We must affirm that this Enlightenment philosophy, with its related culture, is incomplete. It consciously cuts off its own historical roots, depriving itself of the powerful sources from which it sprang. It detaches itself from what we might call the basic memory of mankind, without which reason loses its orientation, for now the guiding principle is that man’s capability determines what he does.
Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 41
Reflection – Reason alone! This is the summary of the Enlightenment philosophy Ratzinger critiques in this passage. Rejection of authority, of tradition, of faith, of any source except its own self. The assured faith (paradox alert!) that it is by unaided and untrammeled reason that the human race will obtain happiness and security, solve all problems and heal all ills.
Well, it has failed—I don’t quite know how anyone can seriously disagree. We’ve had centuries now of reason doing its thing (a good thing in itself, let me hasten to add), and the results have beeen… well, mixed to say the least.
Antibiotics. Nuclear bombs. Organ transplants. Pollution. Improved crop yields. Zyklon B. Adult stem cell therapies. Machine guns.
Reason is a powerful tool penetrating how things work and how to make them work for us in a host of different ways. But unaided reason, reason cut off from anything outside its own narrow technological and scientific investigations, does not do so well in determining what we should do, what is genuinely for the good of humanity.
And so we see that all sorts of perfectly rational scientific men over the past centuries have used their reason to create instruments of death, terror, and destruction that in fact threaten the very survival of the human race and the planet. And that is not to mention the host of philosophies and ideologies that ‘reason’ has come up with and which have wrought carnage on a scale unprecedented in the history of humanity. Communism alone killed tens of millions of people in less than a century.
Reason—untrammelled, autonomous reason—is incomplete, as Ratzinger so summarily puts it.
We need context. We need a framework: what is humanity for? What is our good, anyhow? What is the meaning, the purpose, the goal? What is the value of man and his works? From this, which is what Ratzinger means by the ‘basic memory of mankind’ we can determine how technology and scientific progress can truly serve the good of humanity. Without this, we are simply thrashing around aimlessly and doing ourselves great harm in the process.
We cannot kill some human beings to benefit other human beings, even if the humans we are killing are very, very small. We cannot give the power to deal out life and death to the medical profession, as euthanasia advocates would have us do. We cannot by legal fiat change the fundamental realities of human life and its origin and nurturing. Man and woman come together, and this is how babies are made—the state has an interest in strengthening those relational bonds. The state has no interest whatsoever in any other relational bonds among people.
Underneath the Enlightenment philosophy is a sense that reality is infinitely malleable, that there is nothing ‘real’, really, that we can change and shape things without limit, or the only limit being our own power to do so. This is false, and the falsehood is currently driving our society to the brink of poverty and ruin.
There is reality; there is truth; and truth comes to us down the centuries from the sum total of human experience and reflection. We reject this traditional wisdom and insight at our own peril, and I fear this peril is imminent and grave in this year of 2012. Let us come to our senses, and allow our reason to be shaped by wisdom, and our wisdom informed by the witness of the centuries, before it is too late.