Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Truth and Tolerance: a Review

What is truth? Is there a definite truth, and can it be known absolutely? How does truth relate to religion, and what is the significance of truth upon society? These and other, similar questions are visited by then Cardinal Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI).

The former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith begins this collection of essays by considering the development of religion from simple primitive experiences through mythical religions, and from there to one of three movements away from myth: "Enlightenment" (wherein "reason" is set up as the absolute truth or ultimate value of the universe), the "Monotheistic Revolution" (as seen in Judaism), or "Mysticism" (the "conservative" of the mythical religions in which the myth is striped away and turned to symbolism, as in Buddhism). In essence, these three paths are the only possible developments beyond the stage of mythical religions, and in fact represent virtually all of the "modern" forms of religion.

One or several of these forms may then contain elements of the truth. Herein lies the first conflict of religious philosophy. Some hold that every religion contains at the least snippets of the truth and therefore have some small inherent value; on the other hand, others argue that while a portion of the truth is present, the fact is that most religions ultimately tend to lead not towards the absolute truth, but rather away from it. There is also dispute as to whether an absolute truth actually exists.

The Pope argues here that an absolute truth does in fact exist. He also takes a middle stance on the question of the value of other religions: he notes that Christianity (in general) and particularly Catholicism contain the absolute truth. Other religions hold value in the fragments of truth that they hold, but they each ultimately fall short and lead astray beyond that. He also notes that while all of these other religions will lead ultimately lead a person astray, some are worse than others at this, possessing less of the truth or leading one farther from it in its absolute form.

He then discusses other points of interest, some specifically within the Catholic Church, some relating to Christianity at large, and others to general philosophical questions. Among some of the specific points he treats are liberation theology and it shortcomings, the problem of a majority-determined religion, and the relationship between truth, order, and liberty.

The Pontiff’s discussion of liberation theology mirrors Eric Vouglin’s discourse on agnosticism and the immanentism of the eschaton. Rather than trusting God to bring about Heaven in His own time and by His own means, the followers of liberation theology believe that it is the responsibility of men to bring about The Kingdom of Heaven upon earth. The generally preferred method of doing this is Marxism, which the Pope reminds us has too many bad consequences attached to it.

More importantly, these people ultimately fall away from the truth of Christianity on this point, as their trust in God and belief in His Paradise become symbolic for a Utopian Kingdom on earth. In this sense, they have replaced the monotheistic vision of Christianity with symbolism, meaning that these people actually have crossed over into the realm of mysticism.

Pope Benedict XVI next treats the doctrine of a majority-determined religion. Specifically, he addresses the chief failing of such a religious arrangement. There are two major problems with having the religious beliefs of a denomination (or any religion, for that matter) determined by the majority vote of that religion’s members.

First, there is the question as to why any minorities should follow the majority’s decision. Should the majority decide upon an important doctrine that a minority disagrees with, there is nothing to hold that minority to the religion. This creates interesting problems aside from a majority forcing its beliefs on the minority: should the minority leave, the member of that minority may have provided key “swing” votes on other doctrines, and thus the entire network of beliefs to that religion are ultimately lost.

More importantly, a religion must ultimately seek the absolute truth of the universe, for to do otherwise would nullify the point of it being a religion. If the religion’s answers to fundamental questions change by a simple majority vote, not to mention complications of small “swing” faction votes from within, then how can the religion lay any claim to teach the truth? Rather, a religion must ultimately remain grounded in its most important doctrines, adhering to them strictly, even at the threat of losing members. The desires and beliefs of any number of people, majority or otherwise, will never change the absolute truth. The mysteries of the universe don’t change simply because a few (or even many) people wish for them to do so.

Finally, the Pope discusses the relationship between truth and freedom, as well as between order and liberty. He holds that some amount of order is required for liberty to truly flourish, and also that freedom disappears when a person is not allowed to seek the truth. Order is needed to allow for the existence of the most fundamental freedoms: life, property rights, emancipation, the right to pursue happiness, etc. Without order, these rights become threatened, and freedom then suffers as anarchy ensues.

Also, in order for a person to be free, he must ultimately be able to seek after the absolute truth. Once he finds it, he must also be able to live in accordance with it. To wander astray from this is to place oneself in bondage. This follows from the fact that a part of the absolute truth is the truth of man’s nature. When man lives in accordance with his nature, he ultimately will find life to be better and will be able to find more happiness and fulfillment. Preventing him from finding truth or obscuring the absolute truth mars this too, and as a result leaves him less able to find satisfaction and fulfillment.

In short, “Truth and Tolerance” by Pope Benedict XVI is an excellent read, for both Catholics and Protestants alike. It tends to be fairly heavy reading, and contains a nice blend of theology with history and philosophy. However, the read is well worth it.

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If you like this post and want to read more, here are some related posts:
Jesus of Nazareth:  a Review
Review of The Meaning of Tradition
The Faith of Our Fathers: a Halfway Review
The Line Through the Heart (Book Review)
What We Can't Not Know (Book Review)
The Revenge of Conscience (Book Review)
The Clash of Orthodoxies:  A Review
Love and Responsibility (Book Review)
Disorientation: A Review in Four Parts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)
My review of The Limits of a Limitless Science and Other Essays (Nicene Guys)
My review of Three to Get Married (Nicene Guys)