Father Cantalamessa's 3rd Advent Homily

"The Christian Response to Rationalism"

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 17, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Here is the Advent reflection delivered Friday by Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Pontifical Household, for Benedict XVI and members of the Roman Curia. The talk was titled: "'Always Be Ready to Give an Explanation to Anyone Who Asks You a Reason for Your Hope' (1 Peter 3:15): The Christian Response to Rationalism."


 
* * *

1. Usurping Reason
 
The third obstacle, which makes so much of modern culture "refractory" to the Gospel, is rationalism. We will address it in this last meditation of Advent.
 
Cardinal, and now blessed, John Henry Newman has left us a memorable address, given on Dec. 11, 1831, at Oxford University, entitled "The Usurpation of Reason." Defined already in this title is what we understand by rationalism.[1] In a note of comment on this address, written in the preface to its third edition in 1871, the author explains what he intends with such an expression. Understood by usurpation of reason is "a certain popular abuse of the faculty, viz., when it occupies itself upon religion, without a due familiar acquaintance with its subject-matter, or without a use of the first principles proper to it. This so-called Reason is in Scripture designated 'the wisdom of the world'; that is the reasoning about Religion based upon secular maxims, which are intrinsically foreign to it."[2]
 
In another university sermon entitled "Faith and Reason in Confrontation," Newman illustrates why reason cannot be the last judge in matters of religion and faith, with the analogy of the conscience: "No one will say that conscience is against reason, or that its dictates cannot be thrown into an argumentative form; yet who will, therefore, maintain that it is not an original principle, but must depend, before its acts, upon some previous processes of reason? Reason analyzes the grounds and motives of action: a reason is an analysis, but is not the motive itself. As then conscience is a simple element in our nature, yet its operations admit of being surveyed and scrutinized by reason; so may faith be cognizable, and its acts be justified, by reason, without therefore being, in matter of fact, dependent upon it. [...] When the Gospel is said to require a rational faith, this need not mean more than that faith is accordant to right reason in the abstract, not that it results from it in the particular case."[3]
 
Newman's analysis has new and original features; he brings to light the so to speak imperialist tendency of reason to subject every aspect of reality to its own principles. One can, however, consider rationalism also from another point of view, closely connected with the preceding one. To stay with the political metaphor used by Newman, we can describe it as the attitude of isolationism, of reason's shutting itself in on itself. This does not consist so much of invading the field of another, but of not recognizing the existence of another field outside its own. In other words, in the refusal that some truth might exist outside that which passes through human reason.
 
Rationalism was not born in this guise with the Enlightenment, even if it impressed on it an acceleration whose effects still persist. It is a tendency against which the faith has always had to struggle. Not only the Christian faith, but also the Jewish and Islamic faiths, at least in the Middle Ages, were faced with this challenge.
 
Raised in every age against such a pretext of the absolutism of reason, has been the voice not only of men of faith but also of militant men, philosophers and scientists, in the field of reason. "The supreme act of reason," wrote Pascal, "lies in recognizing that there is an infinity of things that surpass it."[5] In the very instant that reason recognizes its limit, it breaks it and exceeds it. It is the work of reason that produces this acknowledgment, which is therefore an exquisitely rational act. It is, to the letter, a "learned ignorance," [6] a knowing of not knowing.
 
It must be said, therefore, that the one who puts a limit to reason and humiliates it is rather the one who does not recognize the capacity it has to transcend itself. "Up until now," wrote Kierkegaard, "one has always spoken thus: 'To say that this or that thing cannot be understood does not satisfy science which wants to understand.' Here is the mistake. In fact, the contrary should be said: If human science does not want to acknowledge that there is something that it cannot understand, or -- in a still more precise way -- something of which with clarity it can understand that it cannot understand, then everything is thrown into confusion. Hence it is a task of human knowledge to understand that there are and which are the things that it cannot understand."[7]
 
2. Faith and Sense of the Sacred
 
It is to be expected that this type of reciprocal dispute between faith and reason will continue also in the future. It is inevitable that every age undertake again the journey on its own, but neither the rationalists will convert believers with their arguments, nor believers the rationalists. It is necessary to find a way to break this circle and to free faith from this bottleneck. In all this debate on reason and faith, it is reason that imposes its choices and constrains faith, so to speak, to play away from home and be on the defensive.
 
Cardinal Newman was very conscious of this who, in another of his university addresses, warns of the risk of distorting the faith in the desire to run behind reason. He says he understands, although he cannot accept altogether, the reasons of those who are tempted to drop faith completely from rational research, because of "the strife and division to which argument and controversy minister, the proud self-confidence that is fostered by strength of the reasoning powers, the laxity of opinion which often accompanies the study of the evidences, the coldness, the formality, the secular and carnal spirit which is compatible with an exact adherence to dogmatic formularies; and on the other hand, when they recollect that Scripture represents religion as a divine life, seated in the affections and manifested in spiritual graces."[8]
 
Perceived in all Newman's interventions on the relationship between reason and faith, debated no less today than it was then, is an admonition: Rationalism cannot be combated with another rationalism, although of a contrary sign. Hence, another way must be found that does not pretend to replace the rational defense of the faith, but to accompany it, also because the recipients of the Christian proclamation are not only intellectuals, able to engage in this type of debate, but also ordinary people who are indifferent to it and more sensitive to other arguments.
 
Pascal proposed the path of the heart: "The heart has its reasons, that reason does not know"[9]; the Romantics (for example Schleiermacher) suggested that of feeling. There remains, I think, another way: that of experience and of testimony. I do not intend to speak here about the personal, subjective experience of faith, but of a universal and objective experience which we can then make use of in confrontations with persons who are still strangers to the faith. It does not lead to the full faith that saves: faith in Jesus Christ dead and risen, but can help us to create its premise, which is openness to the mystery, the perception of something that is beyond the world and reason.
 
The most notable contribution that modern phenomenology of religion has given to faith, above all in the way it is presented in the classic work of Rudolph Otto "The Sacred"[10], is of having shown that the traditional affirmation that there is something that is not explained with reason, is not a theoretical postulate or one of faith, but a primordial fact of experience.
 
There is a feeling that has accompanied humanity since its beginning and it is present in all religions and cultures. The author calls it the feeling of the numinous. This is a primary fact, irreducible to any other sentiment of human experience; it hits man with a shudder when, for some external or internal circumstance to him, he finds himself before the revelation of the "tremendous and fascinating" mystery of the supernatural.
 
Otto designates the object of this experience with the adjective "irrational" (the subtitle of the work is "The Irrational in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational"); but the whole work shows that the sense he gives to the term "irrational" is not that of "contrary to reason," but that of "outside of reason," not translatable in rational terms. The numinous manifests itself in different degrees of purity: from the most raw state which is the haunting feeling awakened by stories of spirits and ghost, to the purest stage which is the manifestation of the holiness of God -- the biblical Qadosh -- as in the famous scene of Isaiah's vocation (Isaiah 6:1 ff).
 
If this is so, the re-evangelization of the secularized world must pass also through the recovery of the sense of the sacred. The terrain of culture of rationalism -- its cause and at the same time its effect -- is the loss of the sense of the sacred; it is necessary therefore that the Church help men to re-ascend the slope and rediscover the presence and beauty of the sacred in the world. Charles Peguy said that "the terrible penury of the Sacred is the profound mark of the modern world." One notices it in every aspect of life, but in particular in art, in literature and in everyday language. For many authors, to be described as "desecrating" is no longer an offense, but a compliment.
 
At times the Bible is accused of having "desacrilized" the world for having chased away nymphs and divinities from mountains, seas and forests and for having made of them simple creatures at the service of man. This is true, but it is precisely by stripping them of this false pretext of being themselves divinities, that Scripture restored them to their genuine nature of "signs" of the divine. It is the idolatry of creatures that the Bible combats, not their sacredness.
 
Hence "secularized" creation still has more power to cause the experience of the numinous and the divine. It seems to me that brought to us as a sign of such an experience is the famous statement of Kant, the most illustrious representative of philosophical rationalism:
 
Two things fill my spirit with ever new and growing admiration and veneration, the more profound and the longer the reflection is concerned with them: the starry sky above me, and the moral law in me. [...] The first begins from the post I occupy in the sensible external world, and the connection extends in which I find myself in an interminable grandeur, with words and words, and systems of systems; and then again the boundless times of their periodic movement, of their beginning and their duration."[11]
 
In his book "The Language of God," a living scientist, Francis Collins, recently appointed pontifical academic, describes thus the moment of his return to the faith: "On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."[12]
 
The same wonderful discoveries of science and technology, rather than leading to disenchantment, can become occasions of wonder and experience of the divine. The final moment of the discovery of the human genome was described by the same Francis Collins who headed the team that led to this discovery, "an experience of scientific exaltation and at the same time of religious adoration." Among the wonders of creation, nothing is more wonderful than man and, in man, his intelligence created by God.
 
Science despairs now of touching an extreme limit in the exploration of the infinitely great which is the universe and in the exploration of the infinitely small, which are the sub-atomic particles. Some make of these "disproportions" an argument in favor of the inexistence of a Creator and of the insignificance of man. For the believer they are the sign par excellence, not only of the existence, but also of the attributes of God: the vastness of the universe, is sign of his infinite grandeur and transcendence, the smallness of the atom, of his immanence and of the humility of his incarnation that made him become a baby in the womb of a mother and a minuscule piece of bread in the hands of the priest.
 
Also in daily human life occasions are not lacking in which it is possible to have the experience of "another" dimension: falling in love, the birth of the first child, a great joy. It is necessary to help persons to open their eyes and rediscover their capacity to wonder. "He who wonders will reign," states a saying attributed to Jesus outside the Gospels.[13] In the novel "The Brothers Karamazov," Dostoyevsky refers to the words that Starez Zosima, still an officer of the army, addresses to those present, at the moment in which, dazzled by grace, he refuses to fight his adversary in a duel: "Gentlemen, turn your sight to the gifts of God: this limpid sky, this pure air, this tender grass, these little birds: nature is so beautiful and innocent, whereas we, we alone, are far from God and are stupid and do not understand that life is a paradise,  and that immediately it would be established in all its beauty if only we would understand it, and we would embrace one another and would break out in tears."[14] This is a genuine sense of the sacredness of the world and of life!
 
3. Need of Witnesses
 
When the experience of the sacred and the divine that reaches us spontaneously and unexpectedly from outside ourselves, is received and cultivated, it becomes a lived subjective experience. Hence there are "witnesses" of God who are the saints and, in an altogether particular way, a category of them, the mystics.
 
The mystics, says a famous definition of Dionysius the Areopagite, are those who have "suffered God" [15], that is, who have experienced and lived the divine. They are, for the rest of humanity, as the explorers who entered first, in a hidden way, the Promised Land and who returned to refer to what they had seen of "a land flowing with milk and honey" -- exhorting all the people to cross the Jordan (cf. Numbers 14:6-9). Reaching us in this life through them are the first flashes of eternal life.
 
When their writings are read, how distant and even naive seem the most subtle argumentations of atheists and rationalists! Born, in confrontations with the latter, is a sense of wonder and also of pity, as when one is before someone who speaks of things that he manifestly does not know. As one who believes he can discover constant errors of grammar in an interlocutor, and does not realise that he or she is simply speaking in another language that he does not know. But there is no desire to get involved in refuting him, so much do even the words said in defense of God appear, at that moment, empty and out of place.
 
The mystics are, par excellence, those who have discovered that God "exists"; in fact, that He alone truly exists and that He is infinitely more real than that which we usually call reality. It was precisely from one of these encounters that a disciple of philosopher Husserl, a Jewess and convinced atheist, one night discovered the living God. I am speaking of Edith Stein, now St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was a guest of Christian friends and one evening when they had to go out, she stayed alone in the house and not knowing what to do, took a book from their library and began to read it. It was the autobiography of Saint Teresa of Avila. She went on to read it the whole night. Having come to the end, she simply exclaimed: "this is the truth!" Early in the morning she went to the city to buy a Catholic catechism and a Missal and, after having studied them, went to a neighboring church and asked the priest to baptize her.
 
I also had a small experience of the power that the mystics have to make you touch with your hands the supernatural. It was the year in which there was much discussion on a theologian's book entitled "Does God Exist?" (Existiert Gott?") but, coming to the end of the reading, very few were ready to change the question mark of the title to an exclamation mark. Going to a congress I took with me the book of the writings of Blessed Angela of Foligno that I yet did not know. I remained literally dazzled; I took it with me to the conferences, I opened it at every interval, and in the end I closed it saying to myself: "Does God exist? Not only does He exist, but he is truly a devouring fire!"
 
However, a certain literary fashion succeeded in neutralizing even the living "proof" of the existence of God that the mystics are. It did so with a most singular method: not by reducing their number, but by increasing it, not by restricting the phenomenon, but by dilating it to measure. I am referring to those that in a review of the mystics, in anthologies of their writings, or in a history of mysticism, put one next to another, as if they belonged to the same kind of phenomena, St. John of the Cross and Nostradamus, saints and eccentrics, Christian mysticism and Medieval cabbala, hermetism, theosophism, forms of pantheism and finally alchemy. True mystics are something else and the Church is right to be so rigorous in her judgment of them.
 
Theologian Karl Rahner, taking up, it seems, a phrase of Raymond Pannikar, affirmed: "The Christian of tomorrow, will either be a mystic or he won't be." He intended to say that, in the future, to keep faith alive would be the testimony of persons who have a profound experience of God, more than the demonstration of his rational plausibility. Essentially, Paul VI said the same thing when he affirmed in "Evangelii Nuntiandi" (No. 4): "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses."
 
When the Apostle Peter  recommended to Christians to be ready to "give ... a reason for your hope" (1 Peter 3:15), it is certain, from the context, that he also did not intend to speak of speculative and dialectic reasons, but of practical reasons, namely their experience of Christ, united to the apostolic testimony that guaranteed it. In a comment to this text, cardinal Newman speaks of "implicit reasons," which are, for the believer, more profoundly persuasive than explicit and argumentative reasons. [16]
 
4. A Leap of Faith at Christmas
 
Thus we come to the practical conclusion that most interests us in a meditation such as this one. Not only non-believers are in need of unexpected eruptions of the supernatural but also us, believers, to revive our faith. The greatest danger that religious persons run is of reducing faith to a sequence of rites and formulas, repeated even if scrupulously, but mechanically and without participation of their whole being. "Since this people draws near with words only," the Lord laments in Isaiah, "and honors me with their lips alone, though their hearts are far from me. And their reverence for me has become routine observance of the precepts of men" (Isaiah 29:13).
 
Christmas can be a privileged occasion to have this leap of faith. It is the supreme "theophany" of God, the highest "manifestation of the Sacred." Unfortunately the phenomenon of secularism is despoiling this feast of its character of "tremendous mystery" -- which induces to holy fear and adoration -- reducing it to the sole aspect of "fascinating mystery." Fascinating, but what is worse only in a natural, not a supernatural sense: a feast of family values, of winter, of the tree, of reindeer and of Santa Claus. Under way in some countries at present is the attempt to change even the name Christmas to that of "feast of light." In few cases is secularization as visible as it is at Christmas.
 
For me, the "numinous" character of Christmas is connected to a memory. Some years ago I attended Midnight Mass presided over by John Paul II at St. Peter's. The moment arrived for the singing of the Kalenda, namely, the solemn proclamation of the birth of the Savior, present in the old martyrology and reintroduced in the Christmas liturgy after Vatican II:
 
"In the year 5,199 since the creation of the world, [...]
In the year 1,510 since the exodus [...] from Egypt, [...]
In the 194th Olympiad in the year 732
after the building of Rome,
In the 42nd year of the reign of Octavian Augustus, [...]
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desired to sanctify the world by His gracious coming.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and now after nine months
He is born at Bethlehem in the tribe of Judah as Man from the Virgin Mary."
 
Having come to these last words I experienced what is called "the anointing of the faith": an unexpected interior clarity, which made me say to myself: "It's true! All this is true which is being sung! Not only are the words so. The eternal enters into time. The last event of the series has broken the series; it has created an irreversible  "before" and an "after"; the computation of time which at first was done in relation to different events (such as Olympics, the kingdom of so and so), now is done in relation to only one event." An unexpected emotion went through my whole person, while I could only say: "Thank you, Most Holy Trinity, and thank you also, Holy Mother of God!"
 
It helps a lot to make Christmas the occasion for a leap of faith by finding times for silence. The liturgy envelops the birth of Jesus in silence: "Dum medium silentium tenerent omnia," while everything around was in silence. "Stille Nacht" (Silent Night), is entitled the most widespread and beloved of all Christmas songs. At Christmas, we should feel as if the invitation of the Psalm was personally addressed to us: "Be still and confess that I am God!" (Psalm 46:11).
 
The Mother of God is the unsurpassable model of this Christmas silence: "And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). Mary's silence at Christmas is more than a simple silence; it is wonder, it is adoration; it is a "religious silence," a being overwhelmed by the reality. The truest interpretation of Mary's silence is that which is had in the ancient Byzantine icons, where the Mother of God opens herself motionless, with her gaze fixed, her eyes wide open, as if she had seen things that cannot be repeated in words. Mary, first raised to God what Saint Gregory Nazianzen called a "hymn of silence." [17]
 
The person who truly participates in Christmas is the one who is able to do today, centuries later, what he would have done had he been present on that day. The one who does what Mary has taught us to do: to kneel, to adore, to be silent!
 
NOTES
 
[1] J.H. Newman, Oxford University Sermons, London, 1900, pp. 54-74.

[2] Ib.p., XV.

[3] Ib., p. 183.
 
[4] Ibidem.

[5] B. Pascal, "Pensées," 267 Br.

[6] St. Augustine, Letters 130, 28 (PL 33, 505).

[7] S. Kierkegaard, "Journal," VIII A 11.

[8] Newman, op. cit., p. 262.

[9] B. Pascal, "Pensées," No. 146 (ed. Br. N. 277).

[10] R. Otto, Das Heilige. "Uber das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und seine Verhältnis zum Rationalem," 1917.

[11] I. Kant, “Kritik der praktischen Vernunft”, Beschluß (II 205).

[12] F. Collins, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," Free Press, 2006, pp. 219 and 255.
 
[13] In Clemens Alexandrinus, "Stromata," 2, 9.
 
[14] F. Dostoyevsky, "The Brothers Karamazov," Part II, VI.
 
[15] Dionysius the Areopagite, "Divine Names II," 9 (PG 3, 648) ("pati divina").
 
[16] Cf. Newman, "Implicit and Explicit Reason," in University Sermons, XIII, quot., pp. 251-277.
 
[17] St. Gregory Nazianzen, "Carmina," XXIX (PG 37, 507).