A University Lecture
“The bravest act of our time is the act that insists, in a public university lecture, that what is unreasonable must defend itself in reason.” It should not be surprising to us that Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address continues to stimulate debate and reflection more than a year after its delivery. The pope’s remarks, after all, were an admonition to the modern university that it must rediscover its soul and its purpose or risk irrelevance. In a world ever-more characterized by the struggle between rival religions—a struggle that has become open and in places violent—a university culture that upholds the positivism of the early 20th century is doomed, in the pope’s account, to be useless. Now, there is nothing more offensive to the modern university than to be called irrelevant, for its very charter is to be the vanguard of humanity’s progress. So when Benedict quotes Socrates at the end of his remarks, he courts his predecessor’s fate, for he suggests that the modern mind ought to be measured by the ancient. This meaning is not lost upon Fr. James Schall, S.J., who in casting the Regensburg Address as an act of courage has opened up for his readers a host of precious insights.
Benedict XVI’s address on “Faith, Reason, and the University,” delivered on September 12, 2006 before the faculty of the University of Regensburg, is included in Fr. Schall’s volume as an appendix, so that readers might experience for themselves “its brevity and . . . its brilliance.” Having done so, they can then turn to the commentary, which unfolds in a generous introduction and five chapters. One of these, the second, includes a discussion of Islam and violence—the question that so preoccupied the media’s reception of the address. But the pope’s discussion of Islam was only a small part of his lecture, and its point was to underscore the importance of reason, rightly understood, within the life of faith. Fr. Schall, therefore, is keen to direct our attention to the more general themes of the speech, to its setting in a university, and to its role within Benedict XVI’s pontificate. His presentation of the pope’s address includes discussions of Europe’s Christian identity, of the crisis of modern thought, and of the relationship between revelation and culture. Yet Fr. Schall, himself a university professor, consistently returns to the initial and primary audience of the Regensburg Address: the modern university. He views the Holy Father’s speech as a challenge to the university to return to its roots and to embrace a broader conception of reason.
The commentary begins with a presentation of Benedict XVI as “a wise man in the proper sense of that term.” Like John Paul II before him, Pope Benedict was the product of the university, but much more than his predecessor he was a man of the university, an academic. Fr. Schall warns us that Joseph Ratzinger’s opera omnia inspires “astonishment at its breadth and depth.” Yet what characterizes the Holy Father’s mind is not mere productivity, and certainly not curiosity, but instead his belief in the “wholeness of truth.” It is Pope Benedict’s quest for truth as a whole that illuminates the Regensburg Address and makes it “one of the fundamental tractates of our time.” In it, Benedict challenges the university to have “the courage to engage the whole breadth of reason,” or, in Fr. Schall’s words, to be “a place where we can freely and without fear of personal injury, talk about the whole.” The pope’s challenge might at first seem paradoxical. How can the modern university, the bastion of free thinking and innovation, be lacking in the courage to employ reason fully or in providing a free environment for that pursuit? And yet it is, because the modern university is systematically arranged so as to discourage the pursuit of what Fr. Schall calls “the wholeness of truth.”
In his address, Pope Benedict provides a highly condensed and theoretical account of the rise of the modern university. He characterizes the development of the modern mind as a process of dehellenization, by which he means the gradual but persistent emptying of metaphysical content from the Christian faith. The death of metaphysics was first accomplished by the new philosophy of the 17th century, to which Benedict refers as “a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism.” This new philosophy, “confirmed by the success of [its] technology,” led in the 18th and 19th centuries to the formation of new institutions of higher learning, paradigmatically in Paris with the Revolutionary and Napoleonic reorganization of the medieval university, and also with the new foundations at Berlin (1808), Charlottesville (1819), and London (1826). These institutions either excluded theology entirely or insisted that it be taught in a non-dogmatic way, and were, moreover, organized according to a modern conception of the study of philosophy in which the role of metaphysics, if present at all, was much reduced in scope and importance. Only things that could be seen would be studied, and with an eye toward their transformation and rationalization. The balance of the 19th century saw the slow but steady proliferation of academic specialties and the redefinition of traditional humanistic studies, so that, by the opening of the 20th century it was already the case that “the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy,” to use the pope’s words, attempted “to conform themselves to [the] canon of scientificity.”
Benedict XVI opens his address by somewhat wistfully recalling his early years as a professor at the University of Bonn, where, nearly 50 years ago, he found that the faculty shared a “profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason” and welcomed the presence of theologians in their midst. An American scholar of the pope’s vintage—depending upon his institution—might very well testify to a different experience. Yet today, even within institutions associated with Christian confessions, one is not likely to enjoy much of a shared intellectual community. The reason, on these shores, is that the structure of colleges and universities overwhelmingly encourages specialization rather than what Fr. Schall refers to as inquiry “about the whole.” Alasdair MacIntyre, for one, has consistently warned us that we fail to understand what a university is if we do not seek the kind of wisdom that can tie together our disparate subjects and pursuits (see, for instance, his essay “The End of Education: The Fragmentation of the American University,” Commonweal, October 20, 2006). Such wisdom can only be gained if we follow Benedict’s injunction to have “the courage to engage the whole breadth of reason.”
Fr. Schall closes his meditation by wondering out loud “at how many universities in the world is there really freedom to give a lecture such as the one the Professor Pope presented at Regensburg?” The answer, plainly, is very few. And the reason is not that Islam and the media prevent professors from speaking the truth—not yet, at any rate. The reason is that the modern university has systematically closed itself from the pursuit of wisdom and, like the Athenians of old, rightly views those who question its assumptions and practices as dangerous. Fr. Schall has done us a signal service by suggesting we interpret the Regensburg Address as an act of bravery. And the pope’s courage in calling the modern world to return to a more generous and adequate conception of reason—a conception that understands that reason gains its perfection by receiving, acknowledging, and meditating upon Revelation—should elicit from his readers a renewed determination courageously to pursue wisdom in their own studies.
Christopher O. Blum is professor of humanities at Thomas More College.
Posted: April 19, 2008