Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Benedict XVI - Odifreddi: searching for Truth, with gloves off

Boxing gloves

[Warning: long read :)]1

If you are even remotely interested in the dialogue between faith and reason, between religion and science, the last fortnight has to be among the most electrifying periods in the history of mankind. Not only did it kick-off with the beautifully sincere and profound move by Pope Francis in his letter to the atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari, but it saw the publication of “the” interview that Pope Francis gave to Jesuit media and in which he spoke about science in terms that, to my mind, take the Church’s appreciation of science further than ever before. And if that wasn’t enough, today saw the publication of extracts from an 11-page letter that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote to the Italian atheist mathematician Prof. Piergiorgio Odifreddi, in response to his book “Caro Papa ti scrivo: Un matematico ateo a confronto con il papa teologo” (“Dear Pope, I write to you: An atheist mathematician confronting the theologian pope”).

Looking at the two letters (or, more precisely, the extracts from Benedict’s versus the full text of Francis’), Francis’ and Scalfari’s style is like a polite, yet illuminating, exchange between two gentlemen over a cup of tea, while Benedict’s and Odifreddi’s exchange is like a bare-knuckle fist-fight between a pair of prize-winning boxers who in the end sincerely shake hands and respect each other, but without giving an inch during the fight itself.

To begin with, let’s take a quick look at Odifreddi’s opening move - his 204-page book, addressed to Benedict as “between colleagues” - from a maths to a theology professor. Early on, Odifreddi identifies a point in common with Benedict’s thought, by pointing to the following passage from Benedict’s Regensburg address:
“the experience […] of the fact that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason”
While Odifreddi identifies this - the adherence to reason - as a common point of departure, he quickly objects to Benedict’s excessive use of it (“your almost obsessive use of the word “reason,” repeated around forty times, akin to a musical motif or continuous base”) and to the “scandalous” words from Benedict’s sermon before the conclave that elected him:
“[H]aving a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
While being critical of Benedict’s words, Odifreddi argues that “both religion and science are perceived as antidemocratic and absolutist” as a result of their focus on “ultimate truths” and then proceeds to arguing against a series of passages from Benedict’s “Introduction To Christianity” and his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy.

Since it is the full, fine detail that is key to understanding the nature of what is going on between Odifreddi and Benedict, let me just pick out a single point of contention (from among many important and interesting ones that I hope to return to soon!),2 which Benedict objected to most forcefully and which the following passage from Odifreddi’s book sums up nicely:
“There is little to say about the historical Jesus, literally, because there are virtually no traces of him in the official history of the period. In total, there are only few tens of lines about him in the works of Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius and Flavius Josephus. Some are of uncertain interpretation, like the “Chrestus” of Suetonius. Others are of dubious authenticity, like the interpolation of Flavius Josephus. […] If, therefore, Jesus truly existed, he must have been irrelevant to his contemporaries, beyond the narrow circle of his relatives, friends and followers.”
Odifreddi further accuses Benedict of side-stepping questions of fact by saying to him: “you seem uninterested in (or seem interested in not) discussing the historicity of the Gospels and the facts that they report” and attributes to him an opposition to historical-critical methods of Biblical interpretation, by quoting Benedict as saying that they “can effectively become an instrument of the Antichrist.”

Benedict’s response here is as sharp as the jab he received:
“What you say about the figure of Jesus is not worthy of your scientific status. If you put the question as if nothing were, ultimately, known about Jesus, as a historical figure, as if nothing were ascertainable, then I can only firmly invite you to become more competent from a point of view of history. To this end I particularly recommend to you the four volumes that Martin Hengel (exegete at the Protestant Faculty of Theology of Tübingen) has published with Maria Maria Schwemer: it is an excellent example of historical precision and of vast breadth of historical information. […] Further I have to forcefully reject your affirmation (pp. 126) according to which I have presented historical-critical exegesis as an instrument of the Antichrist. Discussing the account of Jesus’ temptations, I have only recalled Soloviev’s thesis, according to whom historical-critical exegesis may also be used by the Antichrist - which is an unquestionable fact. At the same time, however, I have always - and in particular in the foreword to the first volume of my book on Jesus of Nazareth - made it evidently clear that historical-critical exegesis is necessary for a faith that does not propose myths using historical images, but demands true historicity and therefore has to present historical reality in its affirmations also in a scientific way. Because of this, it is not correct either that you say that I have been interested only in meta-history: on the contrary, all my efforts have had as their objective to show that the Jesus described in the Gospels is also the real, historical Jesus; that it is a matter of history that really took place.”
Uff … I have to be honest and admit that I was at first a bit uneasy about the tone of both Odifreddi and Benedict, neither of whom are pulling punches and both of whom are blunt to say the least. Looking more closely though, and reflecting on my professional experience as a scientist, I recognize that this is the tone and strength of academic argument and doing anything less would be dishonest on the part of both the professor and the ex-professor. This is a very different context from the Francis-Scalfari one and it demands the unforgiving rigor, precision and detail of the quotes shown above. Treating Benedict like any other academic shows Odifreddi’s respect for him (which he is explicit about when saying “Having read his Introduction to Christianity, […] I realized that the faith and doctrine of Benedict XVI, unlike that of others, were sufficiently solid and fierce that they could very well face and sustain frontal attack.”) Benedict is equally complimentary about Odifreddi, when he tells him that he “considers very positively the fact that you […] have sought such an open dialogue with the faith of the Catholic Church and that, in spite of all the differences, in the central themes, there is no lack of convergence at all.”

What this, academic, dialogue is truly about is put best - and to my mind beautifully lucidly - by Odifreddi, who says that:
“[The aim], obviously, was not to try and “convert the Pope,” but instead to honestly present to him the perplexity, and at times incredulity, of a mathematician with regard to faith. Analogously, the letter from Benedict XVI does not try to “convert the atheist,” but to direct at him his own, honest, symmetrical perplexity, and at time incredulity, of a very special believer with regard to atheism. The result is a dialogue between faith and reason, which, as Benedict XVI notes, has allowed both of us to confront each other frankly, and at times also bluntly, in the spirit of the Courtyard of the Gentiles that he himself has initiated in 2009. […] Divided in almost everything, but joined by at least one objective: the search for Truth, with a capital “T”.”
Wow! I have to say I am very impressed with Odifreddi (having come to this clearly as Benedict XVI fan) and I look forward to seeing his next steps in this full-contact dialogue. In many ways, I believe, that the most important thing to take away from this first encounter is the seriousness and complete transparency, with which both parties approached the challenge of dialogue - a dialogue that is not a watering-down or a “playing nice” but a striving for Truth, regardless of how vast the abyss may appear between its opposing cliffs. It would be a mistake to get stuck on whether I happen to agree with one side or the other, as it would miss the masterclass in serious dialogue that we have just witnessed. In many ways, I read Odifreddi’s closing thoughts as a transposition - from an intra-Christian to a Christian-atheist setting – of Francis’ call to an ecumenism that starts now, while there are clear differences between the parties, when he says in “the” interview: “We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”

1 Apologies, again, for the rough translation from Italian - once “official” translations are available, I’ll point you to them.
2 I can’t not mention the following zinger from Benedict, which points to the widespread use of “science fiction” in science, in response to Odifreddi’s claiming that it was religion that practiced the genre. Benedict here says, referring to Heisenberg and Schrödinger’s theories, and adding Dawkins’ “selfish gene” to the list, that “I’d call them “science fiction” too, in the good sense: they are visions and anticipations, to arrive at true knowledge, but they are, indeed, only imagination with which we try to get closer to reality.” :) I agree and I’ll definitely pick this line up in a future post.