This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.
Remember, this is a summary of a position he opposes – always a good test of a thinker.
As an academic paper, a lot of it is first-rate. (The nostalgic paean to the golden Humboldtian days of the German university in the 1950s confirms the theory that what turned Josef Ratzinger from the progressive young theologian of Vatican II to the reactionary head of the Holy Office was the trauma of May 1968, a huge, anomic, uncivil, irreverent, Dionysian outbreak among previously deferential and orderly students.)
But the Pope is a pastor first, and the opening example is provocative and superficial. Why choose a Muslim straw man? Why raise the hot-button issue of jihad, of Muslim violence, and then ignore it? By Benedict’s own account, Ibn Hazn’s positions are not recorded fully; the source for the dialogue is Byzantine, probably the Basileus himself. The Pope could at least have mentioned the Mughal Emperor Akbar, an enlightened rationalist who funded theological competition between the major religions.
A lot of modern Islam has regressed into anti-intellectualism. But then so has a lot of Christianity. The Pope does criticise the Reformers for dehellenizing the Gospels – but their project immediately opened up the Bible up to a far higher level of scholarly critique, starting with Melancthon; and the conflict led their successors to a claim for freedom of conscience that widened to secular science and politics. A much softer target would be contemporary American evangelical Christianity à la Bob Jones. In fact, there’s a worldwide, multifaith wave of fundamentalism among people who find it easier not to think.
One can only applaud the Pope’s emphasis on the concordance of reason and faith. He could apply it to the Vatican’s obscurantism on human sexuality and evolution by natural selection. But then, isn’t he its architect?