Monday, December 10, 2007

SCIENCE, TRUTH AND THE UNIVERSITY

On 13 September of this year, Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, rose to give a lecture at his old university in Regensberg, Germany. This lecture, titled “Faith, Reason and the University” (http://www.zenit.org/article-16955?l=english) soon became world-renowned as Muslim activists took offence at some of his comments and rioted, killing a number of people in the process, including a Catholic nun.

The ensuing headlines – including Benedict’s apology expressing sorrow that his remarks had caused such grief – obscured for many the true subject and significance of the address, which is the necessity for a philosophical-theological foundation of truth in Western society and its offspring, the university. I hope to summarize Benedict’s argument today and make a few comments in passing, as it is relevant to this occasion.

The Pope opens his lecture with fond memories of his days as a university lecturer. What he particularly eulogizes were the cross-faculty seminars where dialogue among scholars in different disciplines was open and searching – searching even the question of the existence of God. I think we can all appreciate those moments when thoughtful men and women from different fields bring their knowledge of the world into a common dialogue. Indeed, that was the original setting of the “Academy,” where Socrates’ disciples continued his open inquiry into all things human and divine.

From this calm pond of academic bonhomie, Benedict ventures out into what proved a maelstrom of controversy. He quotes a dialogue between a Christian Byzantine emperor and a Persian Muslim on the difference between Christianity and Islam. This dialogue occurred around 1400, a long time ago, and yet its reverberations are still felt round the world. This surely was Benedict’s point; what he may not have realized was that in the digital age, this dispute would be instantly amplified worldwide. One has to say that Muslims, perhaps better than Christians today, have a real sense that past history is their history, and 700-year-old disputes have a long shelf life.

The dispute had to do with the legitimacy of forced conversion, practiced at times by Christians and by the Muslim jihad. The emperor argued that “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably (syn logo) is contrary to God’s nature.” Benedict quotes the medieval editor of this dialogue to the effect that such an understanding of a reasonable God was self-evident to a Greek-speaking Christian, but not at all to a Muslim, because “for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” This was the quotation that led to an outbreak of protest and violence in the Muslim world, unfortunately seeming to confirm the very point that Allah need not be defended by logical argument but by zeal alone. I am not qualified to say whether this quotation is indeed a fair description of Islam as a whole, but it certainly seems to apply to today’s jihadists.

What is ironic about Benedict’s reference and the reaction to it is that he was actually aiming at another target than Islam – namely, contemporary Western modernity and postmodernity. But I get ahead of myself. Benedict traces a developing tradition, a convergence of Greek philosophy, flowing from Socrates, and revealed truth, flowing from the Bible. He quotes St. Paul’s “Macedonian call” – “come over and help us” (Acts 16:9) as symbolic of the convergence of the two streams. Preeminently, St. John’s opening statement that “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God” sets the tradition which leads to the Emperor’s assumption that God cannot act without reason (logos).

Benedict does not see “reason” in the Greek-Christian tradition as leading to pasty-faced abstractions. He mentions the fact that Socrates’ and the Bible’s iconoclasm had led to just that, the demise of the idols, the myths and superstitions of the ancient world. And for Benedict, classical Christianity continues to have that power to demythologize modern ideologies. Josef Stalin once asked cynically how many divisions the Pope had. The answer came half a century later with John Paul II, whose legions of faith (and doubt in Communism) led them to topple the Berlin Wall. Ideas have consequences, so says a modern proverb, and such is the power of the Logos.

Why then has the Christian stream of rationality seemed to dry up in the modern and postmodern academy? According to Benedict, it has fallen victim to a counter-tradition of voluntarism. Voluntarism is usually contrasted with Platonic and Augustinian realism, the view that the true, the real, the “form” of things precedes the actual material objects in our world. As a description of the human soul, voluntarism, which is named after the will (voluntas), separates truth from action, metaphysical reality from moral obligation. It has a long history back to the Stoics. Benedict traces this tradition through medieval nominalism (Duns Scotus) and the Reformation to the modern thinkers from Pascal to Kant to Nietzsche. Curiously, modern voluntarism has a point of contact with the Islamic conception of God as Sovereign Will.

The shift in worldview, Benedict argues, has had profound social consequences. On the one hand, the Western voluntarists drew their ideas from a Christian culture which assumed the rationality of the world and human nature given by the Creator. At the same time, their own twisting of that tradition led them to divorce cosmic from personal rationality. The truth of morality was no longer connected to the fabric of the universe but was internally generated by the conscience. Decoupling physics from metaphysics provided a rush of energy in the fields of natural science, which continues to this day. At the same time, it led to a reducing of “reason” and “science” to the mathematical, to that which can be proved by empirical demonstration.

Achieving such mathematical certainty comes at a high cost because it “excludes the question of God,” Who by definition has to be prior to, though not beyond, reason. In the process of excluding God, “it is man who ends up being reduced,” Benedict argues. From the scientist’s exclusive point of view, man is a mere machine, a chance product of uncaused evolutionary forces. As this view of man offends our natural pride and instinct, some modern philosophers have sought humanness in subjectivity. It is in this context that moderns can continue to speak of “religion,” not as a matter of reason but of feeling or consciousness. This divide between scientific rationality and humane feeling has also entered the university. Some “humane disciplines” have tried to claim a status of “social sciences,” while other disciplines like literary studies have exulted in personalism and cultural pluralism. “Your truth and my truth are not the same,” an American Anglican bishop complacently said with regard to Western and African notions of homosexuality.

This denouement of philosophical voluntarism has, according to Benedict, brought the Western tradition and Europe in particular to a crisis of faith, ironically a crisis without faith. Let’s put it in very practical terms. Ask a so-called “Christian” European: “Why have children?” The postmodern worldview has no good answer apart from pure willfulness: “Have them if you want, don’t have them if you don’t. Some people like kids, some don’t.” The Muslim by contrast is commanded to reproduce. The likely end-result of such demographics will be what some are calling “Eurabia.”

Pope Benedict does not believe either strain of voluntarism – modern or Islamic – can satisfy the great questions of life and death, heaven and earth. Put in terms of the academy, neither strain of voluntarism finds a natural place in the humane studies of the university. (Once again, let me admit there is a tradition of Islamic rationalism associated with medieval scholars like Averroes. Whether that tradition is alive today, I am not so sure.) I think I can demonstrate this tendency from Uganda. How many students are pursuing philosophy or religion as their major subjects at universities here? Precious few, I think. Most students are following the social sciences, others the natural sciences; but both of the latter have rather limited, pragmatic goals, such as national capacity-building or simply getting a job. There is nothing wrong with students seeking practical knowledge, but is that all the university stands for? Without the tradition going back to Socrates and the Church, the answer may well be Yes, that’s all.

Now you may object that religious studies are offered in the schools in Uganda and even at the university level. Furthermore, universities here are quite open to chapel programmes. Yes, that is fine and good. But I would contend that the underlying assumption of religious studies and even encouragement of chaplaincies is that religion is a private and personal matter, not the kind of subject which would enter into the academic public square. You would not invite a theologian, for instance, to share “research” findings in a seminar with biologists and maybe even sociologists. Or if you did invite a theologian, he would be expected to play by the rules of the modern academy and not raise transcendental questions that were immune to the empirical method of “research.” This lecture, for instance, will need to be considered a matter of “opinion” and does not in any way contribute added value to new knowledge.

Benedict, however, is unapologetic about the role for theology in true capacity-building of society. Indeed he sees the opportunity to call for a revitalized Western tradition of faith and reason. He concludes:

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the program with which a theology grounded in biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

Benedict’s lecture, while given in the safe haven of his old university, was intended as a wake-up call to Europe, to that part of the world that has been called “Christendom.” It is curious that Muslims insist on seeing “the West” as a Christian monolith, while committed Christians like myself see Europe and sections of North America as some of the most hardened soil to the Gospel. In one sense, Benedict sees his European homeland as burnt-over ground which needs to be reclaimed. To accomplish this, he wants to challenge the cultural elites to reconsider their intellectual heritage. He is suggesting that “Western civilization” since the Enlightenment has severed its intellectual roots and will be unable to give answer to an aggressive antirational movement like radical Islam.

Benedict’s choice of venue – a German university – is not accidental. The German model – compartmentalized wissenschäftlichen faculties, has become standard issue in global higher education. Yet in Europe, universities themselves have become ossified and no longer turn out the great figures of the day. This is not accidental. The university plays an essential role in cultural decline or cultural renewal. The West is like an Olympic athlete who is diagnosed with cancer. At first, one does not see signs of deterioration. But gradually, the eyes become hollow, the skin yellows, he cannot run laps as he once did; and finally he becomes an invalid, looking no different from any other cancer patient. So with university education in Europe. It has its ivory towers and its academic rituals, but these symbols no longer reflect an ideal of liberal education (take, for instance, the empty title Doctor of Philosophy). Yes, it may, if well funded, produce technical innovations, but so will various corporate research institutes. Its scholars may produce high-sounding commentary of the issues of the day – like the war in Iraq – but this commentary will be no better, and often much worse – than the opinions of politicians or even ordinary citizens.

The finest teacher I ever had was a Professor Allan Bloom, of Cornell University and University of Chicago. Allan Bloom is a name probably not known here in Africa, but he would be immediately recognized in the USA because of his book The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987. Bloom was a Jew by birth and a Platonist by education. His book, which rose from being an obscure academic treatise to national bestseller, argued that the contemporary University has lost its mission and is failing its students.

When a student arrives at the university, he finds a bewildering variety of departments and bewildering variety of courses. And there is no official guidance, no university-wide agreement about what he should study. Nor does he find readily available examples, either among students or professors, of a unified use of the university’s resources. It is easiest simply to make a career choice and go about getting prepared for that career.

For Allan Bloom education in the great questions – “Is there a God? Is there freedom? Is there punishment for evil deeds? Is there certain knowledge? What is a good society?” – is the responsibility of the university, and not just one department. And in turn, the university will initiate students into a lifelong quest for the good, the true and the beautiful. This quest, Pope Benedict believes, is the unique bequest of the Greek and Christian heritage of the West.

These questions used to be the common heritage of science, philosophy and theology. The unity has been shattered, and the only way back is to retrace our steps, or as the Bible says, to repent. If this is true, then Pope Benedict may be calling for a reform of the Western heritage similar to that of his namesake, Benedict of Nursia, called “the heavenly patron of all Europe,” who organized a community to preserve the Christian heritage as the Roman world disintegrated around him. If so, we may not see a widespread and immediate turning to the questions he has raised, but rather the calling out of a dedicated group of serious men and women who look to God and His ways as the true wisdom of the ages.

This lecture was given at the African Areopagus Society, held at Uganda Christian University on 14 December 2006 and the following day at the Fourth Uganda Society Science and Technology Conference for Universities and Research Institutions.

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