Robert Mixa offers a refection on the enduring legacy of Pope Benedict XVI, especially in regards to his contribution to the conversation about secularism and the University.
"Many scholars are challenging modern philosophy’s claim that it has theologically neutral grounds. Their claim is that there is a theology lurking behind every philosophy, but few are conscious of it. Liberal secularism has presupposed that it operates from reason alone. It supposes that it possesses a Reason that is ahistorical and does not come out of a faith tradition. This has been termed secular reason, and most modern states claim this form of reason as their public form of reason because it supposedly can ensure peace in multicultural societies. During the twentieth century, secularism was seen as the inevitable future of the world, but the persistence of faith in twenty-first century has challenged this hypothesis.
To modernity’s dismay, the practice of faith has not been kept a private-matter; rather, it has been brought out to the public sphere aiming to shape culture instead of bowing down to the ideals of secular culture. But the events of September 11, 2001 have convinced many moderns that religion in the public sphere necessarily brews violence. However, many faith-based challenges to secularism have not stirred violence at a political level but have peacefully challenged it at metaphysical and theological levels.
Secularism sees metaphysics and theology as irrelevant mumbo jumbo; it does not see itself as based on any biased value system (tradition), but upon pure, universal reason. However, many scholars, especially those within the Radical Orthodoxy movement, have shown that secularism’s claim to objectivity is false and is indeed based on an unconscious bias. These scholars claim it is a tradition like all others and subject to critique from other traditions. They are challenging secularism’s self-imposed limits on rationality, saying it misses significant aspects of reality and that its first principles are not self-evident. If secularism gave an adequate explanation to these critiques, there would be no dispute; but it has not. Therefore, its absolute hegemony over the modern university ought to be questioned. This is the message Benedict XVI has brought to the universities he has visited. He encourages the universities to move beyond their self-imposed limits and accept the rationality of the Christian faith that would provide the university a unity between their various departments. What is the Christian rationality advocated by the Holy Father?
Benedict has frequently stated that the Christian belief in Christ as Logos (John 1:1), divine Reason, is the faith upon which all the sciences operate. Belief in the Logos is the faith that all has been ordered by a divine rationality. Science assumes that reality is intelligible. If we did not assume this, there would be no science. Hence, one can see why it is no accident that the sciences flourished in the Christian West.
However, many moderns take it for granted that we are capable of understanding reality without coming to terms with the implications of this a priori intelligibility. They are in crisis because they do not acknowledge that faith in the Logos is the condition for the possibility of science. Benedict has encouraged them to acknowledge this and not see it as a threat to their intellectual endeavors.
Most universities realize the crisis of the modern project, but they remain stuck within the ambiguity and fragmentation of postmodernism. In its grasp for certainty and unity between the disciplines, the university has turned to the natural sciences as being the paradigm science – because of its proven methods in the empirical realm -, providing all departments with the real (factual) answers. But the ideal of certain and perfect judgment coming from scientific reductionism is illusory. Being human, scientists are not able to escape the blindness of subjectivity and arrive at pure objectivity. As humbling as it is to admit, scientists, regardless of the progress made in technology, are the ones interpreting and judging data, and therefore, mistakes will be made. Most moderns are optimistic that we will eventually, with the help of technology and improved methodology, overcome this blindness. On the other hand, postmoderns accept this blindness and see us as forever trapped in it. But Christianity has another story. Christianity accepts our multi-formed blindness as a result of original sin, but it does not believe that sin has the last word. Christ is the Light that illumines all things. He is the Vine that unites all branches. He has the last word.
But I’d like to elaborate a little more on postmodernism. Postmodernism claims that there is not one all embracing vision of the world, but that there are multiple world-views, each coherent within itself. Accordingly, none of these world-views have a truth-value. They do not reflect reality as it is. They are merely compelling narratives communities have created to make sense of the world. If postmodernism is correct then there is no way of judging between narratives, for there is no index for judgment. However, while admitting that there are multiple coherent narratives, Benedict does not think that relativism has the last word. He believes that there is a Truth: the Christian narrative. Diverse narratives may more or less share in this Truth; but Benedict, with confidence in Christ’s Resurrection, proclaims Him to be the Truth.
Reason is embedded in different faith traditions. As mentioned earlier, each form of reason has certain theological suppositions that it cannot do without. The only question is whether there is a true form of reason among the supposedly multiple forms of coherent reason. Benedict believes there is, but he believes Reason is dependent upon Faith. In his controversial Regensburg Address (2006), Benedict makes the case that Christianity, with its belief in God as Logos, does not do violence to reason or faith, but allows and encourages the flourishing of both.
Reading this might remind you of John Henry Newman. Both Newman and Benedict have spoken about Biblical faith as essentially public. It is not something to be kept in the closet; rather, it is meant to be proclaimed from the rooftops (Matt. 10:26-27). A secular culture that demands faith to be privatized and domesticated stifles the truth of Christianity. Newman and Benedict have challenged Christians to live out their faith and to question the secular logic of religious privatization.
When one reads Benedict XVI one is struck by the beautiful synthesis of his thought. He does not boast that the synthetic wholeness of his thought is something he has constructed. Rather he sees its unity finding its basis in the wholeness of Christ. I admire Benedict because he takes Christology seriously. If Christ is the Truth then the truth-value of an idea is analogous to the degree it reflects Christ. When the sciences seek the truth they are seeking Him. Without this goal the university becomes a cacophony of voices. The unity that Christ has brought to Benedict XVI’s life and thought ought to be the unity operative in the contemporary university. Christ is the Light that sheds light on everything issue under the sun. With faith in the Word (Logos) made flesh, Christians can move beyond the fragmentation and reductionism of the secular university, and hence, form persons who are ready to proclaim the Truth to the rest of the world. Benedict challenges us to publicly live out this conviction and to faithfully seek understanding under its guidance, for without Christ, the tree of knowledge withers."
Barron, Robert. The Priority of Christ (2007), p. 154.
Robert Mixa is the Research Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.