Western values founder without faith

According to President George Bush, the war against terrorism that America launched after September 11, 2001 is not the much-touted "clash of civilisations" but "a struggle for civilisation". This implies a civilisation that people of all cultural persuasions could affirm, but in what does it consist? Bush says it consists in "liberty", or "the way of life enjoyed by free nations", meaning democracies as found in the West. 
One line of commentary in recent days, while remaining critical of the war on terror, has endorsed Bush's confidence in the Western way of life and added some detail. A British writer says the "Western model of secular liberal democracy, Enlightenment values and capitalist economics" is so successful and attractive it will inevitably win out over the resistance of Islamic militants. A German broadcaster believes attempts to "pulverise the values of the civilised world" are doomed "because history has shown that in the end, progress prevails, modernity wins". 

Both writers try to give some moral content to their sketch of the secular Western state, the latter referring to a "core of humanness" (which totalitarian states deny) and the former to "basic and universal human values such as "dignity, protection of life and justice". 

These are certainly core values that the West has defended very well in modern times -- notably in the wake of the second World War when the leaders of the victorious nations set out to build a lasting peace rather than simply punish the defeated aggressors. Yet if these values were as evident in the West today as we like to think, it is difficult to see why the campaign of Al Qaeda would have gained the following it has, even within Western countries.
In practice, Western values accommodate behaviour ranging from generous humanitarian efforts to preserve life, to the treatment of human life as mere material for experiments; from high sensitivity to what will offend some cultural groups, to open contempt for what is sacred to others; from intense political efforts to protect children from poverty and abuse, to legislation that can rob them of their right to a mother and father. Don't these extremes indicate a deep confusion about the meaning of basic values, if not their eclipse? 

Even thinkers of a secular stamp have seen in the aftermath of 9/11 a vacuum of meaning and moral authority in the West that governments have tried in vain to fill with values-building exercises such as "diversity training", "the citizenship curriculum", "sensitivity courses". None of this seems to have won resident Muslim communities over to secular and liberal values.
Returning to Christian roots 
To many of us the cause and the remedy for this situation are clear. Procedural values such as diversity, dialogue, multiculturalism -- even core values such as human dignity, justice and peace -- are vague in meaning and unconvincing because they have come adrift from the Christian moral tradition that gave birth to them. What we need to do is get back to the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. But isn't this exactly what secularists, and even fellow Christians, fear: a takeover of the state by religious fundamentalists who would have more in common with the Taliban than with the Enlightenment? 

Few people have taken this fear more seriously and given it more thought than the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, and even fewer have answered it with his clarity, serenity and persuasiveness. These are the qualities that stand out in a collection of his papers and speeches, the majority delivered in 2004 before he became Pope, and published under the title, Values in a Time of Upheaval. Central to his thought is the relationship between reason and faith. 

One thing he makes very clear: there is no justification for Christians staging some kind of theocratic coup. In fact, it is Christian faith itself that has "dethroned the idea of political theocracy", as one can see in Christ's statement, "My kingdom is not of this world" -- even though it took a long time for all the consequences of this to be understood. In the modern secular state Christians live together freely with people of other persuasions, their task being "to transform the world from within by means of faith, hope and love." [1] (As a matter of equality and justice, not to mention reason, this does not exclude them from holding public office and expressing their values at the same time.)
On the other hand, the state cannot be constructed out of pure reason, "cut loose from all historical roots and refusing to recognise any moral foundations except those that would win the assent of every person's reason." Such a state, says Ratzinger, is left with only the majority principle, and this means "the ruin of law, which is thereby controlled by statistics." 
Don't we see this in the way in which social policy is handled in the West today, where simple majorities can change laws affecting the basic concept of family? Pope John Paul II offered a trenchant analysis of this tendency in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life. Through the majority principle democracy can contradict even its most basic values, he warned. "The State is no longer the 'common home' where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part." The moral value of democracy is not automatic: it "stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes."[2]
Reason and faith need each other
The truth is that secular rationality and Christian faith -- or other faiths, for that matter -- need each another. Religion is not by its nature irrational, and this is plainly seen in the Christian faith in which, as Ratzinger points out, "God himself is Logos … the creative reason that gave birth to the world and that is reflected in the world." [3] But religion can become irrational, and dangerously so, as, for example, in the terrorism recently carried out by Muslim groups. These pathologies of religion need to be purified by reason.
But there are also pathologies of reason and these may be even more dangerous in our time, says Ratzinger. Consider the atomic bomb or the way scientists manipulating embryos now "turn man into a product"; or the countless victims sacrificed to communism in the Soviet Union or Vietnam. "A sick reason and a misused religion thus lead in the end to the same outcome."[4] In other words, there isn't much to choose between suicide bombers and Dutch euthanasia fanatics. 

"This is why reason too must be admonished to keep its own boundaries and to learn to listen to what the great religious traditions of mankind have to say," counsels Ratzinger. It is "right reason" we must pursue, not just any reason. 
If we want peace in the world, reason and faith must talk to each other. The principal partners in this conversation are Christian faith and Western secular rationality "since these two determine the situation of the world in a way unparalleled by any other cultural forces." But these two in turn must "be willing to listen and accept a genuine correlation" with other cultures also. 

It is important to include them in the attempt at a polyphonic correlation in which these cultures themselves will be open to learn from the Western complementarity of faith and reason. This would permit the growth of a universal process of purification in which those essential values and norms that are known or at least guessed at by all men could acquire a new radiance. In this way, that which keeps the world together would once again become an effective force in mankind. [5]
If Western rationalists think this is a tall order, they should realise that it is also very demanding on Christians -- not because Christians are unused to reasoning, but because it is easier to rationalise than to live the Christian faith. As Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict points out, their God is not only reason but love -- a love that went all the way to the Cross -- and they are supposed to love everyone like that.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.

[1] "Searching for Peace: Tensions and Dangers," in Values in a Time of Upheaval, p. 114
[2] Evangelium vitae, No. 20, 70
[3] "Searching for peace…", p. 112
[4] Ibid, p.111
[5] "What Keeps the World Together: The Moral Foundations of a Free State," loc cit, p.43


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