In the ancient and medieval view all being is what had been thought, the thought of the absolute spirit…human thinking is the re-thinking of the thought which is being itself…in contrast, the work of man seems contingent and transitory.
Introduction to Christianity, 31-2
Reflection – This short passage is from a truly glorious section of this book by a young Fr. Ratzinger, that bright Bavarian lad, in which he lays out over the course of a few pages the entire history of the notion of ‘truth’, from the ancient Greeks through the medieval scholastics to Descartes, Vico, Hegel and Marx.
The progression is from truth as being, our mind’s access to the divinely sourced being of things, to truth as merely applying to our own understanding of our own products and creations, to truth as a revolutionary idea—something we are in the process of making and that emerges from the rubble of historical conflict and revolutionary violence.
We have gone from having a true philosophy of communion, of the intellect of man having a genuine access to the mind of God, to the severing of this communion in reason’s self-limitation to its own creations, to a self-divinized man creating a world in his own image, creating truth by force of will and exercise of power.
In the ancient and medieval world the different exercises of the mind were ranked hierarchically, with (if memory serves) intellectus or understanding at the top and ars or (in Greek) techne—artistry, skill—at the botton. This is because of that sense Ratzinger mentions above of human works being contingent and transitory. It is good to know how to make things, but far better is the intellectual capacity to understand and contemplate what God has made.
In the modern world the hierarchy has been reversed. Indeed, all that matters is techne, and everything is subordinated to it. If we cannot produce some device or product from our understanding, and preferably one with market value, then our understanding is of no value. The only point of the mind, in the modern understanding, is to exert control over the world and shape it according to our wishes and devices and desires.
Intellect becomes, in this understanding, something devoid of any great dignity or sublime purpose. It is a weapon, pure and simple, or at best a tool. Bears have claws, crocodiles have jaws, deer have antlers, and human beings have intellect. Each creature simply uses the tools it has been given to get its share of the world’s goods and carve out its space on the planet.
What is lost here is the anthropology of communion. We are made, as human beings, to be in communion with God and with one another. Our minds can attain truth, not merely to force the world into our shape, but so that our humanity can be conformed to God’s shape by a genuine apprehension and a sincere love of the truth.
It seems to me that this is why contemplation is so important in our world today. I think if there is one glaring thing missing from our culture, both secular and ecclesiastical, it is contemplation. We are a people of programs, of projects, with agendae and time lines and budgets and deadlines… busy, busy, busy. We approach our secular life this way, and we approach the new evangelization and the mission of the Church this way.
There is precious little prayer and contemplation going on. Well, at least it seems that way to me. Certainly there is precious little talking about prayer, encouragement of contemplation, calling people to put down their Blackberries and smart phones to simply be in the presence of God and listen to Him. Maybe it’s all going on and there’s some kind of conspiracy of silence to never mention it. Maybe the call to Christian prayer and silence is being text-messaged to people, and that’s why I never hear about it.