Culture and Truth: Some Reflections on the Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio (Menlo Park, St Patrick Seminary)
The following is the lecture given by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on Saturday February 13, 1999 in the Chapel at St. Patrick’s Seminary. Cardinal Ratzinger’s visit marked the first time that the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has visited St. Patrick’s Seminary.
I would like to begin my reflections on the Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio of Pope John Paul II with a brief quotation from The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. This short book, which appeared in 1942, presents the questions and dangers faced by modern man in a spirited and ironic way, through a series of imaginary letters of instruction written by a higher demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, a junior demon, a beginner in the work of human seduction, in which he gives him advice on how to proceed.
At one point it seems that the junior demon may have expressed some concern to his uncle over the fact that intelligent people are especially prone to read books containing the wisdom of the ancients, and by doing so, they may come upon traces of the truth. Screwtape responds by reassuring him that the spirits from below have succeeded in inculcating among educated people something which makes that very unlikely. It is called ‘the Historical Point of View’ and it works this way:
`The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement from an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influenced the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates… and so on’ (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 107108).
In his study of interpretation, Josef Pieper cites this passage from C.S. Lewis, and relates how, for example, in the editions of Plato or Dante which were produced in countries under Communist domination, an introduction to the text was systematically added in order to give the reader an ‘historical’ understanding of the writing, and thereby to exclude the question of truth. In this way, scholarship becomes an immunization against the truth.
The question of whether and to what extent the author’s statements are true is viewed as a question that is not scholarly; indeed, it would be a question which would lead beyond what can be documented and demonstrated, and would cause one to fall back into the naivete of the precritical world. In this way, also, the reading of the Bible is neutralized: we can explain when and under what conditions a phrase came into being and we can classify it historically, questions which do not really concern us in an ultimate way.
Behind this form of ‘historical interpretation’ lies a philosophy, a fundamental perspective on reality, which says that it is in fact pointless to ask about what is; we can only ask ourselves what we are able to do with things. The issue is not truth, but praxis, the domination of things for our needs. In the face of such an apparently enlightened limitation of human thought, the question naturally arises: What really is useful to us? Why is it useful? Why do we exist?
One who observes carefully will see that the modern attitude reveals at the same time a false humility and a false presumption, a false humility that does not recognize in the human person the capacity for the truth; a false presumption, by which one places oneself above things, above truth itself, while, at the same time, making the extension of one’s power, one’s domination over things, the objective of one’s thought.
Viewed against the background of this fundamental orientation of modern thought, the intention of the Encyclical and its significance for our historical moment can be better understood. Fides et Ratio seeks to restore to humanity the courage to seek the truth, that is, to encourage reason once again in the adventure of searching for truth. It does this when, referring to the task of interpretation, it contradicts all of ‘Screwtape’s instructions’ and states that:
‘The interpretation of this word [that is, the word of God] cannot merely keep referring us to one interpretation after another, without ever leading us to a statement which is simply true’ (FR 84).
Man is not trapped in a hall of mirrors of interpretations; one can and must seek a breakthrough to what is really true; man must ask who he really is and what he is to do; he must ask whether there is a God; who God is, and what the world is. The one who no longer poses these questions is by that very fact bereft of any standard or path. Allow me to give an example.
The position is gaining ground which maintains that human rights are the cultural product of the JudeoChristian world and which, outside this world, would be unintelligible and without foundation. But what then? What happens if we can no longer recognize common standards which transcend individual cultures? What happens if the unity of mankind is no longer recognizable to man?
Will not division into separate races, classes and nationalities become insurmountable? The person who can no longer recognize a common human nature in others, beyond all such boundaries, has lost his identity. Precisely as a human being, he is in peril. Thus, for philosophy in its classical and original sense, the question of truth is not a frivolity to be enjoyed by affluent cultures which can afford the luxury, but rather a question which concerns the existence and nonexistence of man.
And therefore the Pope earnestly asks for a breaking-down of the barriers of eclecticism, historicism, scientism, pragmatism and nihilism, and he exhorts us not to allow ourselves to be caught up in a form of Post-modernism which, in a decadent desire for negativity itself, tends toward the abdication of all meaning, and seeks to grasp only what is provisional and ephemeral (Cf. FR 91).
Whoever poses the question of truth today as we already mentioned – is necessarily directed to the problem of cultures and their mutual openness. Christianity’s claim to universality, which is based on the universality of truth, is often countered in our day with the argument of the relativity of cultures it is maintained that, in fact, the Christian missionary effort did not disseminate a truth which is the same for all people, but instead subjugated indigenous cultures to the particular culture of Europe, thus damaging the richness of those cultures which had evolved among a variety of peoples.
The Christian missionary effort thus appears as another of the great European sins, as the original form of colonialism and thus, as the spiritual despoiling of other peoples. To this argument, we must reply first of all by noting that in the history of evangelization, there were certainly mistakes, about this no one would disagree. Moreover, that the cultural multiplicity of humanity must find a place in the Church, as the common home for all people, is today recognized without exception.
But in the radical critique of the Christian missionary effort from the standpoint of cultures, there is something deeper at work: it is the question of whether there can be a communion of cultures within the truth that unites them, the question of whether truth can he expressed for all people beyond cultural forms or instead whether, finally, behind the diversity of cultures, truth only appears asymptotically because of its importance, the Pope dedicates several paragraphs of the Encyclical to this question (FR 6972). He underscores the fact that when cultures are deeply rooted in what is human, they bear witness in themselves to the human person’s ‘characteristic openness to the universal and the transcendent’ (FR 70).
Therefore, cultures, as the expression of man’s one essence, are characterized by the human dynamic, which is to transcend all boundaries. Thus, cultures are not fixed once and for all in a single form; they have the capacity to make progress and to be transformed, as they also face the danger of decadence. Cultures are predisposed to the experience of encounter and reciprocal enrichment. As man’s inner openness to God leaves its mark on a culture to the extent to which that culture is great and pure, so there is written in such cultures themselves an inner openness for the revelation of God. Revelation is not something extraneous to cultures, but rather it responds to an inner expectation within cultures themselves.
It was in this connection that Theodor Hacher spoke of the advent character of preChristian cultures, and since that time, many studies in the history of religions have demonstrated quite impressively this advance of cultures toward the Logos of God, who in Jesus Christ became flesh. In this context, the Holy Father makes reference to the listing of peoples in the Pentecost account in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:711), which narrates for us how, through all languages and in all languages, that is, in all cultures, which manifest themselves in language, the testimony about Jesus Christ becomes understandable.
In all of them, the human word becomes the bearer of God’s own language, of God’s own Logos. The Encyclical puts it in this way:
‘While it demands of all who hear it the adherence of faith, the proclamation of the Gospel in different cultures allows people to preserve their own cultural identity. This in no way creates division because the community of the baptized is marked by a universality which can embrace every culture. . .’ (FR 71)
Taking as his starting point the encounter with the culture of India, the Holy Father develops the fundamental principles for the relationship between Christian faith and preChristian cultures. He refers briefly to the great spiritual quest of Indian thought, which struggles for the liberation of the spirit from the confines of space and time, and so manifests in practice the metaphysical openness of man.
This quest for liberation, then, takes on an intellectual form in the great philosophical systems (FR 72). With this reference, the universalistic tendency of the great cultures becomes evident, their transcending of place and time, and so too the way in which they advance man’s being and his highest possibilities. Here the capacity for reciprocal dialogue between cultures finds its foundation in this specific case, the dialogue between Indian culture and those cultures which have grown up on the soil of the Christian faith.
Thus, from a profound contact with Indian culture, a first criterion emerges almost spontaneously: ‘the universality of the human spirit whose basic needs are the same in the most disparate cultures’ (FR 72). From this, a second criterion immediately follows: ‘in engaging great cultures for the first time, the Church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of GrecoLatin thought’ (FR 72).
Finally, the Encyclical specifies a third criterion which derives from the reflections up to this point on the nature of culture: one must take care lest ‘contrary to the very nature of the human spirit, the legitimate defense of the uniqueness and originality of Indian thought be confused with the idea that a particular cultural tradition should remain closed in its difference and affirm itself by opposing other traditions’ (FR 72).
When the Pope insists upon the inalienability of an acquired cultural inheritance, one which has become a vehicle for the common truth about God and man, the question naturally arises as to whether this does not amount to the canonization of a eurocentrism, in the Christian faith, a eurocentrism which would not seem capable of being superseded later by the possibility that a new patrimony could enter – and in fact has entered into the permanent identity of the faith. The question is unavoidable: how Latin and how Greek is the Christian faith in reality, a faith which, of course, originated neither in the Greek nor the Latin world, but in the Semitic world of the Middle East, where Asia, Africa and Europe come together?
The Encyclical takes a position on this problem above all in the second chapter which treats the development of philosophical thought within the Bible, as well as in the fourth chapter which presents the decisive meeting of the wisdom of reason which had matured within the faith and the Greek wisdom of philosophy. On this question, I would make the following brief observations.
Already within the Bible itself a pluralistic inheritance of religious and philosophical thought deriving from various cultural worlds is developed. The word of God unfolds in a process of encounters with man’s search for an answer to his ultimate questions. It does not simply fall straight from heaven, but is in reality a synthesis of cultures. It allows us, on deeper inspection, to recognize a process in which God struggles with man and slowly opens him to his deeper word, to himself, to the Son who is the Logos. The Bible is not simply the expression of the culture of the people of Israel, but rather manifests a constant conflict with the completely natural desire of the people of Israel to be only themselves, to shut themselves in their own culture.
Faith in God and their ‘yes’ to the will of God is wrested from them against their own ideas and wishes. God places himself against certain expressions of the religiosity and religious culture of Israel which, in the worship on the highplaces, in the worship of the `Queen of heaven’, and in the claim to power of its own kingdom, sought to assert itself. From the anger of God and of Moses against the worship of the golden calf at Sinai to the late PostExilic prophets, Israel must constantly be drawn away from elements of its own cultural identity and religious desires; that is, it must leave the worship of its own nationality, the worship of ‘Blood and Land’, in order to submit to God who is completely other, a God who is not of Israel’s own making, the God who created the heavens and the earth and who is God of all peoples.
Israel’s faith requires a continual selftranscendence, an overcoming of its own culture, in order to open itself and enter into the expansiveness of a truth common to all. The books of the Old Testament may appear in many respects less pious, less poetic, less inspired, than certain passages of the sacred books of other peoples. But they possess their own originality in this struggle of faith against particularity, the process of taking leave of what is their own, which begins with Abraham’s departure on his journey.
In a sense, when St. Paul departs from the law, a departure based on his encounter with the risen Lord, this fundamental trajectory of the Old Testament is brought to its logical conclusion; it expresses fully the universalization of the faith of Israel, released from the particularity of an ethnic structure. Now all peoples are invited to join in this process of selftranscendence of their own particularity, the process which first began in Israel. All people are invited to direct themselves to the God who has gone beyond himself in Jesus Christ and, in him, has broken down the ‘wall of hostility’ (Eph 2:14) which was between us, and who leads us to one another through the selfemptying of the Cross.
Faith in Jesus Christ is of its nature a continual opening of the self: it is God’s breaking into the world of human beings and the response of human beings breakingout toward God, who at the same time leads them to one another. Everything particular now belongs to everyone, and everything which belongs to others becomes also our own. The ‘ everything’ referred to in the parable of the prodigal son, when the father says to the elder son, ‘everything which is mine is yours,’ later reappears in the high-priestly prayer of Jesus as the Son’s address to the Father: ‘Everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine.’
This fundamental pattern also shapes the encounter of the Christian message with Greek Culture, an encounter which did not begin with the proclamation of the Gospel, but had already developed within the writings of the Old Testament, above all when these were translated into Greek, and which continued in early Judaism. The encounter was made possible because at the same time a similar process of transcending the particular had begun in the Greek world.
The Fathers of the Church did not simply mix an autonomous and selfstanding Greek culture into the Gospel. They were able to take up the dialogue with Greek philosophy and use it as an instrument for the Gospel, because in the Greek world a form of autocriticism of their own culture which had arisen through the search for God was already under way. Beginning with the Germanic and Slavic peoples, who in the period of the great migrations came into contact with the Christian message, and then later with the peoples of Asia, Africa and America, the Christian faith introduced these people not to Greek culture as such, but rather to its capacity for selftranscendence, which was the true connecting point for interpreting the Christian message.
It drew them into the dynamic of selftranscendence. On this question, Richard Schaffler has recently stated in a striking way that, from the very outset, the proclamation of the Christian message required from the European peoples (who incidentally did not exist as such before the Christian missionary effort), ‘the abandonment . . . of every aboriginal God of the Europeans, long before the extraEuropean cultures came on the scene.’
Thus, we can understand why it was that the Christian proclamation sought a connection with philosophies and not with religions. Where it did seek to connect with religions, for example, where Christ was interpreted as the true Dionysius, Asklepius or Hercules such attempts were quickly superseded. That a connection was sought not with religions, but with philosophies, was itself linked to the fact that there was no intention to canonize a particular culture as such, but rather to enter into it at the point where it had begun to transcend itself, at the point where it had begun to open itself to universal truth and thus to lead it out of the enclosure of pure particularity.
This is a fundamental point of reference also today for the question of connection and contact with other peoples and cultures. Certainly, the Christian faith cannot utilize philosophies which exclude the question of truth, but it can connect with those movements which seek to escape from the prison of relativism. Surely, it cannot reestablish a connection with the ancient religions: there was such an attempt in the time of early Christianity, where, for example, the mystery religions gave new content to
the worship of the ancient gods, or where certain schools of philosophy interpreted in a new way the ancient teachings about the gods.
However, religions can offer forms and structures, and especially attitudes; for example, reverence, humility, the willingness to make sacrifices, goodness, love of neighbor, hope for eternal life. It seems to me that this is important for the question of the salvific significance of world religions. These do not save, so to speak, as closed systems and through fidelity to the system, but they contribute to salvation insofar an they bring men ‘to ask about God’, or as it is expressed in the Old Testament, ‘to seek his face’ to seek ‘the kingdom of God and its righteousness’.
Allow me finally to speak briefly about two other important concepts found in the Encyclical. First, there is the reference to the circularity between theology and philosophy (FR 73). The Encyclical understands this in the sense that theology must always take the Word of God as its starting point, but as this Word is truth, it stands in relationship to the human search for truth, to the connection of reason with truth and, therefore, it must stand in dialogue with philosophy.
The search for truth by believers takes place in a movement in which listening to the Word that has been spoken meets continually with the search of reason. Through this process, on the one hand, faith becomes more profound and more pure, and, on the other hand, human thought is enriched because of the new horizons open to it.
It seems to me that one could develop a bit further this notion of circularity. Philosophy too should not enclose itself in total particularity or simply in the results of its own reflections. As philosophy must be attentive to empirical discoveries, which occur in the various branches of knowledge, so too it should consider, as a source of knowledge for its enrichment, the holy tradition of religions and, above all, the message of the Bible.
In fact, all great philosophies have received illumination and direction from religious tradition. We need only think of the philosophies of Greece or India or those which have developed within Christianity, or even those recent philosophies which, although they are convinced of the autonomy of reason and see it as the highest measure of human thought, at the same time remain indebted to the great impulse which the Biblical faith has given to philosophy along the way. Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling would be unthinkable without the preceding substructure of faith, and Marx, with his radical reinterpretation of the horizon of hope, was influenced by what he had absorbed from the religious tradition. When philosophy completely extinguishes this dialogue with the thinking of faith it ends up as Jaspers once formulated it in an ‘empty seriousness’.
In the end, philosophy will feel forced to renounce the question of truth, that is, to relinquish its very nature for a philosophy which no longer asks about who we are, about why we exist, about whether God and eternal life exist, has, as philosophy, abdicated.
I would like to mention a second thought which is connected with these considerations. The Encyclical speaks explicitly of the contribution which faith has made to philosophy and of the tasks undertaken by philosophy with this contribution. It mentions first some fundamental elements of knowledge, some concepts, which cannot be overlooked in philosophical thought: the idea of a personal God and with it, in general, the concept of the ‘person’ which was formulated for the first time in the encounter between faith and philosophy (FR 76).
In this context, the Encyclical refers to the concept of man as the image of God, that is, to the relational anthropology of the Bible, which understands man as a being in relation. From this, from the relational being of man, God, whose image is portrayed within, can be seen (FR 80).
The notion of sin and guilt is presented as another fundamental anthropological concept; further on, the idea of the equality and freedom of man, as well as the idea of a philosophy of history, are included. Then the Pope formulates three postulates of faith in philosophy; it must recover its sapient dimension as a search for the ultimate and all-encompassing meaning of life (FR 81) ; it should attest to the human capacity to know the truth (FR 82) ; and third, following from these, there is a need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range. This means that human thought cannot stop at the level of appearance, but must reach beyond appearance to being itself; it must go from ‘phenomenon to foundation,’ (FR 83).
In today’s context, the impossibility of passing beyond what is apparent, that is, of passing beyond phenomena, has indeed become a kind of dogma. But isn’t the human person then cut off from his innermost self, if he stops simply at appearances? Doesn’t one then begin to lead a life which is simply appearance? It is at this crucial point of contemporary thought that we touch on the heart of the Gospel message. For the Gospel of Saint John, the Christian faith decision is precisely this: that one not yield to appearances or raise appearances to the level of the highest reality, but rather that, beyond appearances, one must seek and direct oneself to the glory of God, the radiant splendor of truth. Today, the dictatorship of appearances can be clearly seen on two planes: on the level of political activity where, in many cases, what really counts is what ‘appears’ about facts; what is said, what is written, what is presented, more than the facts themselves.
Widespread opinion assumes a greater importance than what in fact really happened. Something similar occurs on the theological level when, in approaching the Biblical message, the so-called modern worldview (in the thought of Bultmann, for example) becomes the single measure for judgment, which decides about what can and what cannot be, though in fact this worldview, if correctly represented, does not even attempt to decide on questions of being or ultimate reality, or final possibility, but rather seeks to understand the laws which govern the things that are apparent to us, and nothing more.
In this connection, the Holy Father emphasizes the limits of the concept of ‘experience, which today, in keeping with the dominant limitation to what is apparent, is often elevated even in theology to the level of the ultimate standard.’ As the Encyclical explains, ‘The word of God refers constantly to things which transcend human experience’ (FR 83).
It can do so, because human beings are not limited to the world of appearances or to subjective experience. Indeed, the reduction to experience traps the human person in the subjective. Revelation is more than experience, and only thus does it give us an experience of God and help us to bring our own experiences together, to order them rightly, and through positive and critical discernment, to understand and communicate them. I am convinced that, in our current philosophical and theological debate, precisely this section of the Encyclical must he given further thought and investigation; it could well become a valuable source of enrichment for cultural research in our time.
I would like to close by referring to a comment on the Encyclical which appeared in Die Zelt, a German weekly newspaper which is not usually very favorable to the Church. The commentator, Jan Ross, grasped the essence of the Pope’s message very well when he noted that the dethroning of theology and metaphysics had made human thought ‘not only more free, but also more narrow’, indeed, he was not afraid to speak of a Verdummung durch Unglauben a ‘`dumbingdown through unbelief’.
He writes: ‘As reason has turned away from the ultimate questions, it has become indifferent and tiresome, it has become incompetent for addressing the life questions of good and evil, of death and immortality’. The voice
of the Pope has ‘inspired many persons and entire peoples, it has sounded harsh and trenchant to the ear of many, and even aroused hatred, but if it falls silent, this would be a moment of dreadful silence’.
In fact, if we no longer speak about God and man, about sin and grace, about death and eternal life, then all that remains is sound and fury, a useless attempt to cover up the silencing of what is authentically human. With the fearless frankness of faith, the Pope has pitted himself against the danger of this silence and in doing so he has rendered a service not only to the Church, but to humanity as well. For this we should be grateful to him.
taken from: The Patrician – Winter, 1999 St. Patrick’s Seminary Patrician Magazine, February 1999