The Light of Everyman
Benedict XVI's Regensburg Lecture, St. John's Proemium & Intercultural Understanding
by Graeme Hunter
The hardest things to talk about are simple ones. My topic is the simplest thing of all: reality. I want to explain how it is that reality is intelligible to us, how it is equally intelligible to all people, and how, therefore, the intelligibility of reality makes intercultural understanding possible.
It will be difficult to convey these ideas to you because they are so simple, and because of the temptation—which you must resist—to impute to what I am saying some kind of complexity.
Intercultural understanding, for example, is not a complex thing. It is as simple as an African and an Asian coming to see things the same way.
But intercultural understanding is a hot-button topic, poisoned with political venom, wounded by ideological warfare. It can operate behind a veil of seemingly high-minded notions such as human rights, pluralism, tolerance, reasonable accommodation, and charters of values, behind which gather ignorant armies who glory in their otherness, their difference, their diversity, and, of course, their complexity.
The Fallout of Politicization
I can give you an example of how politicizing intercultural understanding makes discussing it difficult. Think back to the stormy reception given to a lecture of genius, spoken by then Pope Benedict XVI at the University of Regensburg on September 15, 2006. In that lecture, Benedict showed how the possibility of people's understanding one another lay at the root of European history—how Christianity arose out of the Hellenization of Hebrew faith, and Europe arose out of Christianity, and universities arose out of European civilization, and exist for the purpose of understanding. He showed how Christian Europe, with her universities, not only had the burden of understanding in her heart, but also held the key to understanding in her hand.
With the exception of small groups of independent-minded people in Europe and North America, however, the Regensburg lecture received little of the discussion it deserved. Instead, a single incidental remark near its beginning produced a fit of media hysteria. It was nothing Benedict said, but something he quoted from a fourteenth-century critic of Islam, which the pope censured as exhibiting "a brusqueness that we find unacceptable." But the damage was done. Politically incorrect words had been spoken, even if only in quotation, and the media were in full cry. By the time they had moved on to new hysterias, the Regensburg well had been poisoned, and few thought it healthy to draw their inspiration from those waters.
The politicization of topics like intercultural understanding makes people fearful of speaking about them. But people also don't like to think of themselves as timid, and so they pretend that intercultural understanding is a complex issue, something for anthropology, and sociology, and psychology to throw their techno-terminology at, until the thing itself sags and disappears under a heap of jargon, and its carcass can be said to be understood. Please resist that temptation, and return to the simple thought of an African and an Asian coming to be of one mind. That is all I mean by intercultural understanding.
The Domain of Metaphysics
To explain this simple idea, I want to borrow a couple of other simple ideas from the Regensburg lecture. The first is the big idea with which Benedict concludes, the idea that Christianity furnishes a key to intercultural understanding. The trouble is, we've forgotten where we put the key, because, since the Reformation, a relentless process of dehellenization has operated on Christianity, so that large numbers of us now believe our Christian heritage to be ethnic in character, and accidental rather than universal.
We moderns look to natural science for universality, but according to Benedict, we look to the sciences in vain. On the contrary, you will tell me, nothing has ever been so universally practiced and so widely regarded as normative as the natural sciences are today. This is true, and it is an exciting and wonderful part of modern life. But the possibility of intercultural understanding rests on something simpler and more fundamental than the natural sciences.
I'll let Thomas Aquinas explain what it rests on.
What would a physicist do, Thomas asks, if an informed inquirer claimed to doubt the theory of—let's update the example—quantum mechanics? Appealing to quantum mechanics itself would be futile, because the physicist is dealing with an informed inquirer and quantum mechanics is what the inquirer wishes to put in question. But the physicist could draw on related physical theories and perhaps restore the inquirer's belief in quantum mechanics.
Suppose, instead, though, that the physicist's rejoinder has the opposite effect and leads the inquirer to extend his doubts to all physical theories. Suppose he comes to doubt whether the methodology of physics is a proper one for making nature intelligible. Doubts about physics raised to that level of generality obviously cannot be answered by any considerations drawn from physics itself. That would be to argue in a circle.
But if physics has no answer for such an inquirer, then neither does the physicist—unless he can find an answer in some higher science. The science he is looking for would be the supreme court of science: able to hear and judge a case against physics, but drawing its authority from some higher instance. There is, of course, such a science, and you all know its name. It is called "beyond physics" or, in Greek, "ta meta ta physica," or, transliterated into English, "metaphysics."
Metaphysics is the field in which mind encounters reality. This is not merely what St. Thomas thinks. It is what any informed philosopher thinks. Here is how a prominent contemporary philosopher, Jaegwon Kim, puts it:
Metaphysics is the domain where different languages, theories, explanations, and conceptual systems come together and have their mutual ontological relationships sorted out and clarified. That there is such a domain is the assumption of a broad and untendentious realism about our cognitive activities. If you believe that there is no such common domain, well, that's metaphysics too.
Metaphysics, as I am using the term, is not a discipline that produces its own theories. If it were, it could not be the place where theories are adjudicated. Theories are complicated things and are prone to error. Metaphysics is the place where everything is simple and simple errors are detected.
Just as there are no theories in metaphysics, so there are no explanations, no conceptual schemes, and no languages. Metaphysics is the place where the power of explanations is evaluated, the limitations of conceptual systems are explored, and the expressive capacities of languages are compared. That is why there are also no cultures in metaphysics. Metaphysics sees only the realities to which all people and all cultures have equal access.
Intelligibility & Simplicity
This is one of the simple ideas I want you to see in all its simplicity. In his most recent, challenging, and profoundly controversial book, Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel puts his finger on the very idea I am trying to get you to see. It is the notion of "intelligibility." "Science," Nagel says, "is driven by the assumption that the world is intelligible."
Nagel, of course, is talking about intelligibility to us. That is the sort of intelligibility science assumes. No doubt, to an intellect of infinite capacity, everything is intelligible. But to finite human intellects, notwithstanding their marvellous cybernetic extensions, not everything is intelligible. Our understanding remains finite, and we have no idea how complex the universe may be. The expectation that things will be intelligible to us can therefore be nothing more than an assumption: a simple assumption about complex things.
Simple though it is, however, that assumption is staggering in its implications for science. One staggering implication is that simpler theories are more likely to be true than complex ones. There can be only one correct theoretical explanation for any given occurrence. If the right theory isn't fairly simple, then it won't be intelligible to us. If true theories could land anywhere on the vast, and possibly infinite, scale of complexity, it would be statistically unlikely that many of them would land in the narrow range that is intelligible to us. Thus, it would be statistically unlikely that any of our theories would be true. That is why, if scientists assume that things are intelligible to us, they must also assume that simple theories are more likely to be true than complex ones.
Nihilism or Nonsense
My next simple point is a sad one. Let's go over the reasoning I just went through and see why it is troubling. I began with the fact that science assumes the intelligibility of things. Next I pointed out that, if things are to be intelligible, then simpler theories must be more likely to be true. Finally I pointed out that, if the simpler theory were not more likely to be true, we would almost never have true theories because most true theories would land too far out on the possibly infinite scale of complexity for our finite powers to deal with. But doesn't that really show that science, insofar as it consists of theories, is not entitled to assume that the world is intelligible? There is almost no likelihood of its being so.
The great logician W.V.O. Quine recognized this point decades ago in a short, simple paper called "On Simple Theories of a Complex World." Simple theories are not more likely to be true, he told us. We live in a world so complex that we are unlikely ever to understand it.
Thomas Nagel also appreciates the gravity of our situation. We depend, it seems, on scientific theories for understanding our world and ourselves. But science depends on assuming the world to be intelligible to us, an assumption as gratuitous as it is improbable. Unlike Quine, however, Nagel cannot reconcile himself to such a nihilistic conclusion, and prefers instead to abandon the admirable simplicity with which Quine faced up to it. Desperate for an alternative, Nagel does what desperate intellectuals often do. He complexifies things and muddles them up. To solve the theory problem, he invents a theory, or rather modifies an old one. Nagel acknowledges its "neo-Kantian" roots.
Nature must have presupposed human minds from the very beginning, Nagel theorizes: nature simply "is such as to give rise to conscious beings with minds." Thus, according to Nagel, even before we human beings evolved into existence, somehow our minds were shaping the world so that it would be intelligible to us. Nagel dislikes religious thought and would therefore scorn the idea that the world was made for us. But the proposition that we made it for ourselves strikes him as a promising way forward.
Of such neo-Kantian nonsense too many dismal theories have been made. Nelson Goodman's delirious book, Ways of Worldmaking, probably takes the prize, but Nagel's misstep, so unworthy of such a careful thinker, comes dangerously near. The neo-Kantian line of thought ends in the asylum, where we keep people who believe they made the world.
A Third Alternative: The Logos
If, with Quine, we keep it simple, the idea of an intelligible world becomes a fable. Each person and each culture is really enclosed in its own subjective and incommunicable fairy tales. Intercultural understanding is impossible because understanding of any kind is. The Asian and the African will never agree.
How nice, then, that there is a third alternative, simple like Quine's, but preserving intelligibility, like Nagel's. Pope Benedict points to it at the beginning of his Regensburg Lecture. He draws our attention to the opening words of the Gospel of John, in which John assesses the significance of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. There, says Benedict, we find "the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God" (§17).
"En arche ēe−n ho Logos" are the first five words of John. No translation can do them justice. The word Logos is one of the most polysemous words in the Greek dictionary. Its meanings include "word," "speech," "argument," "theory," "account," "blueprint," the laying out of things and gathering them up. But underlying its many meanings is the simple idea we have just been talking about: the idea of intelligibility.
So the opening words of John could be translated this way: "The starting point was Intelligibility," and here I capitalize "Intelligibility," because John is using it as a proper name. If we were to continue, substituting "Intelligibility" for "Logos," here is what we would learn from John about the world: "and Intelligibility was with God and Intelligibility was God. Intelligibility was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Intelligibility; and without Intelligibility was not anything made that was made."
The intelligibility of things cannot be proven, as we have seen. And we have also seen that the natural sciences give us no right to assume it. But what if, as John proclaims, the intelligibility of things has been revealed, not just in the form of a divine pronouncement written in a holy book, but in the form of God made man, and dwelling among us, full of grace and truth? God as Intelligibility. The Maker who knows the world; the Knower who makes it; making and knowing as one thing; Maker and Knower taking human form.
The Key in the Hand of the Church
Don't let the simplicity of John's announcement mask its power. Its simplicity is its power. I would not dream of trying to defend it. No one can compel you to accept it, but if you are inclined not to, think of the alternatives: Quinean nihilism or neo-Kantian madness.
None of these accounts of intelligibility is subject to proof. But John's account at least has some evidence in its favor. We have the same grounds for believing in the intelligibility of things as we have for believing in human immortality. We believe in immortality because we trust the unbroken generations of testimony going back to eyewitnesses, who beheld the Son of God living, crucified, and risen from the dead. This same Son of God is the Intelligibility that fashioned all things in the beginning, and understood them, when it, or rather he, was one of us.
That is the forgotten key to understanding that Christianity holds in her hand. That hand she extends to all peoples. That is why intercultural exchange is as simple as an African and an Asian coming to be of one mind. •
by S. M. Hutchens
Professor Hunter's article ends hopefully. Here Benedict's "Christocentric shift" (de Gaál) is seen to loosen Hellenism's hold on Christianity through the understanding that intelligibility is not only to be found in Christ, but identified with him. When the Johannine passage is pursued a bit further, one reads, "all things were made through him, and nothing was made apart from him" (panta di' autou egeneto kai choris autou egeneto oude hen). This brings us to regard Christology far more extensively, establishing it as the foundation of metaphysics—that place "beyond nature" that in fact stands over and above all questions of "physics." It makes Hellenism, and with it the entire Western philosophical tradition, superfluous in light of Christian theology, and where admitted, ancillary.
A Christological shift that seeks harmony between Hellenic philosophy and Judaeo-Christian theology needs to define the essential character of that harmony. Benedict, following a medieval Western tradition, does this by characterizing it in terms of a synthesis which makes it necessary that Christian theology enter a kind of union with Hellenism wherever the latter is present in the solution (see Emery de Gaál, The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010, p. 76).
This is what permits him to declare at Regensburg (agreeing in principle with Harnack on the eventualities of the original Jewish Christianity, which must logically be taken up in the idea of the development of doctrine) that "Christianity arose out of the Hellenization of the Hebrew faith." A different perspective, the one I believe the New Testament requires, is that Christianity arose as the fulfillment of the Hebrew faith, and was carried to the Gentiles to correct their mistakes about the nature of things, beginning with a metaphysics resting on a general doctrine of being that did not know Jesus Christ as the whole and perfect mediation between God and creation, these being identified in the first verse of Genesis as the fundamental ontological categories. Saints John and Paul provide the key to metaphysics in their expositions of who Christ is in the scheme of everything—ta panta. (Theology and philosophy are the comprehensive modes of knowing that both claim "everything" as their subject matter.) "Hellenism" from Plato to Hegel is a question about "everything" that has given rise to many theories of being, but these have had their answers firmly laid in Christ from the beginning of the apostolic age. The Christian faith owes nothing to Hellenism. It did not arise out of the Hellenization of the Hebrew faith. This is true only of certain synthesizing strains of Western theology.
The main track is close at hand when Dr. Hunter refers to an alternative way between hopeful confusion and skeptical exhaustion presented in an exposition of John's Prologue that shows the person of Christ to be the fountain of intelligibility. We can go further with the implications of that—to the point, I believe, where all metaphysics, and epistemology with it, is related directly to God in Christ, and the need for help from philosophy, for any synthesis between Hellenism and Judeo-Christian theology in which the former is required for the sustenance of the latter, disappears altogether. Here the answer is found to Tertullian's question about what Athens and Jerusalem have to do with one another: not of necessity "nothing," as he implies, but, "as much as Jerusalem requires." This is not an exclusion, but the recognition of a hierarchy in which one is the master and the other, by its grace and sufferance, the servant. This by no means cancels philosophy, or makes it useless, but places all knowledge whatsoever in the correct taxis, with its foundation, as confessed by the Church, in the knowledge of Christ, which is the knowledge of God. •
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.