Faith, Reason and the University

The Papal Address at the University of Regensburg on Sept. 12, 2006 caused much controversy around the world. A friend of mine sent me a link to this article. I wish the press had not focused on a single offensive quote at the cost of ignoring the Pope’s excellent points. I have extracted several quotes and offer brief responses to them.

This address covered a wide range of issues relating to the influence of Greek culture and philosophy on Europe. One element of that influence was reason and its presence in the minds of God and his creatures. Early in the address he discusses conversation between “the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam.”

“Modifying the first verse of the Book of Genesis, the first verse of the whole Bible, John began the prologue of his Gospel with the words: ‘In the beginning was the λόγος.’ This is the very word used by the emperor: God acts, σὺν λόγω, with logos. Logos means both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason. John thus spoke the final word on the biblical concept of God, and in this word all the often toilsome and tortuous threads of biblical faith find their culmination and synthesis. In the beginning was the logos, and the logos is God, says the Evangelist.”

“A profound encounter of faith and reason is taking place here, an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act ‘with logos’ is contrary to God’s nature”

The Christian God is, by his very nature, reasonable. Our faculties of reason come from him, and they should allow us some amount of understanding of him. Since he is infinite, he can never be fully comprehended by us, and we should not expect to predict or understand every one of his actions or commands.

However, I agree with the Pope, as quoted below, that we should not embrace the opposite extreme by believing that we cannot understand God at all. His faculties of reason should at least allow us to expect some level of consistency from him. If we cannot expect this, we have little basis for disagreeing with religious leaders who order ethnic cleansing, terrorism, or the burning of people at the stake.

“Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazm 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 practise idolatry.”

“This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazm 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.”

“Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, ‘transcends’ knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul…worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).”

In the sections of the address that I found most interesting, the Pope dealt with the limitaions and potential of science and reason as they relate to Christian faith. Near the beginning of the address, he stated that the “scientific ethos, moreover, is…the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.” Science and Christianity should thus be quite compatible with each other. He proceeded to include two points about the Scientific Method.

“First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned….if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by ‘science’, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective.”

When I first read the quote above, I was worried that His Holiness intended to include supernatural phenomena within the realm of science. Science is powerful, but it is limited in scope. Supernatural beings and phenomena are not accesible to its methodology, and we scientists can only autoritativley speak about beings and phenomena that are understandible and accesible by the Scientific Method.

In the paragraph below, I think he makes a subtle distinction between the whole realm accessible by reason and the realm accesible by “scientific reason.” The latter is a subset of the former. For example, as stated above, questions of destiny, religion, and ethics are not addressed by science, but they are still within the domain of human reason.

“In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. At the same time, as I have attempted to show, modern scientific reason with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology.”

That last sentece is extremely important to me as a Christian physicist. Science is by nature incapable of addressing many important questions of life. These questions tell me that I must look beyond science for the answers.

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