Saturday, February 04, 2006

Knowledge and Love

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Lorenzo Albacete, a Roman Catholic priest whom I admire, plays spin doctor to Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical on love.

First he does a fine job of laying out the position of those who fear religion.
Benedict's conversations with nonbelievers have convinced him that their major concern about Christianity is not its 'other-worldiness' but the very opposite. For them, what makes Christianity potentially dangerous as a source of conflict and intolerance in a pluralistic society is its insistence that faith is reasonable — that is, that it is the source of knowledge about this world and that, therefore, its teaching should apply to all, believers and nonbelievers alike.

The Christian faith faced a similar criticism before, Benedict has argued, when it first came into contact with the religious and philosophical world of the Roman Empire. The Roman world celebrated religious pluralism and was willing to welcome Christianity as an ethical or 'spiritual' option, but not as a source of truth about this world — that was considered to be the realm of the philosophers.

At that time, Christianity would not accept a place with the religions of the empire. It saw itself as a philosophy, as a path to knowledge about reality, and not primarily as a source of spiritual or ethical inspiration. The problem was that it claimed to be the only path to full knowledge about the meaning and purpose of life.

Indeed, throughout history Christians have used this claim to justify their intolerance of other views, even turning to violence in order to affirm and defend their idea of what is true. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, reminded us that this unhappy tendency was not limited to the Christian faith, but seems inherent in religious belief. If a god offers absolute truth, then those who disagree with that god's teachings are enemies of the truth, and thus harmful to society. It makes no difference whether the intolerance comes from a Christian god, who punishes countries and cities with natural disasters, or a Muslim god, who encourages terrorists to kill the innocent.
Right on target.

But then less convincingly he argues that the encyclical should be reassuring.
Hence the pope's insistence on the importance of emphasizing that God is, above all, love, and that love and truth are inseparable. "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred, this message is both timely and significant," he wrote. "For this reason I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us, and which we in turn must share with others."
Albacete clearly sees the problem with a religion that insists that faith "is the source of knowledge about this world." But it's not at all clear to me that Benedict XVI agrees with this diagnosis.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if Albacete wrote this piece not only as an attempt to present Benedict XVI's encyclical to the world as secular-friendly but also as an appeal to Benedict XVI himself, urging him to confirm the position that he doesn't hold faith to be a source of knowledge about the world. I doubt that Benedict XVI will respond positively to that appeal. I hope I'm wrong.

I also hope that other religious leaders would respond positively to Albacete's message. I'm not optimistic that many will.

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