Two Towns, Two Speeches, Two Curtains

Planning a summer driving trip with my trusty hard-copy road atlas, I was tracing Interstate 70 through Missouri recently when I saw a town name I had not thought of for some years: Fulton. I stopped there decades back to visit Westminster College, where Winston Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946.

The speech was actually titled “The Sinews of Peace.”  Churchill got some things fantastically wrong. He expressed enthusiasm for the new United Nations as a peace-enforcing institution, and he called for extensive measures to strengthen it, even suggesting that some air forces should come directly under its authority.

But he also got much right, including his description of tyrannical communism and the geopolitical circumstances we faced: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” This division of Europe, and the world, into those areas under communist control and those not would be the basic condition of international relations for the next forty-five years.

Churchill also got the moral contours of the situation he sketched right. He understood nation-states in their context as the units or means of world politics, and he spoke of the potential “moral force” of an alliance between the United States and the British Commonwealth against communism and for peace. 

In thinking about the moral purposes of war and peace, though, he focused not on the nation-state, but on the profound consequences of the Iron Curtain for that most basic community, the family: 

What then is the over-all strategic concept which we should inscribe today? It is nothing less than the safety and welfare, the freedom and progress, of all the homes and families of all the men and women in all the lands. And here I speak particularly of the myriad cottage or apartment homes where the wage-earner strives amid the accidents and difficulties of life to guard his wife and children from privation and bring the family up in the fear of the Lord, or upon ethical conceptions which often play their potent part.

Seeing Fulton on the map gave me pause. What address, in the years since the people of Central Europe tore down the Iron Curtain (with some help from a Polish pope), would match Churchill’s speech at Westminster in Fulton for clarity of moral purpose and grasp of current circumstances?

            Churchill at Fulton, 1946

To answer that, I think we have to visit a different college in a town far from Missouri and Interstate 70, one that lies along Autobahn 93 near the line where the Iron Curtain formerly ran: Regensburg. 

Sixty years after Churchill’s speech, in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture to his old university. Benedict’s focus in that lecture was the iron curtain – my words, not his – that had descended between faith and reason. The atheistic communism that had concerned Churchill was one manifestation of this curtain as it appeared in recent centuries.

The lecture’s opening reference to the Qur’an’s approval of violence in spreading the Muslim faith, and Benedict’s brief development of the theme of the separation of faith and reason in Islam, produced a storm of violent protests in the Muslim world. So the pope touched upon one of the major problems the West has faced since the fall of the Berlin Wall – fundamentalist Islam. And he explained its root pathology far more clearly and concisely than any government intelligence report I ever read on the question.

But this curtain between faith and reason also cuts through the West itself. In his lecture, Benedict traces the “dehellenization” of Christianity, which removes the element of reason from faith, and the simultaneous advance of a kind of reason strictly exclusive of faith.

           Benedict XVI at Regensburg, 2006

Faith without reason, or reason without faith, puts the West in a dangerous situation. Because so many cultures are religious, a West that turns solely to scientism as reason becomes incapable of conversation with those cultures: “A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.”

Yet the worst consequences are within the West itself. As Benedict says, the practical results of modern science are very welcome, and we do not wish to return to a world without such science. But with a purely materialist brand of reason, truth is constricted to what can be measured empirically. In such a world,

it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science” and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical. In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter.

So in one lecture, Benedict successfully describes both the external and the internal dangers to the West, and he shows how they are related. Both erect a curtain between faith and reason, then stand on one side or the other. 

Benedict was not the only pope to discuss this problem. Just in recent years, John Paul II wrote about it in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, and Francis (with Benedict) returns to it in the new encyclical Lumen Fidei

Churchill at Fulton and Benedict at Regensburg stand out for lucid insight. Can the curtain between faith and reason meet the same fate as the Iron Curtain, which disappeared in a few decades?  The faith/reason curtain looks as if it may take centuries, a lengthy dark age that we are already in the midst of, to remove. But there can be sudden, unexpected reverses, as in the fall of the USSR.

So, let’s get to work – and pray.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.