Habermas, Ratzinger and the Crisis of Europe – II

In the first part of the post on Habermas, Ratzinger and the Crisis of Europe we ended considering Ratzinger’s call for the recognition of Europe’s deeply religious roots, and Habermas’ ‘religious opening’. Recently there has been some talk of Habermas experimenting some form of conversion, one spanish article heading called “Saint Jurgen Habermas” and Peter Berger (see below), in denying a personal conversion, recognizes the expectation of something of the sort. Much of this seems to have come about following an excellent article by Phillipe Portier on Habermas and Religion. While the article in “El Mundo” does quote Berger and Portier there is still some suggestion that Ratzinger and Habermas are in more agreement than they may actually be. But the biggest problem of “El Mundo” surrounds the idea of a kind of personal dimension to Habermas’ ideas, which are worthy of holiness. The best response to this and a summary of Portier’s article, I think come from Berger’s post, with a highlight below:

I am not sure what Habermas’ personal beliefs are. But I don’t think that his change of mind about religion has anything to do with some sort of personal conversion. Rather, as has been the case with most sociologists of religion, Habermas has looked at the world and concluded that secularization theory—that is, the thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion—does not fit the facts of the matter. Beyond this acknowledgement of the empirical reality of the contemporary world, Habermas admits the historical roots in Biblical religion of modern individualism, and he thinks that this connection is still operative today. Yet, when all is said and done, Habermas now has a positive view of religion (at least in its Judaeo-Christian version) for utilitarian reasons: Religion, whether true or not, is socially useful.

Let us stipulate that smoking is unhealthy. Let us then assume that a tribe in some remote jungle believes that tobacco smoke attracts malevolent spirits. A public health official sent into the region does not, of course, share this superstition. But he makes use of it in dissuading people from acquiring a taste for newly available cigarettes—because he knows that some people do the right thing for a wrong reason. Eventually, he thinks, people will do the right thing for a better reason. And that will be the end of the demonological theory of tobacco smoke.

Any sociologist will agree that religion, true or not, is useful for the solidarity and moral consensus of society. The problem is that this utility depends on at least some people actually believing that there is the supernatural reality that religion affirms. The utility ceases when nobody believes this anymore.

Edward Gibbon, in chapter 2 of his famous history of the decline of the Roman Empire, has this to say: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful”. When you cross the philosopher with the magistrate, you get Habermas.

Berger is very cautious with any religious affiliations, and the smoking example is quite cynical. He suggests Habermas thinks religion helps people do the right things for the wrong reasons. Portier too explicitly distances Habermas from the thought of Ratzinger on a central point. Speaking oh Habermas’ views he says

“religion has helped to establish the idea of solidarity. It has countered alienation and helped to rebuild a “mode of living” where all get their due. “It grasps the symptoms of a failed life” and “constitutes a source of culture which can promote standards of consciousness and citizen solidarity.”24 Current conditions make the presence of religion even more necessary, because colonization of the world by “turbo-capitalism” and technology has intensified human subjugation. Because of the rise in the power of utilitarianism and the silence of intellectuals,25 we have “lost all clinical definitions for social pathologies.”26 These reflections, Habermas points out, build on ideas of thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, who in their own time had resisted the rule of traditional atheism and had accorded “religious images a potential truth.” 27

Some have seen in this mode of argument, which is based on the idea of man’s loss of his original nature and of its possible regeneration through religion, an indication that Habermas has surrendered to a view in which faith would subsume reason.28 But this is not, I would argue, Habermas’ purpose. Even if he concedes that religion should play a role in history, it is not the same kind of role as envisioned by Karol Wojtyla or Joseph Ratzinger. Like Kant, Habermas views faith as a complement to reason, not as its basis.

The Refusal of Metaphysical Entrapment

Joseph Ratzinger held that Grotius principle of Etsi Deus non daretur29 is the exact opposite of Sicuti daretur Deus—“Act as if God exists.” The words are a warning. In the face of modern thought that seeks to place man solely under the rule of natural reason, reason must be prevented from going off the rails by a transcendent standard. Habermas recognizes religion as the source of a civilized life, but he insists that it should not be in a position to govern politics. His view operates on two levels: on the plane of religious belief, society must not impose a single standard of behavior on its citizens; on the plane of the institutional order, the State must be free to act beyond any kind of submission to positions of communities of belief.”

While Portier’s point is clear, one must wonder if John Paul II and Ratzinger’s idea is that faith subsume reason, and be a basis for reason, rather than a complement. The opening line of the encyclical Fides et ratio seems to suggest otherwise: 

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth;
Is it also the case that Ratzinger is proposing that religion govern politics? While reflecting on the relationship of Islam with secularism, it seems that Ratzinger does actually sincerely believe in the legitimacy of politics’ authority in its own sphere. And his rescuing of the Enlightenment in Subiaco speaks of the same. So while at the personal level Habermas does indeed seem to take a distance and very utilitarian approach to the value of religion, and ultimately his personal position of God rests in his own freedom, conceptually Habermas and Ratzinger may be closer than expected. Sure, at this point it seems that Habermas’ current position on religion is not essentialist  as Portier affirms and he is committed to a Kantian anti-metaphysical position, incompatible with Catholicism. But if Habermas is committed to a “reason animated by belief (provided it does justice to reason)” then one wonders, where this reason will lead Habermas, who is committed to the  “rule of the best argument”. By making the relationship of faith and reason as well as Truth at the center of his thought, Pope Benedict XVI is hedging his bets that intellectually honest thinkers will come to God through reason and in freedom.

Benedict XVI said to the Roman curia on December 22, 2006:

“The Muslim world today finds itself facing an extremely urgent task that is very similar to the one that was imposed upon Christians beginning in the age of the Enlightenment, and that Vatican Council II, through long and painstaking effort, resolved concretely for the Catholic Church. […] 

“On the one hand, we must oppose a dictatorship of positivist reasoning that excludes God from the life of the community and from the public order, thus depriving man of his specific criteria of judgment.

“On the other hand, it is necessary to welcome the real achievements of Enlightenment thinking – human rights, and especially the freedom of faith and its exercise, recognizing these as elements that are also essential for the authenticity of religion. Just as in the Christian community there has been lengthy inquiry into the right attitude of faith toward these convictions – an inquiry that certainly will never be concluded definitively – so also the Islamic world, with its own tradition, stands before the great task of finding the appropriate solutions in this regard.”

Vatican on 7 Billion

Below are some words by the Vatican on the 7 billionth baby, by Fr. Frederico Lombardi. The full article by CNA can be seen here. There is also a discussion of what this means for the population controversy here. Below an excellent illustration by NPR, who I never thought I could publish on this issue, but it is illustrative and balanced.


In his words to “baby number seven billion,” Fr. Lombardi dismissed concerns about overpopulation. “I don’t know whether people will say there are too many or too few of you and your contemporaries. Today, I don’t care about that.” Fr. Lombardi told the landmark baby that the world he or she is coming into “is a bit complicated and it’s not friendly for everyone.”

“We haven’t done a very good job preparing it for you,” he admitted.He noted that the G20 Summit of the world’s wealthiest nations had just concluded its two-day meeting in the French city of Cannes. “The leaders of the richest and most powerful nations are sitting around a table, struggling to find a way forward. We too are asking ourselves about your future. ”His overall message to the baby, however, was a personalized and emotional one. He told the baby that he or she is “unique and special, that you are a wonderful gift, that you are a miracle, that your spirit will live forever, and so you are welcome.”

“We hope that when you smile someone will respond to your smile, and when you cry someone will caress you. We hope you can go to school and that you won’t go hungry. We hope that someone will answer your questions wisely and encourage you as you find your place in the world.”

Nature, not Naturalism

In a previous post I have talked about the philosophical tendency towards naturalism. “From the Stoics through the Latins like Lucretius and Cicero there was a strong Naturalistic tendency in Western thought. Augustine, using Plato, rescues the centrality of God and resist this naturalism, while Boethius nails naturalism’s coffin and puts ‘nature in its place’.” 

In a recent reflection on death, dedicated to deceased prelates, Pope Benedict XVI has given a gem on the subject of the power of nature and the power of God. Nature has its role, but God obeys a different logic that respects nature while keeping primacy. This is another response to the modern ideas of naturalism that pervade our culture. He is reflecting on a passage from Hosea, 6.

At the time of the Prophet Hosea the faith of the Israelites was in danger of being contaminated with the naturalistic religions of the land of Canaan, but this faith is not able to save anyone from death. But God’s intervention in the drama of human history does not obey any natural cycle; it only obeys his grace and faithfulness. The new and eternal life is the fruit of the tree of the cross, a tree that blossoms and bears fruit from the light of the sun of God. Without the cross of Christ all the energy of nature remains impotent before the negative force of sin. A beneficent force greater than that which moves the cycles of nature, a Good greater than that of creation itself: a love that proceeds from the “heart” itself of God and that, while it reveals the ultimate meaning of creation, renews it and directs it toward its original and final goal… Now, thanks to Christ, thanks to the work accomplished in him by the Most Holy Trinity, the images drawn from nature are no longer only symbols, illusory myths, but they speak to us of a reality.

Cardinal Pell on Climate Change

Here is a speech Cardinal Pell gave last week on Climate Change. This was taken from Crisis Magazine, and can also be found on The Tablet and Catholic Culture. He has also spoken before on the issue.

Climate Change, Galileo, and the New Inquisition

George Cardinal Pell

Four centuries ago Galileo was condemned by the Papacy for promoting the theory of a heliocentric universe, because the science was in conflict with Biblical beliefs. Recently, Australian prelate Cardinal George Pell rang the changes on the belief versus science theme in a lecture delivered at the 2011 Global Warming Policy Annual Forum, Westminster Cathedral Hall, London.

With the next UN climate change conference due to take place in Durban at the end of this month, the Cardinal, who has made a study of climate change from a scientific layman’s point of view, insists that to assess the benefits of carbon dioxide emission schemes we must appeal to the scientific evidence and not to a supposed “consensus” that human beings really are causing dangerous changes in the global climate. The following is an edited version of the lecture.

We might ask whether my skepticism on the issue of climate change is yet another example of religious ignorance and intransigence opposing the progress of science. After all, this is what is alleged in the confrontations between Galileo and the papacy in the early seventeenth century, when the Church party, on theevidence of scripture, insisted that the sun moved around the earth; or in the almost equally celebrated debate between Bishop (Soapy Sam) Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley in 1860 at Oxford on the topic of Darwinian evolution, when the claim that man is made in God’s image was seen as contradicting evolution. In fact, my intention in speaking out is to avoid repeating such historical errors and to provide some balance to current ecclesiastical offerings.

I first became interested in the question in the 1990s when studying the anti-human claims of the “deep Greens”. I had long suspected that those predicting dangerous and increasing anthropogenic global warming were overstating their case. During the years 2008-09 it was dangerous for an Australian politician to voice dissent unless he was from a country electorate. Opponents were silenced. As I was not up for re-election and I suspected the emperor had few if any clothes, I made a few more small public statements, never from the pulpit, never at a large public meeting.

What the Science Says: Methodology

Continue reading

Habermas, Ratzinger and the Crisis of Europe – Part I

With the roller coaster experiences of Greece and the G20 Summit, these are opportune times to speak about the crisis of Europe. The media is full of it. But for many other thinkers this crisis has been seen coming in its very foundations. Among these thinkers are Habermas and Ratzinger, whom I have mentioned before together, and the theme of the crisis of Europe unites them once again. This time not as explicitly as before, when the Pope explicitly referenced the philosopher, but the affinity, especially in diagnosis is there.

A fine diagnosis was given by Habermas fairly recently, and can be seen in a Eurozine publication, which includes other authors. Below a key extract of how Habermas sees the crisis:

Europe: A continent of pluralism

I don’t want to say much about the political self−assertion of Europe in a changing world. Compared to the USA and the BRIC countries, our nation states have shrunk to the status of minor principalities. Even Germany’s economic power is going to be of less and less account. As can be seen from every international conflict of the last twenty years, it’s simply foolish to assume that Europe’s voice will still count for anything if we don’t learn to speak with one voice. Joschka Fischer continues to provide us with many cogent arguments for Europe’s self−assertion in global politics. I can understand that this approach isn’t to everyone’s taste; but even those of us averse to power politics would be ill−advised to ignore it.

Secondly, the issue is also one of normative ideas about how to solve the problems that the international community cannot escape: How should we handle the need to regulate market−driven capitalism, climate change and the global risks of nuclear technology, or develop a non−selective human rights policy? Should Europe have no interest in influencing the institutions of a future world order so that they achieve democratic legitimacy and meet standards of social justice?

And, if you will excuse the sentimentality, the third point is ultimately a historical view, arising out of a very different kind of self−assertion. This Europe is a collection of former empires and ultimately of nation states that not only bear responsibility for the dark and criminal flipside of social modernization, but that have also undergone a decline in their own political significance and have had to digest the loss of their imperial power. This Europe, fortunately now domesticated and more civil, has inherited, thanks to its difficult history, an incomparably pluralistic culture. That may sound Eurocentric and indeed it is. But if one knows that among the plurality of voices one only has one, then one can speak from the first−person perspective. What Brecht said about his own country −− “Let our land seem dearest to us just as others’ seem dearest to them” −− we can say about “our” countries as a whole. 

Every journey through Europe −− be it geographical or historical −− leaves the impression, not only on us Europeans, that we have here an incredible diversity stemming from the historical origins of this single continent. This, it seems to me, is worth preserving at all costs. But the irony of history is that we won’t succeed in preserving this diversity, developed over the course of the centuries, if Europe doesn’t stick together, and instead carves itself up into its small, self−contemplating nations. 

In another section, among the threats and challenges Europe must stand up to, Habermas mentions climate change much like the Pope does in other occasions. More interestingly, is the recognition that Europe must find this one voice amidst its pluralism, face and recognize its historical past and keep its diversity by “sticking together”. How can Europe find this voice? Which is it?

This has been one of Ratzinger’s recurrent questions, and the name he chose for Pope partly reflects his care for the European question. Among Ratzinger’s 3 foundational speeches as Pope, one has explicitly dealt with the roots of European culture, and the latest one in Germany delivered at the Bundestag has dealt more broadly with the foundations of Law but clearly faced Germany’s historical question as well. But the day before the death of Pope John Paul II died, Cardinal Ratzinger delivered perhaps his clearest speech on the future of Europe, at Subiaco monastery where St. Benedict of Nursia took to asceticism and the place that is the symbolic cradle of the monastic movement in Europe.

The speech highlighted the suppression of the Christian legacy in the EU’s historical memory, the intellectual dishonesty this involves, and how ultimately this European voice can only be found if we allow God to be part of the equation. This doesn’t mean all Europeans need to be believers, nor that the ‘also truth’ of the enlightenment be rejected, but that room must be made to think “as if God existed”.

In the second speech delivered in the Colleges des Barnardines, Pope Benedict is more explicit about what he sees as an answer to the problem, and dwells less on diagnostics. Once again, he returns to European roots in the monastic movement and the “culture of the word” that formed Europe. Below his response to the European problem at its roots:

We set out from the premise that the basic attitude of monks in the face of the collapse of the old order and its certainties was quaerere Deum – setting out in search of God.  We could describe this as the truly philosophical attitude: looking beyond the penultimate, and setting out in search of the ultimate and the true.  By becoming a monk, a man set out on a broad and noble path, but he had already found the direction he needed:  the word of the Bible, in which he heard God himself speaking… 

The universality of God, and of reason open towards him, is what gave them the motivation—indeed, the obligation—to proclaim the message.  They saw their faith as belonging, not to cultural custom that differs from one people to another, but to the domain of truth, which concerns all people equally.

The fundamental structure of Christian proclamation “outwards” – towards searching and questioning mankind – is seen in Saint Paul’s address at the Areopagus.  We should remember that the Areopagus was not a form of academy at which the most illustrious minds would meet for discussion of lofty matters, but a court of justice, which was competent in matters of religion and ought to have opposed the import of foreign religions.  This is exactly what Paul is reproached for:  “he seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities” (Acts 17:18).  To this, Paul responds:  I have found an altar of yours with this inscription:  ‘to an unknown god’.  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you (17:23).  Paul is not proclaiming unknown gods.  He is proclaiming him whom men do not know and yet do know – the unknown-known; the one they are seeking, whom ultimately they know already, and who yet remains the unknown and unrecognizable.  The deepest layer of human thinking and feeling somehow knows that he must exist, that at the beginning of all things, there must be not irrationality, but creative Reason – not blind chance, but freedom.  Yet even though all men somehow know this, as Paul expressly says in the Letter to the Romans (1:21), this knowledge remains unreal:  a God who is merely imagined and invented is not God at all.  If he does not reveal himself, we cannot gain access to him.  The novelty of Christian proclamation is that it can now say to all peoples: he has revealed himself.  He personally.  And now the way to him is open.  The novelty of Christian proclamation does not consist in a thought, but in a deed: God has revealed himself.  Yet this is no blind deed, but one which is itself Logos – the presence of eternal reason in our flesh.  Verbum caro factum est (Jn 1:14): just so, amid what is made (factum) there is now Logos, Logos is among us.  Creation (factum) is rational.  Naturally, the humility of reason is always needed, in order to accept it:  man’s humility, which responds to God’s humility.

Our present situation differs in many respects from the one that Paul encountered in Athens, yet despite the difference, the two situations also have much in common.  Our cities are no longer filled with altars and with images of multiple deities.  God has truly become for many the great unknown.  But just as in the past, when behind the many images of God the question concerning the unknown God was hidden and present, so too the present absence of God is silently besieged by the question concerning him.  Quaerere Deum – to seek God and to let oneself be found by him, that is today no less necessary than in former times.  A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences.  What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture. Thank you.

The speech to the Bundestag echo’s the need to remember God. While Habermas seems far from agreeing with the Pope when he claims that “a new narrative for European unity doesn’t therefore need to be far−fetched” we can speak of a certain ‘religious opening’ in general, albeit not connected to the European issue. This will be dealt with in Part II.

A Jewish Reflection on Harmony in Creation and Viral Videos

A recent viral video of a cute baby sharing Cheerios with a dog has reminded me of a speech by Rabbi Rosen at the Assisi conference, on which I commented recently.

While I don’t think the baby and the dog have necessarily overcome a pragmatic peace with  “the knowledge of the Lord”, it perhaps can be another image that Isaiah had in mind. To “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb; and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze together their children shall lie down; and the lion shall eat straw like the cattle. A baby shall play on a snake hole and a child shall put his hand on an adder’s den” we could add, “and the baby shall share cheerios with a dog”.