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Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam
by Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera
Translated by Michael F. Moore
Publishers: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 2006, Pp. 159
Review by Susan K. Hedahl
This book provides an unnerving mirror from across the Atlantic, reflecting to Americans two European perspectives on civilization, the human and "the other." Each author's proposals should be required reading for those discussing terms such as "multi-culturalism," "political correctness," "evangelism" and "inter-faith dialogue." Furthermore, what haunts this book has much to do with the battles, assumptions and attitudes related to the issue of immigration and its implications for European Christianity. It is fascinating to see which authorities both writers appeal to in their works.
The genesis of this book occurred in May 2004 when the philosopher, Pera, and then Cardinal Ratzinger, each gave independent presentations on the same general corpus of contemporary topics. The resulting book contains a copy of each lecture as well as two letters, which Pera and Ratzinger exchanged.
Pera first. His lecture is argued thoroughly as a philosopher. One of his core statements is: "belief in the true no longer exists; the mission of the true is considered fundamentalism, and the very affirmation of the true creates or raises fears." (37) Pera critiques European thinking regarding Islam as "self-censorship." In other words, Europeans are willing to relinquish much in the way of civic interaction and rights when confronted by what Pera sees as the potential for an aggressive form of Islam. He says: "I deny... that Western institutions are better than their Islamic counterparts. And I deny that a comparison will necessarily give rise to a conflict. I do not deny, however, that if an offer to dialogue is responded to with a conflict, then the conflict should not be accepted." (10)
The lecture contains reflections on the following: The Relativism of the Contextualists; the Relativism of the Deconstructionists; The Relativism of the Theologians. Pera also analyzes how the Christian perspective has been weakened by two political developments: one is the abandonment of a European Constitution in favor of a weaker Constitutional Treaty and the break up of the Atlantic alliance prior to the war in Iraq. Pera's list of problems which an apathetic Europe invokes forces him to conclude that: "Perhaps the West today no longer understands what is right. It only knows what is wrong, and it readjusts its notions of right and wrong every time that someone complains about its errors." (48) There is a great deal of fine - though disputable - reasoning in this first lecture.
Ratzinger's work follows with the same predictable corpus of views though in a more dogmatic fashion. He opens with a long look at his initial question: "What is the true definition of Europe?" ( 51) and offers a history that includes America. Ratzinger also diagnoses Europe's ills by noting, among other things, that the "Christian" element is not reflected in more specific wording in the European Constitution (it was rejected) and Christian marriage is in decline, as Ratzinger understands it. Both of these elements contribute to the discussion in the Pera/Ratzinger letter exchange regarding the definition of what is human.
Some quotes will give the reader a sense of the arguments. "...A peculiar Western self-hatred. It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders [sic], but it has lost all capacity for self-love. All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure (79) "Multi-culturalism, which is so constantly and passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one's own heritage."
This reviewer yearned to have a vigorous debate over the many
issues this book yields as well as the manner in which they were presented.
Any course on multi-culturalism, religion and dialogue needs this book. You
may not agree with its contents but you will have a clear primer as to where
your dissenters stand--as well as what might be shared in common.