Pope Urges Search for Meaning amid Modern-Day Maelstrom

By Vallely, Paul | The Independent (London, England), October 16, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Pope Urges Search for Meaning amid Modern-Day Maelstrom


Vallely, Paul, The Independent (London, England)


YOU CAN never tell with the present Pope. Just when the pundits were predicting another crackdown on free speech within the Catholic Church he has come up with an encyclical to mark his 20th year in office - today - which does almost the exact opposite.

Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) examines the relationship of philosophy and theology from Plato to the present day and delivers an impassioned plea for secular thinkers to consider the great metaphysical issues that modern philosophy has virtually abandoned.

Homo sapiens may be defined as a creature who desires to know, John Paul II says. Human beings want answers to questions like: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? Yet philosophers have ceased to ask these questions. Instead of concerning themselves with thinking about "being" they focus on "knowing" and restrict themselves to arid speculation about the meaning of language or even the meaning of meaning. At best, it is restricted, at worst, purely formal. All this is part of modern man's and woman's "crisis of meaning". In a world where knowledge is increasingly fragmented, the search for meaning seems difficult and often fruitless. "In this maelstrom of data and facts in which we live many people wonder whether it still makes sense to ask about meaning," he writes. "Reason has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights." By default society has adopted "a philosophy of nothingness" in which "life is no more than an occasion for sensations and experiences". Post- modernism dictates that "the time of certainties is irrevocably past, and the human being must now learn to live in a horizon of total absence of meaning, where everything is provisional and ephemeral". People no longer ask what is true, only what will work. "It is a world crying out for philosophy but philosophy has made itself marginal," said Dr Janet Martin Soskice, of the Divinity Faculty at Cambridge, at the launch of the encyclical in London yesterday. "The Pope raps modern philosophers sharply over the knuckles for not doing their philosophy well enough." The reprimand applies not just to those continental philosophers engaged in continual deferrals of meaning. It applies also to Logical Positivism and its successors, whose thinking about the verifiability of language claims has focused philosophy throughout the 20th century on the minutiae of reasoning - neglecting big questions on the meaning of life. "What the Pope is doing is seeking to reconnect the spiritual and intellectual questions that lie at the heart of human existence," said Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster.

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