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Regensburg is perhaps the loveliest town in Bavaria. Unlike most German cities, it suffered relatively little damage from the allied bombing campaigns of the Second World War, and therefore boasts a good number of gorgeous medieval buildings. Narrow stone alleyways wind between the turrets and steeples, occasionally opening onto a smart platz or a breathtaking view of the Danube. This quiet town, redolent with history, holds particular appeal for one of Germany’s most brilliant thinkers, who left the University of Tübingen in disgust after the student riots of 1968. Decades later, exhausted from years of faithful labor in Rome, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would repeatedly and unsuccessfully seek papal permission to return to his quiet, studious life in Regensburg.
History has a knack for repeating itself; that which has been is what will be, according to the Book of Ecclesiastes, for there are no new things under the sun. And so Regensburg is the scene of a momentous theological controversy. Today, the storm rages around a deeply erudite lecture delivered by Ratzinger–now Pope Benedict XVI–on the topic of “Faith, Reason and the University.”
In his lecture, Benedict noted a 14th-century debate on the subject of Islam and Christianity. In the course of that debate, the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus claimed that certain teachings of Muhammad were “evil and inhuman,” particularly the command to spread Islam by the sword. By repeating these remarks, Benedict sparked Muslim outrage worldwide. Governments from Morocco to Malaysia have protested, and mobs throughout the Middle East have burned the pope in effigy. In Somalia, gunmen murdered a Catholic nun; in Gaza and the West Bank, two Christian churches have been incinerated.
Leave aside the incongruity of protesting one’s pacifism through acts of violence. The greater irony is that the lecture was not particularly concerned with Islam. It was concerned with Europe.
At Regensburg, Benedict challenged modern Europe to consider the proper use of reason. The implications of his argument are profound. Benedict believes that reason, rightly understood, lies at the very heart of Western civilization–and that its corruption represents a grave threat to that civilization. His argument is subtle and complex, but three essential points stand out.
First, Benedict underscores the place of theology within the university. The philosophical unity of truth legitimates the institutional unity of the university, which at its best brings together a diverse community of scholars who work together “on the basis of a single rationality.” Philosophy and theology have a crucial role in that effort. Without them, the university is impoverished, for they bring their own unique insights and resources to the larger universe of academic inquiry.
Second, he reflects on the place of reason in Christian theology. Theology, he proposes, must be genuinely intellectually rigorous. A faith that lacks intellectual rigor will either harden into fanaticism or soften in sentimentalism. In either event, it will cease to be authentically Christian. This is not to equate theological rigor with the strict canons of the scientific method. Rather, it means that theology must proceed from the conviction that faith is deepened through, and disciplined by, the human intellect’s unflinching pursuit of understanding.
Finally, and most important, Benedict invites us to consider the nature of reason itself. He readily grants that the self-imposed boundaries of the scientific method have contributed greatly to the health and happiness of humankind: “We are all grateful for the marvelous possibilities that [modernity] has opened up.”
But though science is good, it is not the only good. Science admits its own limits, and reason points to possibilities outside of reason. Western civilization, Benedict concludes, can gain from Christian theology the “courage to engage the whole breadth of reason.”
Benedict is thus posing questions that go to the heart of the modern age. His comments on Islam have unfortunately distracted us from his real challenge: to invite Western civilization to broaden its conception of reason. If that invitation is lost amid the fury over a tangential issue, then we will have lost a chance to reflect on the deepest questions of the day.
Christopher Levenick is the W. H. Brady Doctoral Fellow in Social and Political Studies at AEI.
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