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Posted April 29, 2005

The Problem of Faith in Jesus Today

by Joseph Ratzinger
Taken from The Introduction to Christianity

It is only in the second section of the Creed that we come up against the real difficulty about Christianity: the confession of faith that the man Jesus, an individual executed in Palestine round about the year 30, the “Christus” (anointed, chosen) of God, indeed God’s own Son, is the central and decisive point of all human history. It seems both presumptuous and foolish to assert that one single figure who is bound to disappear further and further into the mists of the past is the authoritative center of all history.

If faith in the “logos”, the meaningfulness of being, corresponds perfectly with a tendency in the human reason, this second article of the Creed proclaims the absolutely staggering alliance of logos and sarx, of meaning and a single historical figure. The meaning that sustains all being has become flesh; that is, it has entered history and become one individual in it; it is no longer simply what encompasses and sustains history but a point in it. According to this the meaning of all being is first of all no longer to be found in the sweep of mind which rises above the individual, the limited, into the universal; it is no longer simply given in the world of ideas, which transcends the individual and is reflected in it only in a fragmentary fashion; it is to be found in the midst of time, in the countenance of one man.

One is reminded of the moving conclusion of Dante’s Divine Comedy where, looking on the mystery of God, in the midst of that “all-powerful love which, quiet and united, leads round in a circle the sun and all the stars”, the poet discovers in blissful wonder his own likeness, a human countenance. . . .

The historical man Jesus is the Son of God, and the Son of God is the man Jesus. God comes to pass for man through men, nay, even more concretely, through the man in whom the quintessence of humanity appears and who for that very reason is at the same time God himself.

Perhaps it is already clear that even in the paradox of word and flesh we are faced with something meaningful and in accordance with the logos. Yet at first this article of faith represents a stumbling block for human thinking.

In this have we not fallen victims to an absolutely staggering kind of positivism? Can we cling at all to the straw of one single historical event? Can we dare to base our whole existence, indeed the whole of history, on the straw of one happening in the great sea of history? Such a notion, which even in itself is an adventurous one and seemed equally improbable to both ancient and Asiatic thought, is rendered still more difficult in the intellectual climate of modern times, or at any rate rendered difficult in a different way, by the fashion in which history is now dealt with by scholars: that is to say, by the critical method. This means that the encounter with history is affected by the same sort of problem that has arisen in the search for being and for the ground of being as a result of the methods employed by physics and of the scientific approach to the investigation of nature. We have seen in our reflections on this subject that physics has renounced the discovery of being itself and confines itself to the “positive”, to what can be proved. The impressive gain in precision thus made has to be paid for by a renunciation of truth which in the end can go so far that behind the prison bars of positivism, being, truth itself, disappears, ontology becomes visibly more impossible and even philosophy has to yield in large measure to phenomenology, to the investigation of mere appearances.

A very similar position threatens to arise in the encounter with history. The methods of physics are followed as far as they possibly can be, though a limit is set to the process by the fact that history cannot carry verification, which forms the core of the modern scientific approach, to the point of repetition, on which the unique certainty of scientific statements rests. The historian is denied this satisfaction; past history cannot be reenacted and verification must be content with the demonstrable soundness of the evidence on which the historian bases his view.

The consequence of this methodical approach is that — as in natural science — only the “phenomenal” aspect, that is, the surface that can be checked by documentary evidence, is more questionable than the positivism of physics from two points of view. It is more questionable first because it has to rely on the availability of the documents, that is, on chance statements, while physics at any rate always has the necessary material realities before it. It is also more questionable because the expression of the human element in the written evidence is less accurate than the self-expression of nature; its reflection of human depths is inadequate and often positively conceals them; and its interpretation involves man and his personal mode of thinking far more extensively than the interpretation of physical phenomena does. Accordingly, although one must agree that the imitation of scientific methods in the realm of history undoubtedly heightens the accuracy of its assertions, on the other hand it cannot be overlooked that here too this approach involves a grievous loss of truth which is even more extensive than it is in physics. Just as in physics being retires behind appearance, so here to a large extent the only past events that are still accepted as valid are those that are presented as “historical”, that is, tested and passed by historical methods. It is quite often forgotten that the full truth of history eludes documentary verification just as much as the truth of being escapes the experimental approach.

So it must be said that historical science in the narrowest sense of the term not only reveals but also conceals history. The automatic result is that it can see the man Jesus all right, but can only with difficulty discover the Christ in him, which as a truth of history cannot simply be checked as right or wrong by reference to the documentary evidence.