NEITHER KANT NOR HEGEL. BETTER PAUL IN ATHENS
by Francesco Arzillo
"I think that the final part of the unforgettable address by Benedict XVI at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris on September 12, 2008 could offer a decisive key for understanding succinctly - but also retrospectively - the true core of the thought of the “pope theologian.” "These are his exact words:
The fundamental structure of Christian proclamation “outwards” – towards searching and questioning mankind – is seen in Saint Paul’s address at the Areopagus. We should remember that the Areopagus was not a form of academy at which the most illustrious minds would meet for discussion of lofty matters, but a court of justice, which was competent in matters of religion and ought to have opposed the import of foreign religions. This is exactly what Paul is reproached for: “he seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” (Acts 17:18). To this, Paul responds: I have found an altar of yours with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god’. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (17:23). Paul is not proclaiming unknown gods. He is proclaiming him whom men do not know and yet do know – the unknown-known; the one they are seeking, whom ultimately they know already, and who yet remains the unknown and unrecognizable. The deepest layer of human thinking and feeling somehow knows that he must exist, that at the beginning of all things, there must be not irrationality, but creative Reason – not blind chance, but freedom.It’s instructive to read Paul’s actual words (Acts 17:16-31) and compare them to Ratzinger’s selective and tendentious presentation:
While Paul waited for them in Athens he became irritated because he saw how full the city was of idols. So he entered into discussions with the Jews and the Gentile believers in the synagogue and every day with whoever happened to be in the marketplace. Now some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers met him and some of them said, "What in the world is he trying to say, with his disconnected bits of knowledge?" While others said, "He seems to be a preacher of foreign gods," because Paul was proclaiming Jesus and the resurrection. So they took him and led him to the Areopagus and said, "May we know what this new teaching is that you're preaching?" Some of these things you're saying are strange to our ears, so we'd like to know what they mean"--all the Athenians and foreign residents did nothing with their free time but talk about and listen to the latest new ideas.
So Paul stood up in the middle of the Areopagus and said, "I can see that you Athenians are extremely religious, for as I walked about and observed your places of worship I also found an altar on which was written, 'To the unknown god.' What you worship without knowing is what I proclaim to you. For God Who made the world and everything in it--the Lord of heaven and earth--does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor does He need anything we can do for Him since He gave life and breath to everyone and everything. [Is 42:5] From one man He made every nation that dwells on the face of the earth, after determining the exact periods and boundaries for their dwelling places, so that by groping about after Him they might search for and find God, for He isn't far from any of us. 'In Him we live and move and exist,' as some of your poets have said, 'For we too are His offspring.' So since we are God's offspring we shouldn't regard images of silver and gold and stone--which bear the stamp of human skill and imagination--as being divine. God has overlooked our periods of ignorance and now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has fixed the day on which He will judge the whole world with justice through the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all of us by raising that man from the dead."Contrary to what Ratzinger states, Paul is not being reproached--the Greeks are curious. Further, Paul isn't telling the Greeks something that is totally foreign to them. Nevertheless, while the Greeks were likely aware of Jewish notions of creation—“God who made the world and everything in it”--this was a view that was explicitly rejected by Greek thought and all thinking in the “classical” world (cf. Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture). Paul recognizes this with his reference to their “ignorance”: contrary, again, to what Ratzinger states, Paul is not saying that all men know God in some way—only that if they “search” they are capable of finding God. In other words, we see here in Acts that, in speaking to Gentiles, Paul is presenting in short form an articulate natural theology or metaphysics—one that was probably familiar to most Jews of the time and which we will see Paul substantially repeat in his Letter to the Romans. Aquinas, too, echoes these ideas at the beginning of his Summa Theologiae when he maintains, not that all men already know God, but that while it’s possible to come to a relatively clear notion of God by the use of reason, it's likely that most men will reach mistaken conclusions or that their correct conclusions will be mixed with errors. Ratzinger has misrepresented the true import of what Paul was saying and bent him to his own purposes—purposes that were foreign to Paul and have been foreign to the Christian theological tradition throughout history. Until now.
The author presents a second paragraph drawn from the same address by Ratzinger, and once again we will contrast Ratzinger's words with what Paul actually wrote, this time in his Letter to the Romans.
Yet even though all men somehow know this, as Paul expressly says in the Letter to the Romans (1:21), this knowledge remains unreal: a God who is merely imagined and invented is not God at all. If he does not reveal himself, we cannot gain access to him. The novelty of Christian proclamation is that it can now say to all peoples: he has revealed himself. He personally. And now the way to him is open. The novelty of Christian proclamation does not consist in a thought, but in a deed: God has revealed himself. Yet this is no blind deed, but one which is itself "Logos" – the presence of eternal reason in our flesh. "Verbum caro factum est" (Jn 1:14): just so, amid what is made (factum) there is now "Logos", "Logos" is among us. Creation (factum) is rational. Naturally, the humility of reason is always needed, in order to accept it: man’s humility, which responds to God’s humility.And now Paul:
God's wrath is revealed from heaven against all the wickedness and evil of those who obstruct the truth by their evil, because what can be known about God is evident to them, since God has revealed it to them. For from the creation of the world God's invisible attributes--His eternal power and divine nature--have been accessible to the understanding through the things that God made, and so they have no excuse. Although they knew God they didn't honor Him as God or give Him thanks; instead, their reasoning became foolish and their senseless hearts were darkened. They claimed they were wise but they became foolish, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image in the likeness of mortal man, birds, four footed animals, or reptiles. And so God handed them over to the impure desires in their hearts, which led them to the degrade their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for falsehood, they worshipped and served creatures instead of the Creator, Who is blessed forever, amen. (Romans 1:18-25)Here again Ratzinger’s interpretation is off the mark. While Paul is indeed presenting a thumbnail sketch of his natural theology—God as the Creator is knowable from the visible things of his creation—the main emphasis here is a moral one. Paul’s point is not that the Gentiles know God but that the knowledge “remains unreal” because it is gained by reason (“merely imagined or invented”). What can be known about God from creation is real knowledge—Paul is very clear on that: contrary to Ratzinger, we can gain access of a sort to God by reason. But Paul’s main focus is on the reason that the Gentiles went astray, despite the fact that the things that man is able to know about God are there to be seen. Paul's answer to this problem is that the truth was “obstructed” by their evil, their refusal to submit to God, and as a result “their reasoning became foolish.” In the next paragraph, which I will omit, Ratzinger goes on to bemoan the negative influence on Western culture of “positivism,” which claims that “the question concerning God” is to be confined to “the subjective realm, as being unscientific.” Characteristically, however, Ratzinger offers no concrete solution to this negative influence. We know that in his address at Subiaco (2005) just before becoming pope the solution he offered was to treat God as an hypothesis, and we will return to that later.
Having gotten this far, Arzillo attempts to sum up, but instead lands himself in the soup:
“In the address of Benedict XVI in Paris, somewhat subtle but also very concrete, one can therefore find “in a nutshell” truly everything. There is a realistic understanding of the “preambula fidei.” ...
“But it does not contain any preliminary barrier of a Kantian nature, or in any case of irrational, pragmatic, or antimetaphysical origin."It all sounds good. In fact, it’s too good to be true. Let’s take a closer look at Ratzingers address in Guadalajara (1996), which Arzillo also cites, because in that address Ratzinger is more forthcoming, less guarded, than usual. In this address Ratzinger, as is typical for him, attacks “modern exegesis” as being at the root of the Church's current crisis of belief--in this case, those forms of exegesis that embrace “relativistic theories.” In doing so Ratzinger correctly traces the intellectual origins of the relativistic theories of exegesis that he criticizes, pointing out that they arise from Kantian philosophy:
The problem of exegesis is connected, as we have seen, with the problem of philosophy. The indigence of philosophy, the indigence to which paralyzed, positivist reason has led itself, has turned into the indigence of our faith. The faith cannot be liberated if reason itself does not open up again. If the door to metaphysical cognition remains closed, if the limits of human knowledge set by Kant are impassable, faith is destined to atrophy: It simply lacks air to breathe.That sounds good, from the perspective of a believing Christian, and yet .. What exactly is Ratzinger’s remedy for this sad predicament? A return to the sound philosophical principles of Thomas Aquinas? Not at all. From all that has come before we might have expected that, and certainly Arzillo--with his references to the praeambula fidei--suggests that Ratzinger is open to something of the sort. But in two short sentences Ratzinger blows any notion of that sort completely out of the water:
I am of the opinion that neo-Scholastic rationalism failed which with reason totally independent from the faith, tried to reconstruct the pre-ambula fidei with pure rational certainty. The attempts that presume to do the same will have the same result. [The praeambula fidei are truths that Man is able to grasp by reason, truths which prepare the way for Christian faith, properly speaking.]Boom! Out go the praeambula fidei, up go barriers of a Kantian nature—any attempts to “reconstruct the praeambula fidei” will all fail, so don’t even try. But then how is the faith to be “liberated?” Sadly, all Ratzinger has to offer is a "new dialogue between faith and philosophy." Yet he can’t be serious, because he doesn’t even offer or describe what the basis for such a dialogue could possibly be. He simply presents us with the bare unsupported statement that “Man is something more than what Kant and the various post-Kantian philosophers wanted to see and concede.” Why would modern Man want to enter into a “new dialogue” with someone who seemingly has so little to offer? As of 2005, the eve of his papacy, Ratzinger still had come up with nothing better than to offer to modern man in search of answers than “Pascal’s wager.” God as hypothesis or postulate—a Kantian position if ever there was one:
Echoing Pascal's wager, Ratzinger proposes that nonbelievers should adopt elements of the Christian faith hypothetically, as a position that produces a better outcome than the altemative. But while Pascal, perhaps ironically, justified the benefits of Christianity by reference to the next life, Ratzinger sincerely proposes that the person and the state are better here and now for wagering that God exists. A believer may wonder whether such a utilitarian appeal has not conceded too much to the very values of modernity it attempts to counter. (From a review by Paul Sullins of Ratzingers Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures in the “Journal of Church and State”)What then are we to make of Arzillo’s attempt to portray Ratzinger as a scholasticism-friendly kinda guy? Ratzinger’s lifelong hostility toward “scholasticism” is well known—he himself acknowledges that his antipathy for scholasticism began in his seminary days. His statements above amount to a Kantian style a priori veto on any philosophy of that sort. Nevertheless, Arzillo plunges ahead:
In this latter regard it is opportune to point out that in the address “The faith and theology of our days” delivered in Guadalajara, Mexico in May of 1996, ... Ratzinger did not limit himself to criticizing certain forms of neo-Scholastic rationalism, citing as “more well-founded historically and objectively the position of J. Pieper” (who was in any case a thinker of Thomistic origin), ... ”Arzillo is referring to footnote 20, in which Ratzinger states:
Even though in the thinking of H.J. Verweyen ... many important and valid elements can be found, to me its essential philosophical error consists in the fact of attempting to offer a rational foundation of the faith independently of the faith, an attempt that, however, cannot convince by its pure abstract rationality. ... To me the position of J. Pieper (Schriften zum Philosophiebegriff, Hamburg 1995) has better foundation and is more convincing from the historical and objective point of view.That, I submit, is as luke warm an endorsement as you’re likely to find. It absolutely cannot be taken to override his previous statements but instead must be placed within the context of Ratzinger's emphatic rejection of “scholastic” philosophy. Nevertheless, some might object that Ratzinger has been known to make positive statements regarding Aquinas, and to distinguish Aquinas' thought from that of the “bad” scholastic manuals of philosophy that Ratzinger studied in seminary. The truth is, again, that those “positive” statements are a decidedly mixed bag. To take a quite recent example:
“When, in the 13th century, Aristotelian thought entered into contact with Medieval Christianity, formed by the Platonic tradition, and when faith and reason were at risk of entering into an irreconcilable opposition, it was Saint Thomas Aquinas who played the role of mediator in the new encounter between faith and philosophy, thus placing faith in a positive relation with the form of reason dominant in his epoch. […] With Vatican Council II the moment when a new reflection of this type was necessary arrived. […] Let us read it and welcome it, guided by a just hermeneutic.”  Benedict XVI, speech of December 22, 2005.We see from this that what Ratzinger regards as Aquinas’ positive contribution is strictly time conditioned—it’s relevance lies in the distant past, centuries ago. Further, however, Ratzinger clearly implies that Aquinas’ philosophy has no particular relevance to the Church of the 21st century, when the Church must let go of Thomism and seek a “positive relation” with the latest “form of reason” that is currently “dominant.” And we have seen that he, correctly, sees Kantian forms of thought as currently “dominant.” That, for him, was the great task of Vatican II-- to reconcile the Church to Kantian thought--and to like it. Considering that Ratzinger regularly attacks the "dictatorship of relativism, there is more than a whiff of relativism in Ratzinger's own thought.
In closing I will include a somewhat lengthy excerpt from a much longer blog, The Heart of Betrayal. In this blog the author draws out the implications of statements by Ratzinger in his book: Many Religions – One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World (originally published in Germany in 1997, and then published by Ignatius Press in 1998). The author demonstrates that there is what I would call a “darker” aspect to Ratzinger’s thought, one that is shared by virtually all the “New Theologians”: those whose thought Livi maintains has achieved a hegemonic status in the Church in the wake of Vatican II. That darker aspect is a strong tendency toward Pantheism and Gnosticism. We can see this tendency manifest itself in Ratzinger's thought in his passionate attachment to the Gnostic speculation of Teilhard de Chardin and his regular references to the Teilhardian notion of “cosmic transubstantiation.” Of particular relevance is the comparison that can be drawn to St. Paul’s address on the Areopagus, cited above:
For God Who made the world and everything in it--the Lord of heaven and earth--does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands, nor does He need anything we can do for Him since He gave life and breath to everyone and everything.So … A "self-enclosed relationally bound" God? The Heart of Betrayal:
On page 76 [of the Ignatius Press edition] we read the following:
"Thus the God of the Bible is a God-in-relationship; and to that extent, in the essence of his identity, he is opposed to the self-enclosed God of philosophy (p. 75)."The notion that the God of Thomistic philosophy and theology is "self-enclosed" is one of the grandest absurdities ever penned. We shall examine this "self-enclosed" God of St. Thomas shortly. Meanwhile, we need to persevere with more of Cardinal Ratzinger:
"As a result of this struggle [between faith and reason], a new philosophical category – the concept of "person" – was fashioned, a concept that has become for us the fundamental concept of the analogy between God and man, the very centre of philosophical thought….The meaning of an already existing category, that of "relation", was fundamentally changed. In the Aristotelian table of categories, relation belongs to the group of accidents that point to substance and are dependent on it; in God, therefore, there are no accidents. Through the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, relation moves out of the substance-accident framework. Now God himself is described as a Trinitarian set of relations, as relation subsistens. When we say that man is the image of God, it means that he is a being designed for relationship; it means that, in and through all his relationships, he seeks that relation which is the ground of his existence. In this context, covenant would be the response to man’s imaging of God; it would show us who we are and who God is. And for God, since he is entirely relationship, covenant would not be something external in history, apart from his being, but the manifestation of his self, the "radiance of his countenance (p. 76-77)."Now, I realize at this point that many of us might be having an attack of the fuzzies. I have placed several phrases of the above in bold print in order to help us discern a pattern. Hopefully this will become even more clear after one more quote, and the discussion which follows:
"It belongs to God’s nature to love what he has created; so it belongs to his nature to bind himself and, in doing so, to go all the way to the Cross (p. 73-74)."Gratuitous relationship
We will begin by stating flatly that it does not belong to God’s Nature "to bind Himself" to what He has created. At the very centre of the absolute distinction which exists in Catholic theology between the Being of God and the being of all things created, is the gratuitousness of all the relations between God and man. We may certainly speak of the necessary faithfulness of God to His promises to man (since God is Truth and cannot lie), but we may never speak of any such bond as belonging "to His Nature." All of God’s acts of mercy towards man, including the Incarnation and Death of Our Lord, are acts of His gratuitous mercy.
St. Thomas’s very clear teaching on this point is in full contradiction to that of Cardinal Ratzinger:
"As the creature proceeds from God in diversity of nature, God is outside the order of the whole creation, nor does any relation to the creature arise from His nature; for He does not produce the creature by necessity of His nature, but by His intellect and will…." (Summa, I, 28,1&3).Pantheistic and Gnostic
Firstly, we should note that any denial of this absolute discontinuity between the Nature of God and His creature must always end up in some sort of pantheism. This discontinuity must always remain, even in our consideration of the full depths of the meaning of the Incarnation and the fact that in Christ God has also taken on our nature. God has indeed become man, but man will never become God, regardless of how much we may speak of the "divinization" of man in the Beatific Vision.
Secondly, to be faithful to the Church-embraced philosophy of St. Thomas does not at all mean that we are embracing a "self-enclosed" God. Anyone familiar with St. Thomas’s philosophy and theology must know the absolute absurdity of this claim.
However, God’s creation (and God’s love for His creation), is not to be seen in any way a necessity of His Being, or any kind of necessary bond - but rather an extraordinary, mysterious, and entirely gratuitous "overflowing" (for want of a better word) of His merciful Love. For Cardinal Ratzinger to make God’s Nature to be entirely relationship and His covenant with man to be a manifestation of his self (sic) is to destroy this absolutely foundational distinction between God and man. This is the core of all pantheistic belief systems. And as we have already noted (but I believe it bears repeating) the Incarnation and Death of Our Lord does not erase this distinction.
Throughout history it has always been the dynamic of pantheistic and Gnostic heresies to do just this: to erase the absolute distinction between God and man; to turn Jesus Christ into a Man-God (as versus the God-Man) Who leads the rest of us up through evolutionary progress to "become as Gods."