I am a bit late on the ball with this (by three weeks, in fact) but the busyness of life has made me keep putting off reading the speech that Pope Benedict XVI delivered at Berlin in September. It is a momentous lecture, in the tradition of his Regensburg address (please read the entire speech before dismissing it as anti-Muslim; such comments ignore the text and miss the real point of the lecture, which is about the intrinsic importance of Greco-Roman philosophy to the Christian tradition), an extremely relevant discussion of the importance of natural law and the Christian cultural heritage to European policy. His essential point is that our rejection of legal imperatives based on naturally revealed truth—our increasing acceptance of positivist descriptions of the universe that, paradoxically, allow for a relativist attitude toward human behaviour—goes hand-in-hand with our treatment of the physical natural world. Rather than viewing ourselves as complete masters of nature, both in the environment and in law, we must acknowledge the importance of a creative force (God) that has constructed the temporal and spiritual (and therefore ethical) environment within which we exist. This fact (this ‘is’) requires responsibility (an ‘ought’) in our personal and political behaviour. Very interestingly, the Holy Father connects the current crisis with a loss of an understanding of European culture. He says it better than I can:
The positivist approach to nature and reason, the positivist world view in general, is a most important dimension of human knowledge and capacity that we may in no way dispense with. But in and of itself it is not a sufficient culture corresponding to the full breadth of the human condition. Where positivist reason considers itself the only sufficient culture and banishes all other cultural realities to the status of subcultures, it diminishes man, indeed it threatens his humanity.
I say this with Europe specifically in mind, where there are concerted efforts to recognize only positivism as a common culture and a common basis for law-making, so that all the other insights and values of our culture are reduced to the level of subculture, with the result that Europe vis-à-vis other world cultures is left in a state of culturelessness and at the same time extremist and radical movements emerge to fill the vacuum. In its self-proclaimed exclusivity, the positivist reason which recognizes nothing beyond mere functionality resembles a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions, being no longer willing to obtain either from God’s wide world. And yet we cannot hide from ourselves the fact that even in this artificial world, we are still covertly drawing upon God’s raw materials, which we refashion into our own products. The windows must be flung open again, we must see the wide world, the sky and the earth once more and learn to make proper use of all this.
I highly recommend reading the entire speech. It is a fantastic example of the way in which this pope is tackling the crises (environmental, economic, political) facing Europe (and, in slightly different ways, the United States) today. His reputation may have been built as a brilliant theologian, but his understanding of the interaction between theology, philosophy, and temporal matters is superb, and very much underreported. The problems facing modern Western society are all linked in ways that are not immediately obvious to those of us trained to look at them from a materialistic perspective, but Benedict has here, as elsewhere, done a wonderful job of bringing to light the interconnectedness of today’s greatest challenges.