The critique of unreason
Lee Harris at the Weekly Standard goes through Benedict XVI's defense of reason and I think most Belmont Club readers will find it rewarding. In it, Harris examines Benedict's argument that we cannot abandon reason, even in approaching the unknowable; even in trying to understand God, whether you believe in Him or not. Otherwise all conceptions, even the most monstrous, are possible. To reject an abomination, we must have a reason. And to have a reason we must first acknowledge reason itself. Here are some excerpts from Harris' article:
For example, the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was an atheist; yet in his own critique of modern reason, he makes a remarkably shrewd point, which Ratzinger might well have made himself. Modern scientific reason says that the universe is governed by rules through and through; indeed, it is the aim of modern reason to disclose and reveal these laws through scientific inquiry. Yet, as Schopenhauer asks, where did this notion of a law-governed universe come from? No scientist can possibly argue that science has proven the universe to be rule-governed throughout all of space and all of time. As Kant argued in his Critique of Judgment, scientists must begin by assuming that nature is rational through and through: It is a necessary hypothesis for doing science at all. But where did this hypothesis, so vital to science, come from? ...
For example, Ratzinger notes that within the Catholic scholastic tradition itself, thinkers emerged like Duns Scotus, whose imaginary construction of God sundered the "synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit." For Scotus, it was quite possible that God "could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done." If God had willed to create a universe without rhyme or reason, a universe completely unintelligible to human intelligence, that would have been his privilege. If he had decided to issue commandments that enjoined human beings to sacrifice their children, or kill their neighbors, or plunder their property, mankind would have been compelled to obey such commandments. Nor would we have had any "reason" to object to them, or even question them. For Scotus and those who followed him, the ultimate and only reason behind the universe is God's free and unrestrained will. But as Ratzinger asks, How can such a view of God avoid leading "to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness?" The answer is, it cannot.
The Emperor Manuel II Paleologus pondered this question in his debate with the learned Persian. How can a god who commands conversion by the sword be the same god as the emperor's god--a god who wished to gain converts only through the use of words and reason? If Allah is happy to accept converts who are trembling in fear for their lives, with a sword hovering over their necks, then he may well be a god worth fearing, but not a god worth revering. He may represent an imaginary construction of god suitable to slaves, but he will not be an image of god worthy of being worshiped by a Socrates--or by any reasonable man.
Benedict's questions were not directed against Islam any more than they were directed against the modern West. But they were intended to challenge a thread in both Islam and Western culture. One that places itself above any standard; and for whom all is permitted. Fyodor Dostoevsky once described the edge of the Western precipice in Crime and Punishment and elsewhere observed that the only really urgent questions were the Eternal Questions. So if you have a little time on your hands, read Lee Harris and ask them of yourself again.