By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
The newspaper Eleftherotypia (02/04/2001) published a brief excerpt of a dialogue that occurred between a "believer", Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and an "atheist" philosopher Paolo Flores d'Arcais who is editor of the magazine MicroMega. The debate took place in a theater in Rome and was broadcasted on Italian television. The topic of the discussion was the question: "Is There A God?"
According to Eleftherotypia there were three issues discussed: first was the definition of faith; second were the commonalities that may exist between a believer and an atheist and with this they tackled intolerance, fanaticism and the struggle for freedom and generosity; and the third was the issue of the Enlightenment and Christianity.
Reading the main elements of the responses I noticed in particular that I was drawn more to what the "atheist" philosopher was saying, rather than that of the "believer" Ratzinger. The first created more interest and caused me greater surprise. Notably, the "atheist" referred to the faith of the first Christians, which was different from their faith later when they tried to make impositions through logic and the State. He referred to the distinction between the Christian faith and the philosophies of Plato and Epicurus and their distinction which was embodied in the resurrection of the dead, which is a 'folly". He spoke of the contradictory nature of the crisis of Pascal. He also spoke of the view that there is no relationship between the Enlightenment and Christianity and expressed the certainty that "nobody today wants to set aside religious faith".
On the other hand, the response of the "believing" Cardinal was dry, intellectual, compromised, submissive, and not convincing, because it had nothing to do with theology in its true expression.
Observing, therefore, the problem of both the "atheist" philosopher and the "believing" theologian, I came to two conclusions:
First, the boundaries between belief and unbelief are not so clear when viewed within the perspective of western man. Of course, there was confusion in the West precisely because they tried to define faith by logical and secular criteria. So the "atheist", without believing, better approximates the area of faith as opposed to the "believer".
Second, the whole problem during the debate was western and there was no reference to the correctly revealed truth, which approaches matters of faith different from the world and contemporary currents. If there was an Orthodox theologian in the discussion I am certain he would have faced things easier, because he would have explained that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit which comes after the purification of the heart and the illumination of the nous, and that there is a distinction between faith through hearing and faith through vision [theoria] which is expressed through words, that there is a distinction between theology and philosophy, that when Christianity becomes the State it is secularized, and that, as Dostoyevsky explained, perfect unbelief is not diametrically opposite of perfect faith, but it is a small step below perfect faith.
To conclude, western theology has been jammed within the culture of institutionalized secularism and cannot help those who are seeking the truth. And sometimes I feel that an Orthodox can speak more comfortably with a staunch atheist rather than a staunch believer of the western type.
Source: Paremvasis, February 2001. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.