A Brightly Burning Christian
God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald
reviewed by Carl E. Olson
God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time is an apt title for the third lengthy interview Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has given the German journalist Peter Seewald, after The Ratzinger Report (Ignatius, 1987) and Salt of the Earth (Ignatius, 1997). Much like Pope John Paul II, he places the doctrinal details within the big picture: the panorama of the human drama and salvation history. Many people lack faith, he says, because they are “no longer capable of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the whole.” Such people, especially intellectuals, fail to “keep the meaning of the whole in view, and to allow oneself to be impressed, to be ready to accept the unexpected.”
In speaking of “the whole,” he repeatedly approaches, from varying angles, the centrality of the Trinity, the heart of Love forming the core of Christianity, and the paradoxical realities of the faith. “We must think of love as suffering,” he says, and notes that “punishment is the situation in which man finds himself if he has alienated himself from his own essential being.” “The wrath of God is a way of saying that I have been living in a way that is contrary to the love that is God. Anyone who begins to live and grow away from God, who lives away from what is good, is turning his life toward wrath.”
Adherents to “mere Christianity” will appreciate the firmness with which he dismisses the soft, pseudo-Christianity so popular in the West. “Love, in the true sense, is not always a matter of giving way, being soft, and just acting nice,” he states. “In that sense, a sugar-coated Jesus or a God who agrees to everything and is never anything but nice and friendly is no more than a caricature of real love. Because God loves us, because he wants us to grow into truth, he must necessarily make demands on us and must also correct us.”
He recognizes the “great service” rendered by historical-critical biblical scholarship, but also points out “its limits.” The real issue, he notes, is the underlying philosophy of each scholar. The absence of faith logically results in a rejection of the Incarnation. This is why, Ratzinger insists, “all these attempts [to find the ‘historical’ Jesus] are reconstructions in which we can always see the face of the architect. . . . All these constructions have been undertaken with one guiding idea: There can be no such thing as God and man.”
In addition to expressing cautious hope for ecumenical relations with both Protestants and Orthodox, Ratzinger comments at length about the Jewish people and religion. “Christianity, as compared with the religion of Israel, is not a different religion; it is simply the Old Testament read anew with Christ,” he says. “It is rather a matter of there being a real progression, and the Old Testament remains an unfinished fragment if you stop before you start the New. That is our fundamental belief as Christians.” God remains faithful to Israel, but the Jews will one day have to recognize that “Christ is the Messiah of Israel. It is in God’s hands, of course, just in what way, when, and how the reuniting of Jews and Gentiles, the reunification of God’s people, will be achieved.”
Some of the strongest statements are made about the issue of faith, which he describes as “not just a system of knowledge, things we are told,” but “a meeting with Jesus.” All those who meet Jesus will pay for how they react to him. “Whoever comes close to [Christ] . . . must be prepared to be burned. Christianity is great because love is great. It burns, yet this is not the destructive fire but one that makes things bright and pure and free and grand. Being a Christian, then, is daring to entrust oneself to this burning fire.”
Those seeking to overturn the Catholic Church’s teaching on issues such as sexual mores, women’s ordination, and the efficacy of other religions have sometimes mockingly referred to Ratzinger as the “Panzerkardinal.” They miss the point. The brightness of the Christian fire burns strongly in him, as it does in this book, and those who encounter it will find themselves warmed and challenged and inspired.
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“A Brightly Burning Christian” first appeared in the December 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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