As far as the two great themes of “reason” and “freedom” are concerned, here we can only touch upon the issues connected with them. Yes indeed, reason is God's great gift to man, and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life. But when does reason truly triumph? When it is detached from God? When it has become blind to God? Is the reason behind action and capacity for action the whole of reason? If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason's openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil. Only thus does reason become truly human.
Spe Salvi 23
Reflection – We’ve been talking about human progress these past few days on the blog, and of course my motivation in going to the encyclical Spe Salvi and seeing what the Pope has to say there about that topic is the current climate in the world of unrest. Whether it is riots in Greece, Italy, or England, ‘occupations’ on Wall Street and various other cities in North America, or just a persistent feeling of malaise shared by many people today, the question of progress – where are we going? – is becoming an urgent one.
My heart goes out in all this to young people today, speaking as a not-so-long-ago young person. The world does seem to be, if not on the edge of a collapse, at the very least pretty darn creaky right now, and prospects for the future are not terribly bright at the present moment. None of us know what is coming, but there are many signs of impending hardship and the political and social turmoil that will bring.
It was a similar atmosphere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that wrought the twin horrors of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and all the human tragedy that came from them. So it is important for us to reflect on where we are going and how we can face the (possible) hard times ahead.
It is in this context that the need for reason, for human reason applied to the problems of the day, arises. God gave us this great gift, the gift to not only be immersed in the immediate present, its stimuli and appetites, but to take in the whole of reality, to behold, to analyze, to determine, and to act in accordance with the knowledge that comes from these acts.
The Pope here underlines that reason detached or opposed or indifferent to God is reason that has fallen short of its task. Human reason empowers us little frail material creatures to be in relationship with cosmic reality, to embrace, to take in the universal truth of Being. So when we ignore ultimate questions – God, morality, love, justice – in favor of mere technical prowess, we become less than human. Reason becomes for us in that way nothing much more than the crocodile’s jaws or the grizzly bears paws: a blunt object to be used to get us what we want.
Reason, to be truly human, must reach out to the ultimate realities of truth and goodness, the origin and end of the universe. But these ultimate realities are not themselves entirely accessible to us through mere analytical technical rationality. There is no laboratory test that will determine the meaning of life, the demands of justice, the measure of love, the beauty and goodness of my brother or sister, or the existence and nature of God.
To limit reason to what we can do in a laboratory cuts us off from everything that makes life good and human and meaningful. And to do that condemns us then, to merely thrash around in the days ahead, struggling to get what’s ours before someone else gets it, to carve out some little personal fiefdom where I and mine, at least, can have an OK life – and the rest of the world can go to Hell, frankly (excuse my language).We have to do better than that, but the only way to do better than that is to plunge ourselves deeply into the ultimate realities of life: faith, hope, love, justice, beauty, God. And from that we can rebuild our world into something more truly human, something that is worthy of the goodness and beauty God has implanted in us.