Monday, December 29, 2008

Theology in the Benedict Era

It’s been a long road, Pope Benedict. I’ve been trying for exactly three years now to finish your book, Truth and Tolerance, in which you discuss (among dozens of other things) the relationship between the Christian faith, other world religions, and the philosophical concept of “truth”. And it’s been intense.

I still haven’t gotten a good answer about how to address the author of this book. When the book was written, the author was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith. Since then, he has been elevated and elected to the papacy and is now Pope Benedict XVI. I’m leaning toward referring to the author as Cardinal Ratzinger, merely because that’s the capacity he wrote the book in.

Review, Reaction, and Discussion: Truth and Tolerance

This book is not an easy read. It would be very easy to dedicate an entire semester’s worth of study to this book, discussing how each concept Ratzinger touches on relates to his Catholic theology, the philosophical traditions of the Christian religion, and the beliefs of other historical and contemporary religions. It wouldn’t even be a stretch to base a graduate thesis on this book, and how the philosophical background of European thought has informed Ratzinger’s theology.

That’s one critical point to understanding this book: it’s obvious Ratzinger is writing very much from the European tradition. Hardly a page goes by without reference to a prior work. Those references range from Kant to virtually unknown German theologians. They range from the ancient (Plato and Aquinas) to the contemporary, and from existentialists (Sartre) to Catholic popes. Ratzinger is always very careful to construct each of his points from syllogisms derived from earlier writings and scriptural references.

That can make his writing very difficult to understand, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the sources referenced. I have a rudimentary understanding of Kant and Plato, and I’ve at least heard of Sartre, but when Ratzinger bases an entire chapter’s worth of argument on Romano Guardini’s work, that’s another story. An hour of Wikipedia about this man later, and I feel like I can at least evaluate what Ratzinger is saying in its philosophical context. Trying to do that with every author that’s referenced would be prohibitively time-consuming… but also absolutely necessary to really grasp what’s being discussed.

Put another way, the reason it’s clear that Ratzinger is writing from the European philosophical tradition is that he won’t ever make a statement like “here’s what I believe.” It’s always “here’s what scripture and logic dictate that it’s reasonable to believe, and here’s how previous authors have described that.” That’s a very, very good thing to have in a religious leader. A papacy marked by “the Church is going to do this because I say so” is a much less effective one than one that says “the Church is going to do this because it follows from scripture, philosophy, and theology.”

There are two particularly salient points from Ratzinger’s work: first, that religious pluralism is dangerous, in part because it leads to the “indifference of the content of what is believed”. He is particularly vocal—and effective—in attacking the pluralism and relativism implied by various Eastern “Dharmic” beliefs such as Hinduism and Buddhism. He says it’s tempting to turn to a religion that doesn’t care for a worldly concept of truth. However, he argues, the more you look into these religions, the more they’re concerned with escaping the worldly concerns of truth (ie, ascending from the eternal cycles of reincarnation), and a religion predicated on escaping the world ultimately leads to an unfulfilling experience in the world.

The second point that shows up over and over again is the connection of God the creator and Supreme Being, God the source of love, and God the source of reason. Ratzinger painstakingly defends the Johannine declaration “God is love.” He explains in even more detail how Christianity, from its roots in Judaism and its translation into Greek, represented the natural union of religion and philosophy into the one system that could bring its adherents both truth and reason.

Based on those two points, this book is more effective as a defense of Christianity as a system of philosophy and a way to approach a quest for “truth” than a guidebook for Christians on how to approach truth or tolerance. Considering Ratzinger’s intellectual background and philosophical traditions, that makes perfect sense. However, the book left several questions that I would very much like to pose, should I ever get the chance to speak with the Pope.

For me, the most grievous omission from the book dealt with the relationship between Christianity and Islam. Most of the book’s material was written in the 1990s, when Islamic extremism was still an emerging threat in international geopolitics. Now that al Qaeda is a household name, many Christians—particularly American Christians—want to know what sort of relationship Christianity and Islam can have. Ratzinger only mentions Islam a handful of times in the book, at the same time acknowledging that the beliefs of Muslims are a topic that probably deserves a treatise of its own. Allah and the Christian God are the same deity in the Abrahmic tradition, but to what extent are Muslim beliefs the same as Christian ones? I’d like to know, in Ratzinger’s opinion, if Muslims hold the same view that God is supreme, God is reason, and God is love that Christians do (or ought to).

Second, to what extent do we, as Christians, have the obligation to spread the religion? We all know the Great Commission. I say the best way to do this is to lead by example: to show love and reason in all your actions. As Christians, we should never be afraid to proclaim our worship of God. And if I notice that someone I’m close to had a lack of purpose, or love, or reason, then I see it as my duty to suggest Christ as a way to get that. However—and this is probably where the Pope’s theology diverges from my own opinion—if I have a friend who’s committed to Judaism, or Hinduism, or whatever other system of belief, I have no intention of trying to dissuade that friend from that belief.

Despite these shortcomings, and Ratzinger’s tendency to argue ultra-abstractions like “what is truth?” and “does truth have a place in religion?”, this book is an invaluable insight into both what the Pope’s beliefs and how those beliefs were formed. Though plenty of critics have portrayed Benedict as far too conservative, his writings indicate that it is a deeply founded and well thought out conservatism, as opposed to a conservatism for the sake of tradition. Finally, he proves to be one of the most well-read, educated, and downright brilliant theologians of our time.

Currently listening: "Hiphopapotamus vs. Rhymenoceros", Flight of the Conchords

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