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A Jesus Worth Dying For: A Review of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s On The Way to Jesus Christ | Justin Nickelsen

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Christology seems to have come full circle.

Beginning with Albert Schweitzer’s Quest For the Historical Jesus, initiated at the turn of the twentieth century, and accented with Rudolf Bultmann’s existentialist approach, theological inquiry into the person of Christ has been gradually picking up speed on a downward spiral, hitting rock bottom in the last many years when many theologians, under the pretext of licit academic freedom, have been found writing off even the most rudimentary elements of ecclesiastical teaching; teachings hammered out in the beginning centuries of the post-apostolic era.

Most recently, Roger Haight–former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA)–was under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) for ideas he forwarded in his book, Jesus Symbol of God. The inquiry into his work climaxed at the beginning of this year when the CDF, then under of leadership of Joseph Ratzinger–now, Pope Benedict XVI–published a notification on Haight’s book, claiming that it denied the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, the salvific value of Jesus’ death, the exclusive and universal mediation of Christ in salvation, and the resurrection.

One would be naive to think that the lack of such notifications on the part of the magisterium would mean that Haight is a black spot on a white wall; this could not be further from the truth. In the midst of a quite telling defense given to the theologian throughout the academic world, the most appropriate of responses came from Jesuit, Gerald O’Collins, who said, "I wouldn’t give my life for Roger Haight’s Jesus. It’s a triumph of relevance over orthodoxy". Indeed, it is.

It is into this scene that we welcome Ratzinger’s newest book, On the Way to Jesus Christ. In this timely collection of essays, from a scholar who has so often been at the forefront of these debates, he responds again to the question of Christ: "Who do you say that I am". While many theologians seem to suggest that there can be no true and orthodox response to this inquiry, Ratzinger shows that the mystery of Christ is such that while there are certainly boarders within which one must swim, theological speculation, faithful to the Church, is like an ocean–virtually inexhaustible.

It is ironic that the re-construction of the "historical Jesus" is being taken on by the same strand of thinkers whose philosophical presuppositions led to the deconstruction to begin with. This "band of scholarship", notes Ratzinger, "forbids God access to the world" because is starts with the inference that "history is fundamentally and always uniform and that therefore nothing can take place in history but what is possible as a result of causes known to us in nature and in human activity." "Divine interventions", he continues, "that go beyond the constant interaction of natural and human causes…cannot be historical." What follows, then, is a God that has no real activity in the world, and "consequently…no ‘revelation’ in the proper sense."

The Church, in the last 2000 years, has encouraged and kept the sciences alive, but in the hands of human beings they have honest limits that many adherents seem unwilling to admit. Ratzinger explains that a science which begins by asserting an inept God–a God that cannot act supernaturally in the world–starts with a tenant that is as un-provable as the notion of a "Creator". Nevertheless, that does not, and should not, keep mankind from reaching beyond the scope of this world into the universe in response their innate thirst for knowledge, and making logical deductions based on clues found within nature.

While faith is certainly the foundation of Christianity, it is a faith that "first acknowledges the dignity and scope of reason". "Reason is critical of religion in its search for truth; yet at its very origins," says Ratzinger, "Christianity sides with reason, and considers this ally to be its principle forerunner"–an admittance that sets Christianity out among the other world religions. Christianity’s believability, nonetheless, transcends the sciences, and one would be remiss to not acknowledge the witness of martyrdom accompanied by a "renewed life", on the part of believers, "which reopens our closed horizons." The Church has historically "regarded conversion to the faith as a positively intellectual journey, in which man is confronted with the ‘doctrine of truth’ and its arguments". Therein man "acquires a new life companionship", and consequently "new experiences and interior progress become possible for him."

While the newest Pontiff explicitly and implicitly responds to the crisis in Christological scholarship throughout the book, his other essays range from a more "aesthetic" approach, reminiscent to that of Hans Urs von Balthasar–one of Ratzinger’s greatest influences–and into a discussion of the Eucharist, including an epilogue reflecting on the reception of the Catechism ten years after its publication.

A book that the average to more advanced reader can appreciate, On the Way to Jesus Christ refrains from mere dogmatic regurgitations. The essays are novel, yet faithful to, and at the service of, the Church, written by a theologian that swims within the ocean of Catholic thought, presenting a Jesus that is truly worth dying for.

[A version of this review will be appearing in Lay Witness magazine. Also, please see this summary on the Haight notification from John Allen Jr. and this piece from Zenit.org.]



Sources:

• John Allen Jr., "Doctrinal Jousting: Theologian's Work Raises Ire of Vatican, as Well as Questions About Authority, Process and the Limits of Scholarship", in National Catholic Reporter (February 25, 2005) p.5-6.
• Roger Haight, Jesus: Symbol of God (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1999).
• Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, On the Way to Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005).

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links:

Author Page for Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Seeing Jesus in the Gospel of John | An Excerpt from On The Way to Jesus Christ | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Peter and Succession | From Called To Communion: Understanding the Church Today
On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church | From God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald
Benedict XVI's Rookie Year As a Priest | From Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977
Are Truth, Faith, and Tolerance Compatible? | From Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions.
What in Fact Is Theology? | From Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church As Communion
Selected excerpts from The Ratzinger Report
The Ministry and Life of Priests | Aug/Sept 1997 Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Foreword to U.M. Lang's Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.



Justin Nickelsen operates the "Sources Chrétiennes: Renewal in Catholic Thought" blog.



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