The pope is here. Ratzinger. Pope Benedict XVI. It is thus a good occasion to figure out what this pope is up to. So far he’s done two notable things, at least for those of us outside the arms of the Church. He did the first just before he became pope, and that was to meet with the world-renowned German philosopher Jürgen Habermas for a long chat about faith and reason (the title of the discussion: “Pre-political moral foundations in the construction of a free civil society”). The second was to deliver an address at the University of Regensburg. In that address, he mentioned in passing a quote from the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus. “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new,” the emperor said in 1391, “and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
This was not received well by the Islamic world. There were riots. Various Islamists threatened to march on Rome, literally, to take the city for Islam. A Christian nun was killed in Somalia. In general, mayhem. The pope later apologized for the fact that his words were taken as an insult. He did not, however, take back the gist of what he was trying to say. Now there’s no question that the pope was taking a swipe at Islam. But in the context of the discussion of faith and reason, the swipe comes off a lot differently than how it was picked up in popular media. Basically, the pope accused Islam of holding God so far above reason that there is an absolute split between the two things. Islam, therefore, has no need to justify itself rationally. And thereby it has no need to limit itself in terms of violence or anything else. Whatever serves Allah serves Allah and there’s nothing else to say about it. Now one can object to this point in various ways, but it is far from stupid, or uninteresting.
The pope, in essence, was challenging Islam to step up to the plate. He may have made his pitch in a jerky way, but he was essentially inviting Islam to join in with the Logos, the great big argument about how we can make society good. Because the pope does not see Islam as his big problem. Islam — a religion essentially of The Book — is a potential ally in the task of fixing things up. The pope sees the modern Western world as his main problem.
The problem with the modern Western world is that it got all jazzed up on rationality and forgot what that rationality was supposed to be in the service of. The pope wants to have a good and just society, not only a rational one. Reason plays a necessary role in the search for the good and true and just, but it can only do so it if gets its fundamental orientation from somewhere else. From this perspective, the title of the discussion between Habermas and the then pre-pope sounds less esoteric. “Pre-political moral foundations in the construction of a free civil society” means that politics does not generate its own values, only the means to attain values that are established elsewhere. The pope, just like Habermas, wants a free civil society, but he wants to ask, just as strenuously, “free in the name of what?”
It is fascinating to have Habermas in this debate because Habermas once had a lot of faith (no pun intended) in the powers of civil society to generate everything from its own internal resources. He was always worried about the dehumanizing aspects of modern life, but didn’t worry too much about where the Good was going to come from. He thought that it could come pluralistically, in a sense, out of the process of debating about the best way to have a free civil society. Maybe this was circular reasoning, maybe it wasn’t. But Habermas didn’t want to get tripped up in worries; he wanted to solve the problem by pushing the process forward.
Then he got older. The modern Western world started to seem more lost to him than it had before. Where he used to see a magical process, he started to see something empty, wheels churning in the production of nihilism. He started to get more and more interested in the worries. He started to look for allies in the task of finding the beliefs and ideas that make life meaningful. And that’s when he got “poped.” He got poped by a pope who is no dummy. A pope who lingers around the edges of modernity trying to pick off the stragglers, the ones who are really worried, the ones with a hearty dose of Weltschmerz.
Now he is here in America to test our resolve. Are we getting tired of our free civil society without pre-political foundations yet? Has the astounding shallowness of American popular culture fried what is left of our brains? Have we reached the bottom of the American barrel? Are we staring into the abyss with no sense of what our freedom is supposed to get us? Do we, in short, need the pope to coax us back to the vital fountain, from Reason to Faith? It’s an interesting question. Do we have the resources to go on? Of course, it is a question that can’t be answered definitively. I suppose that is why it gets asked over and over. But American civil society loves to perform the trick first pulled off by Baron Munchausen in his adventures. Finding himself underwater, the Baron simply lifts himself out by his own ponytail. It’s not a bad trick, and we ought to remind the pope and his new friend Habermas that we still know how to do it. Assuming, that is, that we still know how to do it. • 15 April 2008