Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Christianity Truth Enlightenment Versus Mythical Religions

Plinthos: The below review is a review only of the first chapter (essay) of this collection of eight essays. That essay's original German title was "God in the World: A Dedication to Karl Rahner on his 60th Birthday."

By Joseph Ratzinger

Book Review by DENNIS DOYLE
National Catholic Reporter, April 22, 2005 [corrected 05/06/2005]

Cardinal Ratzinger looks at the world today

As prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has been careful to distinguish his writings as a private theologian from his official role. Such was the case in the mid-’80s when the private Ratzinger fiercely slammed liberation theology as the congregation more mildly played bad cop/good cop with liberation themes. Still, there remain clear points of overlap between what Cardinal Ratzinger thinks and what the congregation on doctrine has to say. Anyone wanting to explore the mind of the man most closely connected with the censures and warnings concerning the works of Hans Küng, Leonardo Boff, Tissa Balasuriya, [Anthony De Mello], Jacques Dupuis and, most recently, Roger Haight will find a wealth of material in this book.

The book is a collection of essays, published in German and English and various other languages in the ’90s. The opening essay was originally published in 1964. A little more than 30 pages were composed new for this volume. The reader encounters some of the repetition that is inevitable in such a collection, though otherwise it hangs together reasonably well.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s main focus shifted in the ’90s from liberation theology to theologies of religious pluralism. He accuses both of tending toward immanentism, that is, of not respecting God’s transcendence. He identifies liberation theology’s additional fatal flaw as a utopianism that recklessly ignores political limitations. The corresponding flaw in theologies of pluralism is their dogmatic relativism that follows Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment in pushing the question of truth toward science and away from questions of human meaning and value. Values are thereby treated as subjective and arbitrary in contrast with objective truth. Religion is portioned off into the realm of feeling. Tolerance and appreciation of cultural diversity emerge as inviolable principles. Unfortunately, thinks Cardinal Ratzinger, the Enlightenment ends up fostering its own brand of intolerance and cultural oppression.

Cardinal Ratzinger explains that he does not want to “bid adieu” to the 18th-century Enlightenment itself, but he does want to inject within it nuanced notions of freedom and limited expectations from politics and science. He sees the Enlightenment as one instance of various movements of “enlightenment” in world history. Movements of “enlightenment” in this sense are stages in which mythical religions are “demythologized.” Socrates and Plato represent such a historical moment. The gods are unmasked in the pursuit of ultimate truth. The emergence of Buddhism is a similar moment.

In addition to enlightenment, two other paths have been available historically for surpassing what mythical religions have to offer. One path is the monotheistic revolution associated with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which, not surprisingly, Cardinal Ratzinger enthusiastically favors. The other is a path of “mysticism” by which all religions are seen as a particular and limited manifestation of the same unknowable mystery. The mystical path calls for the subject to merge with an impersonal but all-encompassing One. In this approach, the Divine is fundamentally passive. Religious people come to be divided between the few who establish an original connection with the absolute and the many who practice what amounts to secondhand religion.

The monotheistic revolution, which itself allows for but does not overemphasize certain forms of mysticism, bears witness to an encounter with a personal God who calls each individual by name. God’s presence and activity can be discerned within the course of human history. This is a God who perceives and who wills and who loves. Rather than merging into God, one emerges as a unique individual through one’s response to this God.

In Cardinal Ratzinger’s view, which is influenced by the neo-orthodox Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner, the historical options of mysticism and enlightenment both deny any true revelation by a personal God, but are otherwise contrary to each other. Interestingly, the cardinal finds Christianity to be historically associated with the idea of enlightenment over against the mystical religions. Judaism and Christianity have strong parallels with the Socratic striving for the truth that transcends the relativistic championing of all opinions. The monotheistic revolution demythologizes the pagan religions by unmasking their gods as idols. Religious pluralism as a reigning paradigm is firmly rejected.

The promotion of an accepting climate for religious pluralism is thus for Cardinal Ratzinger not only a contemporary phenomenon but also a characteristic trait of the ancient world. Those who want to promote religious pluralism today by limiting Christian claims about the uniqueness and universal normativity of Christ can be interpreted in this view as doing more to repeat the past than to move forward.

Cardinal Ratzinger identifies the Presbyterian John Hick and “the former Catholic priest” Paul Knitter as examples of promoters of religious pluralism. He contrasts their positions with the “inclusivism” associated with Karl Rahner, which presumes that all salvation ultimately comes through Christ. Cardinal Ratzinger finds this latter position to be flawed but acceptable, in contrast with the former position, which is fatally flawed and unacceptable. The cardinal discusses Fr. Jacques Dupuis as one who tries to reconcile these two views, with resulting ambiguities that called for what amounts to a doctrinal congregation warning label on one of his key works.

I found Cardinal Ratzinger’s treatment of my friend Paul Knitter to be of special interest. Rarely can one find two styles of thought to be so dissimilar as the styles of these two men. Paul Knitter is about the most empathetic person I have met in my life. No matter how different his own view, he will try to find something in the view of the other that he can appreciate and that he can use as a basis for dialogue. In Paul’s recent book, Introducing Theologies of Religion, he explores four basic approaches to the relationships between Christianity and other religions. It is difficult (though not impossible) to tell where Paul himself stands. He does such a remarkably fair job of presenting a wide range of views that one suspects he must actually hold whichever view he is discussing at the moment in order to be so insightful about it.

Cardinal Ratzinger seems to have never actually read anything by Paul, but relies instead on secondary sources. He shows awareness of Paul’s 1985 No Other Name? but of little to nothing since then. He is generally respectful of Paul, and he acknowledges that Paul’s positions are distinct from those of Mr. Hick. He notes that Paul attempts a synthesis of East and West and also that he promotes the primacy of orthopraxy over orthodoxy. Yet there is never a moment during which one suspects that these are anything more than concessions made within an hermetically sealed box which Paul Knitter eternally inhabits alongside John Hick.

In my judgment, Cardinal Ratzinger is fundamentally correct in pointing out that there are enormous difficulties in trying to reconcile a pluralist position with Catholic orthodoxy. Paul is himself well aware of this, and the ways that his own positions have grown over the years in response to criticism testify to his ongoing acknowledgement of these problems.

Cardinal Ratzinger does have an intellectual approach that tends to be markedly detached and analytical to a fault. Still, he too has grown and adapted over the years, and can almost be called mellow relative to his persona of the ’80s. This book could help many American Catholics to bypass common stereotypes of the cardinal as an unthinking reactionary and get down seriously to where they agree or disagree.

Dennis Doyle teaches religion at the University of Dayton, Ohio.
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