Saturday, 7 October 2006
On the decay of reason

The current number of the Claremont Review boasts a fascinating interview of scholar and author Fr. James V. Schall by Ken Masugi on the topic of Benedict XVI's Regensburg lecture on faith and reason—and the irrational reactions to it.  Fr. Schall's explication is lucid and edifying, but, in light of the recent "un-free-speech" riot at Columbia University, his definition of what a university is strikes me as timely:

KM: Does a genuine life of faith actually require the modern university? Quite a paradox!

JVS: A university is a particular kind of place separate from both the Church and the state, from the work world and from politics but still within the culture. It is a place where free exchange of ideas can go on, but only "according to reason." Not everyone is prepared to follow the terms of this cultural agreement about what a university must be if it is to be what it is. Not every civil society allows it. Indeed, its origins are, besides the Greek experience, in medieval Church, where universities as we know them first appeared. Universities too can betray their own vocation and be swept by ideologies and exclude any real consideration of what is reasonable.

The Regensburg lecture follows the classical canons of academic life and dignity. Within this formal setting, discourse has to be free from outside threats of retaliation or incomprehension of what argument and thought are about No subject can be excluded from consideration. But the consideration must be addressed to reason. The speaker, on finishing his lecture, though he may want action to follow, is content that he freely stated a position that could be understood, that spoke the truth. Without this initial effort, the political order and the culture will not know right order and truth.

What is to be presented and heard, no more, but no less, is a man's understanding of the truth, with his reasons for it. No one at this point is asked to agree or disagree unless persuaded by argument and evidence. But the arguments as such, not agreement or disagreement, are the issue at hand. No one is free just to "disagree" on a whim. Argument, thought, must be confronted on its own terms. The refusal to do so or not to allow such a sphere to exist is, strictly speaking, a totalitarian position. The common good requires the civil society, for its own good, to allow this area of free reflection and discourse, provided it be free and really permits issues to be discussed in reason, including those arising from revelation.

The principal critics of the Pope, in the beginning at least, do not even attempt to engage the argument that he saw fit to place before the human mind for consideration about a serious issue—namely, is, or is not, it permitted and approved to use violence for religious rule and expansion? The claim is made against the Pope that his mere citing of a text is itself a sign of intent to insult. On the surface, such a reaction is simply absurd. The proposed discourse about violence is to be brief, short. In the Platonic tradition, it deserves a brief, short, unambiguous answer, not political and diplomatic declarations that Mohammed was somehow insulted by attributing to him what not a few Muslims themselves, on the historical record, attribute to him. The response to an invitation to academic discourse by threats or even violence is itself an admission that there must be some concern that the answer to the question as asked is, in effect, affirmative. Violence is justified in the name of religion.

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Posted on 10/07/2006 9:54 AM by Robert Bove
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