Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?


Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?We always seem to be making lists. It is hard to remember a month over the past decade when you opened a newspaper or a magazine without being confronted by a list of somebody’s favourite something to adjudicate on – the best book of all time, the best films of al time, the best jokes ever told. Indeed, the list is endless. But maybe we should not be too irritated by it. If they make us think a little, help us to judge and compare and reflect on things it’s not all bad.

Some, needless to say, are pretty trivial. Others, however, are more serious and thought-provoking. Time Magazine recently presented us with its current list of the world’s top 100 “influencers” – ranging across the world of politics, sport, literature and entertainment and more. On an even more serious level two political magazines, one on each side of the Atlantic, Prospect and Foreign Policy, are currently surveying who their readers estimate are the world’s top “public intellectuals”. Since it is always worth asking ourselves who is leading the world of ideas – and with what ideas – this is a worthwhile exercise. To qualify for the “competition” you have to be a) alive, b) active in public life, c) have shown distinction in your field, and d) have shown an ability to influence debate across borders. So when all that is taken into account the field narrows considerably and excludes most of us. Nevertheless, it is still very much our business to know who is included.

However, they didn’t bargain for the pitfalls of the world wide web. The word got out that the survey was on and the whole thing when pear-shaped when Muslims across the world effectively hijacked it. The results now report that the top ten public intellectuals in the world are an assortment of Islamic clerics and writers. The whole story can be found on www.prospect-magazine.com . Nevertheless, while the survey is invalidated the question it poses is still a very valid one. Who is leading the world in the realm of ideas?

The last poll taken on this by these magazines made interesting reading and gave us a kind of snapshot of what we might call the intellectual ferment in the world at the time. For some of us, looking at the evolving membership of these lists over the years, there were encouraging signs of improvement in the climate of public opinion which they reflect. For example, whereas in the early years of the exercise the list was peppered with varying shades of Marxist, remarkably now, among the 100 names offered for consideration for selection, there is only one self-proclaimed Marxist.Furthermore, despite the best efforts of militant atheists and secularists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – both of whom were in the top ten last time round – the secularist camp has diminished somewhat and the camp of those adhering to one faith or another is growing.

Regardless of what this poll produces surely the public intellectual who towers above all others in our world today is Pope Benedict XVI? If you measure this in terms of the number of people hearing him, listening to him and whom he influences, or in terms of the wisdom of what he says, then he is out in front on all counts.

This pope speaks to all Catholics as all popes have done over the centuries. All popes have also addressed themselves to men of good will everywhere down through the ages – and have had mixed responses from them. But this pope – and his immediate predecessor, it must be said – speaks to all men of good will with a new emphasis, on the basis of a new common denominator, one might almost say with a new kind of language, the language of Faith and Reason. It may well be that history will look back at the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and see in them the beginning of a new age, the age of Faith and Reason.

Don’t get me wrong. Faith and reason have always been in harmonious partnership in authentic Catholic teaching. But as history looks at it, emphases differ over the ages. I remember a series of history books tracing Western thought down through the centuries. There was one entitled “The Age of Belief”. Another was entitled “The Age of Reason”, and yet another, “The Age of Science.”Can we now add “The Age of Faith and Reason”?

Pope Benedict is tireless in underlining for the world the vital role which both these elements have to play in mankind’s search for a better world through which he can fulfil his true destiny. Man’s journey, man’s search for truth and a proper understanding of that truth, he tells us, “can never suppose itself to be at an end and the danger of falling into inhumanity is never simply overcome — as we see in the panorama of contemporary history! Today the danger of the Western world — to speak only of this context — is that man, precisely in the consideration of the grandeur of his knowledge and power, might give up before the question of truth. And that means at the same time that reason, in the end, bows to the pressure of interests and the charm of utility, constrained to recognize it as the ultimate criterion.”

These were words written by Pope Benedict for a university gathering in Rome, written but not spoken because some die-hard secularists – clearly men of less than good will – objected to the invitation to the Pope to speak there. In that context the words carry more weight than they already had.

“The danger exists”, he concluded, “that philosophy, no longer feeling itself capable of its true task, might degenerate into positivism; that theology, with its message addressed to reason, might become confined to the private sphere of a group more or less sizable. If, however, reason — solicitous of its presumed purity — becomes deaf to the great message that comes from the Christian faith and its wisdom, it will wither like a tree whose roots no longer reach the waters that give it life. It will lose courage for the truth and thus it will not become greater but less. Applied to our European culture this means: If it wants only to construct itself on the basis of the circle of its own arguments and that which convinces it at the moment — worried about its secularity — it will cut itself off from the roots by which it lives; then it will not become more reasonable and more pure, but it will break apart and disintegrate.”

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We may live in a secular age, in an age “worried about its secularity” as the Pope says, but if we do perhaps we can now see light at the end of that particular tunnel and hope that this is only a prelude to an age in which the truth now being put before us by Benedict XVI will come into it own and usher in this new age of Faith and Reason.

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Michael Kirke, worked as a journalist with The Irish Press. He is now a freelance writer and the director of Ely University Centre, 10 Hume Street, Dublin 2. His views can be responded to at mjgkirke@eircom.net.

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