Santa Clara University


After Words

After Regensburg...

Important ideas emerged from the pope's lecture—and important lessons about communicating the truth.

By James Alison

James Alison
James Alison is a British priest and theologian. These "After Words" are a follow-up to a talk he gave at Santa Clara in October 2006.
Photo: Courtesy of “It's in the Air,” Minneapolis
In September of last year, Pope Benedict XVI caused a worldwide sensation when at a conference in Regensburg, Germany he quoted a disparaging 14th-century comment on Islam. But it is worth recalling some of the more important things to emerge from the Regensburg lecture.

The first point is the pope's quite specific rejection of there being any violence at all in God, therefore no divine word can be violent. He is suggesting that apart from any particular sacred text in which words of violence can be read, there must be an interpretative key which disallows humans from involving God in violence; that such an interpretation is essential for Christian understanding; and in its verbal development it has in fact depended from its earliest days on Hellenistic thought.

Second, Pope Benedict goes on to show that a relationship exists between faith and reason which has been developed, and maintained alive, quite specifically in the Catholic faith, with its insistence both on God's utter transcendency and yet on there being a proper analogy between created matter and the Creator that communicates the regularity, goodness, and non-capricious nature of reality.

The pope's third point is that of what I call the fragility of Enlightenment thought. He says: “The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby.” In other words, by ignoring, and indeed sometimes despising, the very specific doctrinal and social conditions of possibility which enabled it to flourish, the scientific rationality which we take for granted may endanger its own survival.

A fourth point which the pope made in an interview given to representatives of German television before his trip to Regensburg was that it is the proper role of the Church to mediate between modern Enlightenment secularity of the sort represented in the European Union and cultures which live a much more strongly “religious” understanding of life. This tends to position the Church as being exactly what it has been historically: a mediator between a collapsing “sacred” world and an emerging, benign, but also potentially dangerous “secularity.”

What I find particularly encouraging is that Pope Benedict does not identify the Catholic faith with absolutist and fundamentalistic forms of religion, but rather as something closer to a place of creative tension between “Enlightenment” and “Fundamentalist” thought patterns. This is, of course, not where “Enlightened” thought has typically wished to place the Church in its own scheme of "reason battling against obscurantism.”

Two final points emerged as a result of reactions to an unfortunate quotation which skewed response to the Papal address. The first is something we are going to have to learn as we come to preach and teach our faith in a world where we are rarely talking to ourselves, and where “others” are very susceptible to seeing themselves misinterpreted in almost any remark we make. And this is that discourse is mimetic, not absolute. In other words, we cannot imagine that statements are “clear, reasonable, and simply and straightforwardly true.” Rather, truth must be spoken non-provocatively if it is to be as truthful in what it effects as in what it purports to communicate.

The second is linked to this: Owing to the huge information overload in which we are going to continue to live, the role of the papacy is going to shift enormously in our lifetime. We are going to have to learn to detect Petrine stability and truthtelling in a way that is quite different from yesteryears rather distant, slow utterances of canonical authority. Curiously, the dream of 19th-century ultramontanists has come true: They can have a papal message for breakfast every day. But the result of this immediacy is to make papal authority a much subtler affair, and one much more dependent on the interpretations and feedback of an informed and educated Church than those ultramontanists can possibly have imagined. This is the Church which we are being challenged to build.

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