Review: Joseph Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity”

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There has been no shortage of books in recent years designed to introduce their audiences to the Christian faith. Most of these titles fall under one of two categories: The first is characterized by a secular, academic approach to Christian doctrine, bombarding the reader with uncharitable formulations of Christianity that do not do justice to Christianity’s central truth claims; the second consists of Christian apologetics works that introduce the Christian faith as a series of propositions to be defended.

There is no doubt that rational propositional argument offers much to its intended audience. After all, humans are rational creatures and value logical argumentation. Both categories of book address the rational aspect of human nature. But humans are also spiritual creatures, responding to impulses that point toward some transcendent reality. Religion claims to offer a picture of this transcendent reality, and an overwhelming majority of people in the world subscribe to a religion. Given this fact, propositional  “introductions” are not complete, because they fail to appeal to the spiritual aspect of human nature. Furthermore, these overly rationalized works speak less clearly to those who are not philosophers or theologians. Thus, a proper introduction to Christianity—one that appeals to the entire human psyche—ought to both incorporate intellectual rigor and spiritual depth.

In light of the dearth of books that accomplish both these things, Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity is a pleasant surprise. Ratzinger’s seminal work constructs a compelling and knowledgeable picture of the Christian faith without devolving into a series of logical syllogisms. True, he introduces Christianity within the framework of the Apostles’ Creed, which can be thought of as a series of propositions—but Ratzinger uses the Creed as just a starting point to methodically develop important spiritual insights. Such a project means that Introduction to Christianity is not an easy read, but serious readers of all theological persuasions can appreciate how this book interweaves the spiritual with the intellectual.

Ratzinger manages this balance by framing Christianity in terms of mystery, which is itself a natural development of his examination of mankind’s epistemic dilemma. From the outset, he characterizes the “problem of man” as the inability to escape doubt. Everyone experiences doubt, Ratzinger claims, but we tend to associate doubt with the professing believer. The Christian, according to this trope, is confronted with the frequent possibility that his or her worldview may be wrong. Growing up in the multicultural West increases the likelihood that the Christian will encounter opposing viewpoints, which are often held with an equal fervency. Ratzinger describes this phenomenon as one in which “the believer is always threatened with an uncertainty that in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident.”

What many do not immediately recognize is the extent to which this phenomenon affects the non-believer, as well. The non-believer, according to Ratzinger, “is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole.” In other words, the non-believer is constrained by his attempts to explain the totality of reality without appealing to supernatural explanations. But this self-imposed epistemic constraint is ultimately dissatisfying; he may become suspicious of it. The senses, after all, only tell us so much about the world, and by definition cannot tell us anything that is not knowable through them. This leads to an ontology inseparable from the human experience.  All that is, the unbeliever must affirm, is what human beings can experience (through his senses, or through sense augmented by scientific instruments) in the ordinary, repeatable course of nature.  But why must this be the case? And what should the unbeliever do with his yearning for a reality greater than himself?

Taken together, Ratzinger’s observations suggest that everyone experiences doubt, regardless of their religious faith or lack thereof. Even those who claim to be indifferent to such questions are still responding to doubts that they invariably encounter. This dilemma has no  once-for-all escape—indeed, doubt is, at least today, one of the essential features of being human. The correct posture is to resist the temptation to solve the dilemma and instead to reconsider what belief is and how it works. Belief is not simply a psychological attitude that corresponds to certainty, nor is it a mere knowledge of a certain fact. It is, as Ratzinger eloquently describes, an “entrusting” of the self towards that which transcends the self.

This applies to any belief—whether it be religious, philosophical, or scientific—since our intrinsic limitations prevent us from achieving demonstrable proof or first-hand knowledge. But this fact need not be a troubling one. Airline passengers routinely entrust themselves to pilots of whose skill level they can have no certain knowledge. Parents send children to schools without, for the most part, feeling the need to conduct criminal records checks on each and every teacher. Faith pervades all belief, but this means that we are able to be charitable to those with differing views, since those who recognize the faith involved in their worldview can understand why others choose a different path.

If belief is understood in this way, then mystery is actually an opportunity, not an intellectual cop-out, since it describes a reality that is not fully understood but that at the same time offers the possibility of responding to or participating in it. Christianity integrates this framework by subscribing to the notion that faith is ultimately a type of belief, one that is a response to a much greater reality—God—who cannot be seen and yet is all the more real. The mystery of God, which at first glance appears like an impassable chasm between God and man, is actually the opportunity for conversion, wherein the person responds to an echo of transcendence by leaping into it. Only by making a leap into this reality does the believer begin to understand it, and the space between man and God morphs from a chasm to a bridge. Belief, therefore, does beget knowledge in some sense. But this knowledge does not come from external observation; rather, it is achieved when one participates in God’s divine nature.

This notion of conversion is a constant feature in the Christian life, and it is present in many areas of Christian doctrine. Consider, for instance, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Christianity claims that God is one—Ratzinger calls him Logos, the ground of all truth and intelligibly, which acts in accordance with love. But at the same time, Christianity claims that God is three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is profoundly perplexing and appears to be a contradiction, but Ratzinger takes pains to explain that the paradox of the Trinity is not necessarily contrary to reason. The key is to understand that Christian personhood is not an identity conceived qua substance (i.e., The Trinity is not a description of three separate substances coexisting in a “super-substance”), but rather is fundamentally relational. Consequently, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are subsistent relations who show us everything that love is. To give an admittedly inadequate summary, one can view the Father as infinitely giving love, the Son infinitely receiving and reciprocating it, and the Holy Spirit as the act of love itself.

Ratzinger’s primary achievement in his discussion of the Trinity is demonstrating its compatibility with reason while using it as an example of God’s mystery. After all, Ratzinger’s treatment of the Trinity raises more questions than it answers. For instance, the Trinity results in a picture of God that incorporates both unity and plurality, but such a being has no direct analog to anything in the material universe. The Trinity is a quintessential example of Christian mystery because if such a belief were true, it could not have arisen from logical deduction. We know it because it has been revealed to us. Nevertheless, what we do know about the Trinity has profound implications for our ontology as human beings. Trinitarian personhood grounds identity in relationships, but relationships require the existence of an other. If personhood is part of our nature, then relationship is a fundamental part of our reality as human beings. Consequently, we are invited to abandon the conception of ourselves as isolated individuals and live in community.

Another Christian mystery concerns Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. Ratzinger’s discussion of Christ reveals an interesting insight that enriches the common image of Christ as the savior of humanity. He labels Christ as the “truly other,” which can be understood in two ways.  In one way, Christ is “other” because he has a unique purpose: his sacrifice on the Cross was done in service of the entire human race, redeeming our distorted natures from sin in a way that no other human could do. This salvific act of bringing humanity into contact with God is a communal rescue, and therefore aligns with our nature as relational beings. The Church, Ratzinger observes, is an embodiment of this interplay between unity and plurality by being a communal manifestation of Christ’s mystical body. But Ratzinger argues that Christ being “truly other” can also be interpreted as a statement about the Incarnation—God assuming a human form. Christ’s nature is truly mysterious, truly other, because the way in which he manifests his divinity is so unexpected.

We expect God to manifest his divinity in glory, an unfathomable infinite that provokes awe and wonder. Instead, God presented us with a child in a manger, someone who appeared so finite and irrelevant that most people in his time failed to recognize him as God. Christ is “truly other” insofar as his manifested divinity is alien and incomprehensible. Christ interacted with people without truly being known, and even his disciples and followers did not fully understand his teachings until after his resurrection. Indeed, such incomprehension is common among Christians even today—the fact that God humbled himself as a man and died on the Cross as a pariah is wildly counterintuitive, and yet modern Christians tend to take this historical event for granted, not realizing the extent to which the Incarnation places Christianity in radical opposition to the gods of the world. We, like his first disciples, often don’t understand.

The Trinity and the Incarnation are not the only Christian mysteries, but these examples attest to the complexity and depth of truth that Christianity claims to possess. By presenting Christianity as a religion defined by mystery, Ratzinger reconciles Christianity’s doctrinal complexity with its universal accessibility. Mystery permeates all of Christian truth, and that may be off-putting to those accustomed to total comprehensibility. But if Ratzinger’s thesis is correct—that total explanation is elusive—then all truths contain an element of mystery. To say that Christianity is defined by mystery, therefore, is not to say that Christianity holds a monopoly on mysterious truths. Rather, Christians recognize and embrace mystery as a feature of how we know things in many areas of our lives, and view the mystery of our everyday experiences as a reflection of God’s divine mystery.

In light of an ever-present uncertainty, Ratzinger invites his readers to belief instead of despair and indifference. This opportunity is only possible because God responds to our ignorance with love. Ratzinger argues that God’s love for us is without doubt and that our knowledge of God is predicated on God first knowing us. Believing this promise may not eliminate temptations to doubt or feelings of uncertainty, but it will bring peace, and Ratzinger’s journey toward this conclusion in the Introduction to Christianity provides a way to introduce the faith without describing it as a disbelieving historian of religion would or by approaching it as a set of propositions to be wrestled into submission in an apologetic exercise. It is a satisfying third way.

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]

Joshua Tseng-Tham

Joshua Tseng-Tham lives in Boston, Massachusetts. A former Managing Editor of the Dartmouth Apologia, he graduated from Dartmouth College in 2017. Joshua now works as an analyst at an economic consulting firm. You can find him on Twitter: @JoshTsengTham.