Friday, December 2, 2011

Throwing Down the Gauntlet

Our life today is marked not only by dissatisfaction with faith, but equally by dissatisfaction with the world of science. Only if we describe this double dissatisfaction… will we provide a reasonably fair representation of the presuppositions of the problem of faith and knowledge today.
Faith and the Future, 16
Reflection – This passage from Fr. Ratzinger dates from the early 1970s. In the context of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, the burgeoning oil crisis, and various forms of naturalism or back-to-the-land movements, he identifies a suspicion or discontent with the promises of scientific progress.
What he is describing is not so much a questioning of the validity of science, but of its sufficiency. Science and technology are what they are, and they do work, if done properly. That is, we get real insights into how the world works and how to make the world work for us better.
But science cannot tell us what this ‘better’ is—that’s the central point. The scientific method is a powerful tool, but there is no laboratory test that can tell us what we are here for and what the true good of man is.
This is also the problem with faith in the modern world, from a different angle. People resist faith (in the sense of formal religious commitment) for a similar reason. The perception is that as science simply tells us what we can do, the list growing longer every year, religious faith simply tells us what we cannot do, the list seemingly drawn up by and under the control of a small group of all too human authorities who themselves may or may not observe it too closely.
Science allows us to do everything (almost) but cannot tell us what we should do. Religion (it is seen) forbids us from doing much that we want to do, but gives us no convincing account of why we should listen to it or to its representatives. And so post-modern man bobs along without direction, driven by the currents of culture, more often than not manipulated by the powerful and clever who don’t actually know any more than we do what is good and true, but certainly know what they want and how to get it.
Ratzinger’s entire career as a theologian is bound up with charting a course out of this impasse. He has presented over and over religious faith as a positive vision of human life in the world, one aspect of which is moral prohibitions, but which far more centrally and crucially is an encounter with transforming love in Jesus Christ.
This encounter leads us to a fuller understanding not only of God but of the human person, our dignity and freedom. Out of this understanding, the scientific community can take direction on how to best utilize its discoveries for the true good of humanity.
This is the vision Ratzinger, and really, the Catholic Church, presents to the post-modern world. Many will not find it attractive or persuasive, it must be granted. But in laying out such a sweeping, creative vision of faith and reason, science and religion working together, Ratzinger has thrown down a challenge to those unwilling to accept his position. Namely, suggest something better! What is the true good of man, and how do you reason your way to it? How are we to govern human progress so that it is true progress, and what are we progressing towards? If not the New Jerusalem, then where is our destination? And will it be truly human? Will we be free there? Will dignity be acknowledged there?
The Pope has truly thrown down the gauntlet (admittedly in his characteristic gentle, kindly fashion) to secular modernity by presenting a powerful synthetic vision of humanity for the 21st century. His challenge has mostly gone ignored, unheard, unheeded. Part of my desire for this blog is that by popularizing his vision, it will seep out slowly and begin to have the influence it deserves in fashioning the world to be a place human beings can live in, in truth, goodness, and beauty.

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