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From Ratzinger, "On the Theological Basis of Prayer and Liturgy":

...there is a objection...to a God of revelation. This was already formulated in the philosophy of the ancients, but it has acquired greater force in the modern scientific and technological world. It can be put like this: a rationally constructed world is determined by rationally perceived causality. To such a scheme the notion of personal intervention is both mythical and repugnant. But if this approach is adopted, it must be followed consistently, for what applies to God applies equally to man. If there is only one kind of causality, man, too, as a person is excluded and reduced to an element in mechanical causality, in the realm of necessity; freedom, too, in this case is a mythical idea. In this sense it can be said that the personalities of God and man cannot be separated. If personality is not a possibility, that is, not present, in the "ground" of reality, it is not possible at all. Either freedom is a possibility inherent in the ground of reality or it does exist.

Discussions - 23 Comments

I wonder what Lincoln would say in response to....JUST KIDDING!

Seriously, this little paragraph zero's in on the immeasurable divide between the modernist/materialist, and the Christian/Jew/Muslim. This is why we have a 'cultural war'. This divide is immeasurable, it goes "all the way down", and thus can not be bridged. There is no 'comprise' that can be agreed upon because there is not one little scrap of common ground. The divide is of course about anthropology, the answer to the question "what is man?". Either man is a person, or he is not; " If personality is not a possibility, that is, not present, in the "ground" of reality, it is not possible at all. Either freedom is a possibility inherent in the ground of reality or it does exist. "

Permit me to check my grasp on this paragraph with you better-read readers:

"the notion of personal intervention is both mythical and repugnant." What is personal intervention? I gather it is something that the faithful like, and the rationalist does not.

"for what applies to God applies equally to man." What kind of person believes this? Everything that is true of God is true also of humans? Even as an agnostic, this makes me a bit uncomfortable. I thought God was quite a bit more powerful and ... well... better than me and my neighbors. If not, then he has some back taxes to pay up!

"If personality is not a possibility, that is, not present, in the "ground" of reality, it is not possible at all."

I read this like this: If personality is not real, then it is not real.

I am not trying to be cute (except for my hilarious joke about taxes). Is R merely suggesting that there is a Reality with a capital R, that reason can't beat faith, and that Nativists beat Empiricists?

I think Peter needed to provide more of the relevant passages surrounding the one he posted. Or at least provide a link. I think that might handle some of the points Fung raised.

The pope is absolutely correct. But I have to reiterate that what he is saying is essentially what David Hume was honestly struggling with.

When the pope talks of personal intervention he means a God who is more than someone who created the world and set it in motion at which point Que sera sera according to the causal laws of physics.

The idea of a personal God who preforms miracles and cares about his creation...this is essentially what the pope means by "the notion of personal intervention."

"What applies to God applies equally to man." Fung is completly missing the point. The pope is talking about metaphysical and epistemological foundations. He is saying that if one is intellectually serious and consistent a mechanical view of the world that excludes "the notion of personal intervention" also excludes freedom. In what sense does man have agency in a causal world in which what happened could not have been otherwise, but was the result of causal forces and connections?

In other words the pope is saying that modernity struggles to explain how man is different from an eight ball rolling to the corner pocket, because at some point in the past a cue stick hit a ball at such and such a velocity that hit the eight ball at 23 degrees. In what sense can we honestly say that all antecedent conditions being the same it could have been otherwise?

And if we can't say that about the eight ball, why should we make an exception for man? Que sera sera.

The pope is saying that freedom is not a metaphysical possibility by this line of reasoning. If it is not a metaphysical possibility, then the idea of "personality" is somewhat misguided...a man couldn't have a different personality than the one he currently has, because the one he currently has is the result of experience and the nature of that experience was determined by antecedent conditions set in motion from the begining of time. It really makes no difference if God said "let there be light" or if the big bang is true...the idea of automatic law...the law of nature...the law of God...call it what you want it makes no difference, all antecendent conditions being the same nothing could have been otherwise.

And Christopher's point is really the point of AJ Ayer which was the result of his struggle with David Hume...and David Hume's work built upon John Locke, and John Locke dedicates his Essay Concerning Human Understanding to clearing the way for Newton.

Fung wrote: "the notion of personal intervention is both mythical and repugnant." What is personal intervention? I gather it is something that the faithful like, and the rationalist does not.

I'm guessing the reference is to prayer, and in particular to prayer that requests divine intervention in some way.

To the non-believer the idea of supplication prayer seems to make no sense. Clearly if there is no God then it makes no sense whatever to pray to a God that is not there. But even if there is a God, then the idea of such prayer is chock full of potential problems -- what happens when two people prayer for exactly the opposite things?

Even to believers there is something awkward within the notion of prayer aimed at securing God's specific favor. On the one hand, there's a really tangled nest regarding this and predestination. And on the other, the response, such as it is, is almost never direct and obvious. It takes considerable faith to pray for something, to keep praying for something even though no response is evident, and finally to accept that maybe God has other plans.

Fung, Dan, and Don in AZ,


What Ratzinger is talking about here is "personhood". What does it mean to be a "person", something which transcends the mere material? If we (when we refer to our "selves", our "personality") are simply the biochemistry and electrical activity of our brains, then we are essentially a material "phenomena", and material process (which do not contain freedom - they are determined). That is why man would be reduced to a "mechanical" reality, and true freedom (or love, hope, etc.) would necessarily be "mythical", not really real, just material phenomenon of chemicals and electrons in the brain - sort of like a dream. Darwinists are rather clear on this point.

Christianly, God is said to be a "person" first, and all of God's other attributes (e.g. His "creator" status, His power, essence, omniscience, goodness - everything) flows from his person, not the other way around (i.e. His power does not "create" His Person). This is why the reality of person, personality, of both God and man is linked. If you reduce God to an attribute (in the extreme form of a materialist, to matter/energy/time) then personhood is not really possible in what this "god" created either, that is the universe. If this is true, then the reality of personhood for man is not possible either. Only a person is "free", because only a person transcends not only the material, but also morality (good and evil), etc.

Did I clear it up or muddy the water even more?

For those interested in Austrian Economics I would recommend reading the introduction of Human Action to see how Von Mises answers and or grapples with these questions...the question is: Is Human Action a philosophical treatise or a treatise on Economics? What the hell is an economist doing writting a chapter called: "The Epistemological problem of a general theory of Human Action."?

Of course John Locke, David Hume and John Stuart Mill were all economists...

Having been quite a while since my last class on the modern philosophers, I will have to take Mr. Lewis's word about the connections. What I find interesting is the importance that John Paul and Ratzinger placed on the central reality of person in their writings. One reason I joined the Eastern Orthodox Church 10 years ago was their clear preservation of the theology of the person, something that has been obscured in the west at least since Augustine screwed up and put the Person of God as an attribute of His essence in his neo-Platonic "De Trinitate".

Person, or "theological anthropology" becomes real important in the moral implications of abortion, euthanasia, Terry Schiavo like situations, etc. I find it interesting that these two men who seem to have made reconciliation with the Christian East an important part of their work, are also two men who understand the importance of Christian anthropology...

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Thank you all. That helps a lot. The notion of God as a Person was completely new to me, other than as a metaphor.

I have to agree with the Pope. Using the idea of a mechanistic universe to argue against God is silly when we know so little about the universe. The fact that human beings, with nothing more than a football-sized package of neurons, are capable of so much higher thought demonstrates just how mysterious the universe still is.


So that argument for atheism fails. However, it must be noted that the negative position (atheism) requires no arguments in the first place.

However, it must be noted that the negative position (atheism) requires no arguments in the first place.

Sure does. It requires a presupposition of "no god", based on "I can't sense this god" or whatever. If there is a truly "negative position", then it is agnosticism, which is still somewhat positive with the "I don't know"...

Although I hesitate to contradict those who almost certainly know more than I do, I strongly suspect that anyone who thinks Augustine's De Trinitate is Neo-Platonic either has not understood Neo-Platonism, or has not understood Augustine. For Neo-Platonism, the One does not become flesh. If anything, the De Trinitate, in direct agreement with Augustine's arguments against Porphyry and the other Platonist philosophers in City of God, is an anti-Neo-Platonic work on the issue of the relation of time and eternity, God and the world.

I should also note that Ratzinger, as I understand it, is heavily influenced by Augustine on this very question.

is an anti-Neo-Platonic work on the issue of the relation of time and eternity, God and the world.

Certainly he meant it to be, but his use of the dialectic and the collapse of everything (God, attributes, etc.) into simplicity borrows heavily from the methods/conclusions of Neo-Platonism. No doubt he was trying to do what many in the East did so well, use greek philosophical terms and ideas and bless them, or "Christianize" them. In the past, the west has accused the west of being neo-platonic because of the similarity of terms. In reality, it was the west that was more likely to (however unconsciously) use the methods and come to similar conclusions.

Of course, St. Augustine himself is still a saint, but his particular conception of the Holy Trinity is problematic. It's influence (on the filoque for example) is even more problematic. Interestingly, there is a bit of a backlash by modern professional seminarians on both sides, who accuse earlier commentators of never actually bothering to read Augustine. I find this hyperbole however. Read Farrell’s explication and explain to me how he has not "read Augustine"...

The accusation, I think, is not that those who have characterized Augustine as a neo-Platonist have not read Augustine, but that they have not understood him. I don't think that this is probably the right venue to rehash East-West disputes on Augustine (and certainly not the filioque!), but I want to suggest that characterizing Augustine as collapsing everything "God, attributes, etc." into simplicity is inaccurate.

That's simply incorrect, Chris. The honest atheist doesn't presume that there is no God; he simply refuses to accept any belief that is simply a presumption. The theist and the dishonest atheist both begin by believing/presuming X and then looking for the evidence to support that preconception. An honest atheist begins by admitting ignorance, then looking at the evidence, and then disbelieving those claims which have no support.


(Incidentally, I'm not sure where the idea that atheists have to prove a negative came from. I thought an atheist was a person who didn't believe in God, not a person who necessarily said that there was no God. When I tell people that I don't believe in God they call me an atheist, although I have said nothing whatever about God's actual existence. Perhaps the public is misinformed?)

"The honest atheist doesn't presume that there is no God; he simply refuses to accept any belief that is simply a presumption."

Really? I don't think anyone, atheist or otherwise, consistently can hold to this maxim. For example, how do you know who your parents are? Only through testimony which must be believed. Perhaps saying that belief in the truth of the statement "these are my parents" is not a belief that is "simply a presumption," since the trustworthiness of the ones giving testimony has been justified over and over again.

An honest atheist begins by admitting ignorance, then looking at the evidence, and then disbelieving those claims which have no support.

This is of course the great "myth" of our time - that there is neutral, free from epistemology, "evidence". Every bit of evidence rests on faith in something, for example in the bounds of sense data (i.e. that is my "evidence" is supported, and others "evidence" is not). The materialist is a fundamentalist in that what he has not seen, does not exist - or is not "evidence". His faith is as boundless as the Muslims...

The accusation, I think, is not that those who have characterized Augustine as a neo-Platonist have not read Augustine, but that they have not understood him.

Which is really a shallow accusation, and does not take what those on the other side of the debate are saying seriously. Again, read Farrell and tell me he has not "understood" what Augustine is saying. Indeed, he "understands" it better than most Augustine’s because he "understands" the underlying dialectical dynamic better than most.

Interestingly, the folks who are most enthusiastic along these lines are the One Big Misunderstanding proponents: That all church history and schisms can be attributed to "lack of understanding" on one or both sides, and modern enlightened 21st centaury scholars are the ones who have figured it all out. All those ancient disputes about the filoque, etc. are explained away in essentially sociological/political terms. I find it heartening (as an Eastern Christian) that John Paul and Ratzinger don't seem to follow this road, but seem to acknowledge there are real Dogmatic differences.

In any case, obviously Augustine and his followers are central to all this.

I want to suggest that characterizing Augustine as collapsing everything "God, attributes, etc." into simplicity is inaccurate.

I agree, but that is not what anyone is saying. Saint Augustine (like all saints) got more right than wrong, but his particular conception/theology of the Holy Trinity does in fact collapse the Persons into an essence, conceived (using dialectical reasoning) as a simplicity.

this is probably the right venue to rehash East-West disputes on Augustine (and certainly not the filioque!)

Too true! :)

Buu you sound like a logical positivist(AJ Ayer)... In any case I am not a theologian nor do I know much about catholicism since I was raised Baptist. I am probably missing a lot of subtlety and nuance. In my opinion one might as well be an atheist if one does not admit for the possibility of miracles or personal intervention. If there is a God but he is simply the creator...i.e. one who set the world in motion, then I suppose one could still say that anything that occurs is divine will, but what is the point? Divine will is reduced to automatic law.

This is, I hope, exactly the right venue to rehash the old disputes, and certainly Benedict is all about the need to "rehash" the dispute between Aristotle and, say, Augustine on who or what God is. There's plenty of reason but not a slamdunk case on both sides of this dispute, and there's enough agreement to make collaboration against both civil theological myth and techno-atheism possible.

Tom: I don't know who my parents are. I have a working hypothesis, but I don't claim to know anything.


Christopher: Skepticism did not die with Sextus Empiricus. I am not a materialist; I am a skeptic. In a certain sense, you're correct about evidence. The "problem of the criterion," as philosophers call it, is insurmountable. However, you're caricaturing your opponent to avoid dealing with the issue yourself. If there is no objective evidence, no absolutely knowable truth, then surely the atheist is at least more pardonable than a believer like yourself, who actually believes in and cares about fantasy pills as potent as the Nicene Creed. I've never quite understood why dogmatists think they can bolster their cause by saying that "everything is faith." If everything really is a crapshoot then the only rational position is agnosticism. You're right, in a way, about materialism and strong atheism, but it's hard to take you seriously when you actually seem to believe in so much castle in the sky theology!


Incidentally, I'd call myself a weak atheist. I never said there was no God. I just said I didn't believe in one. Some people try to say that weak atheism is no different than agnosticism, but that puts them in the absurd position of having to say that a man who says "I don't believe in God" isn't an atheist.

Christopher, I haven't read Farrell. I have read Augustine. If you'd like to substantiate your claims based on Augustine's text, please feel free. By the way, I'm not the one pointing to a modern scholar's reading of Augustine.

I'm not sure why saying "your claim about Augustine's text is incorrect" is a shallow accusation. It might be mistaken, but it's not shallow.

I'm open to being mistaken; I haven't been thinking about these issues for very long.

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