The Death of Irony
If irony abounds, but no one notices, does that mean irony is dead? Or does it mean we’re living in the most ironic of all possible worlds?
That’s the question that comes to mind watching the intellectual controversies Pope Benedict XVI has had to confront on the world stage in the past year and a half.
First, there was the Regensburg speech flap, and the irony — willfully ignored by most commentators — of Muslims around the world angrily protesting and issuing death threats against the Pope because he allegedly said Islam was … well, violent. (It’s like the old joke — “There is no Mafia, and we’ll kill anyone who says there is.”)
And now, we have professors and students at Italy’s La Sapienza (the term means wisdom) University angrily protesting against — and forcing the cancellation of — the Holy Father’s visit to the school over Galileo.
The subject the Pope planned to address in the speech that was suppressed: how to encourage dialogue between faith and science.
According to the dictionary, irony “relies on a sharp discordance between the real and the ideal … the perceived notion of an incongruity, or a gap between an understanding of reality, or expectation of a reality, and what actually happens.”
Based on that definition, Benedict has been living in a whirlwind of irony since he was elected in 2005. Look at the “gaps” or “incongruities” between what this Pope is supposed to be like — “God’s Rottweiler,” oppressor of free inquiry and critical thinking — and the reality, which is the exact opposite.
No world figure has spoken out more forcefully than Pope Benedict XVI on behalf of reasoned debate and dialogue on the great issues of the day
The problem is that the people who are supposed to be good at perceiving irony — the young, radical, postmodern intellectuals who dominate most of the world’s universities — have lost their ability to see the irony that’s before their eyes, which means they’ve lost the ability to think straight at all.
That becomes clear when we examine the additional layers of irony that abound in the La Sapienza affair. The whole incident is based on mistakes.
The source of the protests was a 1990 statement about Galileo made by then Cardinal Ratzinger that was extracted — out of context — from a speech entitled “The Crisis of Faith in Science.” The statement read:
“The Church at the time of Galileo was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just.”
The irony is that this statement was not made by Cardinal Ratzinger at all. The cardinal was quoting someone else. And when you read the entire speech, it’s not only clear that the cardinal didn’t say it, he disagreed with it.
Far from using these ideas to exonerate the Church for persecuting Galileo, Cardinal Ratzinger rejected the temptation to do so, and concluded by saying:
“It would be absurd, on the basis of these affirmations, to construct a hurried apologetics. The faith does not grow from resentment and the rejection of rationality.”
But there’s more. The greatest irony is that the words mistakenly attributed to the Pope were uttered by one of the most subversive and controversial postmodern thinkers of the late 20th century, the deceased Austrian philosopher, Paul Feyerabend.
Before considering Feyerabend, we have to briefly define — however inadequately — the term “postmodern,” the philosophy that holds sway over most of the world’s intellectuals.
Put simply, postmodernism is a philosophy that arose from the ruins of World War II and the apparent collapse of Western culture. Postmodernists rejected the “modernist” ideas that originated in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries — that man can, without God, know absolute truth and universal values through his reason alone.
While some postmodernists came up with legitimate criticisms of rationality, and especially those situations in which reason was misused to support man-made totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism, many others went too far. They became philosophical nihilists, believing in nothing.
These postmodernists — exemplified by the crazed student radicals Joseph Ratzinger encountered during his university teaching days in the 1960s — believe all truth claims are merely propaganda used by the powerful to justify their positions and to oppress the weak.
They reject any form of hierarchy and authority and instead embrace the most radical relativism.
Not surprisingly, for postmodernists, the Catholic Church — and the pope — are the epitome of power and privilege. For postmodernists, the Church must always be opposed, even when it’s on their side on issues of war, social justice and human rights (for different reasons, of course).
It also means condemning the pope, even when he appears to ally himself with a philosopher who was one of the leading figures of postmodernism!
Paul Feyerabend’s motto was “anything goes,” although that’s a bit misleading. He was, despite his reputation, a serious philosopher, which is why the cardinal bothered to quote him at all.
That takes us to yet another irony. While Cardinal Ratzinger, in his 1990 speech, rejected Feyerabend’s critique of rationality and his defense of the Church in the Galileo case, the cardinal and the “pomo” philosopher did share legitimate concerns about science run amok.
In his recent encyclical Spe Salvi (On Christian Hope), Benedict wrote about science:
“Francis Bacon and those who followed in the intellectual current of modernity that he inspired were wrong to believe that man would be redeemed through science. Such an expectation asks too much of science; this kind of hope is deceptive. Science can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human. Yet it can also destroy mankind and the world unless it is steered by forces that lie outside it.”
This is the sort of critique that serious postmodernists came close to making, albeit in a reckless way, when they’ve said, for example, that there is a direct path that leads from Galileo to the atom bomb.
There is no doubt that Pope Benedict would reject such a statement; as the statement above makes clear, he believed Feyerabend’s rejection of reason was excessive.
Instead, the Catholic position might agree more with the Church’s most prophetic critic of the Enlightenment, the scientist-mystic Blaise Pascal. He was 10 years old when Galileo was tried for heresy, and would go on to nearly equal the Italian as a scientist, as well as write Pensees, one of the most profound defenses of the Christian faith ever written.
Pascal wrote: “Two extremes: to exclude reason, to admit reason only.”
Of course, such subtleties eluded the protesters at La Sapienza University. Their confusion, and their utter disregard for logic and consistency of thought, perfectly illustrated what the Holy Father has been warning about for decades, regarding the dangers of the “dictatorship of relativism.”
This “dictatorship” makes it impossible for most universities in the West to intellectually engage Pope Benedict XVI’s ideas on how to reconcile faith and reason.
And that may be what’s most ironic of all, especially for serious postmodernists who have legitimate criticisms of systems of thought that leave no room for the mysteries of life and love (for example, scientists who refuse to admit that there are mysteries that can’t be explained by Darwinism or physics).
The best postmodernist thinkers used irony to criticize real-life hypocrisy in Western societies, the gap between the reality of suffering and injustice and the ideals of truth and love. These incongruities, based on distorted reason, led political leaders to incinerate entire cities with nuclear weapons, and scientists to experiment on human beings in laboratories.
But when the postmodernists turned on reason itself, they destroyed the basis for their criticisms, and their humanity. Without a grounding in truth, post-modernism lost the capacity to perceive irony.
And without that perception, they’re now fated to erect new forms of intolerance and oppression that are worse than the power structures they seek to bring down.
And that’s really the ultimate irony. An irony, despite it all, you won’t find Pope Benedict laughing about.
Angelo Matera is editor
- February 3-9, 2008