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Why Reason needs Faith

In “The God of Faith and the God of the Philosophers”, Joseph Ratzinger addresses the fatal flaw in modern thought. He warns that reason, on its own, runs the risk of diminishing itself, and shows that Christianity is better equipped to substantiate the claims of reason than materialism is.


by Professor Rolf Schönberger

The God of Faith and the God of the Philosophers

Anyone who wants to engage with the issue of God and reason should familiarize themselves with this early work of Ratzinger’s from 1959. It is still relevant to us in the 21st century, as Christianity has nothing to do with emotive enthusiasm or subjective well-being. Indeed, while there is much talk about the need for reason today, it is seldom applied.

If man cannot use his reason to ask about the essential things in his life, where he comes from and where he is going, about what he should do and may do, about living and dying, but has to leave these decisive questions to feeling, divorced from reason, then he is not elevating reason but dishonoring it.


(Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, p. 158)

The above-cited passage, from an address given in the late 20th century, articulates an idea that appears in many different versions throughout the theological writings and speeches of Joseph Ratzinger. It’s a remarkable passage, and in more ways than one.

What this short passage does not give us is an explanation. But this can be found in other places: The impossibility of rational argument on the vital questions mentioned is the result of a certain concept of reason that has become dominant. Rationality comes in various forms; one of these is undoubtedly “instrumental rationality”, whereby something is explained or put into action based on the criterion of efficiency or functionality. This may be an intention that is realized by way of a corresponding action, but it can also be a function that is fulfilled by actions or social structures without there being any explicit intention to do so.

Wer hilft der Vernunft aus der Krise? Im Bild: Raffaels Schule von Athen.

The Hopi rain dances and the question of rationality

The oft-cited rain dances of the Hopi Indians do not produce rain, but they do bring the community together in times of great need. This is certainly a salutary function, but the ends are of a qualitatively different nature altogether. Yet, what is the criterion by which they are to be judged?

The familiar arsenal of human ambitions – image, power, profit – can serve to a great degree as an explanation, just not as a justification. And it is here that the problem becomes apparent: If by rationality, one is referring only to the functional relationship to ends, then it is no longer possible to rationally judge the ends themselves, and all claims that they are justified can longer be rationally substantiated, nor can they be rationally critiqued. All orientations that do not concern individual actions or the interaction between them are excluded from rational discourse.

Whenever faith is talked about in public nowadays, aspects of insightfulness or even truth are largely left out.

Naturally, this applies to religion as well. Whenever faith is talked about in public nowadays, aspects of insightfulness or even truth are largely left out. That faith is a source of stability for people, good; that it is a source of consolation, that’s good too. This is just as important for those concerned as it is irrelevant to outsiders. For it serves an existential function, and what it is capable of fulfilling for the individual is not, it seems, something that can be judged or critiqued. But to all appearances, it is an entirely individual matter.

Except this only appears to be the case, it seems. Because there is a good chance that at some point, we’ll have to ask just what, exactly, the individual is basing his or her trust on. Is this confidence in his or her faith actually justified? If it is the result of a habit, or purely a matter of intention or blind will, then of course there’s no argument to be had. But this situation itself seems to be part of the crisis referred to, though not described, in the quoted text. For how are we supposed to be able to respond to such questions at all? Such questions are inevitably left unanswered, because the means that would allow us to ask them and to think about them in a productive way are not available to us.

Max Horkheimer, einer der führenden Köpfe der Frankfurter Schule, hat eine lehrreiche "Kritik der instrumentellen Vernunft“ geschrieben.

Man is a rational being – but what does that mean?

Now, according to the ancient teaching, man is a rational being; i.e. a being that has consciousness and some interpretation of himself that is communicated in language and that has categories of absolute difference (right or wrong, not just permitted or not permitted) at his disposal. But as for what exactly this reason that all human beings are endowed with as a matter of principle is, the answer to this question is of course not to be found in nature. As the above-indicated examples demonstrate, it is not just a matter of distinguishing between two meanings of a word in a purely academic or theoretical sense.

“Reasonable”, of course, is not an ironclad standard that one either subjects oneself to or attempts to bypass, but is itself subject to discussion. And so it would be unreasonable, for its part, to prohibit religion from speaking. While it not infrequently does so rather meekly or in a diplomatic, nebulous manner, as a matter of principle it is eminently justified and urgent. But this is also a delicate matter, for the text alludes to something else that has so far remained hidden: What is at stake is not merely a choice between being reasonable or free from the standards of rationality; so-called reason itself runs the risk of diminishing itself.

Many things are instrumentally reasonable: from the progressive destruction of the environment to the proliferation of extralegal spaces in the world economy.

This is something that, in my opinion, Ratzinger rightly and commendably pointed out. For indeed, what we are dealing with is not a matter of mere difference in meaning between a broad or narrow, an abstract or substantive definition of reason. Such concepts – reason, is of course, not the only one at issue – are not free of consequences (to put it rather lightly), either for the individual’s self-understanding or for public discourse. For the more narrow concept of reason, or more precisely, merely instrumental reason, is presented as the concept of rationality in general.

But many things are in fact reasonable in an instrumental sense: from the progressive destruction of the environment to the proliferation of extralegal spaces in the world economy. Yet the question of whether the end is itself justified is something that requires rational discussion, just as much as that of how people should orient their lives, specifically with regard to their coexistence with one another.

Reason, as an organ of theoretical and practical claims, cannot be the product of the non-reasonable.

As much as the Christian faiths forms a context that is capable of providing interpretation, it is not by chance that Ratzinger returns to again and again to the concept of wholeness in his homilies. But what, apart from providing a context, can be meant by this? After all, it needs to be a “light on my path” and not a wheel “that can be turned though nothing else moves with it” (Wittgenstein). So it may turn out that as much as the Christian faith contains a particular factual content, it nevertheless contains universal standards, or rather it claims to contain such and to be capable of bringing them to bear for the common good.

One of the leading minds of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer, write a highly instructive Critique of Instrumental Reason, and was not driven by purely theoretical motives, either. But Christianity – as Joseph Ratzinger also liked to point out – is better equipped to substantiate the claims reason than materialism is. Namely because, as an organ of theoretical and practical claims, reason cannot be a product of the non-reasonable, but rather, conversely, a light of the Logos, who was there “in the beginning”.


*The God of Faith and the God of the Philosophers:
This text, Ratzinger's 1958 inaugural lecture, has not been translated into English. However, the entire text, or a large part of it, is included in Truth and Tolerance, published by Ignatius Press in 2003

The author, Professor Rolf Schöneberger, held the chair for the History of Philosophy at the University of Regensburg until his retirement.