Part 1 Faith – Week 5

Introduction to Christianity:
A provisional definition of belief and the difficulty of faith today (I)

Having addressed the presence of both belief and doubt in the life of every man, Ratzinger continues his reflection on the nature of faith by pointing out that Christianity – unlike other religions – is defined as faith, is defined by the simple words ‘I believe’ that structure the entire Creed. Faith and religion are not synonyms, he tells us in other words, and the attitude of ‘faith’ is precisely that specific difference, precisely that quality that makes us Christians. In fact, he continues, faith can be defined as that attitude by which man decides that what he can see, hear, and touch is not the whole of reality, and that the most fundamentally and existentially ‘real’, the core of all visible reality and the foundation of his reality as a person, is actually precisely that which is essentially invisible, that which we cannot – and will never be able to – see, hear, and touch: God.


“This brings us immediately to an analysis of the text that will provide the guiding thread of our whole investigation, namely, the Apostles’ Creed… This text begins characteristically with the words “I believe”… For moment we must ponder quite deeply what kind of attitude is implied if Christian existence expresses itself first and foremost in the word credo, thus determining – what is by no means self-evident – that the kernel of Christianity shall be that it is a “belief”. We generally assume rather unthinkingly that “religion” and “belief” are always the same thing and that every religion can therefore just as well be described as a “belief”. But this is true only to a limited extent; many of the other religions have other names for themselves and thus establish different centers of gravity. The Old Testament as a whole classified itself, not as “belief”, but as “law”. It is primarily a way of life, in which, to be sure, the act of belief acquires by degrees more and more importance. Again, by religio Roman religious feeling understood in practice mainly the observance of certain ritual forms and customs. It was not crucial that there should be an act of faith in the supernatural; even the complete absence of such faith did not imply any disloyalty to this religion. As it was certainly a system of rites, the crucial factor was the careful observance of these. We could certainly go on like this through the whole history of religions, but enough has been said to make clear that it is by no means self-evident that the central expression of Christianity should be the word credo, that the Christian should describe this attitude to reality as being that of “belief”. But this only makes our question all the more urgent: What attitude is really signified by this word? And, further, how is it that it is becoming so difficult for our individual, personal “I” to enter into this “I believe”? How is it that, again and again, it seems almost impossible for us to identify our present-day egos – each of them inalterably separate from everyone else’s – with that “I” of the “I believe”, which has been predetermined and shaped by past generations?

Let us have no illusions; entering into that “I” of the creed formula, transforming that schematic “I” of the formula into the flesh and blood of the personal “I”, was always an unsettling and seemingly almost impossible affair… and when today as believers in our age we hear it said, a little enviously perhaps, that in the Middle Ages everyone without exception in our lands was a believer, it is a good thing to cast a glance behind the scenes, as we can today, thanks to historical research. This will tell us that even in those days there was the great mass of nominal believers and a relatively small number of people who had really entered into the inner movement of belief. It will show us that for many belief was only a ready-made mode of life, by which for them the exciting adventure signified by the word credo was at least as much concealed as disclosed. This is simply because there is an infinite gulf between God and man; because man is fashioned in such a way that his eyes are capable of seeing what is not God, and thus for man God is and always will be the essentially invisible, something lying outside his field of vision. God is essentially invisible – this fundamental assertion of biblical faith in God in its opposition to the visibility of the gods (in the plural) is at the same time, indeed primarily, an assertion about man: Man is a seeing creature, whose living area seems to be marked off by the range of what he can see and grasp. But in this area of things that can be seen and grasped, the area that determines the living space of man, God does not occur and will never occur, however much the area may be extended. I believe it is important that in principle the Old Testament contains this assertion: God is not just he who at present lies in fact outside the field of vision but could be seen if it were possible to go farther; no, he is the being who stands essentially outside it, however far our field of vision may be extended.

We now begin to discern a first vague outline of the attitude signified by the word credo. It means that man does not regard seeing, hearing, and touching as the totality of what concerns him, that he does not view the area of his world as marked off by what he can see and touch but seeks a second mode of access to reality, a mode he calls in fact belief, and in such a way that he finds in it the decisive enlargement of his whole view of the world. If this is so, then the little word credo contains a basic option vis-à-vis reality as such; it signifies, not the observation of this or that fact, but a fundamental mode of behavior toward being, toward existence, toward one’s own sector of reality, and toward reality as a whole. It signifies the deliberate view that what cannot be seen, what can in no wise move into the field of vision, is not unreal; that, on the contrary, what cannot be seen in fact represents true reality, the element that supports and makes possible all the rest of reality. And it signifies the view that this element that makes reality as a whole possible is also what grants man a truly human existence, what makes him possible as a human being existing in a human way. In other words, belief signifies the decision that at the very core of human existence there is a point that cannot be nourished and supported on the visible and tangible, that encounters and comes into contact with what cannot be seen and finds that it is a necessity for its own existence.

Such an attitude is certainly to be attained only by what the language of the Bible calls “turning back”, “con-version”. Man’s natural inclination draws him to the visible, to what he can take in his hand and hold as his own. He has to turn around inwardly in order to see how badly he is neglecting his own interests by letting himself be drawn along in this way by his natural inclination. He must turn around to recognize how blind he is if he trusts only what he sees with his eyes. Without this change of direction, without this resistance to the natural inclination, there can be no belief. Indeed belief is the conversion in which man discovers that he is following an illusion if he devotes himself only to the tangible. This is at the same time the fundamental reason why belief is not demonstrable: it is an about-turn; only he who turns about is receptive to it; and because our inclination does not cease to point us in another direction, it remains a turn that is new every day; only in a lifelong conversion can we become aware of what it means to say “I believe”.

Questions for reflection:

Consider how much you would lose in life if you only believed what you saw with your own eyes. Reflect on this strange paradox of wanting to see and hold and touch – of the certainty that this gives us in the ordinary things of our life – and yet on the fact that the invisible things of love, of friendship, of being able to share joys and pains with others, are actually what give our life meaning.

And now apply this to your Christian life: to your desire to see and hold and touch God, and to the reality that until we get to Heaven, we only see Him in images but never as we want: face-to-face.

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