Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures by Pope Benedict XVI

(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 132

Just before his election to the papacy, Joseph Ratzinger offers some reflections on the clash between Enlightenment positivism divorced from God and the religious cultures of history, particularly as manifested in Europe. I unfortunately do not see that his argument would be particularly attractive to the average secularist, especially today with how things have changed in the past 20 years. However, he does provide a helpful framework for a believer to evaluate the philosophical underpinnings of the Enlightenment as it relates to its Christian roots, for after all we cannot go back and must find a path forward.

Introduction: A Proposal That Should Be Accepted

by Marcello Pera

  • Galileo shows us two theses of the relationship between science and Scripture:
    • Thesis of convergence: emphasizes the unity between science and Scripture
      • Knowledge is one
      • Science is bound to Scripture
    • Thesis of separation/diversity: science and Scripture occupy different spheres
      • Knowledge is fragmented
      • Science and technology are free, leading to a schism between that which is and that which ought to be
  • Modernity (i.e. the Enlightenment) has as its main characteristic the gulf between rational science vs. morality and religion
    • Kant saw this gulf, assigned religion what science can't study, but this is a genuine schism and his attempt at unification failed
    • The Enlightenment produced objectively good outcomes (in science, technology, industry, individual rights, etc.), but these outcomes are not sufficient because they exclude God
    • The Enlightenment eventually forgets its Christian roots, causing it to turn against itself
    • The separation of science/technology from religion/morality does not allow each to thrive independently, but rather creates new problems: bioethics is a relevant example
  • Given where we are, we can't go back to the thesis of convergence, but we do need to recall the limits of science and set boundaries to what the law can do; we must be cautious because our knowledge advances faster than our wisdom (18)
  • Pera proposes the nonbeliever live and direct his life veluti si Deus daretur, as if God did indeed exist. I don't think his argument would be convincing to a secular person more interested in maximizing his own comfort or pleasure or wealth

The Crisis of Cultures

Chapter 1: Reflections on Cultures That Are in Conflict Today

Summary: We live in a period of rapid technological advancement which requires greater moral strength. However, this is impeded by the Enlightenment view of liberty which leads—eventually—to tyranny.

We are living in a period of great dangers and of great opportunities both for man and for the world, a period that also imposes a great responsibility on us all. (25)

  • Advancement of technology requires an increase in man's moral strength, but rather it is waning into the vague moralism of partisan politics or a Christianity without God.
  • Europe saw the cultural and intellectual apex of Christianity, as well as the Enlightenment which is imposing uniformity on the world and excluding God from the public sphere.
  • This has proceeded in three stages:
    1. Rationalism admits only that which can be empirically verified
    2. Traditional morality is not rational, so it is pushed aside
    3. But we need a morality, so we make a new one based on measurable consequences

The concept of discrimination is constantly enlarged, and this means that the prohibition of discrimination can be transformed more and more into a limitation on the freedom of opinion and on religious liberty. Very soon, it will no longer be possible to affirm that homosexuality (as the Catholic Church teaches) constitutes an objective disordering in the structure of human existence. (35)

  • → A recent example of this conflict is not recalling Europe's Christian history in the new EU constitution because the Enlightenment culture of liberty is the base assumption.
    • Logically, if Europe is defined by adherence to Enlightenment values, then any nation that accepts these can join the EU.
  • But this concept of liberty inevitably leads to contradictions, and a confused idea of liberty leads to tyranny.

A confused ideology of liberty leads to a dogmatism that is proving ever more hostile to real liberty. (36)

Chapter 2: The Significance and Limits of Today's Rationalistic Culture

Summary: The clash of cultures is the clash between the positivist Enlightenment philosophy with its radical detachment of man from God on the one hand, and the historical and religious cultures on the other.

  • Enlightenment philosophy is not universally valid. It is positivist with no place for God, and assumes the "mutilation" of man if generalized: moral authority is only personal calculation.
  • It is incomplete because of its radical detachment from its Christian roots that provide any moral orientation: we do things because we can, not because we ought.
  • It fails both questions: rationalism and completeness
  • The clash of cultures is between the radical emancipation of man from God and the great religious cultures.

The coming clash will between this radical emancipation of man [from God] and the great historical cultures (44).

We have need of roots if we are to survive and we must not lose sight of God if we do not want human dignity to disappear (45).

Chapter 3: The Permanent Significance of the Christian Faith

Summary: Ratzinger proposes living as if God exists as a north start for moral decision making.

  • Don't dismiss the Enlightenment out of hand, but recognize its Christian roots and the way it corrected an unfortunate deviation from right reason in the Church, which as the religion of the Logos should thus derive is philosophical power.
  • We can no longer take Christian assumptions for granted, and even Kant's great effort to provide a purely rational basis for morality is not shared by all.
  • Ratzinger's proposal:
    • A) Morality without God leads us to the annihilation of man
    • B) Living as if God exists does not impose limits on our freedom
    • Therefore, live veluti si Deus daretur as if God exists
  • → I'm not sure that secularists today would agree with B. Living as if God exists exacts a cost, at least to convenience, pleasure, and other worldly "values" (see pg 94)
  • St. Benedict teaches us: first solitude, then action (53)

Our greatest need in the present historical moment is people who make God credible in this world by means of the enlightened faith they live (52).

The Right to Life

Chapter 1: Why We Must Not Give Up the Fight

Summary: The sacredness of human life as made in the image and likeness of God is inviolable and admits no exceptions. Human life is sacred and is to be protected.

There are no "small murders". The respect of every human life is an essential condition if a societal life worthy of the name is to be possible. When man's conscience loses respect for life as something sacred, he inevitably ends by losing his own identity (60).

Chapter 2: The Law of the Jungle, the Rule of Law

Summary: Abortion is justified by the fundamental right of free expression without limits, but the basis of democracy is the state's recognition (not conferral) of fundamental rights held by all equally. When it violates these rights—especially of the weakest—it undermines the foundations of democracy.

The rights of some individuals are affirmed at the cost of the fundamental right to life of another individual. This is why every legalization of abortion implies the idea that law is based on power (63).

Chapter 3: We Must Use Our Eyes!

Summary: Our humanity is defined by how we look upon others, and we must recall and emulate the look of love with which God looks upon us.

  • A baby makes demands on my liberty, which are easier to ignore if we do not look into the baby's face.
  • Recall Jesus—Ecce Homo!—man is the weak and defenseless.
  • Our humanity is defined by how we look upon others, and we must recall and emulate the look of love with which God looks upon us.

The way I look at the other is decisive for my own humanity (69).

What Does It Mean To Believe?

Chapter 1: Faith and Everyday Life: A Fundamental Human Attitude

Summary: Daily life shows us how we have faith in others who posses knowledge we lack, but which can be verified.

Chapter 2: Can Agnosticism Be a Solution?

Summary: Is agnosticism the proper, humble response? No. Whether or not God exists has many practical consequences for our lives, and we really must choose "yes" or "no". We each need to investigate the question of God because it concerns each one of us personally.

Chapter 3: The Natural Knowledge of God

Summary: God and his truth are knowable!

  • Paul describes a decadence in Rome (cf. Rom-01) due to the conscious rejection of the truth because of the demands it places on them to live according to that truth.
  • The truth is knowable by all men at all times. Our rational-technical society cannot address the deepest questions of our hearts. There is a fundamental tension in man between seeking God and fulfilling immediate needs. But we cannot resolve this ourselves—God must act.

Chapter 4: "Supernatural" Faith and Its Origins

Summary: Our faith is a network of mutual support, centered on the reality that Jesus sees and communicates to us.

The Christian faith is a participation in this act whereby Jesus sees (104-105).

Chapter 5: Development of Premises

Summary: Pascal's wager is good advice.

  • The science of theology rests upon the sight of the saints.
  • Faith is a deeply personal act, but because it is a response to a person, it is also a relational act.
  • Faith is also an ecclesial act, because it unites us to the whole Church, those who have walked the same path.

Pascal's advice to his friend may seem skeptical, but it is correct: begin with the folly of faith, and you will attain knowledge. This folly is wisdom; this folly is the path of truth (116).


Created: 2022-12-04-Sun
Updated: 2023-01-25-Wed