As the condom-wars ignited by Benedict XVI’s Light of the World abate, some attention might finally be paid to the book’s broader themes and what they indicate about Benedict’s pontificate. In this regard, perhaps the interview’s most revealing aspect is the picture that emerges of Pope Benedict as nothing more and nothing less than a Christian radical.
Those accustomed to cartoon-like depictions of Joseph Ratzinger as a “reactionary” might be surprised by this description. But by “radical,” I don’t mean the type of priest or minister who only wears clerical garb when attending left-wing rallies or publically disputing particular church doctrines.
The word “radical” comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root.” It’s in this sense Benedict is radical. His pontificate is about going back to Christianity’s roots to make, as Benedict says, “visible again the center of Christian life” and then shining that light upon the world so that we might see the truth about ourselves.
At Christianity’s center, Benedict states, is the person of Jesus Christ. But this person, the pope insists, is not whoever we want him to be. Christ is not the self-help guru proclaimed by the charlatans of the Prosperity Gospel. Nor is he the proto-Marxist beloved by devotees of the now-defunct liberation theologies. Still less is Christ a “compassionate, super-intelligent gay man,” as once opined by that noted biblical scholar, Elton John.
According to Benedict, Christ is who Christ says he is: the Son of God. Hence, there is no contradiction between what some call “the Christ of faith” and “the Christ of history.” In Light of the World, Benedict confirms that underscoring this point was why he wrote his best-selling Jesus of Nazareth (2007). “The Jesus in whom we believe,” Benedict claims, “is really also the historical Jesus.”
Such observations hardly seem revolutionary for a Christian. But the context of Benedict’s remarks is a world of biblical studies dominated by what’s known as the historical-critical method. Among other things, this involves placing scripture in its historical conditions and exploring the different literary genres used by biblical authors.
In itself, such analysis can help illuminate scripture’s meaning. But from the beginning, many of its practitioners have imposed readings upon biblical texts that explicitly sever the Christian scriptures from the Christian faith from which they emerged. It has also facilitated the piling-up of tenuous-hypotheses upon tenuous-hypotheses about Christ which are then masqueraded as “facts” that, in Benedict’s words, “eventually lead to absurdity”: Christ-the-guru, Christ-the-revolutionary, Christ-the name-your-fashionable-cause.
Yet, Benedict argues, these “alternative portraits” can’t “explain how within such a short time something could suddenly appear that completely transcends ordinary expectations.” In short, Benedict states, “the only real, historical personage is the Christ in whom the Gospels believe, and not the figure who has been reconstituted from numerous exegetical studies.”
Before dismissing this as fundamentalism, let’s note that Benedict maintains that the picture of Jesus as one who was really crucified, really died, and really rose from the dead accords not only with faith, but also with reason. For all their variations, the Gospel accounts are reasonable because they provide the only coherent explanation of what happened. These texts, Benedict notes, provide “direct access to the events.” Some of these writings, he reminds us, “originate literally from the 30s of the first century.”
But why, we might ask, does Benedict belabor the point? One reason is surely the damage done to Christian faith by scholars parading various pet theories as “facts.” Another reason, however, may be Benedict’s sense that even many faithful Christians have forgotten the radical implications of accepting Christ as whom he says he is.
First, such an acceptance rescues Christianity from becoming what the German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski calls “a cold religious project”: a “mix of social ethics, institutional power thinking, psychotherapy, techniques of meditation, museum curation, cultural project management, and social work.” That’s a concise description of the “liberal Christianity” that’s helped empty Western Europe’s churches, particularly in Benedict’s German homeland.
Second, it forces us to take seriously aspects of Christianity that have disappeared from public view over the past forty years.
In recent decades, Benedict claims, Christian preaching has stopped mentioning the Last Things revealed by Christ: i.e., heaven, hell, and the fact that all of us will be judged. Instead, preaching has become “one-sided, in that it is largely directed toward the creation of a better world, while hardly anyone talks any more about the other, truly better world.”
For confirmation, just look at the websites of those religious orders which talk endlessly about social justice without relating it to Christian belief in the limits of earthly justice and the reality of divine justice. This diminishes Christianity to either what Benedict calls “political moralism, as happened in liberation theology” or “psychotherapy and wellness.” It also, some might interject, encourages us to conjure up secular messiahs who, not being God, cannot possibly fulfill religious-like expectations of hope and change.
In the end, it results in the same thing: practical atheism, at the heart of which is a teddy-bear Christ who, as Benedict wrote years ago, “demands nothing, never scolds, who accepts everyone and everything, who no longer does anything but affirm us.”
And therein may be the essence of Benedict’s Light of the World. Yes, Christ always offers us forgiveness. Nonetheless, Benedict adds, Christ also “takes us seriously.” Having stated who he is, Christ leaves us free either to accept him as he really is and order our lives accordingly, or to construct what another Christian scholar, Thomas More, called “worldly fantasies” of our own making.
More radically different paths are hard to imagine.