Some time ago I completed a reading of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s thoughtful book, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions: Ignatius Press, 2003. Ratzinger [now, Pope Benedict XVI] who was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, has written widely on theology in a manner that is both subtle and accessible to an informed lay readership. In this book, he examines one of the most fundamental issues contemporary Christians need to grapple with, namely, the universality of the Christian pathway to salvation in light of the ineradicable pluralism, both religious and secular, of our times. Simply put, he places the entire focus of his book on the singular claim placed in the mouth of Peter in Acts 4:12 that “There is salvation in no other name [Christ] under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” A close reading of the book leads me to conclude that while Ratzinger has not answered the question in an absolutely definitive way (which would require the mind of God), he makes a strong case in positing Christianity stemming from the Apostolic faith as the way, the truth, and the life for all of humanity, which in its bold assertion sounds imperialistic indeed.
Ratzinger is clearly aware of such a charge and would agree that any form of Christianity that was indeed imperialistic is not the real article, by definition. Examining both the ancient Roman and contemporary world scene through a similar light (also the strategy of C.G. Chesterton in his important The Everlasting Man), Ratzinger paints a broad, but not unconvincing portrait of the contending value system in the belief that all the religions of the world (or the Roman Empire for the time of Christ and the early church) are essentially alike, and are pathways to the same thing, leading ultimately to the unification and harmonization of mankind. He acknowledges the power of this world view, built on its underlying value of tolerance and essential sameness, and notes that to offer a critique from the stance of a singular religion is to place oneself under the charge of anachronism in which “the Christian theologian looks like a dogmatic stick-in-the mud, who cannot get away from his know it all attitude” (p. 24).
However, his concern is the fear of that approbation results in Christians, by definition, muting their core belief system and separating the quest for harmonization from that of the search for truth. Stated in other terms, it is to cut asunder the engagement of theological reasoning and positing a separation between the heart and the mind. As Ratzinger puts the query:
If the future of religion is something close to his heart, if he is convinced that Christianity and not some vague religion of the spirit, is the religion of the future, then he will feel compelled to ask further questions and to conduct further research in order to gain a clearer idea of the meaning and direction of the history of religion and the place of Christianity within it (p. 25).
This is the topic that Ratzinger seeks to address.
A satisfactory analysis of the book extends beyond the time I can devote to it here. What can be said is that Ratzinger is clearly writing from the epicenter of faith, and that writing, believing, and acting from that place opens up different pathways of understanding than examining faith from the outside in. In the scheme of things, both directions are valuable. Yet, I agree with Ratzinger that contemporary Christianity is clearly in a crisis period, and there is more need of a focus now among both mainline Protestants and Catholics to concentrate more intently on the epicenter of faith (however much our puny knowledge fails us) and allow questions and provisional answers to emerge from that epicenter. For without that, the likelihood of a non-fundamentalist Christianity, while not disappearing, is clearly in danger of mutating beyond the specificity of its core teaching, namely the centrality of Christ, to which every chapter in the New Testament points. On this reading I neither reject modern scholarship nor the perspectives of those outside the realm of this faith tradition.
However, I bracket (and thereby relativize) these concerns in order to concentrate first and foremost on The Way. I do so because with Ratzinger and others, through The Way, I find a very powerful pathway (the central one for me) into the truth, the way, and the life that, nonetheless, can only be experienced partially and fragmentarily, which, in the fullness of Christ as “the substance of things hoped for” (Heb: 11:1) is sufficient for me. I have not come to this lightly and the journey into “generous orthodoxy” is a continuous one in which the searching has not stopped, but has taken a certain pathway, which, without a full (humanly speaking) embrace of Christ I could not have otherwise taken.
There are many reasons for taking this pathway, though in the final analysis, the combination of the leap of faith and grace cannot be dismissed, and from this place one does perceive things differently than from outside this pathway. This is an empirical fact. What may be of issue is its significance, but whatever that significance may be the narrative constructs that do emerge will be different when told from within rather than outside the camp. Respect, tolerance, openness are clearly valuable traits, but so is the embrace of truth in the limited way that one understands it in the very act of being human.
I close with the following from Ratzinger, who in this passage speaks of the monotheistic God of the Bible:
This particular and wholly other element lies in the fact that the God of the Bible is not seen, as by the great mystics, but is experienced as one who acts and who remains (for the inner and outer eye) in the dark. And this in turn is because man does not, here make his own attempts to rise, passing through various levels of being to the innermost and most spiritual level, thus to seek out the divine in its own place, but the opposite happens: God seeks out man in the midst of his worldly and earthly connections and relationships; God whom no one, not even the purest of men, can discover for himself, comes to man of his own volition and enters into relationship with him. We could say that biblical “mysticism” is not a mysticism of images but of words and that its revelation is not a contemplation of man but the word and the act of God. It is not primarily the discovery of some truth; rather, it is the activity of God himself making history. Its meaning is not that divine reality becomes visible to man, but that it makes the person who receives the revelation into an actor in divine history. For here, in contrast to mysticism, God is the one who acts, and it is he who brings salvation to man (p. 42).
In short, this is radical monotheism of the most fundamental sort and the core assumption that undergirds the biblical revelation. This faith, I assert, is something with which contemporary Christianity needs to fully contend, in which anything else, including inter-religious dialogue (though important) remains secondary. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be given on to you, but seek ye first the kingdom of God.