Thursday, February 28, 2013

Book Review: Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures by Benedict XVI

Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures by Pope Benedict XVI

As a farewell to our beloved pope (who steps down today as I am publishing this), I've been reading some of his books. I plan to reread his first Jesus of Nazareth book since it is soon to be discussed (soon being May 16, 2013, in case you are wondering) on A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast. On to my review...

Just before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger wrote a short book based on some lectures he had delivered. The lectures are about the conflict between traditional religious cultures and the rationalistic culture dominant in today's society. The contemporary political culture has grown from a desire to have a pluralistic society founded only on rational principles and that does not discriminate against any one. The ultimate value is the individual's right to self expression, as long as that does not harm the rights of others.

The difficulty arises when the value, and indeed the rational foundation of society, is detached from the Judeo-Christian roots from which it grew. Legitimate rights for women to continue professional work, have a good reputation, and maintain a reasonable lifestyle come into conflict with an unborn child's right to life. In practical application, the rights of the unborn are denied in favor of other's rights, resulting in a contradiction. Human rights are assumed to be assigned by the state and not belong to humans by their very nature. When the state assumes this power, it betrays the democratic ideals of the rationalistic culture since it allows the weak, powerless, and voiceless to lose their rights in favor of others in a position of power over those defenseless people. That's the law of the jungle masquerading as the law of reason.

Recognizing the fundamental equality of all men and women requires a higher commitment than reason can demand.
...the look I freely direct to the other is decisive for my own dignity, too. I can acquiesce in reducing the other to a thing that I use and destroy; but by the same token, I must accept the consequences of the way I use my eyes here. These consequences fall back on my own head: "You will yourselves be measured by the measure with which you measure." The way I look at the other is decisive for my own humanity. I can treat him quite simply like a thing, forgetting my dignity and his, forgetting that both he and I are made in the image and likeness of God. The other is the custodian of my own dignity. This is why morality, which begins with this look directed to the other, is the custodian of the truth and the dignity of man: man needs morality in order to be himself and not lose his dignity in the world of things. [pp. 96-70]

The pope argues in a persuasive and clear way for a refocusing of the social order. The social order should both acknowledge the achievements made since the Enlightenment and recognizes the importance of the Christian principles which enabled and still enliven those achievements. The book is a good read and a valuable contribution to the current discussions of contemporary culture and society.

Sample Quote, on the need for social interdependence as related to faith: means of my act of trust, I become a sharer in the knowledge of another. This is what we might call the social aspect of the phenomenon of faith. No one knows everything, but all of us together know what it is necessary to know; faith constitutes a network of reciprocal dependence that at the same time is a network of mutual solidarity, where each one sustains the other and is sustained by him. This fundamental anthropological structure can also be seen in our relationship with God, where it finds its original form and its integrating center. [pp. 101-102]
The pope argues earlier that science is the same way--no individual understands all of science but relies on others' knowledge in order to reap the amazing technological fruit we have borne in the 21st century.

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