) and thus a cooperator in his own redemption--an exalted (and responsible) status, indeed! But this status is made possible based on the fact that "creation carries the imprint of its creator [logos] as reason." As Catholic thought has always held, it is man's intellect that constitutes man as made in God's image.

Backtracking, Reilly ties much of this together in an earlier passage, by contrasting the Islamic view to the orthodox Catholic view of man's vocation, as it was taught to generations of Catholics in the catechism:
Compare this relationship to the standard definition of a Christian vocation, which is expressed in this logical order: to know, to love, and to serve God. First, knowledge of God is required. How can one love what one does not know? Of course, it is assumed that a finite creature such as man can only comprehend a small part of an infinite God, but he can know enough to inspire love. God is knowable. If one knows God, then one loves Him because God is goodness. In turn, the impulse of that love is to serve. One is naturally drawn to serve what one loves. The expression of this vocation is internally coherent and logically ordered. It is based upon a certain view of who God is and how man is capable of freely responding to Him through the use of his reason and free will.
This, of course, is the Christian view of man, but it derives from the Christian view of God. None of this would be possible in a universe that was the plaything of an omnipotent and unknowable god--as Reilly has demonstrated. What is important to note, however, is that Spengler's substitution of a god who is limited by "love" leads to essentially the same position as the Islamic view of the omnipotent god, in the sense that there is no rational basis for preferring love to omnipotence. The Christian cannot allow himself to be seduced by "love" that is not guided by reason.

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