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Ratzinger and Regensburg: On What Is a University? | Fr.
James V. Schall, S.J. | September 18, 2006
The controversy over Benedict XVI's lecture at the University of Regensburg is not just about the
status of truth in Islam. Rather at issue is the nature of a university. What
happens there? The notion of state ministers and legislatures entering into
this issue by their political methods, threatening this or that because of what
is argued in a university, is itself a failure to grasp what a university is,
let alone what a state is. Even worse are threats of violence about an academic
discussion of whether violence is in fact reasonable! The proper forum in which
to answer the later question is the academic forum. This is what the Pope
repeated in the Angelus on September 17.
To understand this issue, we should first underscore the
venue of this lecture. A Pope visits his Bavarian homeland for the first time
since elected to office. He is himself a German. Likewise, he is, and this is
the main point, a former professor in the University of Regensburg invited in
his professorial capacity to do what academics do, or should do. There is also
a crisis in most modern universities on this score at which this address is
also indirectly aimed.
Benedict is not there to give a homily. He does not issue an
encyclical. He is not making a dogmatic statement. He is giving a formal,
academic lecture in a university convocation in which one is free and must be
free to do what one does in universities -- namely, to state the truth and make
arguments for it. The listeners who are there belong to a culture that
understands this. Unless society has a place and a space in which this specific
activity can happen, the very basis of the human intellectual enterprise is
undermined, yes, denied.
The Pope himself makes this point humorously by recalling
the story of his early 1959 professorship at the University of Bonn. On seeing
two separate theological faculties there, one Protestant and one Catholic, a skeptical
profession quipped, "This is odd, two faculties devoted to nothing -- God." They
did not propose to lynch the skeptic Bonn professor for either his wit or his
own "theology." He was a colleague. He said his piece. But the Professor Pope
remarked that Professor Skeptic still had to face the question of the
reasonableness of his own position before those who could argue and dispute
with him before the bar of reason. His skepticism is not all that convincing in
such a place where one freely attends to the reasons within the whole.
The Regensburg lecture covered the whole spectrum of reason
and revelation, world history, the nature of Greek philosophy, the meaning of
Europe, of culture, of science. The lecture was extraordinarily erudite and
penetrating. It was of the highest intellectual caliber and loftiness of
purpose. By choosing to begin with Islam and the nature of jihad, the Pope was
really angling around to his main topic, namely, "What is it to be reasonable,
be it in theology, science, history, or anyplace else?"
The occasion of his remarks, Benedict tells us, was a book
he read. The book itself was of the highest contemporary German scholarship. What
it reported was the facts of a conversation that took place seven hundred years
ago during the battle that soon led to the final Islamic victory over the
At one level, the question is: "Did this conversation
between the Byzantine Emperor and a learned Persian gentleman take place?" "Was
the citation of Ibn Hazn about the nature of God accurate?" No doubt can exist
on either of these scores. The Pope next says that this same voluntarist
philosophy of Ibn Hazn appears in the West, so it is not just an Islamic
problem. Usually it is called "Latin Averrorism," but he refers to Duns Scotus.
Actually, Plato knew of the problem. The question is "whether God is subject to
Logos (reason)?" Or "has He no nature so that He determines that violence is
either good or bad, not in itself, but according to His own unrestricted will
That this voluntarist thesis is prominent in Islamic
philosophy and elsewhere simply cannot be denied. But the Pope is primarily
interested in the truth of this position itself no matter who holds it. Can it
be "reasonable?" Benedict speaks in an academic context. If one maintains that
it is "reasonable," whatever that might mean, he should be free to present his
arguments in this forum, but nothing more.
Likewise, the arguments themselves if presented can be freely
examined and responded to in reason. It is this issue that the Pope was
addressing to Islam. In a free forum, defend or reject intellectually this
proposition that "violence is reasonable." But do not just go ahead and
practice it while attacking or trying to reduce to silence those who think it
untenable and who give reasons why they so think. But if it is untenable, then,
acknowledge it and, outside the university, join those who seek to prevent the
aggression by those who think it not.
This clarification is what a university is about. It is the
first and only place where an issue's truth can be faced as such. No other
forum can do this, certainly not the political one. But the space of the
university must be free. One cannot threaten to kill or vituperate an opinion
that is stated and urged reasonably. One can only seek to answer it in a way
that allows reason as the criterion. Do universities in this sense exist only
in the West?
This is the import of Benedict's lecture at Regensburg when
he spoke about the Logos and revelation. Some have said that Benedict
"confused" his role of pope and his role as professor. The opposite is true
from the text itself. His point is that reason is itself included in this faith
and there are times, as here, when the question is reason.
Comments? Thoughts? Questions? Share them on the Insight Scoop blog!
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
Is Dialogue with Islam Possible? Some Reflections on Pope
Benedict XVI's Address at the University of Regensburg | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
First Musings on Benedict XVI's First Encyclical | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
On Reading the Pope | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Learning and Education | An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Reading Without Learning: On Not Missing "Sublime Passages" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Inequalities of Equality, or All Things Being Equal, Not Everything
Can Be Equal | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On School and Things That Are Not Fair | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
On Teaching the Important Things | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his
website and on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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