Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Theology, Prayerfully and Rightly Done

Book Review: The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God
By Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Ignatius Press, 2008

All those who truly care about the discipline of theology (which should be every Christian) may have a grudge against the Sacred College of Cardinals. The offense of this body? Four years ago it elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Chair of Peter thereby forcing one of the Church's most fertile minds to focus on something other than theology. We do have some consolation, however: even while carrying the heavy weight of office Ratzinger has managed to produce the first part of a two volume work on Jesus (Jesus of Nazareth).
One of the great misfortunes of the modern Church (perhaps the greatest misfortune) is the notion held by many that the doctrine of the Trinity is simply a philosophical abstraction, something which is simply to be believed but which has very little to do with the life of the Church. In this book, Ratzinger decisively shows just how wrong this notion is by providing us with an example of theology, prayerfully and rightly done.
The book takes the form of a series of meditations on each person of the Trinity, each with a view toward shedding light on the nature and character of the one God as the Church understands him. While profound and often revealing, these meditations are oriented toward the average person. Ratzinger never forgets that theology is most itself when it conveys the truth of God in a way that upbuilds the life of the Church. This book could be read as an introduction to the belief of Christians.
One of the foundational insights of this book is Ratzinger's argument that only when we know God truly can we really be human. God, for the Christian faith, is not simply a "spiritual ideal" but the One who allows us to be truly human by allowing us to dwell in his presence and to behold his glory. For Ratzinger, both atheism and agnosticism are not simply intellectual positions but they have the practical result of surrendering human beings over to nature such that we become things, creatures whose existence can be understood only in a functional way. Far from impoverishing us, belief in God in God ennobles us: "The adoration of God himself, true adoration, exists, protecting man from the dictatorship of goals. Only this adoration is able to protect hum from the dictatorship of idols...precisely because we are creatures, we have our true origin in God. We are creatures whom he has willed and whom he has destined for eternity" (p. 28). In cutting ourselves off from God, in whose image we are made, we actually destroy ourselves.
An essential aspect of God' s revelation is his fatherhood. It is not, as Ratzinger points out, that God is the "great Father in the sky" but that God's unique fatherhood is the criterion by which all other fatherhoods are judged (and, in some cases, condemned). We see this in Jesus for it is only in relation to the Son that the Father is the Father. What do we see?: "Jesus shows us what it means to lead the whole of one's life on the basis of the affirmation that 'God is'. Jesus shows us what it means to given genuine priority to the first table of the Ten Commandments. He gave this center a meaning, and he revealed what this center is" (p. 34). What we see in Jesus is a life lived fully centered on the Father, a life under girded by a fundamental trust in the Father's goodness and power and so a life that is fully human and not warped by egoism or anxiety.
Ratzinger devotes one meditation to a consideration of what it means to say that God is the Creator. If creation if left out of our considerations we are left with a mere "spirituality," a private religiosity the chief purpose of which is to help us feel good. By insisting on the doctrine of creation, Christianity also insists that in God we are speaking about the truth of the world, a truth that exists prior to our desires and ambitions. Because our Redeemer is also our Creator, salvation can not mean our liberation from the norms of creation, liberation to an essentially anarchic "freedom" so beloved by the consumer ethos of our culture (and now promoted by churches of various theological orientations): "Since it is God's creation, nature itself is a source of law" (p. 46).
Ratzinger's meditations on the person of the Son are the heart of the book. Here he works out some of the implications of the affirmation that in Jesus God entered into the life of a man (for the sake of all people). Ratzinger's thesis here is that it is only in the light of the Resurrection that we can truly and fully understand the significance of Jesus for us and for God himself: "Thus it is only the Resurrection that discloses the final, decisive point in the article of the Creed: 'He became man.' The resurrection teaches us something that now possesses eternal validity: he is man. He remains man forever. Through him, human existence has been admitted into God's own being" (p. 84). In the Resurrection we learn something crucial about both God and ourselves: we discover that intends to bring us into the communion enjoyed by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and that in the divine humanity of Jesus this goal has already been realized. Only by grasping this do we even begin to grasp the meaning of the phrase "the love of God".
Ratzinger offers a strong critique of the various modern versions of "the historical Jesus" (that is, versions of Jesus which attempt to distance him from Christian belief as far as possible). Such versions usually focus on Jesus' humanity which the presupposition that his divinity is either superfluous or positively unhelpful: "To remove the God from Jesus does not mean discovering the man Jesus. It means obliterating the man Jesus for the sake of self-made ideals of short duration" (p. 88). This thesis is strongly demonstrated by his own Jesus of Nazareth.
One meditation is devoted to the Holy Spirit and it is a refreshing corrective to the many distortions of the Trinity's third person that we now experience. The Spirit, for Ratzinger (like St. Augustine) is the self-transcending love of the Father and the Son. Quite simply, the work of the Spirit is to take us beyond ourselves and place us in the love shared by Father and Son. This has many implications but one of the most important is this: "The Church of the Spirit is the Church that recalls and understands more deeply, penetrates farther into the Word, and thus becomes richer and more alive. True selflessness, pointing away from oneself into the totality, is thus the mark of the Spirit, the image of his trinitarian Being" (p. 112).
The Church desperately needs more theology like this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Father Petty touches on some wonderful Christian meditations of the Pope. How does humankind relate to Jesus (the individual man), and in turn, humankind to God? Can man exist to his full human potential when denying his Creator's existence? What life is better; to fulfill pragmatic goals and social functions, or to be led by holy adoration?

I was first lost in the meditation about the doctrine of Creation as it seemed to discuss softer science and harder science issues in one breath (e.g., "soft laws" of marketing). However, the meditation makes it so much more clear why God chooses the language of Judeo-Christian dogma. Typical pragmatic-minded defenses transform to cornerstone supports, i.e., it's humanizing--practical, and purposeful at the highest level. Humbling.

Pondering this article has stirred similar senses of humility to that of reading Thomas Kempis.

April 25, 2009 at 5:27 AM  

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