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Observations on Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity on Its 50th Anniversary

    1. Introduction to Christianity is modest in scope and intention, and conspicuously eschews the originality that has become the standard in appraising excellence in academic theology over the past decades. Yet despite these disadvantages, it has become a classic in David Tracy’s sense in that over a period of 50 years it has spoken in shifting intellectual environments to professors of theology, college students, mothers and fathers of college students, religious searchers, to Catholics in parishes who wish to better know their Christian faith and pass it on, and to Catholics who have lapsed either because of scandals in the Church or the perception that Christian faith is not relevant to their lives. The book has exercised enormous influence because of its deep rootedness in the Catholic tradition, the simplicity of its faith, the personal warmth that it exudes, and its marvelous clarity and economy of expression.
    2. Perhaps more than any other text Benedict wrote, this one best shows him as teacher. But teacher not only in the thoughtfulness and patience exhibited in the text that readers have appreciated over the past 50 years, but also in the sense that it exhibits the teaching mission of theology, which may have become sidelined in the modern period with the prestige granted scholarly research. Teaching the faith is the common task of professor and bishop. Benedict, of course, was and is both.
    3. As with all of Benedict’s works Introduction to Christianity represents an intervention into a complex contemporary situation perceived as a crisis for faith, as well as presenting a developed catechesis for Christian believers anxious to have a synopsis of their faith that might connect with liturgy as well as prove a guide for their actions in a world in need of goodness, transformation, and forgiveness.
    4. The proximate cause of the intervention is the recognition in the post-Vatican II period of an essential illiteracy among Catholics about what is to be believed and an emerging cynicism with respect to how to believe, or, otherwise expressed, what it would take for faith to be truly self-involving and committed.
    5. The how rather than what, or content of belief, is indicated by Benedict’s appeal in the Introduction to Christianity to Kierkegaard’s prophet who keeps crying fire to a community of the deaf until the conflagration is upon all. Still, there is a noticeable difference in temper: if it is the same crisis of secularization and relativism that is upon us, Benedict speaks rather than shouts, is calm where Kierkegaard is enervated, appeals rather than indulges in polemics, and seems altogether more confident in the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. Benedict’s faith is a hopeful rather than despairing faith. It rests far more on the fidelity of God to the ludicrous agreement he made with human beings to be with them and grant them eternal life than in a confidence in the moral and spiritual strength of human beings. For the Christian realist, Benedict, or otherwise put, the Augustinian Benedict, we modern human beings are plagued by doubt and riddled by distorted desire.
    6. In Introduction to Christianity the Creed is a symbol of Christian faith. To be a symbol means two things: first, it is a digest of Christian faith that can be held up as an expression of the whole; second, it encapsulates a vision that inspires and forms the imagination. In this sense the text makes an original contribution to the New Evangelization.
    7. As is well-known Benedict is a major promoter of the Catechism, which under his stewardship finds its roots in scripture and soaks in the rich theological tradition of Catholicism. It would not be wrong for us to think that for him the Creed is a synopsis of the Catechism. Nor by the same token, with an eye to his wondrous encyclical Deus Caritas Est, would it wrong for us to think that the proclamation God is Love (1 John 4.6) is the digest of the Creed and thus the ultimate compact of Christian truth and Christian vision.
    8. In Introduction to Christianity Abraham is evoked as a representative Old Testament figure, whereas Moses is invoked. The difference seems to be that Moses’s encounter with God is a seeing, even if a seeing that cannot be mastered by concepts nor sequestered in language. Here one can see both the future of Benedict’s first encyclical as well as his Jesus of Nazareth. Faith is a form of trust; it is also a form of perception.
    9. Benedict does and does not give Pascal his due when it comes to the distinction of the God of philosophy and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The distinction has to be drawn, given that by definition revelation is the gratuitous self-communication of God that cannot be anticipated and thus necessarily exceeds reason. But however distinct reason and revelation are, it is important for Benedict that they are not contraries. In the deep questioning and searching that arises from wonder and perplexity reason gropes towards the divine ground of reality that Christianity testifies is given to and shared with human being. In addition, the Old Testament experience of the absolutely sovereign God who utters “I am who am” serves as a goad for philosophy throughout Christian history. Here Benedict evokes Etienne Gilson and to significant extent endorses the concept of Christian philosophy, which anti-Christian philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger have declared to be an oxymoron.
    10. In Introduction to Christianity both fideism and rationalism are regarded as noxious. Fideism fails to grasp the intelligibility of God as the Logos that governs the world, human intelligence, and establishes a relation between God and humanity where none could plausibly be expected. As faith can come to be out of alignment, so also can reason. In modernity there is a “pathological” rationalist form of reason that kills mystery in that it precludes all phenomena that might transcend human comprehension, just as it stifles the imagination whose domain is the possible and unique rather than the necessary and the repeatable.
    11. The ontophany (Exod 3:14) on Mount Sinai is a gift of divine self that refuses comprehension, while eliciting admiration, gratitude and obedience. In addition, Introduction to Christianity suggests, but does not elaborate, that the disclosure of the transcendent God of the Old Testament is repeated in the Transfiguration of Christ, refigured on the cross, indemnified in the resurrection, and theologically articulated in the mystery of Trinitarian love. Crucially, for Benedict, this God is personal rather than impersonal, and ultimately tri-personal.
    12. As in Augustine, the Greek Fathers, Bonaventure and Aquinas, for Benedict in Introduction to Christianity the tripersonal or Trinitarian God is an object of faith rather than reason. The Trinitarian God is, however, an object of understanding to the degree to which understanding has its ground in faith. At the same time, since God is God, there is no knowledge of the Triune God that is fully adequate.
    13. In Introduction to Christianity the God of Christianity, who is the God of Jesus Christ, is a bounteous God who brings into being a world that is integral and free. The world is pure gift: it is neither necessary, nor purely contingent. If it were the former, God would collapse into the world and be the world; if it were the latter, then God would correspond to Pascal’s nightmare of a God so terrifyingly distant from the world that no communication would be possible and no mercy expected. If the world is necessary, everything is explained; if the world is the fiat of a capricious creator, then all questions are futile, since the world has moved beyond mystery and even riddle to sheer meaninglessness.
    14. If all of creation is a gift, then even more so, human being endowed with reason and freedom is gift. But this applies to all human beings, whatever their race or circumstance, and whatever the stage of their life. The dignity of a human being lies in being gift, not in their status, personal accomplishment, or utility to society or the State.
    15. In Introduction to Christianity Benedict demonstrates that he is an aesthetic as well as ascetic theologian. He never says more than he has to, and the emphases he strikes are invariably proportionate to the emphases in the texts that are commented on. For example, an important emphasis in the Apostles’ Creed is the proclamation of the divine Sonship of Jesus of Nazareth; it should not surprise, then, that Benedict devotes approximately a hundred pages to Christ.
    16. In Introduction to Christianity Benedict enthusiastically embraces the claim that Jesus is Lord, while having a clear sense of its momentousness. This is a claim unlike any other religious claim in history. It is saying far more than in Jesus we find an avatar of the divine or a culturally relevant manifestation of the divine. The claim distinguishes Christianity in a radical way from the other two monotheistic faiths, both of which reject it.
    17. For Benedict the claim that God became man is not a truth of reason. It is an event that at once boggles the mind and elevates it. According to Introduction to Christianity that the Son, the divine Logos, becomes incarnate and that the incarnate Son would experience death only makes sense after the fact. Through our reading scripture and our contemplating the symbol of the Creed we begin to see how the Incarnation and atoning death of Christ are congruent with or “fit” the God whom we worship. This God is a God of pure self-empting Love.
    18. To remind, in Introduction to Christianity the profession of the Lordship of Christ is a catechesis; it is also an intervention into a religious situation that everywhere shows the signs of secularization. Introduction to Christianity is similar to other texts of Benedict in understanding that secularity is inside all forms of Christian confession, Catholicism not excluded. Following in the footsteps of Newman, Benedict is convinced that in contemporary educated circles the operative default is a kind of Arianism in which Jesus of Nazareth is something like a moral teacher plus. Not only has this belief being thoroughly rejected throughout Christian history, in line with the Church Fathers Benedict is persuaded that such an Arian Christ does not have the capacity to redeem us from our sins and bring us to everlasting life. Everlasting life is not simply the prolongation of my existence; it is the permanent enjoyment of intimate relation with the Triune God.
    19. Of course, a basic premise of Benedict’s view of the drama of salvation in Introduction to Christianity is that human beings are beset by sin from which only God can save us. The miracle is that God does so in the Incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Importantly, the relation between sin and redemption is fundamentally asymmetrical: redemption not only compensates for sin and the tragedy of death, but as Paul suggested exceeds them to such an extent that the Christian focus should rightly be on redemption and only on sin to the extent to which we see our failings in the mirror of an incomparable generosity.
    20. For Benedict, in Introduction to Christianity the Creedal rendering of the Son of God is neither a dogmatic imposition nor mythology: not a dogmatic imposition in that it is a result of a deep reading of the biblical witness and of a deep communal reception of testimony; not mythology in that neither the term nor the meaning of the “Son of God” corresponds to the mediating gods of the Hellenistic environment.
    21. In Christ we find in human expression of the divine form of being-for-others. His being-for-us to the utmost, that is, even unto death, is a mirror not only of the Son but of the eternal life of the Trinity. In addition, Christ can only mirror the divine, if he is completely human. Christ is not a hologram; not a puppet used by the divine. The real humanity of Christ guarantees that there is real drama in the history of salvation at the center of which is the Incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.
    22. It has been noted in commentary on Introduction to Christianity that Benedict is fairly economic in his discussion of the Spirit, and the concern has been raised as to whether this suggests a prejudice against any form of Catholic Christianity not locked into the institutional Church. In reply two things can be said. First, Benedict follows the proportions of the Apostles’ Creed as much as possible and, truth be told, the Apostles’ Creed does not have a very developed view of the Spirit. Catholicism is dependent on the Greek and Latin Fathers for deep theological exposition and development of the mission and person of the Holy Spirit. It would be inappropriate to go into complex detail in what is a primer of faith. Second, although the benefits of a rich view of the Spirit can be of enormous help to the Church, an inadequate view can harm her. For example, a view that would think of the Holy Spirit as functioning wholly independently of Christ is not a view that has found acceptance in the Catholic tradition. Indeed, this view has often enough been leveraged not only against Christ, but also against the institutional Church, and bestowed more authority on charism than either.
    23. It is well-known that Benedict has a high view of the Church and an equally high view of Lumen Gentium which encapsulates the ecclesiology of Ressourcement thinkers such as Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. This high view of the Church as mystery, light, and service, is to be found in Introduction to Christianity, but again Benedict is ascetic and proportional. Far more pages are devoted to Christ who is not only the founder of the Church, but the medium in which it abides. The Apostles’ Creed is Christ-centered or Christocentric rather than Church-centered. Christocentrism is, arguably, the indelible mark of Benedict’s entire theology.
    24. Introduction to Christianity provides a good example of Benedict’s high view of the Church as a symbol of the kingdom of God and a sacrament of salvation. Yet this disciple of Augustine makes it clear that the Church cannot be identified with the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is eschatological. In via the Church is liable to be marred by sin and error. The Church has been—and also will be—a “mixed body” of saints and sinners.
    25. For Benedict, although the correction for the over-emphasis on the “next life” in Catholicism is to be welcomed, nonetheless, that the kingdom is in essential respects the kingdom beyond death is an indelible feature of Christian faith. If death has the last word, then all life is tragic.
    26. In many ways on the basis of a text such as Introduction to Christianity it would not be wrong to think of Benedict as a quintessential German theologian minus the ponderousness. Yet, this is to define him negatively and by subtraction and thus not approach his individual genius at all. Were we to provide a more positive description, maybe we would come to see that his serenity reminds us of Aquinas, his lightness of touch recalls Newman, and that his congenital lack of lugubriousness makes one think, at least at some moments, of Chesterton.
    27. For Benedict, to profess our Christian faith is not simply an intellectual act. It is the act of the whole person who commits to a vision of life. This life is an imitation of the life of Christ and begins and ends with prayer, the underlying theme of which is “Thy will be done.”
    28. When afforded the opportunity of revising Introduction to Christianity Benedict gave it a pass. Given his humility, it would be unthinkable that he presumed perfection. Introduction to Christianity is a text of its time, as all classics texts are, whether we are speaking of the Divina Commedia, King Lear, or a Plato dialogue. In not redoing his classic text Benedict refused to give into the temptation to say more about anything, because he rightly intuited he could say more about everything. The artful balance that was so hard won is easily disturbed, and so the choice of letting go and trusting that the book will continue to affect mind and heart. The refusal is an act of hope that what good comes of our actions is not under human control. Perhaps we might also think of it as an invitation to us to have the courage and wisdom to intervene and catechize in our time, which is even more confused than that of Benedict, but where if we look long and deep enough we may find more yearning and productive perplexity. The idols of the saeculum have been long enough with us to have become jaded.
    29. Introduction to Christianity is one of the least imperialistic pieces of theological literature written in the last 50 years. It does not say that the kind of theology exhibited in the interpretation of the Apostles’ Creed is the only form of theology that needs to be produced; nor does it say that deep and laborious scholarship should be shunted aside, nor that elaborate apologetic constructions should be given their tickets. It simply says, that among the numerous ways a Catholic theologian might make a contribution, this is one of them, and that such a contribution is not trivial. Benedict has taken upon himself the task of reminding us of our obligation to communicate Catholic faith in our time and place and to show that it can be remarkably supple and beautiful, as well as being true.

Editorial Statement: This reflection is an invitation to the McGrath Institute’s conference at Notre Dame celebrating the 50th anniversary of Introduction to Christianity. The event will feature many of the world’s preeminent experts on Benedict XVI’s thought. Registration is still open.

SEE ALSO:

The Postmodern Search for a Noble Simplicity in Church Architecture

Featured Image: Anonymous, Bargello Diptych, c. 1380; Wikimedia, PD-Old-100. 

Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is The Anatomy of Misremembering: Von Balthasar's Response to Philosophical Modernity. Volume 1: Hegel.