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What the Pope really said

I've been reading the text of the Pope's controversial lecture at the University of Regensburg. As others have said, the reference to Islam is not the main point of his address (which isn't to say that he didn't fully appreciate its significance and contentiousness), but I'm more interested here in the main point he was making.

He was concerned with drawing a distinction between two views of God. One is of a rational God, whose actions accord with those of human reason; the other is of a wholly arbitrary God, who could, if he wanted to, have done the opposite of what he has done,

He seems to be touching here on a classical conundrum. If we say that God only wills what is good, this implies that the good is prior to God and hence God is unnecessary. On the other hand, if things are good only because God wills them, doesn't it make our ideas of right and wrong seem quite arbitrary? As the Pope says, this "might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness."

The Islamic view, he says, is closer to the second alternative. The more traditional Christian view, which he explicitly identifies as European, derives from a fusion between Christianity and "the critically purified Greek heritage." I take this to mean a set of Greek philosophical ideas that has been carefully selected to be compatible with Christianity, and is contained in the mediaeval scholastic tradition, especially the writings of St Thomas Aquinas.

The Pope also identifies a different, post-Reformation, view of God, which he finds is is closer to the Islamic position. It is based on a "dehellenized" version of Christianity. He thinks that this view has developed in three stages.

1. The first stage occurred when Reformation thinkers sought to emphasize the importance of Scripture and of faith.

2. The second stage came in the 19th and 20th centuries and centred on the work of Adolf von Harnack, who wanted to return to a simple faith in Jesus. His aim, apparently, was to free Christianity from its philosophical and theological elements, such as the Trinity and the divine nature of Christ. The Pope sees this as an attempt to make Christianity "scientific".

3. The third stage, which we are in at the moment, emphasizes the need to return to the simple message of the New Testament. Other cultures, it is said, should not be required to take on board the Hellenistic ideas that were brought into Christianity in Europe. But, the Pope points out, the New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit.

The Pope concludes his article by saying that there is an intrinsically Platonic element in modern science. That is, reason points beyond itself to an Absolute realm of truth.

If I understand him correctly, he means that the laws of nature cannot be justified within science but need to find a metaphysical basis outside it.

This seems to be the same point that Thomas Nagel makes in his book The Last Word. Both writer refer a lot to Kant. Nagel finds that it is difficult to avoid the idea that there is a an absolute realm from which our ideas of an orderly world derive, and he recognizes that for many intelligent people this leads inevitably to the notion of God.

Nagel and the Pope are pulling in opposite directions here. The Pope, not surprisingly, finds that his view of reason leads him to conceive of God. Nagel would presumably fear that he may be right, although he doesn't himself believe in God and doesn't want to believe in God.

I'm with Nagel here. But I recognize the dilemma which he is writing about, and the Pope's interesting lecture bears on the question too.


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John floyd on :

This very intellegent Pope uses reason and finds god. James Watson uses reason and (like the overwhelming majority of hard scientists) finds no god. Reason uses knowledge; perhaps one's knowledge base influences the outcome of ones reasoning.

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