The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

May 25, 2017

FEATURE ARTICLES
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Last Things: The Event That Is Christianity
James V. Schall, S.J. - 05/14/08

Welcome to Last Things, the regular column of James V. Schall, S. J., in First Principles.     —The Editors

 

“In his funeral eulogy for Gussiani, Ratzinger praised him for understanding that ‘Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story; it is an event.’ This, in a nutshell, is the message of Deus Caritas Est.”
—Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith
“At the level of praxis Ratzinger has also warned the faithful not to get mixed up in interfaith situations which require them implicitly to deny their belief in the Trinitarian God.”
—Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith

I.

The scramble and even frenzy to come to terms with the vast, fascinating, and happily not yet completed opera omnia of Joseph Ratzinger will be a major publishing enterprise in the next decades. German scholarship is normally noted for being, if anything, thorough and exhaustive, if not exhausting. Multi-volumes of heavily documented pages are the norm. Joseph Ratzinger is not immune from this valuable heritage. Indeed, he follows it with the best of them. But he also has Joseph Pieper’s concise, illuminating, and brilliant brevity that can say in a few pages what it takes most of us tomes to explain.

The world of Ratzinger scholarship is already formidable. It is a most welcome initiative that Tracey Rowland, the Australian scholar, should provide us with an accurate and relatively brief guide (the text of the book is a mere 155 pages) to the major themes and issues that have concerned the academic and ecclesiastical career of the Bavarian theologian, Joseph Ratzinger. No one will do it any better. Rowland writes with zest and wit, with a great capacity to summarize and explain issues, in pages that would take most of us years to assimilate. She spots the ideological backgrounds of the critics that cloud their judgments. She holds to a steady course of common sense and careful reasoning when it comes to understanding this Pope who has again made the term Logos a commanding word in contemporary philosophical discourse. Reason is something more than its rationalist usage. It is even more than the intuition of first principles. It is indeed the Verbum, the Word.

II.

On almost every page of this book we find issues of the highest import. I will indicate a few in these comments. In his Regensburg Lecture (text in Appendix of this book), Benedict traced the history of western thought. It went back through the Old Testament. It pursued the affirmation: Deus Logos Est. The Apostles were in fact first directed toward Greece, the land of the philosophers, not to the lands of mystery. This turn, if we are to understand our universe, was providential, not accidental. But, as Rowland points out, granted this emphasis on reason, Benedict’s first encyclical is not Deus Logos Est, but Deus Caritas Est. This concentration on love, on agape (caritas), phila, and eros, was not intended to deny the Word, the Logos, but rather to emphasize the relation of “reason and love.” We do not love the act of loving, but what is, what is true.

Behind this emphasis on love, no doubt, is Benedict’s long-standing interest in Augustine, who reminded us that “two loves built two cities.” We have to be sure that what we love is loveable. This interest, as Rowland insists, is not to be seen as being anti-Thomistic. St. Thomas, after all, was one of the greatest readers of Augustine, ever. Rowland explains that Augustine’s famous maxim, that “faith seeks understanding,” establishes the interest of faith itself in philosophy and points us toward the “necessary prerequisite for the pursuit of understanding.” The pope wrote that “just as creation comes from reason and is reasonable, faith is, so to speak, the fulfillment of creation and thus the door to understanding.” In this context, Roland shows that Ratzinger not only wrote on Thomas from the beginning of his own studies, but has needed him to complete his own (Benedict’s) overall approach. That approach, as Rowland shows us, is harmonious with, and not antagonistic to, Augustine. In fact, Augustine may be the more useful in a post-modern, Nietzschean world.

That is the Augustinian side. Rowland also sites the pope’s self-description as “‘a decided Augustinian’ and ‘to a certain extent a Platonist.’” What about Plato? In a passage that recalls Pieper’s discussion of tradition, Ratzinger finds that in Plato “a kind of memory, of recollection of God, is, as it were, etched in man, though it needs to be awakened.” Intimations of Augustine’s “restless heart” are already there in Plato.

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